“Joel,” “Jonathan,” and “Norman” were once commonly given-names in Orthodox families. Just think of the late Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum; the former chief rabbi of England, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks; and the former president of Yeshiva University, Rabbi Norman Lamm.
Today, however, giving one’s child a secular name is far less popular. Which raises the question: Should Jews have secular names altogether?
Some Orthodox Jews use them for government documents or legal purposes. Is that appropriate? How about using them to operate seamlessly in the business world? Or to signal to one’s fellow citizens that one belongs to mainstream society?
What’s in a Name?
Some believe the name of a person has a profound effect on his essence and can even determine the trajectory of his life. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch maintains that shem (“name”) comes from sham (“there”), teaching us that an individual’s name designates his place in the world. Several statements of Chazal indicate that parents are actually granted ruach hakodesh when deciding what to name their child.
But do these teachings apply to secular names? Today, in frum communities we are seeing many more Devorahs than Deborahs and Yosefs than Josephs. But it wasn’t always that way. When did this trend start? And what does it signify, if anything?
Antignos, Avtalyon, Akiva
Those who object to providing secular names to one’s children point to a famous Midrash that offers several reasons why the Jews merited to be redeemed from Egypt. Among them is: “They didn’t change their names” (Vayikra Rabba 32).
Yet, Tanach and the Gemara are filled with leaders and sages with foreign names. For example, Mordechai, according to academic scholars, derives from the name Marduk, a Babylonian deity. Esther, too, is apparently not an authentic Jewish name and probably derives from Ishtar, the Babylonian equivalent of Venus.
Even if one wishes to dispute the above etymological derivations, the Greek origin of the names of several members of Chazal – Antignos, Avtalyon, Akiva, Somchos, and Onkelos –seems clear. Many Amora’im also had non-Hebrew names, such as Mar Kashisha, Rav Z’vid, Mar Zutra, and Rav Papa. And the names of most of the Geonim – Sadya, Hai, Sherira, etc. – were Aramaic, not Hebrew.
In medieval times, some Ashkenazic Jews actually gave their children secular names at a formal ceremony called Cholkeisch (which many suggest comes from the words shem chol – “secular name”), the text for which can be found in old siddurim. (The ceremony was observed until fairly recent times.)
In the 19th-century, secular names among German Jews were nigh universal, reflecting Jewish entry into society during the Enlightenment. Even the Wurzberger Rav, one of Germany’s most distinguished rabbis during this period – and one of its most conservative – had a secular name: Seligman Baer.
Historians have noted that rabbis in Germany, Poland, and Hungary began recognizing secular names for gittin at this time, proving that secular names were becoming increasingly common. But this development did not necessarily mean Jews were abandoning Judaism, argues Jeffrey Gurock, a professor of American history at Yeshiva University. It simply reflected their emancipation, nothing more, he says.
Non-Hebrew names were common in Eastern Europe too (even if sometimes for different reasons). Just think of the names of some members of the famous Soloveitchik family. Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik of Brisk was called Rav Velvele and his grandfather, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (the Beis HaLevi), was called Rav Yoshe Ber. These, of course, are not secular names, but they’re not Hebrew in origin either.
Two Rabbis, Three Opinions
If someone is looking for clear rabbinic guidance on the propriety of having a secular name, he is out of luck as there is no consensus on the matter. The Rogatchover Gaon, Rabbi Yosef Rosen, zt”l, writes that one is permitted to have a secular name if it is a translation of one’s Hebrew name. Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim, 4:66) also rules leniently, pointing to all those in the Gemara with Greek or Roman names.
What about the Midrash that the Jews were rewarded for not changing their names? Rav Moshe argues that this Midrash teaches us is that the Jews were credited for their cultural adherence to Judaism. But such cultural adherence was only vital because they didn’t have the Torah to keep them together. We, however, have the Torah and thus being called by a secular name is not the issue it once was.
Rav Chaim Kanievsky, however, takes a much a more stringent view and reportedly refuses to bentch someone with a non-biblical name. For example, he once refused to give a brachah to a young woman named Shira, stating that Shira is not a real name. He advised all Shiras to change their names to Sarah.
In an essay in the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, Dr. Steven Oppenheimer notes that Rabbi Ya’akov Emden believed it forbidden to have a non-Jewish name.
Coming to America: New York, New Name
Until mid-century, American Jews largely sought to integrate into mainstream society. They dressed in the latest styles, attended local public schools, and spoke English outside the home. If one looks at government records, one will see names like Irving, Max, Jerry, Barbara, and Marilyn – and Anglicized Hebrew names like Isaac, David, Hannah, and Rebecca – dominating the lists of newborn Jewish babies.
