Names have always been a very important aspect in the lives and continuity of the Jewish people. The Torah apparently also believes this to be true. A whole Book, Shmos has the title “Names.” So, it seems that names do matter. They are a reminder to events and to the lives of others who we wish to remember. In the Tanach, we rarely find people named in honor or in memory of others. Usually, we find that people were named as a reminder to a miracle or kindness that G-d performed for the Jewish people or for a particular person. For example: Yitzchak, which means laughter, was named because Avraham laughed with happiness when G-d informed him that he would have a son. Leah gave thanks to G-d and named her fourth son Yehuda, which means thanks. Pharaoh’s daughter named Moshe, from the root word “Masho” – to draw -- because she pulled him from the Nile River.
Later on, we find people named in honor or in memory of others. In the Gemara we find that the family of Hillel mainly used the four names: Hillel, Yehuda, Gamliel and Shimon. We find several people named Rabban Gamliel and Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel. The grandson was given the name of his grandfather. Today, honoring an individual is probably the most common reason for giving a name. Among Ashkenazi Jews, a name is given in memory of a loved one. Among Sephardic Jews, children are given names of living relatives, as an honor to that person.
We even find names that nobody would dare use today. In the Mishna there is a Rabbi Yishmael. Today, you won’t find too many Jews named Yishmael. Another name that used to be quite common among Jews was Adolf. Today, you probably can’t find that name either among us. There are also names found in Tanach that we almost never hear anywhere else. That would seem to indicate that either we don’t know too much about that personality or we don’t look too favorably upon that personality. For example, Yerovam Ben Nevat, the 1st king of the Northern Kingdom, who also introduced idolatry to his kingdom, doesn’t have too many people, if any, who carry his name. We don’t like names that remind us of evil.
Names have played a role in how we relate to people in the past. There are several names out of the past which are quite common among the Jewish people. Avraham, Yitzchak, Ya’akov, the 12 tribes, Moshe, Aharon, Shmuel, Eliyahu, Akiva, Hillel and so on. The reason these names are popular is because we relate favorably to that personality.
Names have played an important role in the continuity of the Jewish people. Our Rabbis teach us that one of the reasons that the Jewish people were worthy of redemption from Egypt was because they did not assimilate into Egyptian society in three ways.
They did not change their names, their language or their clothing. 1) They retained their Jewish names and did not adopt Egyptian names. 2) They continued to speak their Hebrew language 3) They had their own style of dress and did not adopt the Egyptian style of clothing. The family of Ya’akov was proud of its background and history. They wanted to keep a connection to that history. One way of doing that was by keeping their Jewish names. For no matter how much they tried to become a part of the Egyptian society, their names would constantly remind them of their roots.
Through all the good times and the bad, the Jewish people kept up the connection to their past through their Jewish names. Because, deep down they knew that they were Jewish and not Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, Roman or from some other nation. They wouldn’t change, for a change - even what would seem like a minor change - could have far reaching consequences. In the time of Alexander the Great, the Jews began adopting Greek names. This slowly led to Greek culture creeping into the Jewish way of life. Eventually, it led to a significant portion of the Jewish people trying to imitate the Greek way of life and destroy the Jewish way of life.
Many Jews who came to America in the early 20th century had little interest in retaining their Jewish connection. They wanted to become a part of America, realize the American dream and forget their Jewish roots. Many of them willingly changed their names in order not to sound Jewish. The Triple Crown in horse racing has one race called the Belmont Stakes. The race track and race are in honor of a man named Augustus Belmont . . . whose original name was August Schoenberg. Hollywood has numerous such examples. Woody Allen was born Allan Stewart Konigsberg, Kirk Douglas, was originally Issur Danielovitch Demsky, Mel Brooks was born Melvin Kaminsky and Tony Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz.
It is extremely important to remember our people’s roots. How did we get here? How did we survive? By keeping a connection to our Jewish roots. That is what saved the Jews from Egypt . . . that is what saved the Jews in the Babylonian exile . . . that is what saved the Jews after the destruction of the 2nd Bais Hamikdosh, even though we had no country of our own for almost 1900 years. And that is what will keep us as a nation for the future. Our connection to our past, to the Torah and traditions of the Jewish people, is what allows for a strong and enduring future. And part of that is remembering our Jewish names. Knowing who we were, remembering our Jewish names, led to our redemption from the Egyptian exile. We should learn from the example of our forefathers, keep in mind our Jewish names, and G-d willing, that will also lead us to our redemption.