Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 30 January 2010 / 14 Shevat 5770


by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Allison
Dear Rabbi,

I need to give my daughter a Hebrew name. Someone I know said not only must the name be Hebrew but it must be Jewish as well. So on all these baby name websites that show Hebrew names for girls, many of them that I like, he said I cannot use because although they are Hebrew, they are not Jewish. For instance, my first choice would be the name Magdalena, which I have seen on many websites, but this person said this name is associated with the New Testament and therefore I cannot use it. What are your thoughts on this? Thanks in advance.

Dear Allison,

I would take the point one step further. Namely (pun intended), a Hebrew name, by definition, refers specifically to a Jewish name and not just a name that may have a connection to modern or even ancient Hebrew.

This would exclude even names that are used in modern Israeli Hebrew but are not Jewish names, and all the more so it excludes names as the one you mention which, even if originating from the name of an ancient Israelite town, is not a Jewish name at all. On the contrary, as a reference to Mary Magdalene (i.e. of Magdal, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee), this is a specifically Christian name. In addition, its association with a woman of ill-repute – albeit reformed – wouldn’t make this a great first choice.

And of course, in either of the above-mentioned cases, spelling such names in Hebrew letters doesn’t change their essential non-Jewish character.

So you see, choosing a name is not a matter of aesthetic phonetics, but rather the meaning and context are of great importance. What’s more, when we choose a “Hebrew” name, we are conferring an influence from the Holy Tongue onto the soul of the person being named. It is of utmost importance, then, that this name be a holy name and one used by our people from time immemorial. Customarily, the name should be after one of our righteous ancestors like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah or one of the many others. It can also be after a righteous grandparent or great-grandparent.

If such a name is “too” Jewish for you, you can always use a “regular” name for daily life while reserving the Hebrew name for religious contexts. This practice is not only of modern times, but was practiced for generations in many of the European countries. Needless to say, even in such a case, one must avoid patently obvious non-Jewish names for the “regular” name.

Even if you are not observant, it should be very important to you that your child maintains her connection to the Jewish People, and this has a lot to do with the name you give her. I recommend you ask a competent rabbi for suggestions, or fill me in on more details if you’d like me to help in a more specific manner.

In any case, avoid the generic baby-name sites (which are often way off in their presentation of what they call “Hebrew” names), but rather try googling a religious Jewish name site instead. You can also check indexes of Tanach for names (for example, the Koren Tanach).

If part of Magdalene’s draw is the “M”, some traditional names to consider are Miriam (the prophetess sister of Moses and Aaron) and Michal (the daughter of King Saul and wife of King David). More modern, but acceptable, names are Malka (which means queen) and Moriah (the name of the Holy Mount of Jerusalem and also related to the fragrance myrrh). Another possible repository for traditional Jewish names would be from Yiddish, if that interests you. In any case, look into the Hebrew names of your daughter’s ancestors since naming after righteous relatives is a wonderful way of both preserving their memory and also maintaining spiritual continuity from generation to generation.

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