QUESTION: Does anything need to be done in order to change a Hebrew name from the name given at birth, but now only vaguely remembered and never used, to a totally different name in memory of a deceased ancestor?
ANSWER: There are, of course, Biblical sources which indicate a change of name. God did so with Abraham and Sarah; in another story an angel blessed Jacob through changing his name (Gen. 17.5, 32.29, 35.10). On other occasions such changes were made by human beings, so Jacob changed Benjamin's name (Gen. 35.16) and Moses altered Joshua's name (Num. 13.16), among others. Since Talmudic times, Hebrew names have usually been given to boys at the time of circumcision. Girls are named when their father is called to the Torahon the shabbat following the child's birth. Nowadays we may also use the home ceremony of berit hayim for the naming of girls (Gates of the House, p. 114; S. Maslin, Gates of Mitzvah, p. 13 ff).
A good deal has been written on the choice of names. Among Ashkenazim, it is the general practice to name children after a deceased ancestor, while among the Sephardim both deceased and living forbearers' names are used. The history of the development of naming in Jewish tradition is long and complex (Jacob Z. Lauterbach, C.C.A.R. Annual, 1932, Vol. 42, pp. 316 ff).
The primary occasion which led to formal name changes in the past was critical illness. This was done to confuse the angel of death (Bet Yosef to Tur Orah Hayim 129; Toldot Adam Vehavah I, 28). Similar fear of the angel of death led individuals in the Middle Ages to avoid the name of someone who had died a violent death or at a young age. If they, nevertheless, wished to preserve the name of that individual, this was accomplished through a double name which used the dangerous name in a changed context and so neutralized the danger (SeferHassidim #363 f; Isaac Shmelkes Bet Yitzhaq to Yoreh Deah, Part II, #163). The practice of changing a name in order to confuse the angel of death was already mentioned in the Talmud. The ritual for that purpose was established by the Gaonim (Sefer Toldot Adam Vehavah, I, #28; Baer, Liqutei Tzvi, p. 46).
A name was chosen in a number of different ways, either at random or through opening a Torah scroll and utilizing the name of the first Biblical figure which appeared, excluding names prior to Abraham (Joseph Trani, Responsa I, #189). Sometimes names like Hayim, Rafael or Azariel, with positive overtones, were used. The medieval Sefer Hassidim also mentioned a different method of foiling the angel of death; it suggested that we do not change the individuals name, but that of his parents, so that the child was transferred to another set of parents (Sefer Hassidim #635).
In each of these instances, the changing of the name was a formal ceremony and was done with a minyan present. One person held aTorah, and the appropriate words were recited. A simpler ceremony with a brief prayer may be found in Hamanhig (pp. 103 ff), or Isaac Baer's Totzaot Hayim (pp. 45 ff). We must remember that such procedures were followed in an emergency. For that reason the occasionwas made as formal and as impressive as possible.
Although names were readily changed in order to escape the angel of death, there were legal problems involved in the changing of a name , especially if the original name had been used in a ketubah or a get. In both of these documents the name must be precisely and accurately given (Shulhan Arukh Even Haezer 129).
Some caution should be used in changing a name. In this instance, we would advise the individual not to change his name entirely, but tosimply add the name of the deceased relative whom he wishes to honor to the name originally given. That would serve the additional purpose of honoring the individual after whom he was originally named and not obliterate that name.
Through utilizing both names, the one originally given and that now desired, the honor due to both deceased individuals would be provided .