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Brit Milah & Baby Naming

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Choosing A Hebrew Name

How to Choose a Hebrew Name for Your Baby
By Rivki Silver

Names are kind of a big deal, Jewishly speaking. A name is said to affect a person’s personality and even their destiny. Your name is the connection to your soul. But no pressure! Really, don’t worry, the Kabbalists teach that when parents are choosing a name for their child, the parents experience a little bit of prophecy, so you’ll probably be just fine.

But still, it’s no easy feat—and for many Jewish parents, the task is doubly hard if you are choosing both an English and Hebrew name. Even if you’re not planning on calling your child by their Hebrew name, choosing it can still be deeply meaningful. I asked the people of Facebook what their primary considerations were in choosing a Hebrew name for their child, and these were the most popular, in no certain order:

1. Family

There’s something beautiful about honoring a family member by naming a child after them. It is a touching way of keeping the memory of a relative alive. Ashkenazi Jews only name after relatives once they are deceased, but Sephardim have the custom to name even after living relatives.

If the relative died young, some people add a name, like Chaya/Chaim, for life, or Bracha/Baruch, for blessing. If the relative had a, shall we say, less than stellar character, some people add the name of someone they admire so that the child might emulate that person. Sometimes family names aren’t ones you necessarily want to use. When my husband and I were naming our daughter, there was a family member who didn’t have anyone named after her yet. She had a Yiddish name, which my husband and I weren’t crazy about (no offense, Yiddish).

One option would have been to use the Hebrew equivalent of the name, but it was somewhat unclear what that would have been. We decided to use the Yiddish name as her middle name and gave her a first name that was relevant to the time of year. Amusingly, we actually call her by her middle name far more often than her first. I’ve even grown fond of it.

Another option would be choosing a Hebrew name that sounds like or starts with the same letter as the deceased relative’s name.

2. Matching

One common tactic is choosing a Hebrew name that will align with your child’s English name. There are plenty of Hebrew names that have very accessible English corollaries, like Sarah, Naomi, or Leah for girls, and Ezra, Daniel, or Asher for boys. Then you can have the convenience of a dually functioning, and easy to pronounce, name. Another option is to choose a Hebrew name that begins with the same letter or sound as the English name. Sadie could be paired with Sarah, Oliver with Leib (Yiddish for lion). Finally, you could choose a Hebrew name that is similar in meaning to your child’s English name. Doing this, Ava, which means life, could lead to a Hebrew name of Chaya, which also means life. Milo, which means merciful, could have Rachamim as a Hebrew name.

3. Meaning

There are two main types of Jewish names: Names that belong to people from the bible, and names that mean something. There are names that fit into both categories, like Deborah, who was a judge and generally awesome woman, and whose name also means bee. Like the insect. Buzz buzz. When naming after someone in the bible, it’s good to consider what the person was like. Are they someone you’d want your child to take after? In my circles, we don’t use names of people who were infamously bad. Just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t mean it should be used.

There are many beautiful non-biblical names like Shoshana, which means rose, or Aliza, which means filled with joy. There are more modern Hebrew names like Amichai, which means my nation lives, or Ilan, which means tree. You can even get creative with name combinations, like Chaya Tova, which means good life. Or Matan Yakir, which means precious gift.

4. Timing

If your baby is due around a major holiday, you could choose from names associated with that time of year. For example, if you’re expecting a boy around Hanukkah, Yehudah (for Judah the Maccabee) or Matisyahu might be options. If you’re expecting a girl in the springtime, you might consider Aviva, which means spring.

Some people like to look at the weekly Torah portion and select a name from there. Others will name after an esteemed person whose yahrtzeit (anniversary of death) is on the day of birth of the child.

5. Pronounceability

This is especially relevant if you’re not planning to give your child an English name. The notorious “ch” sound is one some of my friends avoided using, as a consideration to family, or just to the child. It can be a source of frustration to have your name constantly mispronounced at work, appointments, social settings, etc.

One of our children is named after a family member, which led to our first “ch” sound. I apologized in advance to my parents, but I felt good that at least this child had a pronounceable second name. I didn’t realize that the combination of “tzv” was also very tricky to pronounce! Oy!

6. You just like it

If none of the previous points speak to you, there’s always the method of getting a book of Hebrew baby names (or checking out Kveller’s baby name bank) and going through it. You can wait for that parental prophecy to kick in as you flip through the pages.

Or maybe you heard a name somewhere and it always stuck with you. One of my friends fell in love with the name of a friend’s child, and she ended up choosing it for herself when she converted.

