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Why Do Jews Choose Hebrew Names When Moving to Israel?

abraham's departure

Abraham departing from Haran after God commands him to settle in Canaan. (Photo: 1850 Painting by József Molnár/WikiCommons)

The tradition of Jewish immigrants to Israel taking on new Hebrew names is ancient, dating back to the divine changing of the patriarch Abram’s name to his more well-known name, Abraham. The name of his wife, originally Sarai, was also changed by God, to Sarah.

The changing of these names signified a monumental shift in identity. Abraham and Sarah were no longer simply righteous and holy people. Their new Hebrew names changed them fundamentally. They had become the mother and father of nations.

In a recent article published on Forward.com, Naomi Zeveloff explores the more modern phenomenon of taking on Hebrew names. When the first waves of immigrants came to Israel from Europe in the 19th century, they changed their names to reject their foreign European roots and embrace the budding nationalistic ideology of the infant Israeli state.

For example, when current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s grandfather moved to Israel from Poland In 1920, his last name was Mileikowsky. His children changed the name to the Biblical Hebrew name Netanyahu, meaning “God gives.”

Zionist founders, such as David Gruen – perhaps better known as David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel – strongly believed that immigrants should change their names to Hebrew names in order to establish a sense of solidarity and belonging with the new state. As prime minister, Ben-Gurion even mandated that state officials, diplomats, and military commanders take on Hebrew surnames.

Ideologically, it was extremely important that the new Israelis internalize and embody the spirit of renewal with which the country was founded. Much like Abraham and Sarah, they, too, were the first generation of a new people.

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As the state matured, new waves of Jewish immigrants came from the Middle East and North Africa. Like the earlier pioneers, they were also under pressure to change their names, but unlike the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern European descent, they hadn’t escaped from ghettos or shtetls, and didn’t feel the same need to leave their old identities behind.

The children of these immigrants often had their foreign-sounding names changed or altered by their teachers without the permission or knowledge of the students’ families. This practice had changed by the time of the Ethiopian emigration in the 1990’s, when rather than replacing or changing their traditional Amharic names, Ethiopian immigrants were given Hebrew names in addition to their own.

As Israel became more established as a state, the practice of changing names declined. Instead of shaking off their more recent pasts in order to connect with their ancient origins, many newer immigrants, such as those from the former Soviet Union, preferred to keep their given names. After all, names, passed down through generations, which connect people to their families and pasts, are not easy to give up.

However, when a Jew returns to his ancestral homeland, he goes through the same basic shift in identity as his forefathers did thousands of years ago. He is reborn as a direct descendant of the ancient Hebrew tribes. He becomes a rightful heir to the God-given privilege of living in the Holy Land. Changing his name means accepting this right and acknowledging God’s sovereignty in the land of Israel.

Choosing to change or alter your given name to a Biblical or Hebrew name, or even to take on a Hebrew name in addition to your given name, connects you to the past and to the land of Israel in the deepest and most meaningful way.

To find out more about the meaning behind Biblical names and how to discover your own Biblical name, click here.

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