QUESTION: Adults frequently come to me with an inquiry about their Hebrew name. Sometimes this has occurred before weddings, and at other instances when an inscription must be placed on a tombstone. How should the Hebrew name be selected on those occasions? (Thomas Pearlman, Phoenix AZ)
ANSWER: 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 forbears' names are used. The history of the development of naming in Jewish tradition is long and complex (Jacob Z. Lauterbach CCAR Annual 1932 Vol 42 pp 316 ff; W. Jacob (ed) American Reform Responsa).
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).
An adult should make every effort to inquire from parents or other members of the older generation about his/her Hebrew name. Sometimes certificates or other records can be found. if no records of any kind can be located then the individual should be encouraged to honor a deceased member of the family by selecting that Hebrew name. In this way a name would be preserved within the family in keeping with tradition. Even more important, the memory of individuals and their accomplishments will be recalled whenever the Hebrew name is used. We should remember that it is. possible to select more than one Hebrew name, and in a considerable number of instances two or three are used by a single person.
Matters are a little more difficult and complex with the names of parents. If their Hebrew name is not known then an equivalent of their English name should be chosen. This involves some educated guesswork, but it may be reasonably correct.
Hebrew names when selected should be placed in a permanent record within the congregational files so that they can be rediscovered if forgotten.