I have a question about names. I am converting to Judaism, and my mikvah date is in just a few weeks. I have been exploring Judaism and learning for about 3 years. I have already picked a Hebrew name, which my rabbi at the time began to call me by. I found that I liked being called my Hebrew name, and began to use that name rather than my birth name/English name. I don't ask my parents or siblings to refer to me by my Hebrew name, though they know I use it. I want to legally change my first name to my Hebrew name. However, a friend suggested that maybe this would be disrespectful to my father, who named me for his deceased mother. My friend made the case that even though my English name is not a Jewish one, since my parents followed the Jewish tradition of naming for a deceased relative, I should not legally change my name. Is it disrespectful to my father to change my name? What is the Jewish perspective on name changes?
Names provide a way of structuring and mapping the world, and in Judaism all the more so. The first task of the first human, Adam, was to select names for the creatures around him (Genesis 2, 19). Etymologies of names in the Bible are often laden with meaningful connotations. God Himself changes names. Abram becomes Abraham and Sari becomes Sarah with the addition of the letter heh from God’s own name, and they assume patriarchal/matriarchal roles. Jacob becomes Israel, and thus the 12 tribes of Israel are born. Personal names in Hebrew play an important role throughout Jewish history. The 19th century Hasidic Rabbi Tzadok haCohen of Lublin summarizes the Hasidic-Kabalistic tradition: The personal name is the impression of the root of the soul (Dover Tzedek, pg. 85).
Especially today, in the modern secularized age in particular, names often reflect identity, and having a Hebrew name is an essential part of religious affiliation and identification. A pioneering outreach worker who was very aware of the importance of Hebrew names was Reb Shlomo Carlebach. Here is a sample of how he gave out names:
What distinguished Reb Shlomo’s outreach was the way that he offered a new layer of Jewish identity by changing names. He bestowed dozens of Hebrew names: Norman became Nosson and his wife Phyllis’s name was changed to Ahouva. Marvin = Moshe, Ivan = Yisroel, Alex = Eliyahu, Sonny = Eliezer, Ronnie = Refael Simcha, and Barrie became Bracha. Some names were quite original. To Barbara, Shlomo gave the name Tzlotana, which in Aramaic means “our prayer.” To Phyllis Ann Smith who converted to Judaism, Shlomo gave the Hebrew name of Alifa Pelait, literally, the wondrous Alifa. For Bruce, he gave the name Hashir v’Hashevach (Song and Praise).
So to answer your question, yes, it is good to use your Hebrew name.
About respecting your father, this is really a “values clarification” question. On the one hand, you would like to respectfully follow your parents’ decision to give you an English name for a deceased relative. On the other hand, you would like to legally change your name to a Hebrew name as part of your conversion to Judaism. My recommendation is that you use both names. It is common in Jewish tradition for a person to have two names, with the Hebrew name used for religious purposes such as being called up to the Torah.
 This is from my paper, “Neo-Hasidic ‘Empathetic Orthodoxy’ In The Carlebachian Identity”, submitted to the Journal of American Jewish History.
Mazal tovon your conversion and welcome to the Jewish family!
Our tradition teaches that we take on many names over our lifetimes. There are legends that tell us that our family know us by one name, while society by another, and God by yet another name.
There are a number of things to consider in your case. As far as I am aware, there is no reason why you cannot change your name. According to Jewish law the new identity you assume upon conversion comes with a new Hebrew name. Preferably a ame that you embody in your identity. It is your decision if you would like to change it to your legal name in accordance with civil law.
Your friend is correct in that assuming Jewish identity means following the commandments set forth by the Torah and the rabbis. One of the most notable commandments is "honor your father and mother". Even though your father is not Jewish, you will still be bound by the mitzvot, which means you must honor him. But that commandment is not specifically seen as relating to passing down a name.
In addition, naming children after deceased relatives is a custom that is meant to serve as a reminder for the child. But this is also a custom and not a law. Customs change much more frequently and have a tendecy to be different accross Jewish communities. For instance, in the Sephardic community, children are often named after living relatives. Changing the name, though, does not deminish the memory or the charge that comes with being named for a specfic person. Your mother's memory can still serve as an inspritiation and blessing for you.
The only way to really know if your father will feel honored or dishonored is to discuss the matter with him. I'm assuming that you have already spoken with him about your conversion. If you have not, and the issue of your name might be touchy, I urge you to proceed carefully. Parents might react negatively to their child's conversion because they might see it as a rejection of the values chosen for development. And even if this is not the case, one should always speak to their parents lovingly. This is your decision and your conversion. But your father is a part of your life and deserves to know how your are growing and living. Involving him in the conversation may be the best way to honor him. And even if you do change your legal name against his wishes, that does not mean your are not honoring him.
