Friday, June 12, 2009

What's In A Name

Adventures in Chinuch has a very interesting post on a psak that Rav Moshe Feinstein gave regarding the use of secular names when naming a child after a deceased relative.

  • " I've got a name, I've got a lovely secular name...

    I'm sure many are familiar with the all-time favorite flipping-out pastime of young men and women deciding to go by their Jewish name after being known by their secular name for their entire existence. We have previously discussed the reasons for this phenomenon, and I am not going to rehash that discussion. Rather I would like to present the viewpoint of a certain Rabbi Moses (as he was incidentally known as on his stationary) Feinstein on a very similar topic. It should be a mitzvah to publicize this teshuva.

    In the 4th chelek of Orach Chayim (somewhere in the samechs, I think), R' Moshe writes to a person who was concerned what to call his daughter. The child was going to be named after the guy's mother, so he wanted to know if they should call the baby by the mother's Hebrew name, or her secular name, which was how she was known (either way, the child would receive at least the Hebrew name).

    R' Moshe advises calling the child by the secular name for the following reasons:

    1. The concept of going by a secular name is not against the spirit of Judaism. We find many tana'im with Aramaic names, and many others as well. For example, R' Moshe points out that Maimon,Rambam's father did not have a Jewish name. R' Moshe even says that it isn't even in the spirit of mussar to use a Jewish name. However, to be fair, he does say that when Jews first started to use secular names, people must have been rightfully upset about it.

    2. If the mother was known by her secular name, it is a greater honor for her and her family that the child be called by the name that she was. I assume, and not by any great stretch, that this logic would apply to a name given by your parents; it is a lack of respect to change the name they gave you.

    3. The medrash that praises the Jews for keeping their names in Egypt does so b/c of the context. Since the Jewish people had little to distinguish themselves from the rest of the world (the Torah had not yet been given), they needed to rely on their name to separate them. Nowadays, R' Moshe argues, this is not necessary.

    I wonder what some name-changers would say after hearing thisteshuva.

    This brings me to my next topic, limmudei kodesh teachers calling students by their Hebrew names. I understand many do this. They may want to help students identify with their religious side, or something like that. However, I don't like it. I think it often creates a disconnect both between the teachers and students, and between religious studies and the rest of their lives. It's like: Chumash is for Moshe Tzvi, not for Matt or something like that. But I definitely see both sides of the story here, and am sure thispractive works with many kids. I just don't think it works with the majority.

    I wonder what Uncle Moishy would say."

I was very interested in reading this post. It always fascinated me that people both in my neighborhood and out, who approached my children on various occasions to "save their souls" by changing their name, were never concerned that the messages they were sending could undermine my childrens' Kibbud Av V'em.....

It was also important for me to be reminded that when people want you to do things their way, they are not always paragons of full disclosure....... (either that, or as a commenter recently stated, they don't even know the full truth themselves anymore).


efrex said...

There are a number of teshuvot in Iggrot Moshe that show R' Moshe's wonderful menshlichkeit (if memory serves, there's one on the responsibility of hakarat hatov that a giyoret has for her non-Jewish parents that should also be required reading).

Someday, someone's going to write a series of inspiring non-chassidic gadol stories, showing their incredible humanity, instead of only stressing their incredible lomdus or superhuman capabilities ("He knew all of shas by 8, was writing chiddushei torah before his bar mitzvah, slept 10 minutes a day, and never spoke more than a single sentence without quoting a gemara"). When he does, this story had better be in there (also R' Kenneth Brander's story about how R' Soloveitchik found out about R' Moshe's petirah despite the family trying to hide it from him).

Wasn't there a yekke minhag called chol-kreisch, where the child was davka given a secular name?

I'm actually very pleased to read this t'shuva for a personal reason: our oldest son has a somewhat unusual name, because The Lovely Wife (tm) wanted to name him after a relative who was not at all known by his Hebrew name. Rather than giving our sond a name that the relative was never identified with, we chose a name that sounds like the Yiddish name by which the relative was known. Baruch shekivanti.

tnspr569 said...

