Do Jews always name babies after deceased relatives?

Thank you to Rabbi Daniel B. Syme

In Jewish tradition, names can be an expression of individuality, a commemoration of a great life event, a tribute to the dead or an honor to the living.

In the Torah, no two people have the same given name. Indeed, the same might be said of the entire Bible, with one or two exceptions. Imagine how unique it was to be the only person in the world with your name! Some people were named after birds and animals, like Jonah (dove). Some were named after plants or flowers like Tamar (palm). Isaac’s name (laughter) was derived from and event” Sarah, his mother laughed when God’s messengers announced that she would bear a child at the age of ninety (Genesis 18:12). And Eve was named for an idea, the concept of life itself. In biblical times, we find the mother selecting a child’s name in almost every instance; the name was given at birth. This practice was modified over the centuries, with both parents gradually coming to choose the name and with the name conferred during the b’rit milah (covenant of circumcision, for a boy) or b’rit hachayim (the covenant of life, for a girl).

Jews began naming children after other people in the sixth century BCE, after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. By custom, not law, Jews started to name their sons and daughters after close relatives. Ashkenazic Jews named infants only after those who had died, usually grandparents, in the belief that to name a child after a living person might shorten that person’s life. Sephardic Jews, on the other hand, often named babies after the living, usually a grandparent or a parent. To the Sephardim, this custom was an expression of great honor and respect. These two different naming patterns continue today in Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities around the world.

At first the name chosen was exactly the same as that of the relative. As time went on, however, modern equivalents were often substituted. Jews did not hesitate to adopt names reflective of the culture in which they lived. Moses was an Egyptian name, Mordecai and Esther, Babylonian. The great Jewish philosopher Philo had a Greek name, while the name of the brilliant medieval Jewish scholar Saadyah was Arabic. The Rabbis of the Talmudic era were concerned that “modern” names might lead to assimilation. In the post-Talmudic period, therefore, the custom arose of Jews having two names, one civil, one Hebrew. The civil, or secular, name was the name you were called by in your day-to-day life, as well as the name on your civil birth certificate. Your Hebrew name, on the other hand, was used when you were called up to the Torah (an Aliyah), when someone prayed for your health, and for all other religious documents (such as a ketubah, a Jewish marriage contract or a get, a Jewish bill of divorce).

As names were a matter of custom rather than Jewish law, the people were free to name their children as they wished. Countless numbers of Jewish children, for example, were named after the sympathetic conqueror Alexander the Great. Chasidic Jews often gave their children the name of their revered rebbe or the rebbe’s wife. Jewish values became names, as in Shalom or Shlomo. And for those who dreamed of a return to the land of our ancestors, their children were given the names of sites in Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel), such as Sharon (as in the Sharon Valley).