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 What is the importance of one’s name?

A person’s name has great significance. It is not merely a means of identifying an individual; it signifies a person’s very essence, including his life’s mission and character traits. Just as one opens aprogram on his computer by entering a specific code or password, similarly, great rabbis and kabbalists are able to determine many aspects of a person – such as strengths, weaknesses and profession –
by seeing that person’s name. Furthermore, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizentsk writes (in Parashat Bamidbar) that when a child is named for somebody, that person’s character traits are transferred to the child. Significantly, the middle letters of the Hebrew word neshamah(“soul”) spell the word “shem” (“name”).

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What is the significance of the names

 of various parts of the human body?

A name defines the essence of an object or a person. Hashem granted Adam the ability and understanding to give the appropriate name to every object or person, and he named all things based on this unique knowledge. We present here several examples.

A) The Hebrew word for skin, or, has the same letters (ayin, vav, resh) as the word iver, which means “blind,” because the skin “blinds” us by preventing us from seeing what is happening inside the body.

B) The word kaved means both “heavy” and “liver,” and the liver is the heaviest organ in the body.

C) Ayinmeans “eye,” and is related to the word ma’ayan– “wellspring” – alluding to the fact that the eye needs moisture in order tofunction properly.

D) Ozen– “ear” – is related to the word moznayim– “scales” – and the inner ear controls a person’s balance.

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               Is there such a thing as a bad name?

Some names can have an adverse effect upon a child, and for this reason the Midrash Tanhuma(Parashat Haazinu) warns that one must choose his child’s name very carefully, to ensure the child’s ability to grow to become a tzadik. Indeed, the Gemara (Yoma 83b) tells that Rabbi Meir refused to give an innkeeper advanced payment because hedetermined based on the innkeeper’s name that he was dishonest.

4            Is it forbidden to call someone by a nickname?

The Gemara (Baba Metzia 58b) comments that a person who calls somebody by a pejorative nickname is condemned to Gehinom. The Kessef Mishnah(Hilchot Teshuvah3:13) writes that this applies even if the person has grown accustomed to the nickname, which was originally used as an insult.

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               Why do people sometimes change the name of                               a seriously ill patient, or add a second name?

In the case of an ill patient, we add a name that signifies good fortune, such as Chaim (“life”) or Baruch (“blessed”), as this has the effect of changing the person’s fortune. As noted above, a person’s name signifies his or her mission in the world, and we thus hope to change a patient’s mission by changing his or her name. A source for this concept is Hashem’s command that Sarai’s name be changed to Sarah, whereupon she was able to bear children (Rosh Hashanah 16b).

6            Is it proper to give a child two names?

The Noda Beyehudah(Orah Haim 113) observes that people in the Tanach and the Talmud had only one name (with the exception of one – Tubal Kayin), and it was only in modern times that people began giving children two names. Indeed, Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky and the Hazon Ish made a point of giving children only one name, because giving two names is a new phenomenon, and because a child named after two people will not perpetuate the legacy of either one. On the other hand, the Klausenberger Rebbe noted thatthe Hatam Sofergave his children multiple names, seemingly proving that this was an accepted practice. It should also be noted that the Yam Shel Shelomoh(Gittin, chapter 4) advises couples to give a child two names when necessary to avoid arguments overthe name. Nowadays, numerous prominent rabbis – both Sephardic and Ashkenazic – have two names.

In light of the different opinions and customs that exist, one should consult his rabbi before naming a child for guidance.

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               Is it proper to name a child after a relative
who was not religiously observant?

The Maharsha (Yoma 38b) writes that it is forbidden to name a child after a wicked person. However, the vast majority of non-observant Jews today are not “wicked.” They fall under the category of “tinok shenishbah” – somebody who was denied a religious upbringing and for this reason does not observe the Torah. Therefore, one may name a child after a deceased relative who was a good person even though he or she was not religiously observant. To the contrary, refusing to name a child after a non-observant relative can cause a hilul Hashem(disgrace to Gd’s Name), and cause anguish to the deceased’s immediate family members. Therefore, one specifically should name a child afterthe relative. It is preferable, however, to have in mind that the child is named also for a righteous person who had the same name.

One may name a child for a wicked person who repented at the end of his life, as evidenced by the fact that there was a Talmudic sage named Yishmael (Ritva, Masechet Yoma).

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               Should one avoid naming a child after
someone who passed away at a young age?

One should avoid naming a child after somebody who suffered “bad fortune” (“reya mazaleh”), but this is generally understood to refer to people who died a horrific death. Dying at a young age is not necessarily “bad fortune,” as evidenced by the fact that many righteous sages, including the Rambam, Rama, Arizal, Ramhal, Shmuel Hanavi and Shlomo Hamelech, did not live very long lives. Very often, people die young because they completed their mission in this world in a short amount of time, and thus dying young does not necessarily reflect “bad fortune.”

Nevertheless, since we do not know if anindividual passed away young as a punishment, due to bad fortune, or because that person completed his or her mission in the world, Rav Moshe Feinstein ruled that it is advisable not to name a child for one who passed away young (Iggerot Moshe, Yoreh Deah, 2:122). Rav Feinstein added, however, that if the deceased person passed away after getting married and begetting children, then we may assume that this person died young because his or her mission was completed, and one may therefore name a child after that person. Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky ruled that if somebody reached the age of 60, he or she is not considered to have died young, and the name may be used.

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               Should one respect his parents’ wish that
he name his child after a certain person,
if that person did not exhibit good
character traits?

Naming a child after somebody who was not a good person can be detrimental to the child, but arguments and strife revolving around a child can also jeopardize his soul. The advisable solution in this case would be to grant the parents’ wish and name the child for the individual of their choice, but to have in mind that the child is being named for a righteous person (Hid”a).

10      What should parents do if they do not have
any person for whom to name their child?

In such a case, they should name the child after any righteous a person, alive or deceased, so that the child’s soul will be connected to that person’s soul and will thus be naturally drawn to exhibit that person’s fine qualities.