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Question: Is it possible to give two of one’s children the same name? I’ve seen this more than once where a later-born child was given the same Hebrew name as an older sibling, however their English names are different.

A Reader
Los Angeles, California

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Answer: If we understand your question, you worry about the possible situation that two brothers will have (essentially) the same name. And we agree that you are correct in that where one already has a child with the name of, say, a departed relative such as one’s deceased uncle for example (though not necessarily named after him, since that might not have been the intent at the time of this child’s bris), that a later born child should not share that name. Unfortunately there is a significant number of our people who are not observant, and relegate the Hebrew naming of their children to that one time event after which they are referred to by their English (or other language) name. The problem arises when these children later on in life choose to become observant.

We read in the Torah portion Vayeshev (Genesis 38:1-4) about Yehuda marrying the daughter of a local merchant named Shua. Bat-Shua, as she is known, gave birth to a son. The verse states, “[A]nd he named him Er.” The next verse continues, “She conceived again and bore a son and she named him Onan.” The following verse concludes, “And yet again [she conceived] and bore a son and she named him Shelah; and he was in Chezib when [alternately: “and it was in Chezib that”] she bore him.”

These verses, where careful distinction is made (by means of the masculine or feminine conjugation of the verb) to indicate who was instrumental in the naming of each of the children, underscores the significance of the process of naming a child, for a name represents an important aspect of the personality. That was also evidenced earlier on in the verses dealing with the naming of the 12 tribes.

The commentary Da’at Zekenim Miba’alei HaTosafot focuses on the indication that Yehuda and Bat-Shua took turns at naming the children, adding: I have heard my late teacher say that such was the custom. The father would name the first child and the mother would name the second child. Accordingly, Yehuda should have given the third child a name; the last part of the pasuk explains the reason the mother named the child, since he (i.e., Yehuda) was in Chezib at that time, and Chezib therefore has to be the name of a place. (See Rashi, ad loc., where he also suggests an interpretation that links the name of the child, Shelah, and the name of the place, Chezib, with cessation [of bearing children] and disappointment.)

It is abundantly clear that each child is given an individual name, and that this is minhago shel olam, the prevailing custom in the world.

Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer (ch. 48) states, regarding Moshe Rabbeinu’s birth, that his appearance was “like that of an angel of G-d. They circumcised him at eight days and named him Yekutiel.”

In his commentary ad loc. Radal notes that this may have been a symbolic circumcision only, since it is stated in Tractate Sotah (12a) that Moshe was born circumcised. The point, continues Radal, is that the parents had given him a name different from that given to him [later] by Pharaoh’s daughter, for parents name the child at the time he is circumcised, and that custom was already established before the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Pharaoh’s daughter, however, had the unusual merit that Moshe Rabbeinu was called by the name she subsequently gave him. Radal points out that Rav Nachshon Gaon writes in a responsum that a baby boy who dies before the eighth day is circumcised and given a name at the cemetery before burial.

Rabbi Yosef Caro (Yoreh De’ah 263:5) rules that in such a case the circumcision is performed without any blessing, but the child is given a name for remembrance, so that Heaven have mercy upon him at the time of techiyat ha’meitim, the resurrection of the dead. We thus see the importance placed upon each individual having his own name.

In the section dealing with the blessings recited at a circumcision, the Rema notes (op. cit. 265:5) that if a person has two sons that are being circumcised (presumably, but not necessarily, twins, for the circumcision of one of the babies may have been delayed due to health reasons), the blessing is recited in the plural, that is, “le’hachnisam bivrito shel Avraham Avinu,” followed by “Kayyem et ha’yeladim ha’elu…” but the necessities for each circumcision are prepared separately. (The children are of course named subsequently in the order of circumcision.) The Taz suggests that the blessings be recited separately (for each infant), particularly if there is an interval between the circumcisions, which would constitute a hefsek (interruption) between the blessing and the second circumcision.

My dear and revered friend, Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum, zt”l, late director and menahel of the Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim, whose yahrzeit we recently commemorated, points out an important reason for not giving two brothers the same name, since problems might arise when documents such as a Ketubah or a Get are drawn up and we do not know which brother executed the document.

However, he cited an interesting Rashi commentary on Ketubot 89b, which would seem at first glance to refute our practice of not giving two brothers the same name. Rashi explains, s.v. “Mar Keshisha…” that the Amora R. Hisda had two sons with the same name; therefore, in order to distinguish between them, the older one was known as Mar Keshisha (“the Older”) and the younger one was known as Mar Yenuka (“the Younger”). Tosafot offer an opposite explanation in their commentary on Bava Batra 7b: Mar Yenuka was the older one, for he was born when R. Hisda was a young man. Mar Keshisha, on the other hand, was born when R. Hisda, who lived to a ripe old age, was an old man (kashish).

It is interesting to note that Tosafot do not mention that the brothers had the same name but only offer an explanation for these seemingly unusual names. Rashi may have had a similar intent in his commentary on Ketubot 89b, using the term “shavin” as similar, not “the same.” Thus we see no contradictory proof to our practice.

(To be continued)

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Rabbi Yaakov Klass is Rav of K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush; Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; and Presidium Chairman, Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim.