Jewish Names

28 06 2011

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Michael Taubes

Jewish Names Parshat Shemot begins, “V’ele shemot bne yisrael habaim mitzrayama“-These are the names of the people of Israel who came to Egypt. The Baal Haturim notes that the first letters of this verse spell out “sheviye“-imprisonment. Even when the Jews were imprisoned in exile, they stood out. They maintained their identity by keeping their Jewish names, language, and dress.

Tosfot is bothered by a question raised by Rabbeinu Tam in Gittin. An apostate Jew wanted to give his wife a divorce. Could his gentile name be included in the get since he was no longer known by his Jewish name? Rabbeinu Tam replied, chalila to include in a get, a religious document, a non-Jewish name. Similarly the Maharam Shick writes in a teshuva in Yoreh Deiah, that it is a Torah prohibition for a Jew to use a non-Jewish name. Having Jewish names helps bring the redemption closer. How can we go the opposite way? We must be proud to identify ourselves with our Jewish names. For this reason, the custom in Poland based on Rabbeinu Tam, was not to use non-Jewish names. The Darkei Teshuva follows this opinion. The Rogachover also concurs but adds a dispensation that if the name is just a transliteration from Hebrew to English it’s permitted.

The Gemara questions whether a get signed by witnesses with non-Jewish names is kosher. The Gemara answers that it is because most Jews outside the land of Israel used non-Jewish names. Similarly, the Maharashdam writes that using a non-Jewish name is permitted and brings proof from this Gemara. Perhaps it is middat chassidut to use a Jewish name exclusively but non-Jewish names are certainly not a problem. Rav Moshe Feinstein agrees. Certainly one should use ones Jewish name, but it is permitted to use a secular name when needed. Perhaps the reason why Chazal praised the Jews for keeping their Jewish names was because before Matan Torah, Jews identified themselves with this. Therefore writes the Meshesh Chochma, this safeguard was needed.

Rav Shlomo Luria in his commentary on Gittin explains that Rabbeinu Tam forbade the use of the apostate’s gentile name because it symbolized his rejection of his Jewish roots. However an ordinary non-Jewish name should not pose a problem. The issur d’orayta perhaps only applies when the name identifies the Jew with another religion.

The Midrash Tanchuma in Haazinu makes an astounding comment on the verse, “Zechor yemot olam.” “L’olam yivdok adam..”- A person should be careful to select a name which identifies his child with a tzaddik because sometimes the name itself can influence the child positively or negatively. A name is not a simple matter. One should select a name that that child will live up to.

In secular society, names across all cultural spectrums are acceptable. Why shouldn’t we be proud to use our own Jewish names? May it be a pivotal, positive step towards the redemption.