Names – using non-Jewish names

An earlier article about names concluded with a riddle – the growing use of non-Jewish names after the incursion of Greeks into Eretz Yisroel.

The trend begins with Chashmonai rulers who had dual Hebrew-Greek names such as Yochanan-Hyrcanos, Yannai-Alexander, Yehuda-Aristobolos, and Shlomis-Alexandra. Later, Tannaim and Amoraim have names like Dosa, Tarfon and Kalonymos. After the Roman conquest, Latin names jump onto the list, introducing names like Marinus and Romanus. The Yerushalmi even mentions an Amora named Titus.

Yet the Maharam Shick goes so far as to say that using non-Jewish names is forbidden by the Torah!

This was 130 years ago, in 5638/1878, when he wrote a teshuvah (169) crying out against the trend of adopting non- Jewish names. Incidentally, a generation earlier, when the Austro-Hungarian government had decreed that Jews must adopt surnames, the Maharam’s father chose the name “Shick,” whose initials stand for Shem Yehudi Kadosh (a holy Jewish name).

The Maharam begins his teshuvah by citing from the question sent to him by a certain Rav Meir Kalish:

“There are people who call themselves by non-Jewish names, and you rebuked them, citing the medrash which says that, in the merit of not altering their names, the Jews merited to leave Egypt. They replied that concerning this, it is suffi cient that they have a Jewish name by which they are called up to the Torah.”

“This is nonsense and stupidity,” the Maharam replies. “Because this is certainly a Torah prohibition, as the Rambam writes in Hilchos Avodah Zarah (11:1), since the verse says, ‘I have separated you from the nations to be Mine.’ From there, the Sifri learns that we are not permitted to imitate them in any way… And just as we may not imitate them in clothing and their ways and other customs, the same applies even more to their names.”

Rav Moshe Feinstein (Orach Chaim 4:66) was once contacted by a father who wanted to name his newborn daughter after a deceased relative. This relative’s name, although commonly used by European Jews, was actually of non- Jewish origin and had become “Judaized” over the centuries. Should the father use this name? Rav Moshe answers: “Regarding [giving children] non- Jewish names, I wrote that this is reprehensible (davar megunah) but not forbidden. The reason we fi nd that many non-Jewish names were used in every country during the long exile when the locations of exile changed, is that even though they probably cried out sharply against [using them] at the start, the names became common in Yisroel until they are [by now] already considered as Jewish names and, regarding women’s names, they are even more common.

“By us, who are from the bnei Ashkenaz, they are from the names of Ashkenaz, and of the Spanish exiles, there are many names from Spain, and also gaonei olam of the gedolei harishonim [had such names], such as the author of the Maggid Mishnah whose name was Rabbeinu Vidal… and also the name Maimon, the Rambam’s father, seems to be non-Jewish.

“Therefore, chas veshalom for us to say that they did wrong; since Jews were already commonly using these names, it has no connection to the reason [of such names being] reprehensible, and one should not desist from naming one’s son or daughter [by such] non-Jewish names…”

In a second teshuvah (Orach Chaim 5:10), Rav Moshe offers an intriguing reason why non-Jewish names became more common among women than among men:

“However, one could say this rationale regarding women for whom it was easier to leave the ghetto for the streets of the non-Jews. Therefore, they gave many of them non-Jewish names so that when they went into the streets of non-Jews for very necessary items which they could not get in the ghetto, the police of the country would not identify them [as Jewesses]… And they were afraid to use non-Jewish names only when leaving the ghetto because, since they were not used [to answering] to this name, they might realize it was not their name…”

In conclusion, although it was initially wrong to use such names, it is permitted to use them once they become commonplace.

Perhaps the same rationale could be applied to Greek and Roman names. The first Jews to adopt Greek names may have been Misyavnim (Hellenists) eager to integrate into Greek culture. Then, over the decades, ignoramuses may have imitated and adopted them as well until they became “Jewish.”

According to the Maharam Shick, too, although the first people to adopt Greek names would have transgressed a Torah prohibition, once the names became common among Jews, the prohibition would no longer apply.

In connection with this subject, the Maharashdam (Yoreh Deah 199) was asked a shailah regarding Marranos who had fled Portugal. Although they had reverted to keeping Torah and mitzvos, and reverted back to Jewish names, they sometimes had to write letters back to Portugal using their old names. Was this permitted? He answers that they can use their non-Jewish names in these circumstances and it is only an act of piety to not do so.

As mentioned in an earlier article, at a certain stage of history, Jews stopped giving their children original, individualized names. The Maharam Shick (ibid) writes that the contemporary minhag is for Jews to name their children after relatives or tzaddikim.

