Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Is it appropriate for a Jew in America to have an English first name? If yes, is it appropriate for him or her to use this English name in daily life?

 

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One of the things I found peculiar when arriving in the UK more than two decades ago was the English names rabbis used. Without intending to cause offense, “Rabbi Michael” was to my mind a paradox. The title “Rabbi” is essentially Jewish and the name “Michael” secular.

One of the hallmarks of the Jewish people in Egyptian servitude was that “they didn’t change their names.” A Jewish name is more than a mere identity tag. It reflects one’s Jewish essence. When parents give a Jewish name to their child, it is by Divine inspiration; the particular name is linked to the soul of the individual. Thus, the name functions as a conduit, channeling spiritual energy from G-d to one’s soul and body.

Some might have English names for practical purposes on their legal documents (it’s always a nightmare for me having to spell out Yitzchak to someone over the phone, invariably followed by, “How do you pronounce that, Sir?”), but that’s no reason to be commonly called by anything other than one’s Jewish name.

Don’t just save it for aliyos and epitaphs. Use it. It’s who you really are.

— Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, popular Lubavitch
lecturer, rabbi of London’s Mill Hill Synagogue

* * * * *

If American Jews have English first names and use them in their daily and business lives, that’s fine. If they prefer using Hebrew names, that’s also fine.

Throughout Jewish history, Jews have had non-Hebrew names. In Talmudic times, great sages went by the Greek names of Antigonos, Avtalyon, Tarphon, Dostai, Dosa, Pappa, and others. Akiva is the Greek form of the name Yaacov. Alexander was a popular name among Jews of antiquity.

Ge’onim had non-Hebrew names such as Saadia and Natronai. Maimon is an Arabic name. In the modern period, rabbis with non-Hebrew first names have included Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Abdullah Somekh (one of the leading 19th century chachamim of Baghdad), and Herman Adler (chief rabbi of England at the turn of the 20th century).

If all these learned and pious Jews had non-Hebrew first names, it would be chutzpah to cast aspersions on them.

A Midrash teaches that each person has three names: the name given by parents, the name given by fellow human beings, and the name one acquires for him/herself.

The name given by parents represents their hopes for the child and reflects their values and traditions. The name given to us by fellow human beings represents our reputation in our community and world. The third name is what we acquire for ourselves.

Inside each of us is our own “name,” our own real being. Whatever name we are called by others, our main concern should be to acquire our own good name in the eyes of the Almighty. And that name transcends any particular human language.

— Rabbi Marc D. Angel, director of the
Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals

* * * * *

In my parents’ generation, Jews did not feel secure in America and gave their children English names (in addition to their Hebrew ones). Not changing their last names was enough of a statement for them.

My children and grandchildren have only Hebrew first names, and today one sometimes even reads of Jews far removed from the Orthodox community using Hebrew names in daily life.

That said, I think it’s unfair to demand that everyone give their children only Hebrew names since some believe that Hebrew names will jeopardize the livelihood of their children or put them at potential risk – which is understandable in an age of increased anti-Semitism.

— Rabbi Yosef Blau, mashgiach ruchani at
YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary

* * * * *

Although one of the merits that enabled us to be redeemed from Egypt was not using Egyptian names, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Even HaEzer 3:35 and Orach Chayim 4:66) writes that using foreign names is very ugly/indecent but not forbidden.

He also writes that using a Jewish name was important before the Torah was given because that was one of the only ways Jews were distinguished from non-Jews. It became less important after the giving of the Torah, which differentiates Jews from everyone else with 613 mitzvos.

Thus, we find Jews calling themselves by names in foreign languages (Yiddish names in Europe or Spanish names in Sephardi countries), and years ago in America – when the “melting pot” philosophy was prevalent – many were called by “American names” as it was difficult for many to be known by their Hebrew names.

I heard from HaRav Elyashiv, zt”l, that the most important consideration in naming a child is to give a name that the child will be comfortable with socially. Thus, one should not give a name that is uncommon in the place where he will grow up; it may cause him to feel uncomfortable or subject him to ridicule by his peers.

Nowadays, using Hebrew names in America is not a problem. Non-Jews in America are not ashamed to be called by their unique ethnic names – even if they sound strange – so we should not be ashamed. Rather, we should be proud to be known by our Hebrew names.

— Rabbi Zev Leff, rav of Moshav Matisyahu,
popular lecturer and educator

* * * * *

I learned in Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim, and when I was about 24 years old, I entered the blatt shiur of the rosh yeshiva, Rav Henoch Leibowitz, zt”l. As I was getting close to dating age, I felt it was appropriate for me to begin using my Hebrew name, so while most people knew me as Barry, I started telling anyone new that my name was Ben Zion.

One day, I raised my hand in shiur to ask a question. The rosh yeshiva called on someone else and then said, “I’m sorry, Barry, what did you want to ask?” One of my friends said very respectively, “Entshuldik, with all due respect, rosh yeshiva, it’s Ben Zion.”

To this day, I have etched in my mind the rosh yeshivazt”l, sitting back and saying, “Oooamal, once upon a time, it was good enough to call the guys Stanley and Mark – but now it’s Ben Tzion.” (“Stanley” is Rabbi Shaya Cohen, rosh yeshiva of Zichron Yaakov in Far Rockaway, and “Mark” is Rabbi Menachem Davidowitz, rosh yeshiva in Rochester.)

While I do use my Hebrew name now in public forums because it’s politically correct, till the end of his life, my rebbe called me Barry.

— Rabbi Ben Zion Shafier, founder of The Shmuz

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