There are few things that I find as upsetting as when people name their children meaningless names merely because they sound cute. Ashley or Amber, Brittany or Bruce. What are these names? Isn’t amber a color?
Naming a child after nothing at all is ridiculous. Just imagine a close friend who suddenly picked up and moved to Pittsburgh. You call him up and ask why he moved there, and he offers no reason other than, “I like cities that are spelled with a ‘gh’ in them, and I’ve always thought that the letter ‘P’ is a great one to start a word.” “Did you look into the school system, or think about your distance from family, or the weather, or the proximity to religious institutions and synagogues, or the prevalence of above average Chinese-style eating establishments?” you would then ask him? “Pooh-Pooh to that,” this very strange man would reply, “I already told you that I like the ‘gh’ and plus, on my map, Pennsylvania is orange. I like orange juice.” It is even more foolish to name a child something on a whim.
A child’s name is something very important. Our sages [Arizal quoted in Emunas Itecha p. 188] tell us that parents are enveloped in holiness and divinely prodded towards the right name, should they choose to listen. This name relates to the mission and very soul of the child. [See Chasam Sofer Parshas Korach where he asserts that the sins that Korach committed were as a result of his name!] Unfortunately many do not listen. To name a child after nothing meaningful is a travesty. To name a child Ilana, because “I like the sound,” is childish and immature. To name that very same name to remember a kind grand-mother or because of something that one finds inspiring about trees is an entirely different story. Those reasons are noble ones. But to names ones children names that all begin with the same letter for no reason other than “it’s just so cute” is outrageous! The name of the child can be something meaningful that he or she can relate to over the course of his or her lifetime. It can provide them meaning both in a rational way, and by defining their mission in this life in a spiritual way. To deprive a person of a name that carries meaning in exchange for “Chelsea” or “Tiffany,” is not a Jewish idea.
The great Bnei Yissaschar of Dinov writes [Nissan 4:10 Al Derech Hasod] that a person is drawn after his name. It is like a handle, for by attaching to it the larger object, the whole item will move. It is for this reason that we find Nebuchadnezzar giving secular names to Chananya, Mishael, and Azariah, [Daniel 1:7] calling them Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He hoped to influence them.
Man is complicated. He is not his heart – that can be transplanted. So can his liver and kidneys. His arms and legs can be removed and he is still a man. But his thoughts, accumulated memories, loves, and desires cannot be separated from him. They are the man. When we talk about a person and call him by his name, “Melvin,” we are not referring to his car, his home, his arms and legs, or his heart. We talk about the real him, the part of him that differentiated him from all other people. Ones name is the access path to his essence. Names are not simply borne of convenience. When we wish to refer to the real person, we use that person’s name. The name therefore is not simply a cute nickname or tag, as the name of a dog might be. To refer to ones child by a nickname that one finds very cute is an expression of love. But to name them that and thereby spiritually define their essence based upon immediate cuteness is a bit shallow.
A chasid entered the chambers of the saintly Chidushei HaRim upon the birth of his newborn son. “Rebbe, what name do you recommend that I give my child?” The Rebbe replied, “The Arizal has taught us that at the time that a father names his child, he is given ruach hakodesh (divine inspiration) so that he will choose the true name of that child that is being given to its soul from on high. The name that defines his root. Why should I spoil your opportunity to receive rauch hakodesh?” [Rav Moshe Wolfson, Emunas Itecha p. 188]
“If someone is great, he is called Rabbi. One greater than him is called Rabban. If he is even greater than that, he is then simply called by his own name.” [Tosefta Eduyos 3:4, see Sheloh Torah Shebaal Peh Klallei Yichusei Hachachomim] Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moshe, Shamaya Avtalyon, Yosi Ben Yoezer. There is nothing greater than being yourself. To truly be oneself is a far greater title than even Rabban! All of the striving of a person in this world is really nothing more than a quest to become oneself, and be true to ones own name.
Published in The Jerusalem Life Adar I 2008