QUESTION: A lad now about to become Bar Mitzvah was given a Yiddish rather than a Hebrew name after a deceased grandfather. May the lad be called to the Torah with a Yiddish rather than a Hebrew name or must he be given a Hebrew name? (Nathan Silver, New York NY)
ANSWER: The history of Jewish names is long and involved. A number of books and essays have been written on the subject. (J. Z. Lauterbach Central Conference of American Rabbis Yearbook 1932 Vol 42 pp 316 ff; L. Zunz Die Namen der Juden; L. Löw Geschichte der Jüdischen Namen) Even a cursory glance at our past indicates that we have borrowed generously from the surrounding cultures. While a large number of Biblical names have Hebrew roots, the meaning and origin of the name Mosheh (Moses) is far from clear; it may be Egyptian (Ex 2.10; B. Jacob Exodus Commentary) Mordecai, the uncle of Esther, had a Babylonian name (Esther 2.5). Other Biblical names also reflected a foreign orientation as they included the prefix Baal. In the later Biblical books obviously foreign names were used as in the long list of Levites (Neh 7.45-59). In the Hellenistic period a number of famous Jews bore names as Alexander, Jason, Nicanor, Philo, Zeno, etc. The same occurred in the Roman and later Persian periods. In some eras of our past there was a tendency to return to Biblical names but at the same time names of local origins were also used. So, for example, in the medieval period we have Kalonymus, Maimon, Al Harisi, Ibn Gabirol, etc. It would be easy to compose a list of hundreds of names commonly used during various periods of our past which have no Hebrew origins.
Our renewed emphasis on Hebrew through the establishment of Israel has led us to emphasize Biblical and Hebrew names. This effort may present a useful tie with contemporary Israel but we should remember that many modern Israelites have invented new names in an effort to Hebraize the linguistic heritage of their diaspora origin.
There is nothing wrong with giving a child a Yiddish name of a grandparent who came from Eastern Europe and thereby recalling that segment of our Jewish tradition. When the boy is called to the Torah he should insist that his correct name be used rather than permitting a Hebrew substitute.