People have actually approached your kids about this?! Ugh.

Baked Lecho Dodi said...

Things change. If we can have a president named Baruch/Barak/Barry, why shouldnt your kid have the same name ? We don't live in Germany anymore. As Rav Solovetchick used to say "Its a different Siman in Shulchan Oruch".

Yekkishe Bekishe said...

Rav Bruer Z"tl used the name Joseph, not Yoseiph. Rav Schwab Z"tl used Simon, not Shimon. The Debreciner Rov Z"tl was listed in the phonebook as Maximilian!

G6 said...

I must admit, in the beginning I used to enjoy your comments.
But lately, they are leaning towards the unintelligable.
I along with other readers have trouble finding your point.
R' Moshe Feinstein was not from Germany, and my children don't have German names.
Not EVERYTHING I post has to do w/ Yekkes.

Meir said...

G6: Great teshuvah! Thank you so much for posting this. Also, about full disclosure, the "frum" crowd tends not to know about the sources that disagree with them. Either that or they explain them away (the timeless "times have changed" excuse etc.).

tnspr569: People have tried to "save my soul" in this regard as well.

Jewish Side of Babysitter said...

I've had a class about this. The only problem secular names are: Peter, Mary, Paul, John and names like those.

I've always thought I didn't have an English name. Till my family came on Geni and the family tree was filled out, and I saw my mother's grandmother's name there was an English name, and she's the one I'm named after.

I did wonder before about your children's English names, and now this makes sense.

Naftali said...

Although Peter, Mary, Paul and John may not be everyone’s preference for names, there is nothing wrong with them. In the gemoro there is mentioned a Rabbeinu Peter and Mary and John are just the equivalent versions of Miriam and Yehonoson. Again, it’s a matter of taste but not halochoh. The Peter, Paul and Mary and even Jesus mentioned in the so-called new testament were all actually called by their Hebrew names. Strictly speaking perhaps we shouldn’t use the Hebrew names Miriam, Yehoshua, etc. anymore either!

Jewish Side of Babysitter said...

I was googling and came upon this post from a while ago.

Naftali: True, they were Hebrew names at first but then look what they did. It's a shame I didn't write down the source for it.

Baked Lecho Dodi said...

I am simply saying that traditionally German Jews and Rabbis used secular names in public. Now with a President who uses an Arabic name we should feel more comfortable using our own Shaim Kodesh in public.
Thanks for letting me clarify.

Anonymous said...

Just something to keep in mind...One of the reasons we were brought out of Egypt was because of using our Jewish names and did NOT change our names to "fit in"... Another thing, as previously mentioned, I often meet non jewish people with names I can barely even pronounce, forget about sounding different! If it's ok for someone to be called "Shalanda" and not be "weird", it should be ok to be called "Zahava".

G6 said...


Thanks for clarifying.

Wow! You are making a couple of pretty big assumptions there!

a) German Jews and Rabbis are by far not the only ones who have gone by secular names.

b) It's fascinating to me that you assume that everybody who chooses secular names does so because they are "uncomfortable" using a Hebrew name (please refer back to Rav Moshe's teshuva which I posted).

Between your comment and Anonymous' comment about Mitzrayim {also addressed and dismissed by R' Moshe}, it's times like these where I wonder if anybody actually reads my posts before commenting.... [sigh].

efrex said...


Please note statement #3 in the original post, which addresses your issue.

Yes, B"H, American society today is extremely tolerant of ethnic names, and a child named Shlomo should get no second looks in a daycare with its share of Aidens, Pipers, Zariels, and Tenyas. That doesn't mean, however, that secular names are inherently treif, nor that those who use them should be forced to go by someone else's concept of what their name "should" be.

