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Naming Children (Part I)

Cohen-Rabbi-J-Simcha

Designating proper names for one’s children is not always easy. When my wife, Shoshana, gave birth to our first child in Chicago – a girl – she informed me that according to tradition, the wife is entitled to name the first child. I didn’t agree, but recognizing that this was her tradition and not wishing to cause any controversy or anguish, I readily submitted.

She said she wanted to name our child after her father’s mother, Malka. Her father was HaRav HaGaon Reb Yaakov Nayman, a protégé of the Brisker Rav and a noted rabbinic leader. He was her mentor and guide for all vital decisions, and I therefore completely agreed with her selection.

Subsequently, we returned to our home in New York City. When we met with my mother, an awkward situation ensued. My mother hugged and kissed Shoshana and mentioned that she was so happy that Shoshana named her first child after her (my mother’s) mother, Malka. In other words our daughter Malka was in reality named after two grandmothers, Shoshana’s and mine.

Shoshana argued that I had “cheated”; I should have told her that my grandmother’s name was Malka. She therefore maintained that she deserved the naming rights for our next child. I thought she was just kidding. I had given her full naming rights unconditionally. The fact that the Malka also happened to be my grandmother’s name was insignificant, I argued.

But she didn’t give up. When she became pregnant a second time, my father-in-law said he had an idea that would solve the matter. Shoshana, he said, would not give birth until Chanukah, and, since it would be a boy, we should name him Matisyahu, a wonderful Chanukah name. I pondered what he said. First, I thought, there was no way Shoshana would hold out until Chanukah. Second, how could he know that the child would be a boy?

And yet, everything worked out as he said. Shoshana didn’t give birth until Chanukah, and it was a boy. We named him Matisyahu. (I later realized that Rabbi Nayman’s father’s name was Matisyahu.)

Recognizing that naming children was a no-win situation for me, I devised a new rule. From then on, any child born to us would not be named after family members – neither mine nor hers. Shoshana agreed. Yehuda was born on Chanukah (named after Yehuda HaMaccabee) and our last child was named Deena, as in, “Deena the daughter of Yaakov” (my name is Yaakov Simcha).

I am glad to possess two names – since it enabled me to marry my wonderful wife. Tradition has it that a father-in-law and son-in-law should not have the same name. It is considered bad luck. My father-in-law’s name is Yaakov. Had I just been named Yaakov, marrying my wife might have been a problem.

Indeed, before we got married, my future wife asked me whether I had more than one name. When I told her that my middle name was Simcha, she asked whether I would mind if she called me Simcha out of respect for her father. I didn’t mind at all – especially because Shoshana was someone who gave me so much simcha.

Yet, I did have some adjustment issues. After our wedding, I learned at Kollel Gur Aryeh, the kollel of Yeshivat Rabbainu Chaim Berlin. One day, my chavruta answered the kollel phone and went searching for someone. He finally returned to me saying that there was a young lady on the phone seeking a Simcha Cohen even though there was no one by that name learning in the kollel. I had to inform him that I was the Simcha Cohen whom the lady – my wife – sought.

Today, hardly anyone except family and friends of my youth call me Yaakov. Perhaps it was fate that I be called Simcha. I was named after my paternal grandfather who was known as a great talmid chacham and who was beloved by all. He was ben acher ben of rabbanim who originally descended from Spain. Family tradition has it that we are descendents of kohanim gedolim who served in the beit hamikdash. To be named after my paternal grandfather, therefore, is certainly a zechut.

When naming a child, we say the words, “V’ykorei shemo b’Yisrael.” My father-in-law noted that these are not just introductory words; they also constitute a prayer: “May this child’s name be known in Israel.” May the Jewish community be proud of this child. May his name be known for accomplishing wonderful things on behalf of our people.

About the Author: Rabbi Cohen, a Jerusalem Prize recipient, is the author of eight sefarim on Jewish law. His latest, “Jewish Prayer the Right Way” (Urim Publications), is available at Amazon.com and select Judaica stores.


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