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GIVEN NAMES, JUDAISM, AND JEWISH HISTORY
5. JEWISH GIVEN NAMES, 1795-1925
By definition, a Jewish given name is one used by Jews. Such names can change both geographically and temporally. Because of this, it is necessary to define the location and time period, and to define what is meant by a "Jew."
The names of Jews during the 19th century may be divided into two general categories:
(1) Hebrew names (Sacred names, Shemot Kedoshim)
In these documents, the term "Hebrew name" means either an actual Hebrew name or a Hebrew-equivalent name which came from Aramaic or other acceptable ancestry. A "vernacular name" is a non-Hebrew name (Yiddish or pan-European) which was acceptable to the rabbis. Pan-European names are also called "secular" names in this document.
This definition places emphasis on the Hebrew name as the primary name of a Jew (for it is the first one he receives (at the Brit Mila) for a male, or announcement and naming in shul for a female), his other names generally (but sometimes improperly) being called "Kinuim". It is primary by virtue of the 12th-century rabbinic decree requiring Jews to give their newborn sons a Hebrew name at the time of circumcision. This decree is still binding today.
The Hebrew word "Kinui" (plural kinuim) can have many different meanings in current general usage, depending on its usage and who used it that way: Name, surname, denomination, patronymic, nickname, title, nomenclature, pseudonym, nom de guerre, alias, appelation, or soubriquet. However, as used by the rabbis in Hilchot Gitin books, it was a special technical term meaning a vernacular (non-Hebrew) name which was linked to and which had to be written following the Hebrew or Hebrew-equivalent name, preceded by either of the words "haMechune" or "demitkari". Other vernacular names which were usually not written as part of the Legal name were not called "kinuim" by the rabbis, and we shall generally call them Yiddish names, diminutives, or terms of endearment, as the case may be. As used in these papers, the technical term "kinui" can generally be loosely translated as "Alias" or "Legal Nickname."
A "Legal Jewish name" is one which was accepted as such by the rabbis and which was composed of Hebrew and/or vernacular elements from lists of these two types of Jewish names. In these two documents, the term "Legal name" is defined to be the legal Jewish name of a Jew. By definition, a Legal name must satisfy one or both of these two conditions:
1. The name can be used in Jewish legal documents: Divorce (Get), Marriage (ketuva), or other contracts between Jews.
For men, both of these conditions must be satisfied, but for women (who are not called to the Tora), only the first condition need be satisfied. In cases of doubt expressed by a rabbi officiating at the signing of a Jewish contract, the name thought by a person to have been a Hebrew name might turn out not to be legal in the rabbi's opinion.
In general, for men, the Hebrew name is to be used in both Jewish legal documents and to call him to the Tora. The guide for rabbis written by Hyman E. Goldin ("Hamadrikh, The Rabbi's Guide," New York (1939)) states this quite clearly on page 253, at the beginning of the section where he lists a number of Hebrew and Yiddish names: For men having Legal/Hebrew double names, "in every place where it is written "HaMechune", it is necessary to call him by both names when he is being called to the Tora, for example, "Yitschak Ayzik", and in shtarei kidushin and ketuva, one writes "Yitschak hamechune Ayzik"."
However, these regulations were not always observed strictly by various classes of Jews, by all rabbis, and in all countries. There were many cases in 19th century European countries where men used one name to be called to the Tora and another one for other legal purposes (Jewish documents), or for non-legal community purposes. A number of the Hilchot Gitin books deal in great detail with this problem and how the community rabbi who had to write a Get might handle the problem. There were cases where men who did have a legal double name like Menachem Mendl would visit a shul in another city and, when being invited to have an aliya, might say "my name is Mendl ben ploni;" he was assumed to be using his correct, full name. It also happened occasionally that a man could undergo two divorce procedures and end up being recorded in them under two different (but related) names; this depended on the man, as well as on the diligence of the local rabbi who wrote the Get.
It should be noted that individuals did not independently determine their legal names -- it was a rabbi writing a legal document who did this, or a man calling him to the Tora. However, the individual did have some influence in determining what was his formal, legal Hebrew name, and rabbis frequently based their decisions on what they were told by the man or woman, in reply to their questioning.
It is sometimes possible to use family customs or archival documents to determine what was the Hebrew (legal) name of a Jewish man or woman in 19th century Europe. In religious, cultural, and secular families, newborn children were frequently named after a deceased grandparent, and such Hebrew names were therefor handed down in alternate generations. In some families, Ketuva or Get documents (which contain the legal Hebrew names of the man and woman) were saved as remembrances of ancestors. Other legal contracts were less frequently saved. Another source giving legal names is the record book of Mohalim (circumcisors); however this may not be a reliable source for the parents' names because the Mohel usually obtained his information directly from the people involved and usually did not check for accuracy. A related problem is that a new-born baby boy might be given a single Hebrew name at circumcision, and a Yiddish name appropriate to a Hebrew double name was added later on (and therefor not recorded at the time of birth).
Unfortunately, the given names which were usually recorded in government documents (e.g., in East European Revision Lists and in West European Censuses) were usually vernacular names (Yiddish or pan-European secular) rather than legal Hebrew names. This was also true of Jewish community documents -- the Hebrew names were frequently not recorded on Rabbi Elector, or other lists, but rather the Yiddish or secular names, the "kinuim", or nicknames derived from the kinuim.
In cases where sources of Hebrew names are not available, one may be able to infer what the Hebrew name may have been from knowledge of the Yiddish or secular names, and their linkage to various Hebrew names. The Given Names Data Bases should be useful in such instances.
In modern times, the traditional definition of "Who is a Jew" is rather clearly given:
1. A Jew is the offspring of a Jewish mother, or
These definitions did not apply in the earlier Ancient Period, before their formulation by the Rabbis, but they did apply in the Project Period.