Names are serious business in Judaism.
I think it all started in the Torah–all of the main characters’ names are loaded with significance. When Sarah was pregnant with Isaac, she thought the idea of a 90-something year old woman giving birth was hilarious. Sure enough, Abraham named their son Yitzchak, meaning “laugh.”
Years later, as Jacob was being born, he grabbed onto the heel–in Hebrew, ha’akev–of his twin brother Esau–so his name in Hebrew became Yaakov. Yes, Jacob is named after a heel. He actually could have ended up with a worse name if his hand had slipped.
Then all twelve of his sons were given names as the result of a feeling or action as they were born. It’s probably a good thing we don’t generally name kids like that anymore, or the most popular name each year would be OHMYGODGETTHISTHINGOUTOFME.
Sometimes one name isn’t enough. God decided that Avram and Sarai needed a bit of a name-lift, so He stuck a hei in each name, representing the presence of God, and from then on they were known as Avraham and Sarah. It’s fortunate that this predated modern bureaucracies–
“Yes, Mr. Abraham, reason for name change?” “I have no idea. God just said so.”
Jacob also underwent a similar process, when God told him that from then on, he would be known as Yisrael. Inexplicably, he was still referred to as Jacob in most of the text until he died. I guess people just couldn’t get used to the change and kept calling him by his old name.
At the beginning of the Exodus story, we read of the iconic scene when Pharaoh’s daughter discovers a baby floating in a basket. She declares–in Hebrew–that since she drew him out of the water (mi’shi’tihu), she would name him Moshe. Nice of her to give him a good Hebrew name.
I think it’s this considerable emphasis on names that inspired Judaism’s perspective: a name is more than a label. Of course, most people know that it’s a tradition to name a child after a relative. Sephardic Jews might use the name of someone still alive, whereas most of us who are Ashkenazic look to those who have passed away. That’s one reason why you’re unlikely to ever come across a guy named Abner Goldfarb the Third.
[Incidentally, this inspires one of our very best Yiddish curses: A kleyn kind zol nokh im heysn. “May they name a small child after him.” Has there ever been a more brilliantly passive aggressive language?]
But more than that, we hope that our newly named child will serve as a living reminder of someone from the past. One of my favorite customs at a baby naming ceremony is when the new parents not only announce to everyone who the child is named for, but when they continue by telling about that person and describing his or her qualities and unique characteristics in detail. It’s truly a meaningful way to continue a chain that can literally reach back generations.
However, before you get all creative, just keep in mind one important tip: Try to imagine how frustrating it is to never find a souvenir key chain with your name on it.