Choosing a Hebrew name for yourself or a child can be both exciting and overwhelming. Names originating from the Hebrew language include those from the Hebrew Bible, modern Israeli names inspired by places and nature, names that reference God, and names of important historical figures.
Hebrew names are growing in popularity as Jews, Christians, and converts to Judaism become more interested in embracing their spirituality, history, and traditions.
The reasons for choosing Hebrew names are numerous. You might be expecting a child and looking for a name with meaning and history, or you might be converting to Judaism and selecting a new name to symbolize your spiritual rebirth.
Perhaps you are looking to add a Hebrew name because you were not given one at birth. Whatever your reasons, learning about the history, meaning, and importance of Hebrew names is a great way to get started on your quest for the Hebrew name that is right for you.
Why do you need a Hebrew name?
Having a Hebrew name helps to foster and maintain a Jewish identity. In times of exile, Hebrew names kept Jews from assimilating. According to some traditions, Hebrew names define a person’s essence, embody their character traits, and shape the nature of their soul.
New or additional Hebrew names are given to critically ill people in order to help them heal, to provide them with spiritual and physical renewal, and to set them on a new course.
If you plan to participate in Jewish religious life, it is a practical matter to have a Hebrew name. Hebrew names are used in Jewish religious services and ceremonies. In synagogue services, Jews are called up to the Torah with their Hebrew names.
The Jewish prayer for the sick, the Jewish marriage contract, and the headstone or memorial marker of a deceased person all use a person’s Hebrew name.
Hebrew names can provide a connection to your roots, your heritage, and to history. In fact, for many of the above reasons, rabbis in the twelfth century required Jews who had non-Hebrew names to add a Hebrew name as well.
Since Hebrew names have such deep meaning and history, they are significant for people of all faiths.
The history of Hebrew names
Hebrew names from the Bible are some of the oldest names in existence, and they are making a comeback. Dating back to biblical times, Hebrew names remained in use throughout the Babylonian exile, the Talmudic period, and beyond.
During medieval and early modern times, Hebrew names varied according to region. Hai, Rahamim, Saadia, Ovadia, and Nissim were common names for men in Muslim countries, while Mazaltov and Simha were common for women.
In Ashkenazi (European) lands, common names included Shraga, Yerachmiel, Shifra, and Basya. Common nicknames included Yankel for Ya’acov, Wolf for Benjamin, and Marduk for Mordechai.
Types of Hebrew names
Once you begin looking, you will find there are many types of names to choose from. Just taking names mentioned in the Hebrew Bible alone, there are 2800 choices, although more for men than for women. That is because fewer women are written about in the Bible, and many are unnamed.
Some Hebrew names are connected to God. If you want a name that exalts God, choose one with the prefixes or suffixes El, Eli, Ya, or Yahu. Examples are Raphael (God healed), Bezalel (in the shadow of God), Adiel (God’s jewel), Nathaniel (gift from God), and Yonaton (God has given).
Other names are based on biblical personalities and historical roles. Examples are Chava (Eve) meaning life, Yitzhak (Isaac) meaning laughter because Sarah laughed when she learned she was pregnant at such an advanced age, and Esther, David, and Rachel. Modern Hebrew names are often based on nature, plants, animals, or places in the Land of Israel. Devorah (bee), Tamar (date), Ilan (tree), Tal (dew), and Netanya, Kinneret, and Efrat are examples.
What do Hebrew names mean?
Throughout history and in every society, names have had meanings known to those who gave them. In the Bible, names were often chosen explicitly for their meaning.
Ya’acov (Jacob) was named because his hand grabbed his brother’s heel (akev) when he was born. David means beloved, and Naomi means pleasantness.
Today, however, it has become less common for people to know the meaning of their names. Learning some Hebrew is helpful in understanding the roots and meanings of Hebrew names.
How to choose a Hebrew name
When searching for a Hebrew name, there are many approaches to take. Basically no limits, rules, or customs exist, so you have a lot of leeway. So where to start? You might consider beginning with your English name and choosing something similar by translating it into Hebrew or using the same first letter.
Another option is to select the name of a deceased relative, teacher, mentor, or friend. This is a great way to honor the memory of someone important to you and to stay connected to a lost loved one.
It is customary for Jews of European background to name their children after only deceased relatives. Sephardim (Spanish Jews and their descendants) often name their babies after living relatives.
You might decide on a name that you like, one that has special meaning for you, one that symbolizes your spiritual journey, or one that connects you to history. Choosing your own Hebrew name is a great opportunity to reflect on who you are and who you want to become in the future.
If you need help finding a Hebrew name that fits all of your needs, there are plenty of resources available. Hebrew name generators found on the internet are a good place to start. Name generators can help you narrow down your choices, give you new ideas, and tell you about the meaning of names.
If you want a more personal approach, you might decide to ask a spiritual leader or teacher for suggestions and advice; because they know you, they can help find a name that suits your personality and provide you with texts and stories that shed light on its meaning and history.
Choosing a Hebrew name can be a daunting task, but it can also be exciting, fun, and rewarding. If you look at it as an opportunity, picking a Hebrew name is a great way to reflect on your past and create new dreams for the future. Whether you decide on a traditional name from the Bible or a more modern Israeli name, knowing what names mean and their history can make them all the more special.