Throughout the ages, people born as non-Jews and, in rare cases, entire non-Jewish communities have chosen to adopt the Torah and Jewish religion as their own through conversion. Though Jews are Biblically forbidden to proselytize, a non-Jew sincerely seeking to become part of the nation of Israel is welcomed.
By Jewish law, a convert is considered as if born anew. Therefore, part of the conversion process is choosing a Hebrew name.
“The Biblical figures Abram and Sarai, the first individuals to teach monotheism, were themselves given new names by God to signify their higher spiritual stature,” shared Roni Segal, academic adviser for The Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, an online language academy specializing in Biblical Hebrew, with Breaking Israel News.
“In the merit of the many people they converted, Abram, which means ‘Noble Father’, became Abraham, meaning ‘Father of many’. His wife Sarai, which means ‘Princess’, became Sarah, ‘Mother of Nations’.”
By Jewish law, a convert is considered to have only spiritual parents since they are believed reborn. Therefore, since the Torah refers to Avraham as “the father of a multitude of nations,” (Genesis 17:5), proselytes are referred to as the children of Abraham and Sarah.
This is significant because on religious documents, like a wedding certificates, praying for someone’s healing, and when called to participate in reading the Torah in synagogue, Jews are referred to by their and their parents’ Hebrew names. Thus, a male convert whose name is Michael, for example, would be referred to as “Michael ben Avraham Avinu” (“Michael, the son of our Father, Abraham”). A female convert named Miriam would be referred to as “Miriam bat Sarah Imenu” (“Miriam, the daughter of our mother, Sarah”).
Once the conversion process is complete through immersion in a ritual bath called a mikvah, a Hebrew name change is performed which represents the convert’s rebirth and new Jewish identity along with his or her new spiritual relationship with God.
“A convert may choose a Hebrew name from the Torah or even a Hebrew word which expresses a particular character trait or aspect of nature that reflects his or her soul essence,” continued Segal. “Therefore, for example, Eliyana (אליענה) means ‘God answered’. Elchai (אלחי) means ‘Living God’. The choices are numerous once someone knows Hebrew.”
Sometimes people choose their Hebrew names based on the translation from their mother tongues. For instance, Carol can become Shira (song). It is also acceptable to simply choose a Hebrew name which begins with the same first letter as a birth name. For example, Rivka for Rebecca, Yaakov for Jake, or Batya for Beth.
Though it is not a transgression to continue to use a non-Hebraic name in daily interaction with other people, it is often possible to find a Hebrew name that is easy to pronounce in the convert’s native language. However, converts with distinctive non-Jewish names, like Christian or Christina, might want to adopt a Hebrew name to better fit into their new Jewish lives.
Whether a convert chooses a Hebrew name or not, Jewish law dictates that converts must be treated with the utmost respect and sensitivity, as all Jews were once “strangers in a strange land” (Exodus 2:22). Even Ruth the Moabite, the great-grandmother of King David, was a convert. Additionally, Rabbi El’azar in the Talmud states, “The Holy One exiled Israel among the nations only in order that converts might join them.”
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