We were redeemed from Egypt on account of our commitment to three practices: we maintained our Hebrew clothing; we spoke the Hebrew language and we kept our Hebrew names. The great American halachic decision-maker, Rav Moshe Feinstein, was once asked the following question: “We want to name our newborn daughter after my dear mother, of blessed memory. However, her name was ‘Gittel Draizel.’ Is that a Jewish name? It certainly doesn’t appear in the Tanach. On the one hand, we want to name her after my mother. On the other hand, we don’t want to delay the final redemption by using a gentile name!”
Today’s daf discusses the permissibility of using non-Jewish names:גִּיטִּין הַבָּאִים מִמְּדִינַת הַיָּם וְעֵדִים חֲתוּמִים עֲלֵיהֶם אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁשְּׁמוֹתֵיהֶן כִּשְׁמוֹת גּוֹיִם כְּשֵׁירִין מִפְּנֵי שֶׁרוֹב יִשְׂרָאֵל שֶׁבְּחוּצָה לָאָרֶץ שְׁמוֹתֵיהֶן כִּשְׁמוֹת גּוֹיִם
“Divorce documents, which arrive in Israel from overseas with signatures of witnesses—even though their names are gentile names—are kosher. Because most Jews in the Diaspora have gentile names.”
It’s clear from here that the adoption of non-Jewish names is not a recent aberration. Already in Talmudic times, it was prevalent in the Diaspora. As Rav Moshe notes, many of the Sages themselves had Babylonian names. Indeed, many contemporary Jewish names have their roots in non-Hebrew languages. Just think about all the popular Yiddish names that abound, from “Hershel” to “Gittel!”
Rav Moshe suggests that the aphorism about keeping our Jewish clothing, language and names in Egypt may have been specific to that exile. As soon as our forefathers descended to Egypt, they went to live in Goshen. Why? So that they would not assimilate into Egyptian culture and life. Each Motzei Shabbos, we recite Havdala and bless Hashem, “Who separates between Israel and the nations.” The three Hebraic characteristics of clothing, language and names ensured our distinctiveness in the land of Egypt, thereby avoiding assimilation.
However—explains Rav Moshe—that was all prior to the giving of the Torah. When we lacked 613 mitzvos to distinguish us from the nations around us, we needed concrete symbols of our ethnicity, and those were our three Hebrew cultural signs. Once we received the Torah, mitzvah observance set us apart from everyone else. Back in Egypt, we maintained our Hebrew names because that’s all we had and that’s what made you “Jewish.”
Nowadays, maintaining your Judaism requires so much more than cultural symbols. Sure, you can wear a “chai” necklace to demonstrate your Jewish pride. Certainly, you can give your kids very Yiddish-sounding names and send them off to Israel to immerse in Hebrew language and Israeli culture. But that’s not what is going to protect them from the tidal wave of assimilation that threatens our beloved nation. What keeps us unique and distinctive today is our commitment to Torah and mitzvos.
My wife, Batya, used to work for a boutique financial firm in Boro Park, preparing reports for “Merrill Lynch.” You and I may recognize Boro Park as the chasidic center of America. But non-Jews aren’t necessarily familiar with the place and the clients with whom they dealt probably didn’t even know they weren’t located in Manhattan. And so, when she was first hired by the firm, the boss told her she would need a more “goyish” sounding name. She looked around her and, sure enough, Feivish was “Freddie,” Gittel was “Gertrude,” Yankel was “Jack” and Zlata was “Sally.” Thus, Batya reluctantly became “Bonnie.”
But then, she would get on the phone and deal with various people from different backgrounds sporting all sorts of weird and wonderful names. And she thought, “This is ridiculous! Why do they get to use their real names, while I need this silly alter ego (speaking of which, her colleague, ‘Alter’ went by ‘Alan’)?” And she decided to put her foot down. “Batya” would be “Batya.” Lo and behold, she felt completely vindicated when the 44th president of the United States of America was elected—Barack Hussein Obama! (Incidentally, he also finds it difficult to find his name on a mug or decal in the souvenir store).
I tell this story, because it demonstrates that while using our Jewish names is important, it is not what makes us culturally distinctive. In the western world today, it’s no longer strange to use an ethnic-sounding name. On the contrary, it’s considered cool! If you want to assimilate-proof your kids, there’s only one way. Not “chai” or “star of David” necklaces—not Yiddishisms—not kugel and kishka. The only way is an honest and sincere commitment to mitzvos. When you teach your children that they will have to leave work early on a Friday afternoon in winter, or that even at a high-level business lunch, they’ll have to order special kosher food that will guarantee they maintain their Jewishness.
Jewish culture is wonderful. It’s what makes your kids excited and proud of their heritage. But if we want to keep them in the fold, we need more than just pride, we need commitment. May you instill in your children the joy of devotion to our holy Torah!
Rabbi Dr. Daniel Friedman is the founder of the Center for Torah Values and the author of the 12-volume Transformative Daf series. Learn more at www.torahval.us and find him on social media @rabbidanielfriedman.