Orthodox Jewish naming rituals are both holy and joyous occasions that begin the welcoming of a new soul to the Jewish nation. Each name is a reflection of ancestors, forefathers and mothers that keeps alive the memory and qualities of the person for whom the new addition is named .
When to Give a Jewish Name
The birth of a child is always an occasion for celebration. Orthodox Jews name girls on Monday, Thursday, the Sabbath or holy days when the Torah -- the scroll containing the Five Books of Moses -- is taken from its decorative cabinet and read from aloud in the synagogue. The father is given the honor of making a blessing upon one of the segments being read and the baby is given her name. Boys are named when they are circumcised at eight days of age. When a man or woman converts to Judaism, he or she chooses a name from the Five Books of Moses in the Hebrew language and the naming ceremony is the same as for a newborn.
The History of Jewish Names
In Biblical days, Jews did not have surnames. They were known by the name their parents gave them followed by "ben" -- "son of" -- or "bas" -- "daughter of" -- followed by the name of the father. Thus, a typical name might be Avraham ben Moshe -- Abraham son of Moses, or Rivkah bas Yehuda -- Rebecca daughter of Judah. (The exception to this convention is when prayers are said for a person for any reason; in that case, the term "ben" or "bas" is followed by the name of the mother instead of the father.) In 1787, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was in control of most of Europe, passed legislation forcing Jews to choose permanent surnames and the names had to be in German. They limited the types of names Jews could use. Today people in Orthodox Jewish communities are still called by the names of the parents during any religious ritual from birth.
How We Know Jewish Names Are Important.
From the Book of Genesis (the first book of the Bible), the importance a name has on a person's life becomes clear. Abraham's and Sarah's names were originally Avram and Sarai. Sarai had been barren for over 50 years. In the Book of Genesis 17: 5-15, God changes their names to Abraham and Sarah to confuse those who prayed that sadness should befall Sarai and Avram. Isaac was born a year later. Orthodox Ashkenazic Jews name for people no longer living, such as a great-grandparent or a beloved grandparent. Orthodox Sephardic Jews often name for living people, such as parents or grandparents. Since most Jewish names are from Biblical sources, original names are repeated over and over, with slight variations based on country or language.
The Celebrations After the Actual Naming
When a girl is named in the synagogue, the ritual is followed by a celebratory meal attended by congregants, family and friends. After the circumcision of a boy, there is also a festive meal. On a Monday or Thursday, it is often a buffet-style meal and, depending on family customs, can be as simple as cake and light foods or a full sit-down meal. If the baby is named on the Sabbath, meals tend to be more elaborate. At both celebrations, blessings are made on the food and drink and people tender their congratulations to the family by saying "Mazel tov!"
The Importance of Choosing Names Carefully
The importance of naming a person correctly is seen by the reference in the Talmud -- the explanation of the Five Books of Moses -- which tells us that the night before a name is chosen, an angel comes down and whispers the name into the ear of the parents. It is considered that the very essence and personality of a soul will be bound to the person for whom he or she is named. It is considered best to choose the name of a person with a great respect for learning the Torah who was known for doing good deeds and living a long, fruitful life. Hence, many people name their children after learned grandparents or saintly Torah scholars. Within Orthodox Jewish communities, people tend to only give Jewish names to their children without translating them into English versions. In the Talmud, Leviticus Rabbah 32:5, it states that God took the Jews out of slavery in Egypt because they kept their names and did not assimilate by using Egyptian names. From this it can be seen how important the tradition of a naming ceremony is for Orthodox Jews, who try to maintain Biblical customs and adhere strictly to the laws of the Torah.
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