Tuesday, November 29, 2011

When to Name a Jewish Child

I dedicate this week's dvar torah to the memory of a friend, Jason Botnick, (see here), who tragically passed away this past weekend (In November 2011) after losing his battle with Leukemia. 

Parshat Vayetze

by Rabbi Avi Billet 

The Torah never addresses when a newborn is to be named; just about every Biblical figure who is introduced at birth is named right away. This would not come as much of a shock in a pre-Avraham and pre-Bris era. But the fact that Yitzchak, Yaakov, Eisav, and all of Yaakov's sons (chapters 29-30) (perhaps with the exception of Binyamin's second name in 35:18) are named the moment they are born (or so it seems) stands to leave open the idea that in Biblical times, boys were named before the bris.

In a pre-Sinai world, certainly girls were not named when the new father received an aliyah to the Torah – Dinah, for example, seems to be named at her birth.

Why do we name our children when we do: the boy at the bris, and the girl at a Torah reading? Is there significance to the public display of naming a baby?

Avram received his new name after his bris, yet Yitzchak received his name the minute he was born, if not before he was born. Yitzchak's circumstance can be taken off the table, however, because his name was given to him by God, before he was even conceived. But Yitzchak's sons and Yaakov's sons are still an argument pro pre-bris naming.

Yossele Weisberg z"l, one of the most prominent mohels in Jerusalem until his passing around 10 years ago, dedicated a chapter of his magnum opus on the laws and practices of the Bris Milah experience, "Otzar Habris," to the customs surrounding when we name both boys and girls.

He records 4 reasons for why a boy is named at his bris:
  1. At the time we are involved in blessing the child (ie. we say a "mi sheberach" after the bris), it is appropriate to refer to him by name. This would imply that the bris is the latest we can name a boy.
  2. Until his bris, he carries the name of an "arel" ערל (uncircumcised), which must be changed to a proper Jewish name as soon as possible after his circumcision.
  3. When we give the name with the formula of "Kayem" קיים את הילד הזה לאביו ולאמו ויקרא שמו בישראל... (establish this baby to his mother and father with the following Jewish name…), we are asking for the name to carry with it "God's approval," which would surely be most forthcoming once the child is circumcised.
  4. Once he is circumcised, and has arrived at his personal physical "completion" (shlemut), it is the right time for him to be given his name.
The book Matamim, which explains the reasons for many customs, includes an explanation that focuses on the verse in Bereshit 2:19 – וכל אשר יקרא לו האדם נפש חיה הוא שמו - "Whatever the man called each living thing [would] remain its name." He quotes a thought from the book Toras Emes who points out that an acronym of the first five words of this phrase are the letters of the name Eliyahu/Elijah - אליהו. The first letters of the next three words, Nun, Chet and Heh have a numerical value of 63 (50+8+5), which is the same value as the word Navi – נביא – prophet.  The last word is "Sh'mo" (it's name), Thus, when Elijah the Prophet is present, that is when "his name" [the child's, that is] is proclaimed. The only problem with this teaching is that the verse pre-dates any practice of including Elijah at the bris. As nice as it is, it can not be used in practical terms to explain why the baby is named at his bris, and not before his bris.

When it comes to naming girls, Yossele Weisberg records 6 different customs as to when it could be done: 1. the day she is born, 2. on the first Torah-reading day closest to her birth, 3. the Shabbos immediately after her birth, 4. to wait at least five days from her birth (unless her 3rd or 4th day is Shabbos), 5. on the 2nd Shabbos of her life, 6. 30 days after her birth.

Rabbi Shabtai Lipschitz of Orsziwa (Galicia) wrote a book called Bris Avos, in which he explains this last custom (waiting a month) based on a known connection women have to the moon and Rosh Chodesh. Just as the moon has a monthly cycle, women have a monthly cycle. The Rosh Chodesh connection is deeper, but no one suggests she be named specifically on Rosh Chodesh.

Rabbi Lipschitz's final point is that just as the father provides the name of his son to the one who announces it at the bris, he should verbally say his daughter's name to whomever (Rabbi, gabbai, chazzan, etc) will be announcing it along with a "Mi Sheberach."

There might be room to suggest Yaakov's sons were named after they were circumcised, but in the end, it does not matter whether they were or were not. Giving a name to a child is a significant event in and of itself. So significant, in fact, that Rabbi Jacob Emden declared "it is a mitzvah to rejoice and have a celebratory meal at the time one names his newborn daughter."

It would seem, therefore, that the naming of a boy at his bris, and a girl on a Torah reading day, particularly on Shabbos, would become a matter of convenience. The significance of the naming itself is a cause for celebration – so our tacking it onto a party we're making in honor of a bris, or in honor of Shabbos (or even any Torah-reading day) makes sense from a practical point of view – have one major expense at a time we'd be celebrating anyway.

May our children grow to fulfill our dreams and wishes for them, no matter when they are named. And may we merit to help them realize their potential in the best possible way.

ps. In the event that a baby's bris is delayed for a significant period of time on account of health concerns, most authorities recommend naming the child (some say to name him even before his eighth day - when his bris might have otherwise taken place) so prayers can be offered on his behalf in the proper fashion: utilizing his Jewish name.

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