What’s in a name?
So asks Juliet of Romeo’s rival lineage in one of Shakespeare’s most famous works.
“That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet,” she reasons.
The fact that Romeo is of the house of Montague, a rival to Juliet’s Capulet lineage, should have no bearing on who he really is, she argues. It’s just a name, a label, that which could easily be replaced with another and it would change nothing of the person. And Romeo’s all for it, responding to her, “Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptized; Henceforth I never will be Romeo.”
Ah, but young love. How star-crossed. What wishful thinking.
Clearly, if you’ve got to change your name in order for it not to affect your relationships, the answer to the question, “What’s in a name?” is, well, quite a lot. And world traditions, both Jewish and otherwise, seem to agree.
To a large degree, the act of naming your progeny, throughout various cultures and religions, historically has been about staying connected to your roots. Whether the child is of Norse decent and named after a figure in Nordic mythology, Catholic and named after a saint, or Jewish and named after a biblical figure, a mix of ethnicity and historic significance often plays a role.
When it comes to baby naming, the world is rich with different cultural practices. Native American tribes take inspiration from the natural world and virtues. African names may represent current events. Indian names sometimes are based on the baby’s birth star. Celebrities name their children after the direction in which the wind is blowing at the time… and fruit. And the list goes on.
Child-naming ceremonies abound, as well. Many African societies give two names, one at birth and one later on to celebrate an important event. A baby in Japan may be named on the seventh day after birth at a celebratory feast called “Oshichiya.” Egyptians, too, hold a ceremony on the seventh day, called a “Sebooh.” Variations of a naming ceremony called “Namakarena” occur in India. And, of course, there are the Jewish traditions of the bris for a boy and making a “Mi Sheberach” during Torah reading for a girl.
Baby naming has been top of mind, naturally, as my due date draws near. I find value and beauty in all of these world practices, but as I am of neither Nordic nor Native American decent, but rather of Jewish lineage, I’ve been focusing on the meaning associated with Jewish baby naming.
Naming a baby, according to Jewish sages, is of spiritual significance as it makes a statement to the child’s character, uniqueness, and path in life. The Talmud says that in the beginning of life we are given a name, and according the Arizal, at the end of life a “good name” is all we take with us.
The importance of name giving traces back to the earliest days of creation. King David wrote in Psalms 147:4 that God “counts the numbers of the stars; He gives a name to each of them.”
The Torah often compares the Jewish people to stars, which, I think, reflects on both the importance of individuality as well as the power of coming together and working as a unit. Though seemingly tiny dots from a distance, each star shines its own unique light, and when it is joined together with other stars, illuminates the darkness and provides a road map for navigation.
According to midrash, Adam, too, saw significance in individual names, as it is said that he looked into the essence of every living thing and named it accordingly. The Hebrew name for every object is said to be the conduit for its divine energy. Likewise, according to the Arizal, a person’s name is the channel through which the soul’s energy reaches the body. The Talmud goes so far as to say that parents receive minor prophecy when choosing a name, by way of an angel whispering to them the name that their Jewish baby will take on.
Of course, there is the widespread tradition of naming after someone. According to midrash, the first of four merits that resulted in the Jewish people being redeemed from Egypt was that they kept their Jewish names. Handing down these names from generation to generation seems to be an extension of this idea, that it’s important to maintain our Jewish heritage.
Within Ashkenazi tradition, children often are named after deceased relatives, whereas it’s customary in Sephardic culture to name after a living relative. Despite this difference, both traditions seem to have the same underlying goals; that is, to bestow respect upon the person after whom the new name has been given, and to keep the name within the family lineage.
So, then, how does this all translate to me, at this very moment?
Tradition aside, there really are practical aspects to consider. Linguistically, what sounds right? Will there be a nickname? What might others naturally call my child (and am I okay with that)? Is it unique enough? Too unique? Does that matter?
I find it particularly interesting how certain names come back years later. As a child, for example, I associated the name Sophie with one of my grandparents’ best friends. I didn’t know anyone even close to my age with that name. And now, the names Sophie and Sophia are so popular that even Disney got in on the trend. Or did they start it? I don’t know. In either case, as with clothing styles, time has a way of recycling old names. So does it matter to me if a name is in fashion at the moment? Should I bother with any of these practical considerations at all?
I’ve always had a particular interest in names chosen based on underlying meaning and symbolism, whether they reflect recent events or hopes for the child. As a writer and lover of words, I’ve given particular thought to naming my fictional characters in a way that represents how I wish them to be perceived, both on a metaphoric level as well as on a more practical and surface level. How much more so this translates into real life, when naming your own children.
It’s amazing enough to create a human being. On top of that, I find it incredibly meaningful, and humbling, to be able to start the process of giving that human being an identity via a unique name.
So, what’s in a name, you ask? Well, actually, a lot goes into a name. It’s something for a person to take pride in. And I sure hope this kid likes it.