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Hebrew Baby Names: 5 things you might not know

November 25, 2014 Linda Rosenkrantz

By Aviva Rosenberg

As an Orthodox Jew living in America, with family and friends in Israel, my perspective on Hebrew baby names is very different than the average. You might be surprised to learn that Suri is a traditional Yiddish nickname for Sarah; Jews around the world either laughed or rolled their eyes when Tom and Katie picked it. And Simcha is common among Jews as well (it was my grandfather’s name), so we didn’t blink when Randi Zuckerberg introduced her Simi to the world.

Here are a few things that you may or may not know about Hebrew names, and how Jews, particularly the Orthodox, approach baby naming.

1. Over the last 3000 years, Hebrew baby names have evolved. Names in use now come from the Bible, the Talmud, and various other sources from all over Europe and the Middle East. Jewish names at various points in history have been influenced by Egyptian (Aharon, Pinchas), Aramaic (Akiva, Shraga), Persian (Esther, Mordechai), Yiddish (Gittel, Hinda), and other European languages (Bayla, Zlata). Modern Hebrew names (Meital, Hadar) are often inventions of the last 70 years or so, based on Hebrew vocabulary rather than historical names.

2. Just because a baby name book lists a name’s origins as Hebrew doesn’t mean that it has an authentic sound or feel. Isabelle might be derived from the Hebrew Elisheva, but it has undergone a major transformation! Hebrew is in a completely different language family than European languages; it has a different alphabet and grammatical structure. Transliterating Hebrew into other alphabets often leads to…interesting results. Hebrew has no “j” sound, and it has a couple of gutturals that American Jews tend to transcribe as “ch” (pronounced more or less like the “ch” in Bach or loch). So Yochanan became John; Yeshayahu became Isaiah; Avigayil became Abigail.

3. Gender neutrality is extremely rare in Hebrew names. There are a few examples in the Bible, but without census records from back then there’s no real way to know how widespread their use was for one gender or the other. Through history, very few Hebrew names retained that either-way status. Feminizations of male names are much more common: Gavriel to Gavriella, Shlomo to Shlomit. Because Hebrew is so linguistically different, names that are historically or grammatically male may sound feminine to speakers of European languages. So please be sensitive about co-opting a “masculine-sounding” Hebrew name for use on a daughter, or a “feminine-sounding” one for a son!

The main exception to this is that many modern Israeli names, such as Tal or Agam, are in fact used on either gender.

4. Jews honor family with first names, not surnames. The history of most typically Jewish surnames is a relatively recent one, as various governments compelled their constituents to adopt surnames for official use. Prior to the last 300 years or so, Jews identified individuals as “X son/daughter of Y.” For ritual purposes (during ceremonies in synagogue, in marriage or divorce documents), that is still how we refer to ourselves: Sam Rosenzweig will be called up to read the Torah on Shabbat as Shmuel ben Yitzchak (“ben”=son of), even if no one calls him Shmuel at any other time.

That’s why you don’t meet kids on the playground named Schwartz Greenberg or Horowitz Adler, and that’s part of the reason that we think it’s weird for people to use Cohen as a first name.

5. We draw inspiration from a variety of sources beyond the immediate family. Hebrew names usually have distinct meanings or implications, and that plays a role in the decision process for most parents.

  • –Girls are traditionally given names that call to mind beauty: gems (Penina=pearl), flowers (Nurit=buttercup), graceful animals (Tzippora=bird).
  • –Names are often chosen based on the time of year: Daniel (“God is my judge”) for a baby born around Rosh Hashanah, Meir or Liora for Chanukah babies (both involve the root “ohr” which means “light”), Nechama (“comfort”) for a child born around Tisha B’Av, the fast day that commemorates the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
  • –Parents may use a name that expresses a wish or hope for their child, such as Yigal (”he will redeem”), or Hodaya (”thanks to God”).
  • –Some names honor a beloved hero or long-ago ancestor. I have a nephew named Yosef Dov after a respected rabbi of the last century who taught many of my brother-in-law’s own teachers, and cousins named Shimshon Raphael, after our 19th century ancestor Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.

To end on a light note, you know how there are some names that don’t translate well between cultures? Two of my favorite examples are Hebrew. Dudu is a common Israeli nickname for David, but you won’t catch anyone in the US using it for their son! And while Orla in Irish means “golden princess,” in Hebrew it refers to the bit that gets cut off at a brit milah (circumcision). Language matters!

Spring13 (aka Aviva) is a school librarian and mother of two from New Jersey. She has been known to name her shoes, recipes (Ludwig is delicious, in case you were wondering), and her daughters’ dolls (Trixie, Sprinkles, Penelopee, Belly Jean, Martha, and more). If she could quit her job and name other people’s kids for a living, she’d probably do it.

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