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Why Jewish Names?
by Rabbi Yossi Braun

I notice that you often have a habit of calling me with my Jewish name, Velvel, instead of using my real name, William.

I understand that you wish to emphasise my Jewish identity. I have no problem with that. But, I'm really a proud Australian Jew and have no intent to assimilate.

Tell me the truth, is it a mitzvah to use only Jewish names? Does it really make a difference to G-d if I go by the name William or Velvel?


Dear Thomas,

Names are only labels. They were purely invented so that we can have an easy and practical method by which to identify each other. If you would be living on an isolated island all alone, you wouldn't need a name.

In fact, in Jewish tradition, a baby boy is a nameless individual until circumcision. This nameless baby has the capacity to  breathe, eat, sleep and function like any other baby, albeit without a name. In practical terms, the only drawback is that cooing to the newborn yingele, can pose a slight challenge to Mom and Dad who lack a nametag and must resort to Bub, Sweetie pie and Zeeskeit.

Some people profess to be name readers. They supposedly have a physic ability to use your name as a means to get to the root of who you are and reveal the cycles of life you are going through.

There is a good reason why business is not booming in this field. Names tell us nothing about the individual bearing that name. The evidence: There are thousands of people bearing the same name, but carrying multiple personalities and characteristics. In the dictionary definition, a name is no more than 'a word or words by which an entity is designated and distinguished from others'.

So, names are not that important after all. Which is why I decided to call you Thomas instead. How about calling you Trouble? After all, does a name really make that much of difference?

Your name doesn't leave any clues as to what type of individual you are. It reveals nothing about your dealings with people, your temper or your mood swings. Names run much deeper than that. They are the key to your very essence.

Calling someone by their name is a direct line to their soul. When people are totally engrossed in a riveting novel, there are few strategies to get their attention beyond calling them by their proper name. Chassidic legend has it that the way to revive someone who has fainted is to call him by his name.

Even if the mind and heart are failing, there remains the option of communicating with the soul. And this is achieved by calling out their name. Names don't talk to the mind or heart. They don't convey the persona. They express the person.

In our current state of affairs, where so many of our youth are spiritually lethargic and their intellectual and emotional capacity to serve G-d is limited, we must be vigilant not to "pull the plug". While pizza or steak might not yet be on the menu for the comatose patient, we ought to keep the spiritual oxygen flowing.

Velvel, Velvel! Jewish names might not be a mitzvah, but they are the essence of our identity. Mitzvos speak to our heart and mind. Jewish Names are the secret of our survival.


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