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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Why We Name the Baby at the Bris

[Subsequent to writing this, I wrote an article on this subject which appears in my other blog]

There is no Biblical injunction to name a baby boy at his bris. It is clear that when the forefathers were born they were named immediately - Yitzchak was given his name first (Genesis 21:3), THEN he was circumcised in the following verse (21:4).

When Yitzchak's sons were born, they were named immediately (25:25-26). Each of Yaakov's sons was named as soon as he was born (Chapters 29-30).

[Full disclosure: God changed Abraham's name from "Avram" to "Avraham" after he circumcised himself.]

So why do we name the baby at the bris?

This leads into a larger question of why we do all the things we do at the bris? Why does the ceremony look the way it does now? How much of it is rooted in Kabbalistic practices? Medieval practices? European practices? Middle Eastern practices?

After all, the Torah only commands that the baby be circumcised on the eighth day, and perhaps a celebration should accompany the circumcision. But there is no mention of a sandak, Elijah (who of course had not been born yet), or the formalized ceremony we see today, including the naming taking place after the circumcision.

What if the bris is postponed for health reasons, or not performed at all because of a history of hemophilia in the family? Is the baby not named? Of course the baby is given a name! Which would indicate that naming at the bris is not all that significant.

So why do we name the baby at the bris?

Here are a few ideas I have found in researching this question

A. When Elijah the Prophet is present

In Genesis 2:19, the Torah says וכל אשר יקרא לו האדם נפש חיה הוא שמו. That after meeting all the animals, Adam gave each one a name.
I read somewhere that the acronym of the first five words of this phrase are the letters of the name אליהו - Eliyahu/Elijah. The first letters of the next three words, נ, and ח, and ה have a numerical value of 63, which is the same as the word נביא - prophet.

The last word is
שמו, which means "his name," and we have found our significance. When Elijah the Prophet is present, that is when "his name" is proclaimed.

B. Completing a Jewish Identity

Some will argue that the bris is the final step in making a baby a Jew, and so his name comes at this highly significant moment. I have already debunked this myth.

More palatable, the name is a completion of the individual's identity. If the bris completes his physical body (as Abraham is told in Genesis 17 to "walk before Me and become complete" through the act of circumcision), it is only after the bris that his name can be given to him. (Rabbi Menachem Azariah deFano (1548-1620), "Mamaarei Rama MiPano")

C. Tumah/Tahara
Until the bris he was uncircumcised – which is not the ideal state of a male Jew. Any name he may have had until his bris was unbecoming to his identity as a Jew – so he receives a Hebrew name at his bris, in celebration of his new physical status.


There are differences of opinion as to when girls are named in relation to their birth, but everyone agrees that a girl is given her name on a day when the Torah is read, when her father is called for an aliyah or some other Torah reading participatory role.

For more on this subject - regarding boys and girls, see this article

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