Choosing a Hebrew Name

Every man has a name
Given him by God
And given by his father and his mother
Every man has a name
Given him by his stature and his way of smiling,
And given him by his clothes...
Every man has a name
Given him by his sins
And given him by his longing
Every man has a name given him by those who hate him
And given him by his love...
Every man has a name
Given him by the seasons of the year
And given him by his blindness
Every man has a name
Given him by the sea
And given him by his death.
    - Zelda, a Hebrew poet (1914-1984)

One of the special privileges and responsibilities of becoming a convert to Judaism is that you get to select a Hebrew name for yourself.

It is a deeply held custom for Jews to be called by this special name at life’s most significant moments-- at birth, upon being called to the Torah as Bar or Bat Mitzvah, under the huppah, when they are sick, when they are publicly honored in the synagogue, and when they die.

Many Jews are given a Hebrew name at birth in addition to their English name, some use the simple Hebrew equivalent of their English name, and some were never given a Hebrew name at all.

Choosing a name for yourself can be both exciting and moving, and can also feel overwhelming and scary. Fortunately, there are a number of resources available to you in making this decision:

WHAT IS A HEBREW NAME?

A Hebrew name is one that has its roots in Jewish Tradition and the Hebrew language. What this means is that over time the list of names considered “Hebrew” or “Jewish” names has evolved-- much as the list of common American names has as well. Some Hebrew names are extremely old-- names like Sarah, Rebecca, Abraham, and Moshe, date back to the time of the Bible. Others have become part of the canon of Jewish names much more recently with the rebirth of the State of Israel-- names like Noam, Ari, Shira, and Maayan. There is no clearly defined list of all Hebrew names and the collection is ever growing (“Tommy”, translated into Hebrew characters, is an increasingly popular name in Israel today!)-- so you have a lot of flexibility to pick a name that resonates with you. With that in mind, ideally your Hebrew name will be a reflection of who you are, your decision to embrace Judaism ,and will contribute to your feeling of being wholly a member of the Jewish People.

HOW DO I PICK?

There are a number of ways to select a Hebrew name:

You can choose to translate your English name into Hebrew.
Examples: Michael becomes Mi’cha’el, Eve becomes Chava.

If there is not a precise Hebrew translation, you might pick something that sounds similar or even just shares the same first letter.
Examples: Diana could become Dina or Mary could become Maya

You can choose the name of a Biblical character, or a figure from Jewish history.
Examples: Ruth, David, Moshe, Rachel

You can choose a name whose meaning carries a special personal significance.
    Examples: Eliana means “God has answered,” Shira means “song”, Shalom means “peace.”

You can choose to honor a family member (your own or your partner’s) by taking their name.

  • In the Ashkenazi (Central and Eastern European) tradition, you should choose the name of someone who is no longer living.
  • In the Sephardic and Mizrahi (Mediterranean and Middle Eastern) traditions, you may either choose the name of someone who is still living or someone who has died.

NOTE: If you can’t pick just one, you can take two names (Examples: Yaakov Yitzhak, Devora Sara, etc)!

MORE TO KNOW

In formal settings, like when called to the Torah or in one’s ketubah, Jews are referred to not just by their own Hebrew name, but also with the name of their parents. A male will be called “So-and-soben (meaning, son of) “So-and-so” and “So-and-so”. A female will be called “So-and-sobat (meaning, daughter of) “So-and-so” and ““So-and-so”.

For people who are born Jewish, their names include the names of their birth-parents; for those who are adopted by Jews, they use the names of their adoptive parents.

For those who become Jews by Choice, they are formally referred to as the children of Abraham and Sarah, our first Patriarch and Matriarch. Maimonides, the famous 12th century rabbi, explains that since Abraham and Sarah were the first Jews, and they took on the responsibility to convert themselves and their household, they serve as spiritual parents of all those in the future who convert. This definitely does NOT mean that your parents are being rejected or that they are no longer considered your parents (god-forbid); rather, it is a way of honoring the fact that your Jewish heritage didn’t come from them, but instead came from your own choice to enter into the Jewish covenant.

A WORD ABOUT GENDER

Hebrew (like Spanish, French, and many others) is an inherently gendered language. That means that most names are associated with a specific gender. There are some names which have come gender-neutral, such as Or, Tal, and Avi, among others. The designation “daughter of” or “son of” should match your gender identity. If you prefer not to use a gendered noun in your name, some rabbis will allow you to choose instead “mi-beit” or “mi-mishpachat” meaning, “from the house of” or “from the family of.”

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

There are  many resources, in print and on the internet, to help you select a Hebrew name:

“The Comprehensive Dictionary of English and Hebrew First Names” by Rabbi Alfred Kolatch
“Your Name is Your Blessing” by Benjamin and Elaine Blech
“Choosing Judaism” by Anita Diamant
http://www.myhebrewname.com
http://www.allhebrewnames.com
http://www.kveller.com/jewish_names

Finally, please remember to speak with your rabbi before making your final selection of a name. You don’t want to go through life with something misspelled, or with the Hebrew equivalent of a celebrity baby name (believe us, there are some awful ones out there).

TWENTY FIVE  MALE AND FEMALE NAMES TO START YOUR SEARCH:

Male

  1. Aaron           
  2. Ariel*           
  3. Baruch               
  4. Binyamin
  5. Daniel           
  6. David           
  7. Dov
  8. Eitan
  9. Eli
  10. Gavriel
  11. Hayim
  12. Ilan
  13. Lior
  14. Michael
  15. Moshe
  16. Nachshon
  17. Noah*
  18. Noam
  19. Rafael
  20. Shalom
  21. Tal*
  22. Yaakov
  23. Yonatan
  24. Yosef
  25. Zachariah

Female

  1. Ariella
  2. Avital
  3. Ayelet
  4. Batya
  5. Chava
  6. Dalia
  7. Devora
  8. Eliana
  9. Esther
  10. Gavriela
  11. Hannah
  12. Keren
  13. Laila
  14. Leah
  15. Liora
  16. Maayan*
  17. Michal
  18. Miriam
  19. Or*
  20. Rachel
  21. Rena
  22. Rivka
  23. Ruth
  24. Shira
  25. Tikvah

* Name is gender-neutral