The Do’s and Don’ts of Jewish Baby Naming

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Cantor Mark Kushner at a brit milah
Cantor Mark Kushner at a brit milah (Courtesy of Cantor Mark Kushner)

Baby naming can be one of the hardest tasks expectant parents undertake, but Jewish tradition can help.

Some practices for selecting a newborn’s kinnui, or secular name, and their shem kodesh, or sacred or Hebrew name, date back generations. Other strategies come and go with the times. Regardless of the method, however, many experts in the Jewish community have advice to share.

One such naming expert is Cantor Mark Kushner. He has multiple decades of experience performing brit milahs and simchat bats. In that time, he estimated he’s been involved in the naming of thousands of children.

Kushner said a name serves several functions according to Judaism. It describes a person’s essence, provides identity and generational connection and begins the process of shaping a human being. He said a person’s name can affect their personality and define them. It can influence behavior and provide a spiritual connection between the individual and his soul. Naming allows for creativity in the same vain of God’s first task to Adam — that of naming every living thing.

When it comes to choosing a name, Kushner had three pieces of advice. The first is to pick a name before the child is born, as life can get hectic and time consuming once they arrive. The second is to take your time and select something meaningful, as it shouldn’t be picked on a whim. The last suggestion is to pick something that parents like regardless of what relatives think. Receiving too much family input can lead people to struggle or doubt their choice.

“When you endeavor to make everyone happy, you end up being unhappy,” Kushner said.

Rabbi Robert Layman also has some words of wisdom on the topic. For two decades his column “Speaking of Names” was published in the Jewish Exponent, and he’s previously served as religious leader of Beth Tikvah-B’nai Jeshurun in Erdenheim and as regional director of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Layman spoke of the Ashkenazi tradition, according to which children are to be named after a deceased relative. The idea is it will lead the child to embody that person’s better qualities and to help keep their memory alive. It’s the same reasoning behind the Sephardic tradition, except they go the other way, instead naming their children after a living relative. But for many Jews, these rules aren’t set in stone.

“There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to naming,” Layman said. “And the only rule that I came across is that you don’t name a person after an infamous person in the Bible.”

For secular names, Layman encourages people to research the origin or meaning before picking it. He said it isn’t appropriate for a Jewish person to have a name related to Christianity or paganism — names like Mary, Natalie or Christian.

“People use names without knowing the origin of them,” Layman said. “I like to advise that people, especially young couples having children early on, that they should stay aware of their Jewish identity and pick a name that’s going to be appropriate for a child that is going to be raised Jewish.”

The rabbi encouraged the use of name guides for ideas. BabyNames.com is an online database of potential baby names with their origins. Jennifer Moss launched the site in 1996 and has authored two books on the art of baby naming.

Moss, who is Jewish, said her advice for couples is to not think of how the name affects them, but rather how it will affect the child. It’s important to take into account whether the name will be a burden for the child. One example Moss gave is a common name using an alternate or creative spelling, which the child would have to constantly spell out for the rest of their life.

Another aspect to consider is if a name is obviously tease-able. Moss discouraged people from selecting names easy for other school children to make fun of or bully. And as that baby will one day be a grown adult, she said it’s important to select a name appropriate for the child throughout their life.

“Make sure that the name can grow with your child because you’re not just naming a baby — you’re also naming an adult,” Moss said. “Although Pixie might be cute for a toddler, can Pixie command a boardroom?”

When it comes to the kinds of names people are picking, Moss said there’s been a trend toward less common or more unique ones. Old-fashioned names are coming back in style. Parents today have better access to learn of naming trends, so people try to avoid common or popular ones. And for inspiration, they’re turning to their family trees.

On the female side, Moss said there’s a trend of “old fashioned” names common a century ago popping up. Examples include Eleanor, Ruth and Miriam. For boys, she said biblical names are always popular, but in recent years less common picks are rising to the top. Instead of Michael, David and Benjamin, Moss said names like Caleb, Levi and Eljah are becoming more popular.

When it comes to secular names, Kushner said they come and go in popularity. But with the Hebrew names, “the good old names still remain good old names.”

In 2018, the most popular names in the United States for boys were Jackson, Liam, Noah, Aiden and Caden, according to BabyCenter. For girls, the top five were Sophia, Olivia, Emma, Ava and Isabella.

In Israel, the most popular names for Jewish boys were David, Ariel, Noam, Lavie and Yosef, according to Israel Hayom. For Jewish girls it was Tamar, Maya, Abigail, Noa and Ayala. ❤

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