Home Page

Research Problems
Project Status

Geographic Regions
How to Search
Search Guidelines

Search the GNDBs
Search SIG GNDBs

Hilchot Gitin Books
"Get Mesudar"
GM: Srch Old Names
GM: Srch New Names
GM: Srch Old Kinuim

About GNDBs, Names

JewishGen HomePage
JewishGen DataBases



The given names chosen by Jews over the centuries, from the time of Avraham Avinu (the first Jew) up to today, are dependent on two major factors:

  • The basic elements which defined the Jewish people originally
  • The hand of history which reshaped them afterwards.

This document presents a personal scenario of the creation of the Jewish People and their given names throughout the ages.


There were two basic elements which defined the Jewish People originally:

  a.  The Covenants between G-d and Avraham, and between G-d and the Jews

(1) G-d said to Avraham: "You shall be a father of many nations. I establish my Covenant with you and your seed after you for an everlasting Covenant to be a G-d to you and to your seed after you. And I will give to you and to your seed the land in which you live, all the land of Cana'an for an everlasting possession.  You shall keep my Covenant, you, and your seed in their generations.  This is my Covenant:  Every man child among you shall be circumcised, ... and it shall be a token of the Covenant between me and you.  And I will bless your wife Sarah and give you a son of her, and she will be a mother of nations, kings of people will issue from her. You shall call her son Yitzchak, and I will establish my Covenant with him for an everlasting Covenant and with his seed after him."
(2) At Mt. Sinai, G-d gave Moshe and the Children of Yisrael the Ten Commandments, and a long series of moral and legal rules of behavior between Jew and Jew, and between G-d and Jew.  "And Moshe came to the People and told them all of the words of the Lord and all of the judgements.  And the People answered with one voice, saying "All of the words which the Lord has said will we do."  And Moshe wrote all of the words of the Lord ... and read the book of the Covenant to the People, and the People said "All that the Lord has said will we do, and obey.""  And Moshe went back up the Mountain and G-d described to him the construction of the Tabernacle to hold the Law, and the regulations for Aharon and the Cohanim.

  b.  The Jews as a Stiff-Necked People

While Moshe was on Mount Sinai for forty days and nights, the new People of Yisrael lost heart and made the Golden Calf as an idol.  Moshe broke the tablets of the Torah and destroyed the Golden Calf.  G-d then told Moshe that the Jewish People was a "stiff-necked" people, and would be punished.

These two factors -- the everlasting Covenants making the Jews the Chosen People, and the people's trait of being stiff-necked -- have defined the Jewish People throughout the ages, and have given them their basic religion, orientation, personality, and culture.  Their basic given names at the time of Sinai have been augmented by their contacts with other peoples and cultures, yielding the Jewish People of today -- enriched by cross-culture contact, steeled by adversity.

Of course, the Jewish People has never been a homogeneous people, as might be implied by stating that they are stiff-necked.  Over the ages, whether in their own land of Palestine or Israel (under their own government or that of foreigners), or whether in the Diaspora, they may be divided into the following four categories within a continuous spectrum:

Religiously  Culturally  Secular  Converted

This spectrum is related to a Jew's relationships between man and G-d, and between man and man.  And it is also linked to a brief, almost-missed sentence in the daily morning prayer (Shakharit):  "A person should always fear G-d inside himself and openly, acknowledge the truth, and speak truth in his heart..."  Thus, a major factor for Jews is to SEEK TRUTH. Together, these thoughts reflect the Jew's basic view of himself and G-d, and these are reflected in the "personality" of the Jewish People, as differently interpreted by the above groups of Jews.

In the US today, the first group is medium in size, the second large, the third medium, and the fourth large.  In Israel today, the first is large, the second medium, the third large, and the fourth small.  These distributions for a given country tend to change with time.  The second and third categories may be considered as entries to the fourth category, that is, in Diaspora societies where Jews have neglected religious observance, there is a strong tendency to abandon religion and to convert, and this has in general been a one-way street for the current or next generation, even though converted Jews are still considered formally (not socially) to be Jews.

It must be emphasized that these categories represent artificial divisions within a continuous spectrum, and the individual categories must be clarified for each time and place in Jewish history;  this is analogous to Noach who is defined in the Book of Bereishit as "a just man in his generation."  The spectrum contains both Jews who are affiliated with an organized group as well as non-affiliated Jews.

There are sub-groups having bell-shaped distributions, which may be contained within one category or which may be distributed between more than one category.  Thus, in "Religiously Observant," one may see the Israeli Chareydim, Lubavitcher CHABAD, and Modern Orthodox.  Jews in the US Conservative and Reform movements have one foot in the Religiously Observant category and one in the Culturally Jewish category. Reconstructionist Jews are primarily Culturally Jewish, but they speak of Judaism as a "civilization" having religious, and Jewish literature, music and art components, and therefor has some religious orientation;  yet at the same time, they reject Divine Selection, Revelation at Sinai, and a Deity - and therefor have secular aspects.  Secularists do not relate to Jewish aspects which are religious or sacred;  this category contains the Jewish Secular Humanists and most of that large group of Jews who are unaffiliated with any formal Jewish movement.  Jews who have converted to some other religion have essentially rejected all ties to Judaism, despite the fact that they remain Jews from a Jewish legal point of view.

This classification of Jews is of particular importance in Jewish genealogy, since each group tended to choose its given names differently. Thus, to the religiously observant, the most important given name was the Hebrew name, the others being chosen later for practical reasons.  But for secular Jews the most important name was the vernacular secular name (since it would be the one most used), with the Hebrew name being part of the circumcision ceremony, later remaining unused and frequently forgotten. There are other characteristics of importance in genealogy, such as the trend to large families for the religiously observant, and small families for the secular.  Some of these observations while correct for the Diaspora, would be different for Jews in the State of Israel.

A classical midrash (homiletic interpretation) compares the Four Species of the Succot holiday to four types of Jews.  The etrog is blessed with good fragrance as well as good taste, like those Sages blessed with Tora and good deeds.  The lulav, (palm) tastes good (the dates) but has no scent, like those who have Tora but lack good deeds.  The myrtle has an exquisite scent, but no fruit, as many Jews whose good deeds can be detected from a distance (like fragrance), but fall short in Tora knowledge.  And finally the willow, devoid of both taste and fragrance, is compared to the Jew who has neither Tora nor good deeds.  Yet all Four Species are basic to the Succot holiday, and all four types of Jews are indeed Jews.  In accord with this midrash, the Jewish People were classified as follows:

Tora+Deeds  Tora-Deeds  Deeds-Tora  No Tora, No Deeds

This midrashic typing of Jews is related to the typing given previously.

However, the stubborn dedication of Jews to their Covenant with G-d and his Tora, coupled with their tendency to be rebellious, have generated a set of traits and values which are characteristic of the Jewish People:

Tikun Olam-oriented(make the world a better place)
Tikun Atzmi-oriented (make oneself a better person)

The facts that the Land of Yisrael is at the crossroads of the ancient world, and that the Jews possess the above special traits and values, have caused conflict and war with other nations in and around the Holy Land, as well as persecution and pogroms for Jews in the Diaspora.  This suffering of Jews has been nearly continuous throughout the ages, except for small island-periods of peace and quiet.  During these short periods of peace and quiet, Jews have behaved in one of two characteristic ways:  either by making major religious developments (as in the Age of the Sofrim), or by abandoning their religion on a large scale (as is happening today).  These reactions reflect the two-sided divide/unify trait which Jews have as a People, and the momentary victory of one over the other.

To Top Introduction Nature