A Question of Jewish Law

January 28, 2016

30 – Father of Many Nations

Filed under: Conversion,Jewish Law,Life Cycle,Marriage and Divorce — chaimweiner @ 10:17 am

Question: What is the proper way to refer to a convert when called to the Torah?

Answer: The use of family names is a late phenomenon.  Since many people share the same name, to avoid confusion the custom is to refer to a person together with the name of their father.  This is the case when a person’s father is a Jew.  A person who converts to Judaism is seen as one who has been born again.  Therefore, we no longer link them back to their biological parents.

The earliest evidence we have for the naming of converts comes from headstones found in ancient cemeteries.  From these we know a large number of names dating from the Second Temple period, including several people who were referred to by the title ‘HaGer’, meaning ‘the convert’. This is also the case in early rabbinic literature. One of the early translations of the Bible to Greek was done by Akilas HaGerYehuda ben Gerim was a student of Rabbi Yohanan.  One of the leaders of the rebels in the Great War against Rome was Shimon Bar Giyora, which derives from the word HaGer.  Even if the use of ‘HaGer’ was not universal it was certainly not uncommon.

The use of the word HaGer continues into the Middle Ages.  However, starting from the 11th century we find converts being referred to as ‘Ben Avraham’ or ‘Ben Avraham Avinu’.  Two different explanations are given. Gershom ben Yakov HaGozer, a Mohel  [13th century, Germany] writes that when naming the child of a convert, the child should be referred to as ‘Ben Avraham’ because Abraham was the first convert to Judaism. Rabeinu  Asher [14 century, Germany and Spain] writes that when recording the name of a convert in a GET he is referred to as ‘Ben Avraham’ because Abraham was blessed by God as the father of many nations.  There are many other halachic authorities who rule that the proper way to refer to a convert is ‘Ben Avraham’.

There are also authorities who say that a convert should be referred to as ‘Ben Avraham Avinu’.  Rabbi Alexander HaKohen, [15th century, Germany] an expert on Gittin, writes that one should refer to a convert by the name of ‘Avraham Avinu’ and not just ‘Avraham’ in order not to mislead.  Joseph Karo in the Shulchan Aruch rules that in a GET, the title ‘Avraham Avinu’ should be used.  The use of Avraham Avinu is prevalent since the 17th century.

In recent years there are those who have opposed the use of a special name for converts, pointing out that it is forbidden to shame a convert by reminding them of their former life.  However, historically the title ‘convert’ was not seen as a derogatory title. No one felt that the need to hide the fact that they had converted.

Following historical precedent, the correct way to refer to a convert is either ‘HaGer’, ‘Ben Avraham’ or ‘Ben Avraham Avinu’.  In communities where both father’s and mother’s names are used, it is appropriate to refer to both Abraham and Sarah.

In the case where a child’s father is Jewish, there is no reason not to refer to his biological father.  Also, an adopted child should be referred to by his adoptive parents’ names.  This follows the halachic principle that a person who raises a child assumes the status of a parent.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Shevat 5776

Based on ‘What is the Proper Way to Refer to the Parents of a Convert?’

Responsa in a Moment 10:4  – Rabbi David Golinkin.

This study sheet is sponsored by Jewish Journeys Ltd: Currently booking trips to Uzbekistan (The Jews of the Silk Route) and Andalucía (The Jews of Muslim Spain) .

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  1. Chaim,

    Thanks for this post.

    When I stand segan, I call by the Hebrew name and add the English surname, e.g., ploni ben ploni veplonit Tibber.

    Any objection ?

    Tony ( Tibber )

    Comment by Tony Tibber — January 28, 2016 @ 1:29 pm | Reply

    • No objections at all. This is quite a common custom in Anglo Jewish communities. But using family names is doubtlessly a later tradition.

      Comment by chaimweiner — January 28, 2016 @ 1:41 pm | Reply

  2. If someone used the ‘wrong’ name after his conversion, i.e, he’s been using Ben Avraham instead of his Jewish father’s name, can/should he change it?

    Josh On 28 Jan 2016 11:17, “A Question of Jewish Law” wrote:

    > chaimweiner posted: “Question: What is the proper way to refer to a > convert when called to the Torah? Answer: The use of family names is a late > phenomenon. Since many people share the same name, to avoid confusion the > custom is to refer to a person together with the name of” >

    Comment by joshkadosh — January 28, 2016 @ 2:26 pm | Reply

    • in my previous blog post I mentioned that the way you get a Hebrew name is by using it. That means that if you want to change your name the way you do it is simply to start using the new name. After it has been in use for 30 days it counts as being your official name. If you stop using your old name it would stop being your name. Traditionally, this has been marked by being called to the Torah with your new name.

      The question of whether one should change their name is more complicated. This is more a pastoral issue than a halachic one. But I would imagine that in most circumstances it would be proper to honour one’s parent by including them in your name.

      Comment by chaimweiner — January 29, 2016 @ 12:30 am | Reply

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