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 HaGer. Yehuda 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
Based on ‘What is the Proper Way to Refer to the Parents of a Convert?’
Responsa in a Moment 10:4 – Rabbi David Golinkin.
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