QUESTION: The parents of a recently born baby boy wish to name the child after a grandmother as names of other male ancestors have already been used for other children. Is it appropriate to name a male for a female ancestor or vice versa? (Ellen Levine, Omaha NE)
ANSWER: The entire question of Jewish names is complex and has a fascinating history. Jacob Z. Lauterbach and others have written long essays on names and the changes which have taken place with them over the ages (W. Jacob (ed) American Reform Responsa #59; L. Löw Die Lebensalter in der Jüdischen Literatur pp 94 ff; L. Zunz "Namen der Juden" Gesammelte Schriften Vol II). In the Talmudic period some names were used interchangeably for both men and women (Yeb 65e). This practice had also occurred already earlier. In later Jewish literature we find names like Simhah used for both boys and girls. Generally, however, an effort was made to modify the name in a manner appropriate for that sex, so for example a boy named after a grandmother Sarah was called Abraham, and vice versa. In other cases the name itself has been modified so that Shelomoh became Shelomit or Daniel, Daniela. Such efforts assured that the child was comfortable with the name so that it was not a source of irritation. The primary reason for naming a child after an ancestor is to recall some good qualities and the provide a personal link with tradition. This will not succeed if the name is disliked. It should also be at least sufficiently akin to the original name to serve this purpose.
Another way of approaching the matter is by providing the child with several Hebrew names. There is very good historical precedent for this. One of those might, therefore, represent the incorrect gender and it would not cause embarrassment.
A feminine name should not normally be used to name a male child or vice versa; it should be modified in an appropriate fashion.