The Lovely Wife[tm], whose Hebrew name is an uncommon feiminization of a very common Jewish male name, had to deal with teachers telling her that her name "didn't exist," as if there were some certified list of kosher names. Ironically, Moshe Rabbeinu would have had no problem determining her name's origins, while most of the Yiddish names that were so cherished in the alter heim would have left him scratching his head. Faigie, Shprintze, Shainda, Kalman, Alter... these names are not inherently Jewish, and yet are fully acceptable, while calling yourself "Jonathan" instead of "Yehonoson" is somehow not.

Quick piece of Purim torah (in both senses of the word): In the megillah story, why didn't anybody know that Esther was Jewish, considering her name? (I've actually had yeshiva bochurim treat this one to serious consideration... *sigh*)

ProfK said...

So much of the argument about the names assumes that there are only two choices: the "real" Hebrew name or the English name. Not true. A whole slew of names are not either of these: they are Yiddish/Germanic/Polish/Lithuanian/Hungarian/Romanian etc. in general origin written out in Hebrew letters. My great grandmother's name on one side was Gitel. Yes, the sister named after her is also Gitel--so not a Hebrew name. Still plenty of Zisels and Shaindels and Faigas around.

So why should giving and using an English name be any different? My mother has already let us know that when the time comes, after meah v'esrim, to name a child after her she won't consider it "her" name if it's tziporah instead of Feiga, her name.

Naftali said...

Did you not read the original post? The whole point was that the reason for not changing names in Egypt applied only at that time before matan torah! As far as the other ethnic groups are concerned, aren’t we the first ones to make fun of the Shalandas, Keeshas and Kamishas! Besides, if you think about it, many of the so called Hebrew names that we use (especially for women) are relatively new, German or even Spanish (Shprintze is merely a derivative of Esperanza, to name just one) derived names with a Yiddish twist and have absolutely no Hebrew or biblical basis.

cuzzinbuzzin said...

sorry, cuz, I agree with baked and anon on this one.
as someone with a clearly english name, I feel the "right" to comment.

it WAS the custom in our community, and amongst our parents, to give an English name. It was also their habit to remove yarmulkes when attending business meetings, daven mincha in phone booths hidden in basements, and wear caps or hats in public places.
while I do not advocate, rather, I dislike, public displays of mincha minyonim, and I don't think screaming "that's treife, I can't eat it!" is the way to go at a business meeting, I think the U.S.A. has become a country with more varied religions and lifestyles, and more acceptance of differences of any kind. My brothers went EVERYWHERE with caps on when they were kids, I am not sure their boys do the same. And while I do not like in-your-face religious practices, I think BLD is right- if a president can have a clearly arabic (sounding) name, why should jews be embarrasssed by their names?

Look at some famous names in recent times:
Shoshana Lonstein (girlfriend of Seinfeld)
Ari Fleischer
Tova Feldshuh

to name a few.
There also was a time when actors and actresses changed their names to sound more American, or appealing. But nowadays? they are proud of their ethnic background, or their parents poor choice of names.

and names like Kwanisha and Nixmary are normal?

or naming kids after
months (August),
or fruits (Apple) is normal?

So my main point is, although a generation ago people felt they couldn't blend in to society with clearly jewish names, nowadays, anything goes.

and of course, to be very simple,

uh, we ARE jews, we DO use jewish names. nothin' to be ashamed of.

(the "ch" names present a problem, but if a person doesn't mind being called Kavi or Kaim, who cares?)

Anonymous said...

Reb Moshe was known to the entire world as Moshe. The style then was to write it as Moses.

G6 said...

Cuzzin' -

While I appreciate your well presented commentary, I think you missed my point entirely.

If you refer back to my post NOWHERE do I say that it is wrong to use one's children Jewish name.

I merely pointed out a psak by Rav Moshe which states that it is not WRONG to give a child a secular name and under some conditions, he actually felt that using it was recommended.

citizen of brooklyn north said...

It is unusual nowadays to find people naming their kids with clearly English names. Don't all attack me, but even the MO community has more jewish/biblical names than English names.

Most of the English names kids in the jewish community now have are either named after a dearly loved relative- like Bella or Rosie.
Or nicknames, like Josh for Yehoshua, Mikey for Michoel.

otherwise, it is pretty unusual. Most people with make it sound Jewish. and what's wrong with that??