Whatever the name you choose for your child, mazel tov on your new addition! Picking a name is just one of the first steps on this crazy, amazing, evolving trip of parenthood.

Guide to Choosing a Jewish Name

By Rabbi Goldie Milgram

This abridged article teaches how to identify the right Jewish name for yourself, or for your child.

Just as Abraham’s original name was Avram, and Sarai his wife’s, their journey includes receiving the Hebrew letter “hey” into their names to reflect their G*d experience. So, too, it became traditional for parents to intuit and ritually bestow a sacred name upon each of their children. It is customary to withhold public and familial knowledge of this name until the communal rituals of welcome take place. Tradition holds that the name of a soul exists before birth, and what that name is can actually be perceived by the parents. Parents don’t always get this right, so it is possible to change one’s sacred name later in life.

Because one’s name is made from the lashon kodesh--the letters of the holy language of the Jewish people, this name is part of ritually establishing the child’s place within the Jewish people and our covenant of ethical living and shared culture. One’s sacred name ideally gives inspiration for living by creating connection to personal, biblical, literary, or historical Jewish ancestors, or to important ideals or texts.

• A Jewish sacred name is a first name, not a surname (last name), and can also double as a person’s every day name. Last names didn’t come into human society until Roman times; before that a person was known as, for example, Goldie bat Shmuel, Goldie the daughter of Shmuel (Samuel).

Due, scholars typically say, to acts of war like rape, Jewish identity was changed sometime between 200 B.C.E. and 500 C.E. to be determined by whether the mother was Jewish, so that formulation would read:

"Goldie bat Liba, Goldie the daughter of Liba. Increasingly, both parents are listed in naming formats for life cycle rites: i.e., Goldie bat Shmuel v’ Lieba, Goldie the daughter of Samuel and Liba."

A local rabbi will be able to advise you on which format is appreciated in your community.

• The Jewish sacred name will be required on documents for conversion, naming and circumcision, bar/bat mitzvah, marriage and, heaven forefend, divorce, in healing prayers when needed, and in the end, on one’s grave marker.

• If you are a Jewish parent who will be raising a child you do not have a Jewish sacred name, this is an appropriate time to take one for yourself or to amend yours if that is necessary.

In some traditions a master designates for an acolyte his or her sacred name. In traditional Korean families, for example, the father-in-law names the baby. In the Torah, the mother usually does the naming. In modernity, the parents usually find a name on which they can agree.

