Miriam Steinberg-Egeth discusses the in and outs of baby-naming in the Jewish tradition.
I’m not even pregnant yet, but I’m already stressed out about who we’re going to name our future kids after. Is there some rule about whether you’re supposed to name after long-deceased relatives or after people who have passed away more recently? I feel like whatever we do, someone’s relatives are going to be insulted.
Nervous about Names
It’s totally possible that no matter what you do, someone will be insulted. It’s also possible that someone won’t like the name, or someone will start using a nickname you don’t love or, God forbid, you’ll have a name all picked out and then another relative will pass away and you’ll feel compelled to change your minds again.
I happen to love names and all things related to picking out names, as well as naming trends and naming traditions. No matter how much I want to, though, I resist asking expecting couples about their naming plans. Sharing this information before there’s an actual baby only opens the door to unnecessary feedback. I’m a strong proponent of naming after deceased relatives, but what you name your baby is no one’s business but yours. (It's also worth noting that naming after deceased relatives is an Ashkenazic tradition. Sephardi Jews name babies in honor of living relatives.)
If a relative passed away a long time ago, but there haven’t been any babies born in a family since then, there may be an expectation that the next baby born will honor this person. If a relative passes away soon before a baby is born, there’s often a similar expectation that the timing works out so that that relative can be honored immediately. I’ve even heard people remark that it was a blessing to have a (sick, very elderly) relative pass away before a baby came so that the baby could carry his name. When a new parent has lost a parent, I think that honoring the more immediate relative trumps honoring more distant relatives, but that’s more of a gut feeling than a requirement. You can also take closeness into consideration. If someone lost a grandparent with whom she didn't have much of a relationship, but also lost a dearly beloved aunt, naming after the aunt makes sense.
However you view this particular bit of morbidity, you and your partner have to like and feel comfortable with the name(s) you give your child(ren). Some parents make deals like, if it’s a girl, she’ll be named after a deceased female relative, and if it’s a boy, after a deceased male relative. Some decide to honor one side of the family with the baby’s English name and the other side of the family with the Hebrew name, or one side with the first name and the other with the middle name, and then swap the order for subsequent kids. There are infinite possibilities and combinations of how to make this decision, but ultimately, it’s your decision to make, and everyone in your families will love the baby and will learn to love the baby’s name, too.