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Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

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< Q21.1.16 TOC Q21.2.2 >

Question 21.2.1:
Naming: What are the Ashkenazi customs regarding the naming of children?


In Judaism, one's name has always been considered to be extremely important. As names were bestowed, the meaning of the name was the prime consideration of its selection. The name often imbodied characteristics that the parents wished the infant to have, or experiences surrounding the birth, or the look of the infant.

Many naming traditions in Judaism arose out of custom, and this custom often arose out of superstition. This was often based on a close association between the name and the person. From this arose a common belief that the changing of a name would prevent the evil spirit from harming the person. If the name were changed, the evil spirit would not recognize the person. This belief is embodied in the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16b): "Four things can abrogate the decreee of man and they are: charity, supplication, change of name, and change of action."

These customs carried over in Eastern Europe to the naming of children. In Poland, when several people have died in a family, a new-born child is given a name that is never uttered, so as not to give the evil spirit any opportunity. Often, a nickname was given to the child, such as "Alte" (Old One), Chaim (Life), or Zaida (Grandfather). This was a way of deceiving the angel of death. A similar practice was done for the extremely ill, changing the individual's name to deceive the angel of death.

In Ashkenazi Judaism, the custom arose to name a child after a deceased relative. Infants were not named after the living, because the angel of death might mistake the infant for the adult, and take the wrong one. Some felt that to name after a living relative might be to rob the adult of their soul, as the name was tied very closely to the soul.

The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

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