Monday, July 20, 2015


What's in a name? That which we call a rose
by any other name would smell as sweet.

That is what Shakespeare said in his famous play, Romeo and Juliet. A name is an appendage; it is a way to distinguish one person or an object from another. Some people like their names, and keep them for life; others don’t, and change them for a variety of reasons, including fame or ethnicity.

A bit of a background:

Among Semitic people of the ancient Near East, a name had a meaning based on its three-letter roots. Biblical Israelites, being part of that world, followed the same custom and gave their heroes and villains names with significance appropriate to their situation in life: For example, Adam means “humanity;” Isaac is “laughter,” Joseph “increase.” Some people were named after animals: Deborah (“bee”), Jonah (“dove”), Rachel (“ewe”), or plants: Tamar (“palm tree”), Hadassah (“myrtle”).  Sometimes, circumstances determined the giving of a name: Avraham is “exalter father;” Esau means “hairy,”Abimelekh  “My father is/was a king.”(I remember the case of an Arab who called his 10th daughter “Tamam,” meaning, “Enough”!!!). 

In the biblical period, a name was considered to be part of the essence of a being. As the Bible states, “like his name, so is he” (I Sam. 25:25). If something did not have a name, it simply did not exist. The Bible states that “whatever the [primordial] man (ha-Adam, in Hebrew) called each living creature, that would be its name” (Gen. 2: 19). Also, altering a name implied changes in social status. Thus, leaders and kings often assumed new names when their social condition changed. For, example, the patriarch Jacob was named Israel after he struggled with a mysterious person at the River Jabbok (Gen. 32:28); Eliakim, the son of King Josiah, became Jehoiakim when he became king of Judah (II K 23: 34); similarly, Mattaniah’s name was changed to Zedekiah when he was appointed king (II K 24: 17).

 In our time, the custom of changing a name is preserved in the Catholic Church when the cardinals appoint a new pope. Thus, Joseph A. Ratzinger became Benedict XVI (2005-2013), and, the present pope, Jorge M. Bergoglio became Francis (2013-). Often kings or queens assume a regal name when they ascend the throne: Queen Victoria (1837-1901) had been christened Alexandrina Victoria, but took the throne under the name of Victoria. Similarly, when her son, Prince Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, became king, he took the name of Edward VII. Also, women traditionally take their husband’s last name when they get married. (I often wondered, why so? Now, some men are taking their wife’s family names. Maybe each should keep his/her own for the rest of his/her life). Many women change their name after a divorce. Some artists assume a new name for purposes of publicity, fame or simple vanity. Thus, for instance, Eric. M. Bishop became Jamie Foxx; Carlos I. Esteves became Charlie Sheen, and Stefani J. A. Germanolla became Lady Gaga.

What happens today?

The naming process is different in our time. We give our children names we like, without knowing their significance; at times, we bestow upon them names in honor or memory of a family member. However, this is a name we personally choose for them. Have you asked yourself: what if they don’t like it when they grow older? Why should one get tied up to a name that is imposed on him/her, even if it is done with the best of intensions.  Giving a name is not like getting a new piece of clothing that you can discard easily. You are either thrilled with it or stuck with it the rest of your life. 

The Jewish custom is to name children after their father .They become: A the son (ben)/daughter (bat) of B. For males, this takes place during their circumcision. Jewish girls are often named during a new ceremony called simhat bat (“Celebration of a girl”) either at home or in the synagogue. Presently, children are named after both father and mother. My Hebrew name is Refael ben Avraham. I added my mother’s name when I became an adult, so I am fully Refael ben Avraham ve-Havvah. When I was born, my parents in Turkey did not want to call me Refael; that was my grandfather’s first name, but it sounded too Jewish! So, they changed it to Rifat (pronounced as Ree-faht), a good Turkish name. 

The name “Rifat” comes from the Arabic, meaning “elevation, superiority.” It can be given to a man, a woman, even used as a last name. It served me well when I was in Law School and when I served in the Turkish army. But, when I came to the States in 1961, it started to give me problems. Few people knew how to pronounce it, and even fewer how to spell it. Even now, after more than 50 years in the US, when I make a reservation in a restaurant by phone, I tell them, this is “Robert.” At least, almost everyone knows how to pronounce it and spell it.

Maybe we ought to change the system. Why burden a child with a name that we like, but they may come to dislike, or find it inappropriate? Perhaps, we need to give our children a temporary name until the age of 18, and after that let them choose their own personal name, one they like. In this I am following the ancient Rabbis’ advice who taught, “Every person has three names: the one given by his father and mother, the one that others call him, and the one he acquires for himself” (Eccl. Rabbah 7: 1).

What do you think?

Rifat Sonsino
July, 2015