QUESTION: A baby boy has been circumcised in the traditional manner and was given a name on that occasion. Now this child is to enter a new family, through adoption, and they wish to give the child a different name. Is this possible? What needs to be done in order to effect such a change, if it is possible? (Deborah Rosenthal, Salt Lake City UT)
ANSWER: The general problems of changing a Hebrew name and presumably in this case the common name has been addressed in a previous responsum "Changing a Hebrew Name" (W. Jacob Contemporary American Reform Responsa #33). We should begin by remembering that on several occasions God, himself, changed the name of Biblical figures (Gen 17.5, 32.29, 35.10) while other Biblical persons had their names changed for various reasons. In the Middle Ages names were changed principally in periods of serious illness in order to confuse the Angel of Death (Sefer Hassidim #363; Sefer Toldot Adam Vehavah I 28; Bet Yosef to Tur Orah Hayim 129). Furthermore, when a foster parent raised an orphan, which unfortunately occurred frequently in earlier periods of our history, often the name of the father who raised the child was added to the child's name followed by the Hebrew word hamgadlo (Midrash Rabbah Shemot 46-end; Isserles to Shulhan Arukh Even Haezer 129.10). Here, we are not only concerned with identifying the new family, but also giving an identity to the child.
The child in this instance is a baby, has no memory of a former name and the process of adoption once formalized cuts all previous ties with his original natural parents. There would, therefore, be no reason to retain the original name nor would that be desirable. Furthermore, there would be no obstacle as in the case with adults whose names may appear on various legal documents (marriage, divorce, etc).
After the adoption is finalized and the given name has been changed in accordance with the laws of the state or province in which the family lives, then the child should be named in the synagogue and an appropriate certificate of naming should be issued. The previous name may then be ignored just as the previous common name. Such a ceremony would provide an opportunity for the parents to celebrate the adoption and to make the child formally part of their family.