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Choosing a Hebrew name

Shalom, my name is …

for The Brooklyn Paper

Dear Cantor Matt,

We’re coming late to the whole bar mitzvah process. We found a temple that we like and have a date for our child’s bar mitzvah. Recently we were asked what his Hebrew name is and I’m embarrassed to say I have no idea! I don’t think he ever got one. Will this be a big problem?

— No Name

Dear No Name,

As our friend Bill Shakespeare once wrote: “What’s in a name? A bar mitzvah kid by any other name would still sing off-key.”

Hey, I did say “Bill” and not “William,” so maybe there’s more to a name than one would think.

Let’s explore this.

In Judaism, we don’t traditionally name a child after a living person, which is why you’re unlikely to ever meet a guy named Abner Goldfarb III. Instead, parents might take the first letter of a relative’s name and use that to come up with another, perhaps more modern name. This works for both English and Hebrew names. For instance, a newborn girl might be named Alyssa to honor great-grandpa Abner. Similarly, if Abner’s Hebrew name was Avraham, then maybe Alyssa’s Hebrew name could be something like Aliza. And because there can also be a middle name, you have two opportunities to memorialize departed relatives if you want, which is a good way to make both sides of the family happy.

A person’s Hebrew name is used at every Jewish life cycle event throughout his life. Your son will get called up by his Hebrew name for an aliyah at his bar mitzvah, and each time afterwards. It will also appear on his wedding ketubah (the marriage contract).

Most Jewish kids get their Hebrew names around the same time they get their English ones — right after they’re born. For a boy, it’s traditional to receive a Hebrew name during the circumcision ritual (which makes me wonder why there aren’t more Jewish boys named “Ahhhhhhhhhh!”). For girls, baby-naming ceremonies have become increasingly popular.

But a lot of people simply don’t know that many Hebrew names, and the ones they have heard of sound kind of old fashioned — how many more kids named Shmuel do we really need? Luckily, there are many Jewish name books available that list lots and lots of names for boys and girls, so you can easily find one that starts with a particular letter or corresponds to a certain meaning.

That being said, there are no rules at all for choosing names — these are only customs. You can decide on any name for any reason.

But to answer your specific question, if you never had the opportunity to choose a Hebrew name before, then go for it right now! Decide if you would like to honor a beloved family member who has died, or if you’re just looking for a Hebrew equivalent to your kid’s English name. The rabbi or cantor at your new temple will be happy to help, and there’s no special ceremony needed.

Then you can listen for your child’s Hebrew name at his bar mitzvah.

Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at cantormatt@mattaxelrod.com.

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