Names with Roots

Naming a Child after a Grandparent

The primary aspect of the mitzvah to honor one’s parents is, as expected, directed towards one’s father and mother. An off-shoot of this commandment is the mitzvah to also honor one’s grandparents, this being for two reasons: first, because a grandchild is also considered as being one’s child, and secondly, included within the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents is to honor their parents. Nevertheless, it is clear that the obligation of honoring parents is greater than the requirement to honor one’s grandparents.

Included in the mitzvah of honoring parents is naming a newborn baby after the grandparents or great-grandparents. In the last generation, however, many people find it difficult to fulfill this mitzvah. It seems to them that naming their children after their grandparents harms their independence, depriving them the freedom to choose a name which they like. Nevertheless, they should overcome this hurdle, fulfill the mitzvah of honoring their parents and grandparents, and as a result, they too will be honored when they get old, and their memory will be safeguarded after 120 years.

Some people choose a name for the baby, and in order to do the minimum required of them, give the baby a second name after a grandparent, or settle for a hint to their grandparents’ real name. If, for example, the grandfather’s name was ‘Yosef’, they’ll call the grandson ‘Yossi’ or ‘Asaf’. By doing so, however, they are not fulfilling the mitzvah properly. Many times, the names in question are amongst the holiest and most beautiful names, resembling the names of our forefathers and mothers, prophets and prophetesses – and only because of a fleeting desire to give the child a trendy name, they pushed-off the grandparents name, using it only as a second name.

In the future, they probably will regret having not merited fulfilling the mitzvah of honoring their parents appropriately. Who knows – perhaps that name was passed down for generations in the family, and now, because of them, the chain has been broken.

A True Story

Over a decade ago, I was invited to be the ‘sandak’ (person who holds the baby at the circumcision ceremony) at a ‘brit milah’ (circumcision). Since I knew that the mother’s father had recently passed away, I asked the father if they were planning to name the baby after him. He replied that it was problematic and thus wanted to give the baby a different name (more trendy), but they were willing to use the grandfather’s name as a second name. Out of friendliness, I said that I was willing to be the ‘sandak’ only on the condition that the baby was given the exact name of the grandfather, and not as a second name. After discussing it, they decided to overcome the emotional difficulty, and accept my condition. They named the baby after the grandfather, and the widowed grandmother was moved to tears, thanking them from the depth of her soul.

About a year later, I asked them if they were happy with the name. They said they were very happy, and keep wondering why it was so difficult for them to name the baby after the grandfather. I have merited encouraging many couples to name their children after their grandparents, and I have never heard of anyone who has regretted it. As the years go by the couples grow happier, knowing that they have merited fulfilling the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents by naming their children after their grandparents.

Unfortunately, a lot of people have problems fulfilling this mitzvah – to be a link in the chain of generations. The parents prepare themselves beforehand, knowing that their children will give a different name to their child. And when they hear that they named the baby after the grandparent – and not as a second name, or a nickname, but the exact same name – their eyes fill with tears, and are so moved they lack words to express their feelings. At the end of the ‘brit’, I suggest to them to say ‘kaddish’ in memory of their parent, and they recite it with such great emotion and tears – similar to the ‘kaddish’ said at the closing ‘ne’ila’ prayer on Yom Kippur. There is no greater honoring of one’s parents than this.

Unusual Names

Nonetheless, in regards to an unusual name which will cause grief to the child when he gets older, it is best to use it as a second name. The grandparents, whose name has presently become uncommon, would probably agree to this, seeing that they also wish the best for their grandchild.

Naming a Child after a Living Grandparent

Certainly, in communities where it is customary to name the baby after the grandparents while they are still alive, there is an even greater mitzvah to continue the ‘minhag’ (custom). This is a wonderful and continuous honoring of one’s parents, meriting them to see, in their lifetime, their grandchild named after them.

However, a ‘halachic’ question arises: When a friend’s name is the same as the father or mother’s name, according to the majority of ‘poskim’ (law arbiters), it is forbidden to call their friends by name in the presence of their parents. If so, how should they call their children in the presence of the grandparents? If the issue hasn’t been discussed, they should be careful not to call their children by their full name in front of the grandparents, rather, they should call their child by a pet name. If the grandparents explicitly agree to have their grandchildren called by their name in their presence, it is permissible to call them by their regular name, and there is no need to use a nickname. However, in the presence of strangers who would not understand this, and might think that the son is insulting the honor of his father, the grandchild should be addressed by his nickname, even though the father forgoes his honor.

Marrying a Cousin

The Sages of blessed memory said (Talmud Yerushalmi, Kiddushin 4:4): “A man should cling to his tribe and family”, because by marrying a woman from a member of his family, the love and faithfulness between them will be greater. Also, the Sages praised someone who marries his niece (Tractate Yevamot 62b). They also said in the Midrash (Bereshit Rabba 18:4), someone who marries a relative, the verse “Now this is bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh” (Genesis 2:23) can be said of him.

And this is exactly what our forefathers did: Avraham was Sarah’s uncle; Rivka was the daughter of Bethuel, who was Yitzchak’s cousin; and Rachel and Leah were the cousins of Yaacov.

Seemingly, this is very hard to understand, for it is well-known that in marriages between relatives, children with various defects are liable to be born, and the closer the relation is, the greater is the danger. Indeed, we see that already in the times of the Rishonim (medieval Bible commentators), Rabbi Yehudah HaChasid wrote in his last will and testament that no one should marry his niece. He most probably understood the dangers involved, and therefore ordered not to follow the advice of the Sages.

Some of the illustrious Achronim (later commentators) explained that in times when marriages were ‘l’shem shamayim’ (for the sake of Heaven), there was no need for worry, because the merit of the mitzvah assisted them. But when marriages are not ‘l’shem shamayim’, there is room for concern. And when Rabbi Yehudah HaChasid saw that many people were not marrying ‘l’shem shamayim’, he ordered not to marry relatives (see Tzitz Eliezer 15:44, Nishmat Avraham, Even Ha’Ezer 2:1).

It seems to me that a further explanation can be given. In the past, when living conditions were difficult, and people were more exposed to the dangers of starvation, illnesses, wars, and pogroms, there was an immense significance to the consolidation of the extended family, for by means of it, people could handle more successfully the various dangers, and organize living conditions in such a way that would allow continuity and stability. Therefore, the benefits of marrying relatives exceeded the dangers of having children with birth defects. However, when living conditions improved, there was no longer a need to worry about family consolidation and survival, and the only thing left was the genetic danger of marrying relatives. As a result, today it is recommended that relatives not marry each other, in order to prevent hereditary diseases.

Another possible explanation is that in past generations, for various reasons, at least half of the babies born would die within their first years of life, and amongst them, in all probability, most of the babies with defects. Thus, it wasn’t clear whether they died because of their defects, or some other weakness.

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