Charles Bomzer, 82, came to New York as a young child prior to World War II. His family emigrated from Austria and was eager to start a new life on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He says one of the first things his father did upon arriving was submit a formal name change application. “My father wanted to give me a life,” he told The Jewish Press. “He didn’t want me to have the same problems Jews had back home; he wanted to give me every chance to have a fair shot of making it.”
Bomzer credits his secular name, in part, for being able to succeed at school (where he avoided outright anti-Semitism) and later open a storefront in a non-Jewish area of town. “Trust me, if they knew my name was really Chezky Alter, they wouldn’t want my business.”
Bomzer gave all three of his children secular names, not just so they could avoid discrimination, but also a gesture of respect and appreciation for the country that embraced his family and allowed them to live in peace.
Another Brooklyn resident, Rozalyn Fleisher, who often goes by Raizy, strongly disagrees with Bomzer’s sentiment. Born in America just before the outbreak of World War II, she says, “A Jew is a Jew, and if they want to hate you, they will, goyish name or not.”
Rozalyn recalls being tormented in public school and called a communist. Neighbors hurled anti-Semitic comments at her family and blamed them for America’s involvement in the war. Proud of her ancestry, Rozalyn refused to give her children secular names – not even for their birth certificates or social security (as many did at the time).
After the Holocaust, a new influx of Jews arrived in New York that tended to be more observant and insular than previous Jewish migrations to this country. They spoke Yiddish and began sending their children to yeshivas – which they founded – rather than public schools. It is during this postwar period that distinctly Orthodox names became more popular, according to Sarah Bunin Benor, a professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies and the author of “On Jewish Languages, Names, and Distinctiveness” (Jewish Quarterly Review 106.4).
Yet, at least for government records, Orthodox Jews continued using secular names, or at least Anglicized Hebrew names. “The incidence of [Hebrew] names is low through the 1960s,” she writes, “perhaps indicating that the Haredi Jews were giving their children ofﬁcial names like Solomon and Rebecca while using Shloimy and Rivky in their everyday lives.”
One starts noticing a rapid rise in distinctly Orthodox names in government records in the 1970s. Benor offers the following reasons for this development: increased comfort in American society, respect for ethnic differences, a higher birth rate (one will see more Jewish names if more Jews are born), and a shift to the right among Orthodox Jews involving more stringent religious observance, emphasis on textual norms over inherited tradition, and a decreased concern with assimilation.
What Rabbis Are Saying Today
When I was in Bais Yaakov back in the 1990s, one of my classmates was named Sharon. Many of the teachers refused to address her by that name, however, repeatedly demanding to know her “real” name. When she insisted Sharon was her only name, legal and otherwise, they decided to name her themselves and proceeded to refer to her as “Sarah” throughout her high school years.
Some continue to take this hardline approach to secular names while others take a more relaxed one. Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler, a rosh yeshiva and professor at Yeshiva University and the rav of Community Synagogue of Monsey, says he doesn’t criticize those with secular names. In fact, he said, he even has a close friend named John with whom he learns daily.
“This is not a halachic issue, but rather a social issue,” he says, explaining that it is difficult to castigate people for having secular names when discarding them may affect their business or some other pertinent area of their lives.
Rabbi Tendler sees the issue as one of Jewish pride. He says some Jews, especially those living in Israel, may look down on those with non-Hebrew names, seeing them as “traitors” who reject Judaism (as opposed to just having a personal preference).
“We are a special people,” says Rabbi Tendler, adding that “we have been chosen by G-d [and have] kedushas Yisrael.” He can understand, therefore, why some may question adopting secular names, he said.
Echoing the Jewish pride theme, Rabbi Gil Student, editor of the popular Torah Musings blog, does not contemn those who use secular names, but said he believes all Jews should move to Israel as soon as possible. Thus, he argues we should give our children names that can be easily Hebraized.
“My Hebrew name is Gil, and my English name is Gil,” he says adding that all of his children have the same name in Hebrew and English.
Many otherwise modern Jews have also started to give their children only Hebrew names due to Zionistic reasons while many chassidim meanwhile have reverted to giving their children Yiddish names, Professor Gurock noted.
As with all generalizations, though, exceptions exist. Some very Orthodox rabbis continue to be called by secular names while some highly irreligious, even highly immoral, Jews now only use their Jewish “ethnic” name. This development perhaps teaches us that while a name may be important, at the end of the day what matters most of all is the Jew behind it.