Information about Hebrew Names

Hebrew names are used in prayer and other religious rituals. When people are called up in synagogue for an aliyah (the honor of reciting a blessing over a Torah reading), they are called up by their Hebrew names. Names that appear on a traditional ketubah (marriage contract) or on a get (writ of divorce) are Hebrew names. Memorial plaques and Jewish grave markers usually carry the Hebrew name (if known) instead of, or side-by-side with, a secular name.

Surnames are not used in Hebrew names. A Hebrew name begins with a given name, followed by ben (son of) or bat (daughter of), followed by the person’s father’s Hebrew name. In Reform and egalitarian tradition, the name of the person’s mother may also be included by adding a v’ (and) followed by the person’s mother’s Hebrew name. Some people may choose to use the mother’s name first followed by the father’s name.

In Orthodox and Conservative practice, if the person is a Kohen (a descendant of Aaron), the name is followed by ha-Kohen. If the person is a Levite (a descendant of the tribe of Levi), the name is followed by ha-Levi. Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism eliminated ritual roles for descendants of priestly and Levitical groups and consider these designations obsolete (at Kol Shalom we allow people with Kohen or Levite traditions to be called for an aliyah with those designations if they wish). If a person, or his or her father, is a rabbi, ha-Rav (the Rabbi) may precede or follow the name.

Secular names usually correspond in some way to Hebrew names. Sometimes, the name is exactly the same or an Anglicized version of the same name: David, Michael or Sarah are as good in Hebrew as they are in English, though they are pronounced differently. A person with the Hebrew name Yosef would probably have the English name Joseph and Rivka might be in English Rebecca. Sometimes, the English name retains only part of the Hebrew name, for example, Aharon might become Aaron in English, but it might also be Harry or Ronald.

Jewish children receive a Hebrew name at a brit milah (circumcision ceremony) or simchat bat (daughter’s baby naming) or upon conversion. Children of Ashkenazi descent are sometimes named after deceased relatives, whereas children of Sephardi descent often receive the name of a living relative. Some Ashkenazim may not have Hebrew names, but use Yiddish names instead (for example Yonkel instead of Jacob or Gittel instead of Tova). 

Traditionally, adult Jews-by-Choice are called up to the Torah with their chosen Hebrew name followed by ben Avraham Avinu (son of Abraham our father) or bat Sara Imeinu (daughter of Sara our mother.)  In most Reform and Conservative synagogues, however, the minhag (tradition) of using both the father’s and mother’s names means most choose to be called up as ben or bat Avraham v’Sara (son or daughter of Abraham and Sarah). 

There is yet another naming pattern for those whose parents’ Hebrew names are unknown, where the minhag of ben Adam or bat Chava (Eve) can be used. Traditionally, a Jew who does not have a Jewish father is usually called up by his/her name and mother’s name. A Jew with a Jewish father, but not a Jewish mother, is usually called up by his/her name and father’s name.

Finally, for those that wish to use Jewish names during the Mi Shebeirach prayer for healing, there’s a minhag to call out the name strictly using the mother’s name (for example, the usual name of Moshe ben Avraham becomes Moshe ben Sara for the purpose of blessing while ill).

If you have further questions, please contact Rabbi Feiguin or the Religious Practices Committee for additional information or clarification.