"Shoot!" (Q & A)

The Ascent Question & Answer Forum

conducted by Yrachmiel Tilles, Editor of the Ascent Quarterly


"When praying for someone's health, we mention his or her Hebrew name and that of the mother. 1) Why? I also would like to know: 2) What if the names are not Jewish? 3) What if the name wasn't given at a religious ceremony? 4) What if the person changed his name?"


You correctly pointed out that when praying for someone in need, we utilize the mother's name. Although tribal and familial affiliation within the Jewish people ("Are you a Kohain or a Levi?"), are determined by the father's line, it seems spiritual essence is transmitted through the mother.1 It is this essence which constitutes the Jew's unbreakable link to G-d. Therefore, when Divine aid is sought in serious situations we identify the person in our prayers as the offspring of a particular mother, instead of the father.

Sometimes, when a person without a Jewish name is called for an aliyah to the Torah, you may hear a Hebrew name be given on the spot: Jack becomes Yaakov, etc. However, there are significant distinctions between the use of names when praying for someone and when calling to someone by name. In the latter case the person is present, so strict accuracy is not necessary in calling his name for it to be clear who is meant. Indeed, you can beckon to someone, or even call him for an aliyah without even saying the name at all.

In prayer, however, the person being supplicated for is usually not there, so it is necessary to be precise. More importantly, when speaking to G-d it is essential to be truthful, and also as specific as possible. Therefore, if a person has no Jewish name, or even if he has one but it is not known, the foreign-language name should be used.2

When the mother's Hebrew name is unknown, we may pray for the person as "ben" or "bat Sarah". This is legitimate since we are all descendants of Abraham and Sarah. If only a non-Jewish name is known for the mother, it may be used (unless it is one with unpleasant connotations for Jews).

A formal religious ceremony is not an absolute requirement in the giving of a Jewish name, although it certainly can be an inspiring enhancement. While boys are usually named during the circumcision ceremony and girls on the occasion of a blessing over the Torah within a few days after the birth, a name given by the parents in other circumstances is equally valid.

To change a Jewish name given at birth by parents is a serious matter. Someone who desires to choose a new name for himself is advised to get the approval of a tzaddik, or at least a knowledgeable rabbi. In any case, the official ratification of a new name or name-change automatically occurs when the person is called by it for 30 days.

When a name change is advisable for someone who is seriously ill, it is a common practice to add another name to the existing one (and certainly to give a Hebrew name to a Jew who doesn't yet have one). In such a case a minyan should definitely be convened to recite the special name-changing prayer for people in life-threatening situations (found in the back of many Tehillim books), even if it is not being done in a shul.3

The importance of knowing your given Jewish name cannot be over-estimated. It is said that on the occasion of naming a new baby, parents are blessed with divine inspiration. They need it! The Hebrew name of any person (or any created thing, for that matter), is a reflection of the particular spiritual essence of that being.4 A Jew who does not know his Jewish name or claims not to have one should make every attempt to verify if there was a given or intended Jewish name. For example, if his parents also don't know or don't remember, he can ask his older relatives if he was named after someone. A lot of "Lindas" are named after great-grandmother "Leah," etc. In such cases you could say the Hebrew name is the person's original, "real" name, since it preceded its English derivative!


Yrachmiel Tilles

1. Perhaps this is why Jewish status at birth is determined by the mother's Jewishness rather than the father's.

2. This is so even for those prayers where verses are said according to the Hebrew spelling of the name. A responsa written 400 years ago says that in Europe in an extreme situation they would pray for the inhabitants of a city in danger by reciting verses according to the letters of the name of the city. Presumably they weren't Hebrew names!

3. The prevalent custom today is to add the name Chaim ["life"], Boruch ["blessed"] or Alter ["long-lived"] before a male's name, or the feminine equivalent--Chaya, Bracha, or Alta--for a female. There is also a custom to add a name of a long-lived personage from Scripture. For a female, for example, you might add Sarah or Yocheved, but not Rachel.

4. Tanya II, ch. 1.

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