Name Calling

Question

I’ve noticed that while Ashkenazim name their children after animals, Sephardim do not. I’ve also noticed that Sephardim will name their children after living people but Ashkenazim do not. Why is this?

9 months

Answers

  1. First, some background about names. Names are labels we use to convey the essence of something. The first place we find the procedure of giving a name is when Adam names the animals, and then names Chava. The difference between this naming of animals and the naming of people is that animal names describe the species but not the individual, whereas people names describe only the individual. The Talmud tells us that the name given to a person can affect his character, and we are therefore careful to give our children names that will affect them positively. The Talmud also explains the verse in Proverbs “The remembrance of a righteous person is a blessing, and the ‘name’ of the wicked should rot” to mean that one should not name a child after a wicked person. Another aspect of the significance of names was told to me by Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, of blessed memory, that when a child is named after someone, the child “continues in the footsteps” of the first person, in order to complete their original task.

    Now, please allow me to address your questions. After investigating this subject I agree with your distinction about animal names. Ashkenazim in fact often name their children after animals, while Sephardim do not. One phenomenon that I encountered in my research is that when Rabbi Yosef Karo (a noted Sephardic Posek) lists the spelling of names for the purpose of writing a Get, none of the names are “animal names,” yet when the Rema (a noted Ashkenazic Posek) lists names for the same purpose he includes many names of animals. I asked Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, of blessed memory, “Why would one group choose names of animals and another would not?” He told me that really neither group is naming their offspring for animals since we are careful about not “contaminating” our children with the tumah (impure spiritual effect) of non-kosher animals. So why do Ashkenazim seemingly name children after animals? The answer is that when they name the children they are not naming them after the animals per se, but are recalling the qualities of the great people of early generations who are exemplified by those positive animal traits. For example, when someone is named Aryeh (Leo, or Leonard), the trait of Yehuda is being evoked: lion-like, royal and “king of the beasts.” With the name of Zev (Wolf) we are recalling Binyamin, whose character was wolf-like — “a mighty and fearless warrior.” The animals are mere symbols of very human qualities. “Yehuda ben Teima said: Be as fearless as a leopard, as light as an eagle, as fast as a deer and as powerful as a lion — to do the will of your Father in Heaven.”

    The reason Sephardic Jews name children after a living relative is in order to honor the one after whom the baby is named. Ashkenazim do not name their children after living relatives because, although it would be a bestowal of great honor, it would be considered an ayin hara (“evil-eye”) for the living relative — meaning that naming the child after someone might “bring on” that person’s early demise. I also asked Rav Scheinberg if it would make a difference if the relative said that they are not concerned about the ayin hara. He replied that even if they say they are not concerned, we still shouldn’t do it, because our assumption is that deep down they probably really care.

    Best wishes from the AskTheRabbi.org Team