It’s been a long time since I have posted on this blog. I have been busy in the meantime with other projects, particularly my Hebrew Words blog [myhebrewwords.wordpress.com]. I want to say thank you to all the people, particularly my children, who have been urging me to bring this blog back to life.
Question: What is my Hebrew name?
Answer: This question is asked more frequently than you might think. In our society people have many different names. What counts as being your real name according to halacha? What name should be used on formal legal documents like a ketubah or a GET, or when being called to the Torah?
The halacha recognises many different kinds of names. A שם עריסה [shem arisa – lit. cradle name] is the name of person was given when they were born, typically in the synagogue on the first Shabbat after birth or at the circumcision ceremony. A שם כינוי [shem kinnui – lit. nickname] is the name a person is known by on the street or by their friends. This may be a shortened version of the birth name or something entirely different. A שם ינקות [shem Yankut – Lit. childhood name] is a nickname a person receives in their childhood and is usually suitable only for children. For example: The name William [shem Arisa] may become Bill [shem Kinui] and Billy [shem Yankut]. Or there may be other names a person acquires that aren’t really names at all, such as ‘Bubale’, ‘Sweetie’, ‘munchkins’. A person could have a name used in the family and a different name at work; a name in one country and a different name in a different country. Finally, there is the שם שנשתקע [shem shenishtaka – Lit. a forgotten name] which are names that a person was known by once but over time have fallen into disuse. So the question of what counts as a real legal name is more serious than we may have first thought.
The basic principle is that your name is the name you use in everyday life. If people call you something and you respond to it – that becomes your legal name. If a person has only an ‘English’ name, then that name is transliterated in Hebrew characters. There are many complicated rules about how to do this, but in any case, as the name that is most frequently used – this is your legal name in Jewish Law. The exception to this rule is when a person is called something which isn’t considered a name at all. No matter how often a person is called ‘idiot’ or ‘shorty’ it still doesn’t become their name.
The reverse of this is that if you were once given a name, even in a legal context, and you no longer use that name – it stops being your name. If you were given a name at birth but have not used it since, from a legal point of view that is no longer your name.
If you have a name that is only used infrequently, but you still consider it to be your name, then that name continues to be your secondary name. This occurs with people who have a secular name in everyday life and a Hebrew name they use when being called to the Torah. They consider this to be their Hebrew name and it is still occasionally used. Therefore it remains their name.
There is no formal ceremony for a adopting a new name. The way you get a new name is to start to use it. After a name has been in use for 30 days it becomes your legal name.
Some documents are more important than others. When writing a GET it is very important that all of the names are correct. The common practice is to list all the names that a person is known by, using the formula’ X who is known as Y and who is known as Z’. In some communities the custom is to write after this list of names the line ‘and any names he/she is known by’. This catch-all phrase is intended to make sure that no names were inadvertently omitted.
So what is a name? Shakespeare said that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But not in Jewish Law. A rose by any other name would be a misnamed rose. And getting the name wrong could make all the difference in the world.
Rabbi Chaim Weiner
Based on: Shulchan Aruch. Even HaEzer 129.
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