Thursday, June 11, 2015
When Naming Your Baby...
Most of what is written here is true for both boys and girls. Owing to the nature of this blog/website, the essay is written in the masculine.
Aside from bringing children into this world, parents have the awesome responsibility of giving each child a name. Some names speak to the significance of the baby in the lives of his parents, or a reflection of his personality. Sometimes he is named for a loved one - depending on the family's custom, the honored name might be carried by a living person, or it comes from someone who is deceased.
Some people decide their baby’s name months in advance of his birth. Others wait for the inspiration to come after the baby is born.
How does one choose a name?
Honestly, every couple has to find a method which works for them. And they should agree upon the method and the name, and be happy with their decision. I have spoken to people months after a bris, asking “how is ___ doing?” only to be told that that is no longer his name. It didn’t feel right. Hopefully this is not the experience most people are having (in my experience it is very rare, but it does happen).
Some Sefardic cultures honor a living grandparent by giving the first grandchild the name of that grandparent – either as a first name or as a middle name. In the book Yalkut Yosef, the author says the name of the paternal grandfather takes precedence over the maternal grandfather, but he also says such a preference is not binding. (Some parents come from different cultures – especially in a “mixed” Ashkenazic wife/Sefardic husband situation.)
If a child is to be named for someone who is deceased, the choice is relatively simple when the same name is being given. When the exact name is not being transferred to the child, it becomes more complicated (see below).
If parents are choosing a name they like, it’s a relatively simple matter as well.
It becomes a little more complicated when parents are looking to be “inspired.” But, like many important decisions in life (such as when you decide to get married), when you feel it’s right, you know it’s right.
Different Names For the Same Child
Some parents put a child’s Jewish name on a birth certificate. Others put an Anglicized version of the name (such as Samuel for Shmuel, Gabriel for Gavriel, Jacob for Yaakov) on the birth certificate. Others put a related name (Max for Mordechai, Dylan for David). Still others have completely different “English names” than their Jewish names. Rex Ryan = Moshe Aharon. My uncle’s name is Michael, but his Hebrew name is Binyamin.
When Naming For Someone But Not Giving the Exact Name
My great grandfather’s name was Chuna – a Yiddishized diminutive of Elchanan. My parents wanted to give me the Hebrew form of the name, so my middle name is Elchanan. This kind of thing happens all the time.
Gramps was named Mottel – a Yiddish version of Mordechai. The parents loved Gramps, but don’t want to name their child Mottel. They might stick with Mordechai. If not, they’ll typically want to keep the initial, so they might opt for a modern name that begins with M: Matan, Matanya, Ma’or or a simple classic such as Moshe or Meir.
Sometimes a boy will be named with great grandma in mind. Her name was Mary. Mary sounds like Meir. Meir also sounds like Miriam. The Biblical Miriam was Moshe’s brother, another option. Or Grandma’s name was Rose. Rose becomes Reuven or Ronen, etc
Who Gets to Choose the Name?
The baby’s parents. No one else.
A Good Rule
A friend of mine told me that he accepts and welcomes all name suggestions from family (new baby’s grandparents, for example) until the end of the second trimester of the pregnancy. This is an excellent rule. The people who are not the parents get to have their say. Then the parents can decide what they will do.
In Rabbi Herschel Schachter’s book “Nefesh HaRav,” he recounts how the subject of his book, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, was given his name Yosef Dov/Yusher Ber.
Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, the famous Brisker Rov, and grandfather of the new baby, came to speak with his daughter-in-law, the baby’s mother. He told her that according to the custom and the law she (as the mother) has every right to name the baby after whomever she wants, or in whatever manner she wants (the mother gets first rights, even over the father).
And he also told her that to date no one had been named for his father, the Beis HaLevi, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, who had died 11 years earlier.
It is important to interrupt this story with two fun facts: 1. R’ Chaim was known to be squeamish. He did not like to serve as Sandak. 2. It is a great honor for parents, if the baby’s grandfather serves as Sandak, holding the baby during the actual circumcision. In general, it is customary to honor a person whose character traits and Jewish life are honored and respected by the parents to be the Sandak.
R’ Chaim told her that if she would agree to name the child after his father, he would agree to be Sandak, even though it was a role he shied away from.
She agreed. Apparently having R’ Chaim serve as Sandak was more important to her than her own choices of names she may have conferred onto her baby. He was named Yosef Dov/Yusher Ber, just like his great grandfather.
The point of the story is not that R’ Chaim got his way. It’s that he knew he didn’t have to get his way. He wasn’t supposed to get his way. His daughter in law did not have to agree or listen to his suggestion. It wasn’t his call. And he was going to be OK with that – he just wouldn’t swallow his squeamishness and serve as Sandak if they chose to go a different route with the baby’s name. Which would have been fine. Someone else would have been the Sandak.
It is certainly a wonderful honor to name a child either after a living person or after a deceased loved one or ancestor.
But the parents of the baby must never feel pressured to give their child a name they don’t want to give. Naming a child is a privilege afforded to parents, and as they bring the child into the world, they and they alone have the final say in the baby’s name.
Too many times have I seen the new parents compromise on the name they end up giving their child, against their own wishes, on account of the pressure they feel from their own parents.
If they choose to honor a loved one and give a child the name that has been in the family, that is beautiful. That is wonderful.
If they do not, it says nothing of their relationship with that deceased individual, or with the kin of the deceased.
All it says is that they wanted a different name for their child. And that they exercised their rights as parents to give him the name they wanted to give him.
I bless all parents and grandparents to love all of their children unconditionally. When your children choose to name your grandson using a name that is emotionally meaningful to you, be grateful. If they do not choose such a name, they are not being hurtful or malicious. They are giving their child the name they wanted to give their son. Your grandson will be loved by you all the same. It is not worth making any kind of protest. And hopefully you’ll live long enough that your grandchildren will never have a need to name anyone after you (unless you are Sefardic).
Wishing everyone much nachas…