Including the Name of a Stepfather in One.s Jewish Name
May a person who has two fathers, a stepfather who raised her and a biological father who was a regular part of her life, be called to the Torah with the names of both fathers? If so, which of the fathers should be listed first? My daughter’s Bat Mitzvah is approaching, and when I am called to the Torah I would like my name to include the names of both of my fathers and my mother.
In our tradition, one’s name follows the formula “Peloni ben/bat Almoni,” where “Peloni” is one’s given name and “Almoni” is the name of one’s father. (In Reform Judaism, we customarily add the name of the mother.) This custom, which the Bible dates to patriarchal times, made it possible to identify individuals for legal purposes and to establish one’s lineage (yichus) in the community, particularly in matters related to priestly status. You ask whether it is appropriate to depart from this custom in order to include the name of your stepfather, along with those of your biological parents, in your Jewish name.
We certainly applaud your desire to show appreciation to one who has loved and raised you since you were a child. It is a mitzvah to honor and to revere one’s parents, and as we have argued, that obligation extends to one’s adoptive parents as well. Our parents, in Jewish terms, are those who raise us, care for us, provide for our needs and educate us, and adoptive parents perform these functions as surely do biological parents. Stepparents also fill the role of parent in our lives, even though the law does not accord them that precise status; we therefore owe a similar duty of honor to them. As the Rabbis teach, “One who raises an orphan in his home is regarded by the Torah as though he has given birth to that child” (B. Sanhedrin 19b), and “the one who raises a child is called the ‘parent,’ not the one who begets the child” (Exodus Rabah 46:6).
Yet the duty to honor one’s stepparent does not imply that one should alter his or her Jewish name. Our Jewish names do more than record a simple genealogical fact. They register the avenue through which we have become members of the community of Israel. If we are born into the Jewish people, we receive our Jewish status from our parents, and our name testifies to that fact. If we have chosen as adults to embrace Judaism, our name indicates that we are the “son/daughter of our father Abraham and our mother Sarah,” whom our tradition recognizes as the spiritual parents of all proselytes. An adopted child born of Gentile parents may be named “the son/daughter of” the adoptive Jewish parents, rather than “ben/bat Avraham avinu veSarah imenu,” precisely because it is the adoptive parents who bring that child into the covenant of Israel. To put this in terms of Jewish theology, we were all present at Sinai, even those of us alive today, either because we were born to Jewish parents or have converted to Judaism. Your stepfather loved and cared for you, and he surely participated in your Jewish education and upbringing. But he did not bequeath to you your membership in the Jewish people; that is a status you have inherited from your biological parents. Your Jewish name, which we understand as a covenantal name, should attest to that reality.
To be sure, our tradition permits one to change his or her Jewish name under certain conditions. For example, the halakhah provides that while an individual is called to the Torah by his Jewish name, he may omit his father’s name (perhaps substituting the name of his paternal grandfather in its place) should the father be an apostate, that is, a convert to another religion. Your biological father, however, has not done anything so grievous. He has not abandoned you or forsaken his duty as a father; indeed, you acknowledge that he has been “a regular part of (your) life.” Even were we to agree, therefore, that at times one’s Jewish name might be altered, this is not one of those times.
Conclusion. Your stepfather deserves all the respect and honor that a child owes to a parent. There are numerous ways that you can express that respect throughout your life and, in particular, during your daughter’s Bat Mitzvah observance. Our Jewish names, however, are not the appropriate means for bestowing honor upon a stepparent or, for that matter, upon other persons who may have cared for, taught, and guided us through our lives. Our Jewish names are rather the symbolic expression of our identity as Jews, the record of how each of us has become part of the covenant of Israel.
- See, for example, Genesis 25:12, 19; 28:9; and 34:1.
- For example, the witnesses to a divorce document (get peturin) must be able to identify both the husband and the wife by name “and by the names of their fathers”; see Beit Yosef to Tur Even Ha`ezer 120, s.v. vekotvin lo, and Isserles, Shulchan Arukh Even Ha`ezer 120:3. The formula peloni bar (or ben) peloni appears in the text of the divorce document (Yad, Gerushin 4:12), the chalitzah document (Yad, Hilkhot Yibum Vechalitzah 4:30), and in commercial deeds (Yad, Malveh Veloveh 22:8 and 24:3).
- This accounts for the Torah’s care in specifying the names Itamar ben Aharon Hakohen (Exodus 38:21, Numbers 4:28, 4:33, 7:8), Elazar ben Aharon Hakohen (Numbers 3:32, 4:16, 17:2, 26:1), and Pinchas ben Elazar ben Aharon Halohen (Numbers 25:7, 25:11).
- Exodus 20:12; Leviticus 19:3; Deuteronomy 5:16. On the definition of the “honor” and “reverence” spoken of in these verses see Yad, Mamrim 6 and Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De`ah 240.
- Teshuvot for the Nineties (TFN), no. 5753.12, pp. 201-207 (http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/respdisp.pl?file=12&year=5753 ).
- See our responsum 5760.6, “A Convert’s Hebrew Name” (http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/respdisp.pl?file=6&year=5760 ).
- Ibid., and R. Moshe Feinstein, Resp. Igerot Moshe, Yoreh De`ah 1:161. We do not address the question of a child born through reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilization whose biological parents (i.e., those who donate the genetic materials) and whose adoptive parents are Jews. The issue in that case is a complex one that requires further study; therefore, nothing we say here should be understood as conveying our position concerning it. In the meantime, see our responsum 5757.2, “In Vitro Fertilization and the Status of the Embryo” (http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/respdisp.pl?file=2&year=5757).
- See Deuteronomy 29:14, along with Rashi ad loc.; Midrash Tanchuma, Nitzavim ch. 3; and B. Shabbat 146a.
- We note here that this affirmation is supported by the CCAR’s Resolution on Patrilineal Descent; see Rabbi’s Manual (New York: CCAR, 1988, 226; (http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/resodisp.pl?file=mm&year=1983 ). That resolution provides that “the child of one Jewish parent is under a presumption of Jewish descent. This presumption of the Jewish offspring of any mixed marriage is to be established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people” (emphasis added). The resolution speaks only and explicitly to the status of a child born to one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent. By implication, the child born of two Jewish parents is Jewish; his or her Jewish status is not “presumed” but firmly fixed.
- On the “covenantal” nature of the Jewish name, see our responsa 5760.6 (note 6, above) and 5762.2, “A ‘Hebrew’ Name for a Non-Jewish Parent” (http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/respdisp.pl?file=2&year=5762 ).
- R. Yisrael Isserlein (15th-cent. Germany), Resp. Terumat Hadeshen 1:21; Isserles, Shulchan Arukh Orach Chayim 139:3. This ruling is limited, however, to cases where the change of name will not cause embarrassment to the son; see Resp. Maharam Padua (16th-cent. Italy), no. 87.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.