Beliefnet

Every person has three names:
One her father and mother gave,
one others call,
and one she acquires herself.
--Ecclesiastes Rabbah, 7:1:3


Judaism, like many if not all faiths and traditions, has a lot to say about illness, suffering, and loss--and much to offer people in their search for meaning, guidance, comfort, and solace. Stressing the two complementary and intimately connected dimensions of tradition and community, Judaism has developed, over many centuries and in many different host countries, a range of spiritual practices and approaches for the journey through illness, dying, and bereavement. The Jewish "healing repertoire" integrates prayer, song, study, storytelling, social justice action, meditation, ritual, and more.

Among the Jewish spiritual practices related to serious illness that have survived--no, thrived--through the millennia is the deep and powerful custom of adding a Jewish name for one who is dealing with serious illness.

"One's name has an influence on one's life."
--Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedat
in the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 7b


Throughout history, Jews have had a Jewish name, sometimes as their only name--as in this author's case--and sometimes alongside or "under" the name that they are called in the broader culture in which they live. So, for example, my cousin Scott is, like me, named after our great-grandfather Simkha, but my aunt and uncle chose to also give him an English name (that begins with an S, hinting at the Hebrew name). So, in his daily dealings with the world, he is overwhelmingly known by most people as Scott, but for Jewish religious purposes his name is Simkha.

For traditional Jews, the layering does not stop there. One's full name, in the Jewish tradition, incorporates one's own name and that of one's parents--so, I am Simkha ben ("son of") Aryeh Leib (my father) and Hayyah Feigah (my mother). Many Jews of Eastern European Jewish ancestry have Yiddish or both Yiddish and Hebrew Jewish names--as in the names of my parents, where the first word is Hebrew and the second Yiddish.

Obviously, within Jewish tradition, names are more than just convenient, superficial labels--they are, or become, deeply related to one's identity and one's spiritual essence. In our contemporary society, names also perform an essential task of restoring our humanity and individuality. Think of all the moments when you are reduced to being a telephone, account, social security, driver's license, credit card, or some other number! In such a world, the simple act of naming can become a kind of reaffirmation of soul, a restoration of spirit.

"A change of name acts as an atonement for sin."
--Zohar, Genesis 133b


Ever since Talmudic times, roughly 2,000 years ago, Jews have had the practice of changing, or adding to, one's name when facing the challenges of serious illness. The reasons for this practice of taking a new name are multi-layered and complex. Some have seen this as a form of atonement, as an indicator that one is "wiping one's slate clean." In a more supernatural mode, some, especially in centuries past, saw it as a way of fooling the Angel of Death. More recently, I have heard people describe how this ritual marks their personal transformation, actual or anticipated; how it acknowledges to God and community the way their illness has contributed to a profound shift in their spiritual journey. Some view it as marking and even celebrating their hard-won but deepening wisdom. Still others see the taking of a new name as a way of renewing their b'rit (covenant) with God and community, or reframing their illness and suffering. Many have expressed to me how--unlike so much else in their illness odyssey--this ritual was an act of empowerment, of taking charge, of overcoming helplessness and confinement.
"The earned name is worth much more than the given name."
--Ecclesiastes Rabbah, 7:4


The possibilities for the new or additional name are quite broad. Some people select a name that has personal resonance for them (e.g., Shira, "song/poem," or Lev, "heart"). Often, we add a name such as Hayyim or Hayyah, which mean "life"; or Raphael or Raphaella, which mean "God heals"; or perhaps Barukh or B'rakhah, which mean "blessing." Other people chose a name of a figure from the Bible or other layers of Jewish sacred literature who embodies certain qualities or experiences (such as Jacob or Miriam, who were survivors of physical illness/disability) or whose example/model they hope to draw on (say, the patriarch Abraham or matriarch Sarah). Generally the choice of name is made by the person who is ill (if he is able) or a close family member, in consultation with a rabbi.

The ritual itself is quite simple, and is traditionally done within a minyan, the Jewish quorum of 10 required for public prayer. At the reading of the Torah (a portion of the Five Books of Moses) on a Monday or Thursday or Saturday morning service, someone who is ill (or, if they can't attend, as is often the case, someone close to them) is called up to the Torah and a special prayer is said, announcing the new name. The naming might be preceded with selections from the Psalms, and is generally followed by the MiSheberakh prayer for those who are ill. Henceforth, in any ritual or religious occasion in which the individual's Jewish/Hebrew name is used, she will be referred to by this "expanded" name--not eclipsing the former name, but adding to it.

Four things may cause an evil decree passed on a person to be cancelled:
Tz'dakah/Righteousness, Charity;
Tz'akah/Prayer, Calling Out to God;
Change of Name,
Change in Deeds.


--Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashannah 16b


That is the "bare bones" ritual itself, actually quite poignant in its simplicity. But some Jews have embellished this in ways meaningful to them. In some communities, the person with the illness or the person close to them will give a brief teaching that explains why the name was chosen and what they hope and pray for. Some communities have begun the practice of responding to the new name by repeating it back three times in unison, communally confirming and publicly acknowledging the new identity. Still others have followed services with a special reception in honor of the new name, as fellowship dedicated to healing. It can be as intimate as a small Monday minyan or as public as a large, catered Sabbath celebration.

In the end, the renaming is a blessing and a prayer, a way of expressing within the community and within the tradition our deepest personal yearnings, hopes, and wishes. Even if we cannot add days to life, we can add life to our days. May this be the case for you and all who suffer, a healing of spirit, a renewed connection to life.
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