G6 said...

Sigh.... {steeling herself and repeating the same thing again...}

Nowhere in my post did it say there is anything wrong with Jewish names.
That was never the issue.

- - - - - -
Administrative Note:
[To the commenter (and you know who you are) who is employing certain "questionable" tactics (v'hamayvin yovin), "it's not nice to fool mother nature ;)"]

Anonymous said...

and wear caps or hats in public places.

A lot of us kids wore those caps to avoid being beaten up!!!


DrM said...

I found your post and R’ Moishe’s teshuva very interesting. I personally don’t understand people who try to make themselves look frummer by abandoning their non-Jewish names.
I have a penchant for reading the original texts of quoted gedoilim. A shame you didn’t check it out before quoting someone else’s *selective* quote. I’m not going to translate the entire teshuva word for word. I’m sure you can do it yourself. The first sentence begins with, “Although this practice is a disgrace (he used the Hebrew word MEGUNE – Jastrow’s translation, not mine) it is not forbidden…
This alone does not sound like he advocated it to the extent that your post implies. In short, R’ Moishe might not be overjoyed!
Please compare the *entire* original text with your post before replying. (Orach Chayim, Chelek 4, Teshuva 66)

Shalom said...

Meir - how did you react?

Really - are people simply unable to stay out of others' lives?!

FBB said...

Why is it considered "frummer' if someone chooses to identify more with his hebrew name than his secular name? So people are not entitled to find a PERSONAL way of connecting closer to their creator. Why is it "flipping out" if a person chooses to switch to a moniker that they feel more closely identifies them?

I can't see how that impinges on anyone else, and why anyone would possibly care, unless they were feeling defensive.

Also, I think it's important that an English translation of a hebrew name is not the same as a straight up secular name. It's just not. Moses or Jacob are still jewish names. Paul, not so much.

G6 said...

I'm not here to beat a dead horse, but because I sense that this has become an emotional issue for some, I will reiterate the following 2 points one last time.
a) the post was never about the use of Hebrew names. It was merely pointing out that Rav Moshe paskened VERY CLEARLY that there is no issur in giving your child a secular name and in some instances it is more bekovod.
b) the post was never advocating the use of secular names but rather pointing out that there is no need to deride those who do.

Staying Afloat said...

The only issue I know with giving English names is legal documents, specifically the kesuvah and especially gittin. This issue, though, is the same for someone who goes by a nickname. It's about a person having one official name and another that they're generally known by, which is particularly important with a get.

Both my husband and I have English names and none of our kids do. Mostly, we wanted to avoid confusion. To avoid the doctor's office situation in this post, my mom used our Hebrew names for everything she could, but then I ended up with SAT scores under one name and applying to college under another. It is definitely a way to segregate parts of my life, which can be handy, but I'm hoping it's less confusing for my kids.

There's also the fact that we're a wannabe aliyah family, which would avoid the weird name issue (of which we have at least one.)

harry-er than them all said...

the teshuva of R` Moshe (IMHO)did say what he said, but R`Moshe still seemed not to come out clearly that the person should call them by the English name. He did entertain all those reasons, but didn`t come out clearly one way or the other. Mostly his teshuvos are meant to show the `lomdus``, but not to get psak from it.

Two interesting stories:
1)At my friends sister`s wedding, R`Herschel Schachter was mesader keddushin, and he turned to the girls father and asked him why he named his daughter Daniella, if there is no such name.
2) a friend who his whole life went by John, and in yeshiva started going by Yochanan. I asked him why he switched so he said that if he was always Yochanan, and was in business, he would go by John, now that he is in Yeshiva why shouldnt he go by Yochanan.

Its just a matter if you make a big deal about it like not answering to the english name. (he answers by both)

harry-er than them all said...

Aside for the fact that I believe that every Jew should have a non-jewish name, for his passport of course. never know when having the name as John will help

YDL said...

Nice post. Too bad I'm three years late.