First of all, Baruch HaBa! Welcome to the Jewish people! Name changes in Judaism are, for the most part more a matter of minhag (custom) than halakha (law). Changing one’s given name is a choice, not a requirement, although there are many rabbis who hold that converts should not only add a Hebrew name but also modify their original given name. At the same time, other rabbis point to Ruth, our biblical prototype for conversion, who did not change her Moabite name when she chose to join the Israelite people. Like so often happens, there’s a definite case of “two Jews, three opinions” when it comes to name changes, with a wide range of rabbinic responses to support each one! While ultimately the decision is yours to make, knowing about some of the Jewish customs and traditions connected to name changes, and about the spiritual importance of Jewish/Hebrew names may be helpful.
Changing names is not uncommon in Jewish tradition. We have examples of it as far back as Abraham and Sarah themselves. There are countless cases of name changes in the Torah, and the Talmud and other works of rabbinic literature give plenty of examples of name changes as well. Name changing is a part of Jewish tradition not only when someone is converting into the Jewish faith but also when a Jew is dangerously ill or believes themselves to be in danger. This custom, found in the Talmud, is known as meshanneh shem (changing the name) and the name change in these cases is believed to fool the angel of death or ward off the evil eye.
In situations where an individual is given a name by someone other than their parent, there is a Jewish custom of adding the new name rather than replacing the old one. In such cases, the new name often becomes the main name. Thus, being informed by this custom, you could legally change your name but have your original name (the name that your parents gave you) as a second or middle name.
But I think your questions speaks to something deeper than a simple compromise. Shakespeare said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” in other words: the names we use are arbitrary. Jewish tradition disagrees. We are taught that the Hebrew name of every object is the conduit for its divine energy. It’s the same for each person. Our names reflect the unique qualities and attributes with which we were created. The Arizal, a 16th century kabbalist, explained that one’s Hebrew name, along with it’s numerical value (the total when the sum of each Hebrew letter’s numerical equivalent is added together) can attest to their nature. This idea is supported by many biblical, talmudic and midrashic passages. For example, when God brought all the animals before Adam, he named them by emphasizing that which was unique to each one (ex. a donkey, which transports material goods (chomer) is called a chamor).
Another teaching that I came across while studying-up on the topic of Jewish names points out that the Hebrew word for name (shem) is contained within the Hebrew word for soul (neshama). Clearly the two (one’s soul and one’s name) are inextricably linked. Our Hebrew name hints at our essence, which is why we are called up to the Torah using this (and not our secular) name. When we are called by that name, we are reminded of our deepest, truest and most spiritual selves. In this vein, legally changing your name to your new Jewish/Hebrew name reflects the truth of who you are becoming or have become. Doing so is a wonderful way to affirm both your journey and your new identity. It seems from your question like this would be a meaningful to you.
However, your question is less about why you might want to change your name and more about whether or not doing so is disrespectful to your parents, specifically your father, who named you after his deceased mother. The Jewish value of Kibbud Av v’Em, respect for one’s parents, is certainly not one that we take lightly. That said, we don’t usually view the choice to become Jewish as being disrespectful to one’s parents, although we definitely acknowledge that parents don’t always welcome this change of religious idenity. Changing your name is an extension of your choice to become a Jew and as such, would probably also not technically be viewed as disrespectful. That said, it is often the case that the parents of Jews-by-choice experience pain and confusion in response to their child’s choice to convert. Some even feel it is a rejection or an insult. Throughout the conversion process, as you hopefully already know, it is important to be sensitive to the feelings and reactions of your parents, and to share with them, kindly and gently, the reasons for your decisions. By asking this question, and taking your parents' feelings into consideration, you are already fulfilling the obligation of kibbud av v’em.
This Jewish value though, often comes hand in hand with another Jewish value, that of Shalom Bayit (peace in the home). Only you know your family well enough to determine whether legally changing your name is going to disrupt your Shalom Bayit. If doing so is going to cause hurt or division within your family than it might not be worth the spiritual gratification that your name change would bring with it. However, if you think your parents will understand, accept and support your choice of a new name, or if you think a compromise can be struck where you use both your old and new name (as in the custom described above), or where you legally change your name but continue to extend to your family the ability to call you by the name they’ve always known you by, then I would encourage you to choose the option that best fits your family’s needs (in addition to your own spiritual needs). Certainly all of these options can be viewed as in-keeping with Jewish customs and teachings.
While I don’t think that the act of changing your name is disrespectful in-and-of-itself according to Jewish tradition, not endeavoring to observe Kibbud Av v’Em and Shalom Bayitwould violate Jewish values. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a rabbi who would encourage you to change your name if it was going to cause disruption in your family.
Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. Jewish Values Online
N O T I C E
THE VIEWS EXPRESSED IN ANSWERS PROVIDED HEREIN ARE THOSE OF THE INDIVIDUAL JVO PANEL MEMBERS, AND DO NOT
NECESSARILY REFLECT OR REPRESENT THE VIEWS OF THE ORTHODOX, CONSERVATIVE OR REFORM MOVEMENTS, RESPECTIVELY.