CORR 32-37



A man wishes to memorialize his parents and grandparents. On the memorial plaque in the synagogue the names are given in Hebrew fashion; thus, for example, Mordecai ben Isaac. Unfortunately, no one remembers the Hebrew name of his grandfather’s father. Can the Halachic tradition guide us in finding a way to record this name in traditional fashion? (Asked by Rabbi Saul M. Diament, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada)


THE QUESTION that is asked here has many reverberations in the Halachic literature. The legal tradition insists upon documents carrying a man’s name together with his father’s name. Of course, our present type of family name as identification is only a century and a half old. Jewish tradition ignores this modern type of family name and insists upon the old method of naming the man by giving his name and his father’s name.

This traditional method of naming is of primary importance in certain official documents, especially in the documents for marriage and divorce, Ketubos and Gittin. The greatest importance of all is placed upon the exact naming in a Get because, due to a faulty identification of the man or woman, there could be a remarriage in adultery and illegitimate children. Therefore, in the laws of Gittin there is a great amount of discussion of the proper and exact traditional naming of the man, of the woman, and even the witnesses (see Even Hoezer, especially from #129). The various problems involved in the names in the divorce document (Shemos Gittin) is one of the large subdivisions in the legal literature.

Even after modern family names became the rule, it was always possible to carry out the traditional insistence upon using the father’s name in legal documents. This was because when a person is called up to the Torah, he is always called up by his traditional name (his own name and his father’s) and so the man’s traditional name is known to him and also, presumably, known to the community in which he lives.

But this traditional method of naming has run into new difficulties in recent generations. First of all, even in certain Orthodox congregations, people are now no longer called up by name to the Torah, but are merely told beforehand when they are to come up. In fact, as early as a century and a quarter ago, Jacob Ettlinger, Rabbi of Hamburg, protests against the growing custom in Germany of calling people to the Torah without using their name and their Hebrew patronymic (see Binyan Zion, II, 172). Furthermore, there are thousands of Jewish men in every part of the world who have never been called up to the Torah at all and so have never heard their Hebrew name. There are thou sands of Jewish men who were never even given a Hebrew name, or if they had been given a Hebrew name at their circumcision, never learned to know it. So the question which is now raised in this enquiry goes beyond the special case mentioned. We are dealing with a widespread situation. It is now a general problem as to how the Hebrew documents can be properly written nowadays, when such a large proportion of modern Jewish men do not know, or have never had, a Hebrew name.

Actually this question had come up centuries ago, not of course because of the special modern situation, but because of special circumstances under which even in those days when Hebrew names were universally used by Jews, a Jewish name in certain special cases was nevertheless totally unknown. For example, if a man is converted to Judaism, how could he be called by a Hebrew patronymic? His father was a Gentile. Or if a person were a foundling and no one knew his origin, how could one write his name in a Hebrew document? In these special cases, the Shulchan Aruch answers as follows: A proselyte is called “a son of Abraham” because Abraham our father was considered the father of all proselytes. See Asher ben Yehiel, Responsa 15:4 and Even Hoezer 129:20. Some say, also, that foundlings should also be named by Abraham as father, but this is disputed. (Cf. Isserles, Orah Hayyim 109:2).

In modern times the question of using the father’s name has come up quite often. For example, Oshrey in his tragic responsa from the Kovno Ghetto during Nazi times (M’Ma’amakim, Vol. III, #11) discusses how an adopted child should be called to the Torah, whether by his father’s name or his adopted name. So also, Moses Feinstein in Igros Moshe, Even Hoezer 99. In M’Ma’amakim, the name of the father is still known. In Igros Moshe, the name is no longer known. In this latter case, Moses Feinstein makes a cumbersome answer, namely, that the actual document should read: “So and so, the son of one whose name is forgotten and is called after So and so, who raised him.” But, he adds, in order not to embarrass the person involved when he is called up to the Torah, he should simply be called up by the name of him who raised him. The same question is dealt with fully by Gedaliah Felder in his Yesodey Yeshurun, Vol. II, p. 158 ff.

It must be understood, however, that the problem of giving a father’s name for a memorial tablet is not a legal requirement. A memorial tablet, a plaque or board is in no real sense a legal document such as a Kesuba or a Get. Therefore, if there is a desire to use a father’s name, there are a number of possibilities available.

1. If the family is a family of Cohanim, he can be called, assuming, for example, that his name is Judah, “Judah the Cohen,” or, in its well-known abbreviation, “Kohen Tzedek,” i.e., K-Z (i.e., the well-known name of “Katz”). Or if the family is a Levitical family, his name can be “Judah Segan Leviah,” i.e., S-G-L (the origin of the name “Segal”).

2. If the family is neither Cohen nor Levite, the man may be named after his mother (if his mother’s name happens to be known). The Talmud (Shabbas 66b) mentions that in spells and incantations uttered in a man’s behalf, his name is given with his mother’s name. In fact it is still a modern custom when special prayers are uttered for a man (say in time of sickness) he is named in the prayer, not after his father, but after his mother. This practice is explained by the verse in Psalm 116:16, in which the psalmist prays for help and says: “I am Thy servant, the son of Thy handmaid,” (i.e., “I am my mother’s son”).

3. If the family is neither priest nor Levite, nor is the mother’s name known, there is still a third possibility. It has long been the custom in Jewish families to name a child after a deceased grandparent. Since, therefore, the son’s name is known, we may assume that there is a fair probability that he was named after his father’s father. Of course, this is not sure; it may be that he was named after his mother’s father. However, it is a fair presumption. Thus, my name is Zalmon Dov Ben Yitzchok Zvi, and my father’s name is Yitzchok Zvi ben Zalmon Dov. This may be counted as a fair probability.

4. If in this family the name “Abraham” appears frequently, then the name may be selected as the grandfather’s patronymic, since there are cases in the law where this is the patronymic of choice.

5. There is still another possibility. Although the name of the grandfather’s father is not known, it is not impossible that his grandfather or his great-grandfather is known by name. This could be if, for example, this ancestor were the author of a book. If this grand father, whose father’s name is unknown, has a grandfather or a greatgrandfather or even a great-great-grandfather whose names happens to be known (either as an author or for some other chance reason) then this man may be named after this ancestor, since the rule is clear in the Talmud (Yevamos 62b) that grandchildren are legally equivalent to children; and the later commentaries say that this applies up to four generations. See all references given in Gedaliah Felder, Vol. II, p. 185.

To sum up: Although great emphasis is placed in the law on the father’s name, this strictness applies only to legal documents, not to memorial tablets. Therefore there is considerable leeway, and any one of the above suggestions may well be adopted if appropriate.