Tuesday, February 1, 2011

What Is a Hebrew Name, and What Does It Do?

A commenter had a great question, and I decided to write about it in a longer form and make it accessible to the rest of you! Basically, what is the point of a Hebrew name? When, where, and why is it used?

First, what is a Hebrew name? At its most basic, it's your Jewish legal name. You already have an English legal name, and a Hebrew legal name serves almost all the same functions, which we'll address in a minute. A Hebrew name is a new name that a convert will choose for himself or herself as a part of the conversion. The name may be Yiddish, Ladino (the Sephardic equivalent of Yiddish), or otherwise not Hebrew. However, most are Hebrew.

What does a Hebrew name look like? For born Jews, a Hebrew name consists of three names: yours, your mother's, and your father's. Translated, it is written as "Rebecca daughter of David and Sarah" or "Joshua son of David and Sarah." That's the full version of the name, but shortened forms are used in different contexts. Using our examples, if Joshua is being called to the Torah on Shabbat, he will be called by his father's name only: "Joshua son of David." If Joshua were sick and asked people to pray for him, he would give them his Hebrew name with his mother's name: "Joshua son of Sarah."

Now let's put that into Hebrew terms. Daughter of = "bas" if you use Ashkenazi pronunciation and "bat" if you use Sephardi pronunciation. "And" is v'. Therefore, Rebecca is "Rebecca bat David v'Sarah."

If a born-Jew's parents don't have Hebrew names, common practice is to use the parents' English names in the formula above. And if a Jewish child wasn't given a Hebrew name, that person can choose a Hebrew name at any point. A rabbi might make it "official" using a prayer during the Shabbat (or other Torah reading service), but I'm unclear whether that is necessary. Just using it may be enough.

What does a convert's Hebrew name look like? It's the same set-up as above, except that Avraham and Sarah from the Torah are considered your "spiritual parents." People sometimes say that this means that you are no longer the child of your parents, at least in a legal sense. Some say that's true even in the literal sense. I think those are minority opinions, especially as a convert is still required to fulfill the mitzvah of honoring your father and mother, and that generally refers to the people who raised you. (Complicated discussion, let's save it for another day.)

Therefore, using my own name as an example, I am "Kochava bat Avraham v'Sarah." Most (especially on documents) expand the name to "Kochava bat Avraham Aveinu v'Sarah Imenu."

What about when a patrilineal Jew converts? Or the child of a mother who converted in a way not accepted by the child's current affiliation? Depending entirely on who you talk to, the convert may have Avraham and Sarah as his or her "parents." However, they may also have their Jewish parent's or parents' Hebrew names, even if the converting rabbi doesn't view that parent as "Jewish." This is generally a much more complicated issue.

Physically, what does a Hebrew name look like? Most importantly, it's written in Hebrew on all official documents. Therefore, you need to verify the correct Hebrew spelling before your conversion is final. Remember that the same sounds can be written several ways in Hebrew, so you might accidentally give yourself a nonsense word, or worse, a word that means something else! You'll also need to remember the letters used so that you can spell your Hebrew name for someone else. (And that means knowing how to correctly spell the parent portion of your name too!) Sometimes the English transliteration will be good enough, but all the "legal" uses will need the Hebrew letter version.

What must a Hebrew name used for? As I said above, it's your Jewish "legal" name. Think about what your legal English name does (especially if you go by a nickname or other name normally): it goes on forms and is used in professional situations. The bare minimum when you will have to use your Hebrew name is 1) your naming as a baby or upon conversion, 2) being called to the Torah in a synagogue service, 3) when you ask someone to pray on your behalf, 4) getting married, 5) getting divorced, 6) when you die, 7) after you die (such as when people remember your yartzeit - the anniversary of your death). It will likely come up at other times, like on synagogue membership forms or enrollment forms for your children to attend a Jewish school/program.

When can you use a Hebrew name? Really, whenever you want. The two extremes: a) limit its use to the legal situations described above or b) legally changing your English name to match your Hebrew name. It's fine to only use your Hebrew name when required, and there doesn't appear to be any stigma or stereotype related to doing so. Legally changing your name can be annoying and difficult, depending on what state you live in. State laws govern how to legally change your name. However, changing your name due to marriage tends to relax the normal rules exponentially. As a general rule, either or both partners to a marriage can change their name at that time (and you should be given the right forms with your marriage license). My understanding is that you can generally change your name however you like at that point, whether or not you take on a partner's last name, so long as you don't violate any of the laws related to a name change. (Remember when Prince became the Symbol Formerly Known as Prince? Doesn't fly in just about any state. Neither does naming yourself after a famous person or other trademark without a good reason. No, you cannot name yourself Brad Pitt or Kentucky Fried Chicken. Check your state laws for more information, and remember that I am not qualified to give legal advice.)

Adding a Hebrew name as a middle name or changing it to your middle name could be good middle ground option. It would be especially handy if it is your first middle name, which means it would be printed on your driver's license and passport. If you plan to use your Hebrew name as your everyday name, having your Hebrew name on English legal documents can make your life a LOT easier.

You do not need to legally change your English name to use your Hebrew name as your full-time name. You can correct your teachers, co-workers, and spouse so that they will only refer to you by your Hebrew name. This takes some adjustment for most people (both you answering to that name and them remembering to use it!), so be patient. I don't suggest using it when dealing with any government agency, such as the DMV, Social Security Administration, or the police. You might accidentally end up committing a crime by "misrepresenting" yourself. Definitely do not do this if you've been arrested!

