Jewish First Names Through the Ages
Juanita to Yente: Shaindel to Sandra
For Jews, first names are inevitably something more than convenient labels for identification, mere tags to facilitate human intercourse in a civilized society. Among us they take on a highly charged symbolic value, as the feverish name-coinings and Hebraizations of old names in Israel in the past few years tell us, or our own searchings for a “suitable” name for a newborn infant. So it is that Jewish names can serve as clues for deciphering the cultural patterns of Jewish history: from them we can determine whether people’s sentiments inclined towards separateness or assimilation—or Jewish nationalism. We can tell when the Jews were loyal to the Hebrew language, and when indifferent. And names also reveal something about the changing political and economic orientations of Jews through the centuries.
It is a strong tradition among American Jews to name their children after departed relatives. And yet we find no trace of this custom in the Bible. In ancient days the name a Jew gave his child was generally connected with some event, familiar or public, that had happened at his birth. The name usually took on a symbolic meaning, denoting a wish for the newborn infant’s good fortune, expressing thanks to God, etc. (“And he called his name Gershom, for he said: I have been a stranger in a strange land” Exod. 2:22.) Most of the names we find among the early Hebrews in the Book of Genesis are of this kind. Usually, it would appear, the mother chose the name (as in the case of Jacob’s sons and the prophet Samuel); sometimes the father selected it (as in the case of Abraham’s sons). Often. as in the naming of Moses and King Solomon, persons other than the parents were the name-givers. In remote antiquity, the custom was to name a male infant immediately upon birth (a practice still followed by the Arabs today); later on a boy received his name at the ceremony of circumcision (see Luke 1:59; 2:21).
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