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Why Did Jewish Women Traditionally Have Secular Names, But Not Men?

A few months ago, one of my acquaintances asked me why, in traditional Jewish communities, women tend to have secular names and men tend to have Hebrew names. This person is deeply knowledgeable about the Jewish culture and languages spoken by Jews, and she assumed it had something to do with the way that women are expected to function more in non-Jewish society than men are. Yet this assumption is inaccurate.

Indeed, it is true that in Jewish tradition, women historically had only secular given names; no need for sacred names existed in traditional Judaism for women, as they were not called upon to read from the Torah. Independent of their language of origin, the names of women had no religious function.

Yet, since the Middle Ages, Jewish men in various geographic areas had two given names. One of them, called kinnui in Hebrew (plural: kinnuim), was the name that they used in their everyday lives. As with any female name, this secular name could be of Hebrew or non-Hebrew origin and had no religious function. Another name, called shem ha-kodesh in Hebrew (plural: shemot ha kodesh) was the name under which the man was called upon to read the Torah in a synagogue. It was also the name that figured in his tombstone inscription.

The group of shemot ha-kodesh encompasses all biblical names, as well as all the post-biblical names of Hebrew or Aramaic origin, and three names of Greek origin: Alexander, Kalonymos and Todros, borne by Jews for many centuries.

Because of this tradition, except for bearers of these three Greek exceptions, every Jewish man necessarily had a Hebrew or Aramaic name. For example, people with popular Yiddish animal names like Leyb (lion) or Ber (bear), also had Hebrew shemot ha-kodesh: Leyb was called up to the Torah as Yehuda or Arie, and Ber was called up as Issachar or Dov.

We know numerous Jews who lived in the past by their shemot ha-kodesh without mentioning their vernacular names that often were non-Hebrew.

When it comes to women, the situation is a little different. But the reason has nothing to do with women existing in the non-Jewish, secular sphere and everything to do with the available Jewish names for women.

There are over 2,700 male names in the bible, but only about 50 female names. Try as we might, the names Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, Lea, Esther and Miriam are clearly insufficient to cover all Jewish women.

It thus became necessary to use additional names, some of which appeared in the Middle Ages and were based on Hebrew: the names Chaya (life), Menucha (calm) and Nechama (comfort) all took root amongst the Jewish women from Central Europe. The name Simcha (joy) was common in Spain, France and Germany. But a large bulk of female names were based on vernacular languages.

Whatever country you examine, female names used by Jews have positive meanings. In northern France and England, whose Jewry originated in northern France, we find in source from the 13th-14th centuries names like Bellassez (very beautiful), Douce (sweet) and Fleur (flower). In Czech lands during the 14th-16th century, Jewish women had names such as Dobra (good), Radochna (glad) and Vesela (joyful). In medieval Western Germany, the inception of Yiddish female names began, like Eydl (noble), Freyde (joy), Hinde (doe), Reyzl (rose), Sheyne (beautiful) and Zelde (happiness).

Documents from 16th-century Rome refer to Allegrezza (joyfulness), Bonadonna (good woman) and Graziosa (gracious). In both medieval Spain and in the Ottoman Empire after their 1492 expulsion, Sephardic Jews bore names such as Alegria (joy), Buena (good), Clara (light), Delicia (delight) and Esperanza (hope). Those Sephardic Jews who landed in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya adopted Arabic names, such as Aziza (beloved), Djamila (beautiful, Djohar (gem) and Zohra (flower).

In all of these communities and across disparate languages, female given names have meanings associated with the notions of beauty, luck, joy, light and majesty. Certain names are derived from the words designating gems, flowers or birds.

A large majority of these names appeared in various countries independently, and many of them were not created by Jews but borrowed by them from local Gentiles. For example, in medieval Europe, both Slavic and German non-Jewish women were mainly receiving names from the same category. Yet, at the end of the Middle Ages, Christians of these regions underwent a major name changes. They mainly abandoned their names with pleasant meanings for names of Latin, Greek, Romance and Hebrew origins with religious connotation that corresponded to names of Christian saints or biblical figures.

At the turn of the 18th-19th century, several German Christian authors, inspired by the ideas of Romanticism, suggested using German first names with pleasant meanings instead of foreign names that were popular in Germany in their time. One author suggested such names as Bluma, Goldine, Edela and Freudine. Another author proposed German poets to create new “noble” female names from such words as Freude, Glück, Schöne and Gold. It is curious that both authors suggested that German Christians choose new names like those used by Jewish women for centuries. It is even more peculiar to observe that almost all these names were actually borrowed by Jews from their Christian neighbors in the Middle Ages before the latter abandoned their use.

So, were female names chosen because women were being expected to function more in non-Jewish society than men? All my experience of working on Jewish given names suggests that such conjecture cannot be true. In traditional Jewish society, assignment of given names to both boys and girls has always been an internal Jewish process. Surely, Jewish naming traditions were also partly influenced by those of local Gentile majority. Yet, the exact choice of names was done without taking the existence of non-Jews into consideration.

Alexander Beider is a linguist and the author of reference books about Jewish names and the history of Yiddish. He lives in Paris.

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