The first option is mentioned in the medrash (Bereishis Rabba 37:7): “R. Yossi said: ‘The early ones, (shehayu makirim yichseyhem hayu) because they knew their family origins, used to give names according to an event, but we who not know our family origins give names after our fathers.’”

The Mishnah Halachos (Section 6, Chapter 256) writes that this is why the Chasam Sofer never named any of his sons after his rav muvhak, Rav Nosson Adler, even though Rav Nosson never had any children of his own. Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe, Orach Chaim 4:66) offers a rationale for this minhag. Giving such names is “a matter of the family’s honor even if they are from the previous generation, because one still has to honor them, and how much more when one has to give a name after one’s actual parents whom one is obliged to honor.” Sources for the minhag of naming children after tzaddikim are harder to locate. Although Chazal mention cases where children were mentioned after tzaddikim, this is generally where the tzaddik had a direct intervention in the child’s wellbeing. For example, we find in Avos d’Rebbe Nosson (Chapter 12): “…There were thousands of Jews whose name was Aharon because, if not for Aharon, they would not have come into the world, because he made peace between man and wife, and they would be together [again] and call the name of the child after his name.”

Another innovation regarding names is the reintroduction of many names from Tanach such as Avrohom, Moshe, Aharon, Dovid and Shlomo. These names that are so common today were rarely used until the Middle Ages. Another new trend was to begin naming children after the time they were born. Boys were named Shabsai (for Shabbos), Nissim (for Chanukah), Yom Tov (for Yom Tov), Nissan (for Nissan), Pesach (for Pesach), Rachamim (for Yom Kippur) and Menachem or Nachman (for around Tisha B’Av). Some Sephardi communities even named boys Chanukah for Chanukah.

Names expressing hope for the Moshiach included Moshiach, Yoetz, Tzemach, Mevaser, and Shiloh. Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe, Orach Chaim 5:10) discusses another innovation – double-names:

“Calling someone two names at once did not exist in earlier generations even after the time of the Gaonim, as the Yam Shel Shlomo (Gittin 4:24) writes that it is not normal for a person to have two names at once.

“And the Nachalas Shiva (45:21 Paragraph 12) writes, ‘If a person was given two names at the time of his milah and is called by both of them together, as I have heard people do in a few places…’ Thus we see that in his place and most places, they did not use to call someone by two names. And [the Nachalas Shiva] concludes, ‘I knew one person whom people called two names at once.’ This indicates that he found this a chiddush.

Rav Moshe mentions that there is one baal Tosafos with a double name, Rav Yaakov Yisroel (Chullin 112a d”h hanei milei).

Rav Tzvi Hirsh Chayos notes a fascinating trend prevalent with names of certain Amoraim:

“I also found something new that many sages who are only mentioned infrequently in the two Talmudim, in one halacha or in one aggadah, are always named after that halacha. For example, R. Yitzchok Migdala’ah is named, I think, after the halacha he cited, ‘And that is if they (coins left in the street) are arranged like towers (migdalim).’”

Rav Reuven Margolios cites more examples: “The Devei Rav Shiloh said, ‘Shiloh is the name of the Moshiach because it says, “Until he comes to Shiloh”’ (Bereishis 49:10)… Devei Rav Chanina said, ‘His name is Chanina because it says (Yirmeyahu 16:13), “That I will not give you favor (chanina)…”’ Devei Rav Yanai said that his name is Yenon, as it says (Tehillim 72:17), ‘Before the sun, his name is Yenon.’ Rav Bivi Sanigoria said, ‘His name is Nehira because it says (Daniel 2:22), “And light (Nehora) rests with Him…”’ (Sanhedrin 98b).” Fascinatingly, the sefer, Beis Shmuel (Even Ha’ezer 129), writes: The Shas of the Gaon Moreinu [Shalom] Shachna [of Lublin, 5260/1500-5319/1559] was found in Cracow… and in the margin was written in his handwriting, “I say that his name is Shachna because it says (Devorim 12:5), ‘You shall seek His habitation (leshachno) and come there.’”

Whether we give our children names from Tanach, names of tzaddikim, or names that reflect the time of year in which they are born, we are truly tapping into the power of the Jewish name. The Maharam’s “last name” – which is the acronym of the words Shem Yehudi Kadosh – can certainly teach us this lesson of the unique and holy qualities of the Jewish name, even in our times.

(Sources: [1] Weisberg, Yosef Dovid, “Otzar Habris,” Mechon Toras Habris, Yerushalayim, 5753; [2] Kaganoff, Benzion C., “A Dictionary of Jewish Names and Their History,” Shocken Books, New York, 1977; [3] Friedman, Shema Yehudah, “Hashem Gorem: Divrei Hachacham Noflim al Shmo,” Ve’eileh Shemos – Mechkarim Be’otzar Hasheimos HaYehudim, published by Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan, 5759.)

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