The Power to Name

May 1, 2013
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In the beginning of the book of Genesis, we are told, “And God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them and whatever Adam called each living creature would be its name.” That was so deceptively simple for Adam.

Most of my conversations about naming start like this:

“Rabbi, this is [insert name of community member]. We had the baby.”

“Mazal tov! Is everyone doing well?”

“Yes, we are all tired but wonderful. I was calling because we had a question for you.”

“Sure; what can I do for you?”

“Well, we are struggling with the Hebrew name. We are thinking of x but my grandmother’s name was y and we are choosing z for the middle name, but we can’t decide and we don’t know what to do and we need help. Please tell us what to do, what should we name our baby!”

The parents are perfectly capable of choosing a name for their child. Yet, they find the decision paralyzing — simply “too important.”  They are accomplished and successful. They have spent more than nine months preparing in every way possible for this child to arrive. Naming has been the centerpiece of many conversations. Why is it so difficult?

The choice of a name is the first religious and spiritual Jewish decision we make for our children; no wonder the pressure for the “perfect name.” A name is a complicated gift. In Jewish tradition, our names bestow not only personal identity, but also familial and religious connection.

Our names have held weight for generations. In the book of Genesis, Abram and Sarai take on new names (Abraham and Sarah) after they accept their covenant with God, reflecting the fact that they have become different people; the birth of new identities demanded  new names.

In Pirkei Avot (4:7) Rabbi Simeon teaches: There are three crowns in the world — the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship; but the crown of a good name exceeds them all.

Our names are more than a series of letters that form sounds. Our first connection to covenant and community, they are rich with possibility because they represent our histories and legacies; they bind us both to an ancient covenant and to a future legacy. By naming our children, we give voice to a world of possibility and to a commitment to ancient wisdom. A little anxiety may be just what the rabbi ordered.

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Rabbi Elianna Yolkut received rabbinic ordination from the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in 2006. She has served as an assistant rabbi at Adat Ari El, a Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles, Calif., and as director of the Center for Jewish Life at the Jewish Community Project Downtown in New York City. Yolkut now teaches and helps individuals and families with lifecycle events (rabbielianna.com). She lives in New York with her partner and their infant twins, Ayla Shai and Elijah Max.

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