What if the jury is still out? You can use your Hebrew name selectively, only in certain social circles. That would allow you to maintain your English name for work or school purposes, but you could use the Hebrew name whenever you want. For instance, the only place I use my Hebrew name is actually this blog. I like my English name, and both names are relatively unusual. And like many converts I've spoken to, I've already been published under this name in my field, so I don't expect my English name to go away anytime soon. However, I purposely chose a name that I would feel comfortable using as a full-time name one day (especially if I make aliyah), and I may make it my middle name legally whenever I get married.

In summary, your Hebrew name is yours and yours alone. Sometimes you'll be forced to use it, so I suggest picking one you like. Other than those prescribed times, you can use it as much or as little as you like. However, no matter what you choose, a lot of people in your past (especially family) will probably always know you by your English name. This is especially true if you pick a name that is difficult for English speakers to pronounce!


  1. A few comments:

    -If only your mother is Jewish, you are just Name bat/ben Mother'sName. Not that I am being called up for an aliyah or anything, but my Rabbi at least said you are called by the mother's name even in situations where the father's name is used.

    -Incorrect Hebrew spelling of a Hebrew name on a document like a ketubah is serious enough to render it invalid. I was witness to a situation where a ketubah had an incorrectly spelled name, although there are no other documents to "prove" it was incorrect so it just got ignored. If you spelled a name with one character missing, it could render a document like a ketubah invalid.

    -Some states like CA and NJ you can't change your first and last name at the same time(so you can't just change when you get married). In NJ you have to wait a period of time between changing your first name and last name. :\

    The whole name thing is immensely complicated for no reason sometimes. :P Haha

  2. In C circles, one is often called up to the Torah by both parents' names. Interestingly, this makes it easier to play Spot the Convert - lots of people are ben Avraham, but fewer(*) are ben Avraham v'Sarah.

    (*) I do know one born Jew whose parents are Avraham and Sarah. He's O though, so the issue doesn't come up.

  3. I'm not sure where you get the idea that you wouldn't have a second middle name on a piece of government ID. I have four names, and they're all on my passport, DL, and SS card, though I often have only my first and last name on school/work IDs. This seems to have happened automatically, as I didn't ask for them to be printed that way.

    Larry--there are a lot of people in Conservative circles who still use only their father's name, but I always see gabbais in Conservative shuls automatically calling converts up by "Avraham v'Sarah" even while asking everyone else, "ben/bat...?" This has always annoyed me. If born Jews are allowed to choose how they're called to the Torah, why not converts?

  4. Ah, yes, spot the convert during Torah readings...I hate that too. The C shul I went to used father's name only if I remember correctly.

    Anonymous, I'm going from my experience with driver's licenses in three states. Each time, they commented on how my name "barely fit" because my middle name has 9 letters. Also, my ex-fiance from ages ago had two middle names and a Jr., and he was only allowed to put one middle name on his legal documents simply because they both wouldn't fit. Of course, policies (and templates) may have become more liberal as names keep getting longer and longer today! Along those lines, since the South is more homogenous, it's possible they encounter the issue a lot less often than areas with more cultural backgrounds/naming customs.

  5. Huh, that's totally weird to me. The government's never given me problems, and my name is long enough to take up two lines on my DL (this drives TSA nuts, as they tend to think that my second middle name, which is a surname, is my last name and then they accuse me of using someone else's ticket). I tend to have problems with things like health insurance, since they usually only have first and last name and a middle initial, but the government (both state and federal) always seems to have taken the stance that I *have* to have my full legal name on everything. Most of my friends also have four names and have never commented on having problems. Go figure.

  6. Where could someone find more information about the patrilineal issue? The possibility that I won't be able to use my dad's Hebrew name really makes me nervous.

  7. Patrilineal Anonymous: It seems to be rabbi-specific. I'm afraid I don't know much more than that! Good luck, and I hope things work out!

  8. Re: Leah Sarah "If only your mother is Jewish, you are just Name bat/ben Mother's Name." This is correct, however, there is also the option of using the mother's father's name instead of the mother's name. This option is taken by many as it is less awkward for them when their full name is said in public, in particular men when called up to the Torah.

  9. Can a person use their Hebrew name anytime they want? Even before they've officially started the process?

    1. Yes, of course! However, I personally don't recommend it unless you plan to use a name already in your family and that's important to you. Your mind can change, and especially when you've only been in the Jewish world a little while. There are SO many names out there!

      (As a sidenote, check any name with a rabbi. I fell in love with a name only to find out that it's only a c -> ch sound away from being the word disease. He rightfully recommended that I choose another name.)

  10. I chose a Hebrew name for my conversion that I now regret (the choice, not the name). My given name is obviously not Jewish; it's as Irish as it gets. I would like to keep my family-given first name (it is Hebrew) and append my legal Hebrew name before it. For example, my given first name is Daniel and my Hebrew name is David. I could then change my name to "D. Daniel" or something of the sort, with my first name legally being David, of course. That leaves my last name in question. Keeping it the same points me out as a convert; something I do not wish to do so obviously. OTOH, "ben Avraham Aveinu" screams ger as well but not to the extent as my current name. I suppose "ben Avraham" alone is kosher? "D. Daniel b. Avraham?" Or must one add the "aveinu" to the full known name so as not to be perceived as "deceptive."

    Ugh. On a semi-related note, the Talmud says to not remind a convert that he was once a non-Jew. How is that possible when all converts have the same identifying name?

  11. I had a baby naming certificate that has been lost over the years and I do not remember my jewish name.. Can I be renamed?

  12. I wonder what will be the Jewish name of a convert born to a Jewish father and Gentile mother? I'm Jewish but my ex-wife isn't (I know it was a violation, I was a secular for a long time and only recently become more observant again. We got married via Civil). My son who stays with me thought that he is Jewish because of the ways he was brought up and also he goes to the Shul with me but when I told him that he isn't one unless he converts, he told me that he wants to become a Jew like me.