Basic Jewish Naming Guidelines
• Upon the establishment of the State of Israel it became popular to take Hebrew rather than regional Yiddish or Ladino names. Recently, some are again taking Yiddish and Ladino sacred names for their children or themselves in order to preserve Jewish culture and honor family connections.
• A Jewish person can have a secular name too [Gittin 11b], but this is not necessary and can inhibit transmission of identity. Names that work equally well in the larger culture in which one lives, such as Miriam or Dan, can be ideal.
• For adults, a sacred name can be added to, or a different one can be chosen later in life if the given name doesn’t sit well with the recipient.
• It is recommended to use the selected name in some way for thirty days and then be called to the Torah to affix it ritually. [E.H. 129, "Bet Shmuel" 33; "Igrot Moshe" by R' M. Feinstein, E.H. IV 104]
• If grandparents-to-be pressure their children to choose a particular name, the code of Jewish law says that the child’s parents do not have to choose that name if it does not resonate with them. [Y.D. 240:25]
• One convention to keep in mind is that while Sephardic Jews can name children after living relatives, Ashkenazi Jews, after the Talmudic period, primarily do not. Sephardic tradition points to the Talmud, where a man named Natan, “gift” (Nathan) describes two instances in which he offered medical advice to young mothers that saved their children's lives, and in both cases the mothers, in appreciation, named their infants after him. [Shabbat 134a] In Hassidic communities, when a rebbe has had a positive impact on the parents regarding the pregnancy, some will name their child in his honor.
• There are approximately 2800 original first names in the Bible, which makes for lots of interesting characters and stories to help a child relate to the name a parent chooses. Biblical names often relate to the circumstances around conception or birth and tend to have a pun-like quality. For example, Isaac is Yitzchak, laughter, referring both to Sarah’s reaction to the idea that she and Abraham could conceive in their old age and to the incredible joy the baby brings. Jacob’s wife Leah dies birthing their last son, whom she terms Ben Oni, son of my suffering, which is quickly changed by Jacob to Benyamin, Benjamin, “right hand son.”
• Sacred names are often related to:
a. The natural world. Tamar, for example, means palm, and Tziporah, or the affectionate diminutive Tzippi, means bird.
b. Emotion words, Nahum meaning comfort, and Simchah happiness, for example.
c. The 12 tribes, such as Dan and Ruben or Reuvein.
d. Prophets’ or angels’ names with the letter hey or term el or yah for G*d in them like Nataniel, “Gift of G*d,” Uriel, “Light of G*d,” or Talya, “Dew of G*d.”
e. Descriptive names like Benjamin, or more accurately in Hebrew Binyamin, “Right Hand Son” or Binni or Bibi in affectionate forms.
f. Israelis often favor Hebrew nouns that relate to things or times of the year, such as Vered, “rose,” or Tammuz, a month of the year.
g. Some name a child in relationship to the season or characters in a major Jewish holiday or the Torah portion near the time of the birth. A child born near Shavuot might be called Rute, Ruth or Naomi, for example.
h. Giving someone a Hebrew name that starts with the same first letter as his or her secular name or means something similar isn’t terribly meaningful, but was quite popular in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
i. One does not use the name of an evil person, unless that name already exists in the family lineage with good associations. Still, consider the impact on a child of a name associated with evil at any point in time.
j. For adopted children, some seek words with an affinity between the child’s language of origin and Hebrew. For example, an American dad thinking to name his adoptive son Leonard after his father Leibel, decided to call him LiYam, ‘the ocean is mine.” The cultural resonance of the name’s sound connects the child to his original homeland and family of origin, the Hebrew meaning to his new people, and the image to the journey from his mother’s womb, across this watery world, into the mikvah, “ritual immersion” and his new life as an American Jew.
k. Some follow the tradition of not announcing a baby’s name until their covenantal ceremony. Sources for this are in Torah because Abraham's name is changed in conjunction with his circumcision -- at biblical age 99! [Genesis 17:15].
Note: Internet sites do not often have accurate translations of Jewish names on their lists. Rabbis have books in our studies that will be helpful to you, as do Jewish libraries and Jewish bookstores.
For a sacred name to take hold in the imagination of a child and offer value for living, it is important to creatively help the child relate to it over time.
Sustaining a Sacred Name
• If you name a child after someone from your family who has died – an elective Ashkenazic practice--or someone yet alive--an elective Sephardic practice--you might create a list of adjectives describing the fine qualities of that person and collect stories about his or her personality and accomplishments. Share this material regularly with your child and make a game of having the child tell the stories back to you or to others. Stories touch us more deeply when we get to retell them to others, and doing so may also stir new memories of the person that friends family members can share and retell as well.
• If you name a child after a character from Torah, or another Jewish sacred source, collect stories about the character from Torah and commentaries to read and discuss regularly.
• On Friday night, when it is traditional after lighting the candles to bless our children, also bless the child with the qualities of the character s/he is named for.
• From time to time give a gift that echoes the sacred name in some clever way. If you name a child Ari, for example, “My Lion,” a toy lion called Ari can be used at bedtime to animate the name as you tell lion stories. Much later, the life and teachings of the great Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, known as the Ari, might be introduced to strengthen the name and the person’s Jewish connection. A child given the sacred name Ah-moce (Amos in Western parlance) might be introduced to the prophetic tradition and also the powerful poetry of Israeli national Amos Oz. If it is possible for the child, perhaps as an adolescent or teen, to eventually meet a prominent Jewish author, musician, or leader who shares his or her name, this can be source of inspiration and direction.
• If you name a child after a quality, start a wall of verse or prayer in which that quality appears and add to it over the years.
• The question arises in a midrash as to what Hebrew name should be used for a woman raised by a foster father. The decision is to use the foster father's name, because "he who brings up a child is to be called its father, not he who gave birth." [Exodus Rabbah 46:5] By extension, today most would also include the foster mother in the lineage naming. So if the child is being named Hannah and her foster [meaning in the Jewish sense, those who will care for her in loco parentis] parents are Naomi and David, then she would be named Hannah bat Naomi v’David.
Where a conversion took place, some communities always have named the convert’s lineage as Avraham v’Sarah, to connect the person back to the first parents in the lineage of the Jewish people, but most use the names of the parent(s) who are raising the child so that the adoption is not obvious whenever this person is called to Torah throughout life.
• A nice present to foster pride of people and connection to one’s name at any age is a Jewish sacred name necklace or bracelet. Include a few different lengths of chain if given as a baby gift. These are readily available in silver or gold by special order from Jewish gift shops and on-line.
Choosing a Sacred Name
First, to get a feel for this, consider whether your own names the right ones for your soul. Try this:
Name Empathy
This experience helps you discover and empathize with the difference between a name that fits and one that misses the mark.
• Gather a few friends together.
• Consider your secular name, if you have one. Create a movement to do with your hands, face, and body as you tell your name to the group.
• Now have the group echo your movements and name back to you on the count of three as close as they can to the way you did it.
• Take in this reflection of how you feel about your secular name.
• Now, do the same sequence with your sacred Jewish name, if you have one.
• Again, experience this reflected back to you.
• Do both names fit? Or does one or the other or both need to be adjusted or replaced?
Finding Your Own or Your Child’s Jewish Sacred Name
• Lists of traditional considerations for name selection were given above, but more important than reading through them is to sit quietly and listen beyond your intellect for what the name is meant to be.
• Begin by creating some mental and emotional space for yourself. Register with one sentence each thing waiting for you to do, and promise to each item you will get back to it with focused attention as soon as you are able. First, you have something to essential to attend to, finding the sacred name.
• Now release any prior intentions to name the child (or yourself) after some person, place, or event. Set aside consideration of the pressures various family members may be exerting for you to choose their preferred name. Let your spirit leap beyond all that.
• When you feel empty, centered, and ready, sit comfortably and ask: “What is my [child’s] Jewish sacred name meant to be?”
• A quality of being may come to you, something from nature, an ancestor--many things are possible. Collect whatever comes to you as valuable information that contains the name needed or that will point you toward it. You may want help with translating what comes to mind into Hebrew or Yiddish.
• Explore the contexts in which the names being considered may appear. Check out Torah stories and popular culture in Israel. Some words take on colloquial meanings within a particular culture that may not be pleasant and are to be avoided. Care is required.
• Imagine the name on a necklace being worn by your child or appearing on a letter addressed to him or her. Does light, love, meaning shine through? Inside, where it counts, when you have found it, you will know the name is right.


