Klal Yisroel has always been careful about naming a child. The Gemara (Yoma 83b) relates that Rav Meir was extremely scrupulous about names and it saved him and other Tannaim from danger.
In fact, Chazal (Brachos 7a and Tanchuma, Haazinu) conclude that a person’s name can actually be the critical factor in his spiritual success or failure.
Ironically, we find that these days, secular society has also begun to study the psychological effect of certain names, yet some of our own people have abandoned ancient guidelines and traditions in naming children. A recent article titled “The Power in Your Name” (New York Times Sunday Review, June 3, 2018) reveals “an entire field called Onomastics.” These Onomasticians are people “who study proper names” and their effect upon their bearers. The author, Arthur C. Brooks, is actually quite unhappy about his own first name. He reports that “I cringe a little whenever I hear someone say my name” and can recall people “bursting out laughing when I said ‘Arthur’” upon being asked his name. Having obviously researched this extremely carefully, he shares that his name is even less popular than cognomens such as “Maximus” and “Maverick.” Although he is 54 years old, Arthur confesses that when hearing his name on the phone, people imagine “someone about 100 years old.”
Interestingly, I have been told by several people that Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky advised them not to name after a grandmother who had a strange Yiddish name, because it will make the girl herself uncomfortable and possibly subject her to ridicule and derision.
So what are the appropriate factors to consider in naming a child and which are inappropriate or even dangerous?
I had the zechus of visiting Rav Chaim Kanievsky not long ago and asked him about his reported aversion to certain names. His answer, which was widely publicized on a video of the conversation, was that people think that just because a word may be found in a posuk, it becomes an appropriate Jewish name. Rav Chaim insisted that only names that have been used in Klal Yisroel for many generations are acceptable as nomenclature.
Out of respect for his status as one of the senior gedolei and poskei hador, I did not ask for his source for this statement. However, I believe that at least one recent mekor might be found in Rav Menashe Klein’s Mishnah Halachos (6:256). Rav Klein relates that the author of the Machaneh Chaim regretted promising his rebbe, the author of the Shaarei Torah, to name a child after him, since he had become aware that one should name a child only after family. In fact, he goes on to reveal that the Chasam Sofer had never named a child after his revered rebbi, Rav Nosson Adler, despite the fact that he had passed away childless, for the same reason that one should name solely after family In fact, the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe zt”l (2:59) writes that naming after the mother’s or father’s family is a segulah for a long life for the newborn.
Another possible source for Rav Chaim’s pronouncement about names might be the words of the Sefer Chassidim (244) that “some names cause success while others bring failure. [Therefore, one should follow] the words of the posuk (Bereishis 48:16), “May the angel who redeems me from all evil bless the lads and may my name be declared upon them and the names of my forefathers Avrohom and Yitzchok.” Here, too, we see the value of generational continuity in issuing names.
Now, I am very aware that many people have named after various gedolei Yisrael or their own rabbeim. However, my point here is that one should be extremely careful not to attempt to concoct or invent new names, even if they seem to exude blessings, good middos or other positive traits. In the early generations of mankind, names were indeed given based upon events or then-current phenomena (Shemos Rabbah 1:33), but they did so based upon ruach hakodesh (divine inspiration), which we no longer have (Bereishis Rabbah 37:37). Of course, it is well-known that parents have a certain level of this inspiration when naming a child (see Sefer Hagilgulim 59; Likkutei Amorim by the Maggid of Mezeritch, page 34; Agra D’kallah, page 107; Amudei Hashomayim 4:23), but it seems from Rav Chaim Kanievsky and others that this is only if one gives an already established name, especially one that has been in the family for generations.
An astonishing example of how scrupulous we must be in writing names and even titles may be seen in a teshuvah from Rav Nosson Gestetner zt”l (Lehoros Nosson, Even Ha’ezer 12:114), who was asked if it was acceptable to write titles in a kesubah, such as Rav for the chosson or his father or Moras for the kallah. His answer was that since early poskim such as the Tashbetz (3:301) allowed it, we may do so as well. He adds that often, the various names might add up to a gematria (mathematical sum) that could be inauspicious or even ill-omened. However, together with these titles, which changed the arithmetical connotation to something favorable, the totality of the names would auger well for the new couple.
We may conclude from these giants that earlier generations were very cautious in the sacred process of naming a child to follow traditional paths and time-honored names.
How important is all this? The sefer Maavor Yabok (Maamar Sifsei Renanos 23) states that “the essence of a person’s life or death rests in his name.” For this reason, many gedolim were reluctant to change a person’s name even if he was, G-d forbid, mortally ill, since even what little connection he had to life might be flowing from his lifelong name. These same giants of the spirit often mention that to alter a name requires at least a touch of ruach hakodesh.
Another example of the incredible care that must be taken in naming a baby relates to the name Akiva. Some (see Rav Moshe Bunim Pirutinsky, Sefer Habris, page 311:6) hold that despite the fact that Rebbi Akiva’s name is spelled with an alef at the end throughout Shas, nevertheless, since he died a martyr’s death at the hands of the Romans, it is best spell it with a hey at the end to avoid anything unpropitious. While the decision whether to follow this opinion should be left to a competent posek, the fact that such considerations are even necessary should instill anyone naming a child with a sense of discretion at such a wonderful but auspicious moment.
Another example of this great concern upon naming occurs when a family wishes to name a girl after a man with a slight appropriate change. Rav Pinchos of Koritz, one of the great early Chassidic leaders, warned that naming a boy, with changes such as Don for Dinah, is proper because the neshamah has been upgraded. However, to do the reverse is a disservice to the neshamah of the deceased and should never be allowed (ibid., page 313).
Now, despite these cautionary notes, we must remember that all decisions about names should be made by father and mother in a spirit of unity and joy. There should never be any arguments, only discussions, about the name. Many poskim (see Siddur Yaavetz 67 and ibid, page 320) cite a distinct danger to the child who is named amidst such dissension. Therefore, we should primarily always remember the great gift of a new child and the precious opportunity to add a new soul to the ranks of Knesses Yisroel. However, this great moment such be accompanied by rabbinic guidance and the sense of gravity of affecting not only this one baby, but of the many generations to come, G-d willing.
Oh, yes, and watch out for Arthur.