Name, Change of

views updated


The Bible records changing of names as symbolic of a new status or destiny, e.g., Abraham (Gen. 17:5), Sarah (ibid. 15), Jacob (ibid. 32:38), and Joshua (Num. 13:16). Basing itself upon this precedent, the Talmud declares that among the "four things that cancel the doom of man" is change of name (rh 16b). From this there developed in the Middle Ages the custom of changing, or more accurately giving an additional name to, the name of a person who was dangerously ill, or suffered some other misfortune, in the belief that the Angel of Death would be confused as a result of the new name. This new name was sometimes chosen by opening a Bible at random and selecting a name which occurred there, except for such names of ill repute as Esau or Korah. The most widespread custom, however, which persists to the present day, was to choose auspicious names such as Ḥayyim or, among the Sephardim, Ḥai (Life), Raphael (may God heal), Hezekiah (may God give strength) for males, and Ḥayyah for females. (The name Alter (old) was frequently given to a boy if several children in the family had died during infancy, this name being regarded as a good omen that he should reach old age.) In the Ashkenazi rite the change of name is effected by pronouncing a special *Mi she-Berakh prayer which contains the following passage: "Just as his [her] name has been changed, so may the evil decree passed on him [her] be changed from justice to mercy, from death to life, from illness to a complete cure." The Sephardi rite has a different formula.

The new name given to a person is henceforth used in addition to his former name (e.g., Ḥayyim Abraham) for all religious purposes (e.g., to be called up to the Torah, in a bill of divorce, on the tombstone, etc.).


L. Zunz, Namen der Juden (1837), 51; H.E. Goldin, Ha-Madrikh: The Rabbi's Guide (1939), 103ff.; J. Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition (19612), 204–6.