Brit Milah aka Bris for a Baby Boy

Why Circumcise?
by Kveller Staff

“If God did not want men to have foreskins, why did He create them with foreskins in the first place?”

Many parents of newborn baby boys have pondered this question, while deciding whether or not to circumcise their perfect little son, or while planning a bris with more than a little trepidation.
In fact, the question can be traced all the way back to the Midrash, a collection of ancient Jewish teachings, where it is posed by Turnus Rufius, the Roman Governor of Palestine in the first century CE.
Rabbi Akiba, the most revered Jewish sage of his time, responds to Rufius: God created an incomplete world, leaving human beings to bring it to greater perfection.

Back in the Bible
In the Torah, God commands Abraham to circumcise himself at age 99. God also specifies that all the generations of Abraham’s male descendents must observe this practice, which God calls “the mark of the covenant between Me and you.”

However, the Torah never indicates why circumcision is what marks this very important covenant. Beginning with Rabbi Akiba, and throughout history, Jewish thinkers have advanced their own explanations. Here are a few:

1. Health & Safety
Philo of Alexandria, a first-century Jewish thinker, first suggested that the foreskin is unclean and can be the cause of disease. In modern medicine, the jury is still out on this issue. Some argue that circumcision is the healthier choice for boys and men, others think it’s safer to avoid the surgery.
Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher, rationalist, and physician argued that circumcision weakens, without actually harming, the male sex organ so that the sexual desires of circumcised men are moderated. The bodily injury caused to the penis, he said, does not interrupt any vital function, but it does counteract excessive lust.
Though Maimonides was a doctor, medicine has changed a lot since the 12th century. Some contemporary medical studies show that circumcision actually affects sexual pleasure positively, some show it affects sexual pleasure negatively (as Maimonides believed), and others show no difference between circumcised and uncircumcised men. Most medical authorities today are comfortable offering circumcision without concern about significant affects on sexual desire or function.

2. Jewish Distinctiveness
Maimonides also points out that circumcision prevents those who do not believe in God from claiming to be members of the Jewish religion. Since circumcision is so difficult, no one would undergo it unless he sincerely wanted to belong to the Jewish faith. In a sense, then, circumcision functions like a gatekeeper, keeping Jews “in” and others “out,” and contributing to Jewish distinctiveness and survival.
Even Spinoza, the unorthodox 17th-century Dutch Jewish thinker remarked: “Such great importance do I attach to the sign of the Covenant that I am persuaded that it is sufficient by itself to maintain the separate existence of the nation forever.”
This explanation of circumcision can be compelling for contemporary parents who want to make sure their sons grow up to feel a sense of belonging in the Jewish community.
Of course, some would argue that the “distinctiveness” argument is moot in the United States where a majority of all baby boys are still circumcised.

