My husband and I are Ashkenazic (not Sephardic) Jews and we are planning to name our daughter Isabelle or Ellie for short, after my husband’s deceased grandfather, Ilya. My living mother's name is Bella and she believes that these two names, Isabelle and Bella, are equivalent. In her opinion, by naming our daughter Isabelle we will be naming her after my mother and thus will bring misfortune to my mother. We both feel strongly about using this name and stressed many times that we are not naming my daughter after my mother. However, we would like to hear from Ashkenazic rabbis regarding this matter.
There is indeed a strong custom from Jews of Eastern European descent (originally Ashkenaz referred to the area of Northern France and Germany but later also came to refer to Eastern and Central European Jewish communities) not to name a child after a living relative. The concerns range from the superstitious to the quasi-halakhic , cf. Rabbi Simchah Cohen’s analysis at http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/59 From both a halakhic and a mystical vantage, unless you name the child the exact same name as your mother, for example, Elisheva Sara granddaughter of Elisheva Sara, you are not using the same name. This is especially true in your case not only because Isabelle is a different name than Bella, but also because you will call your child Ellie, which is a completely different name than Bella. Isabelle is related to Elizabeth which comes from the biblical Elisheva. Although it sounds similar, it has no relation to the biblical name Izevel or Jezebel, which bears a negative connotation. Bella, to my knowledge, has no connection to Elisheva or Izevel.
If after reading all the responses to your question on Jewish Values Online and discussing them with your mother she still protests your naming your child Isabelle, you may want to consider an alternate name for the sake of “Shalom Bayit” – “Peace in the house.” Perhaps the best approach toward a compromise position would be to choose a Hebrew biblical name rather than a Western-European transliteration of a Hebrew name, such as Elisheva, which would also allow you to call your child Ellie for short. By giving your child a Hebrew name you are connecting her to linguistic heritage of your people and endowing her with an unambiguous signifier of her Jewish identity. Maybe if you gave your child a Hebrew name as a primary naming, your mother would mind less if Isabelle were written on her legal birth ceritificate. In any event, you plan to call her Ellie.
Our Sages teach us that every person has (at least) three names: the name given by one’s parents; the name our friends call us; and the name we earn for ourselves in our life time. Naming a child is a wonderful responsibility, as is modeling good parent child relations and providing a good Jewish and general education. May you raise your child to Torah (Jewish wisdom), Chuppah (marriage and healthy relationships) and ma’asim tovim (kind and beneficent actions and achievments). And may the ultimate name that your daughter earns for herself bring nachas (Jewish pride) to her parents who give her the gift of life and support her on her life’s journey.
While the customs of naming are minhag (customs) and not halachah (law), they are deeply-rooted – and as you acknowledge by your very question, emotionally fraught. For this reason, there is no legal prohibition against choosing such a name – particularly since even the naming customs are usually applied to the Hebrew names even more than the English. The Jewish values of naming date back to the teaching k’shmo kein hu – that a person’s attributes should reflect the name that has been given to him or her. This is why we honor a person with the name of someone whom we respect and wish to honor – either in life (for the Sepharadi custom) or in memory, after death (for the Ashkenazi custom). That said, there may be countervailing Jewish values of honoring one’s parents (kibbud av v’em), and also maintaining peace within a household (sh’lom bayit). Because there is no prohibition, nor any obligation, in the naming customs (and because you do not even intend this as naming after your mother), I am reticent to give a definitive “yes or no” – but rather, I counsel you to find some peaceful compromise or mutual understanding of the intent of the chosen name. And don’t lose track of the most important thing: B’sha’ah tovah – at the right and healthy time, you should celebrate the welcoming of a daughter and granddaughter into the world! And when that time comes, all should join together in wishing mazal tov!
However, these customs address Hebrew names, and you are asking about the English name. Presumably you will give Isabelle a different Hebrew name than Bella has. Then, Jewishly speaking, grandmother and granddaughter will not have the same name at all. You might also consider, in the interest of appeasing your maother, making “Isabelle” your daughter’s middle name. (Tou can still call her Ellie, of course!)
Ultimately, however, if these accommodations do not comfort your mother, you will need to make your decision based on how you value your relationship with her. Given that much that is distinctive about Ashkenazi naming customs is based on (non-rational, beyond-the-law) superstition, and that it is often very difficult to talk a superstitious person out of being so, you may find no way to convince your mother to feel good about having a granddaughter named Isabelle. If that is the case, Jewish tradition presents us with a whole host of values (e.g., honoring father and mother, shalom bayit/peaceful home) to suggest that, while you may technically be in the right, it might also be right to defer to your mother’s wishes.
On the other hand, if resentment toward your mother, should you not give your daughter the name you prefer, would cause enough damage to your relationship as to outweigh any damage that would result should you follow your preference (thereby endangering the peace of your home and your ability to honor your mother in other ways), you are faced with a true spiritual dilemma that only you can resolve. I recommend prayer, reflection, and compassion for everyone involved.
I wish you peace and a happy solution to your dilemma.
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