3. Submission to God’s Will
There is a trend among Jewish thinkers to not advance specific explanations for the commandments, and instead accept that all the commandments contribute to a goal of submitting to God’s will. Jewish authorities who accept this line of thinking have argued that the foreskin has no purpose except its removal, an act that symbolizes Jews’ willingness to totally obey God. This, they believe, is reason enough to do it.
New parents–for whom life is unpredictable and full of unexpected and unknown experiences–may find it spiritually meaningful to root the beginning of their parenting journey in an age-old ritual that signifies obedience to a higher power.

Some Meanings of Brit Milah
By Rabbi Harold Kushner

Reprinted with permission from To Life! A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking (Little, Brown and Company).

Jewish weddings are recognizably similar to non-­Jewish wedding ceremonies, and our non-Jewish neighbors have religious traditions–confirmation, first communion–analogous to the Bar Mitzvah, to celebrate their children’s coming of age religiously. But I know of nothing in any religious tradition to compare to a bris, the ritual circumcision of a newborn Jewish boy.

Circumcision involves the surgical removal of the foreskin from the male sex organ. In a world where most religious rituals consist of words and gestures, a world in which explicit references to sexual organs, let alone involvement of sexual organs in religious ritual, is rare, circumcision is certainly unique. It is an ancient ceremony, one that retains its power to move us even as it makes us anxious and uncomfortable…

Often, people will feel squeamish, avert their eyes, even leave the room during the brief ceremony, returning for the festive meal (is there ever a Jewish gathering without one?) a few moments later. Tech­nically, a bris ceremony is not required to make the child Jewish (unlike, say, an infant baptism). The exception is the case where the child’s mother is not Jewish and the circumcision is for purposes of con­verting the infant to Judaism. Yet, over the centuries, Jews have risked humiliation and danger to fulfill this commandment.

What is this rite so different from anything else we do in our Judeo-Christian society? Like other Jewish rites, it does not change things; it celebrates them. In this case, what is being celebrated is the continuity of Jewish identity, passed on from father to son. At the bris, the child is given his religious name. Typically he will be named after a deceased relative, to give that relative a measure of immortality, to “make the name live on” and to emphasize that the newborn child is the latest link in a long chain. Presumably the foreskin is designated to be removed from the generative organ to symbolize the fact that Jewish identity is passed on by birth, from father to son, from generation to generation.

In the ancient Near East, many societies circum­cised their male children. In the story of Saul and David in First Samuel, the Philistines, a Greek people rather than a Semitic tribe, were considered unusual and referred to as “the uncircumcised” because they did not practice that custom. But in that era, boys were circumcised when they became adolescents, as a preparation for being sexually active and as an ordeal of entry into the adult community. (And you thought studying for a Bar Mitzvah ceremony was hard!) Ancient Judaism removed the sexual dimen­sion from the ritual by moving it back to infancy.

The complete name of the ritual is bris (or brit) milah, with the second word meaning “circumcision” and the first word meaning “covenant.” The circumci­sion ceremony identifies the Jewish child as a member of the covenant with God by virtue of his birth as a Jew into a Jewish family.

Obviously the week-old infant is in no position to understand what is happening to him. But as he grows older and learns about it, and as he one day arranges for a similar ceremony for his own son, he comes to comprehend the twofold meaning of the bris: A Jew is born into the covenant with God whether he wants to be or not, and this covenant involves pain and sacrifice as well as honor and sanctity. He may grow up to be a good Jew or a bad Jew (however that is defined). But he cannot ignore his Jewish identity. Like his parents, like his physical traits and the century and country of his birth, it is one of the facts of his life. As in the Book of Jonah, as in the Book of Ezekiel, God pursues us even when we would rather not deal with Him. The covenant can be violated; it cannot be escaped. It is part of who you are, branded into your flesh at birth.

Baby Naming

Long before contemporary rituals for welcoming a Jewish baby girl into the tradition and giving her a Hebrew name, Jewish communities had special customs. There is not the same physical component of circumcision for a boy’s brit milah (covenant of circumsion), but all the same expression of love, commitment and blessing for a girl’s brit bat (covenant of a daughter) or simchat bat – (celebrating a daughter).

Tue, July 23 2024 17 Tammuz 5784