This article began as a Hebrew responsum written on Rosh Hodesh Marheshvan 5763. I then lectured on the topic at the Sixth International Conference on Jewish Names at Bar Ilan University on June 11, 2003. The complete article appeared in Hebrew in Studies in Memory of Prof. Zev Falk, Jerusalem, 2005, pp. 27-38 which can be ordered from Magnes Press at www.magnespress.co.il . This English summary contains a few selected notes; lengthy footnotes can be found in the Hebrew article.
The question posed in the title of this article would seem to be a simple one, but, as we shall see, the answer is far from simple. Due to historical gaps, it is difficult to sketch a clear picture of the development of this custom. Therefore we shall discuss five periods in the history of when boys and girls are named: the biblical period, the first to eighth centuries, shavua habat , the Hollekreisch custom in Germany and a wide variety of customs from the sixteenth-twentieth centuries.
- I) The Biblical Period (See A. Even-Shoshan, Konkordantzia Hadasha Letorah Nevi’im Uketuvim , Jerusalem, 1981, p. 468, s.v. vateled; Entziklopedia Mikra’it, Vol. 8, cols. 35-37, s.v. shem; R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions , Vol. 1, London, 1961, p. 43).
It seems that in the Biblical period, boys and girls were named at birth. A typical description is found in Genesis 4:1: “Adam knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying: ‘I have gained a male child with the help of the Lord’ “.
Similarly, in Genesis Chapter 30, seven of Jacob’s children are named. In each case it says: And she conceived and bore Jacob a son and she said.Therefore she named him X. After six sons, the Torah says (Genesis 30:21): “Last, she gave birth to a daughter, and she named her Dinah”.
These and other verses give a clear impression that children – both boys and girls – were named at birth.
Indeed, a few verses explicitly mention boys who were named at birth:
” But as she [=Rachel] breathed her last – for she was dying – she named him Ben-oni, but his father called him Binyamin” (Genesis 35:18).
As Tamar was giving birth to twins,
One of them put out his hand, and the midwife tied a crimson thread on that hand to signify: This one came out first. But just then he drew back his hand, and out came his brother, and she said: “What a breach you have made for yourself!” So he was named Peretz. Afterwards, his brother came out, on whose hand was the crimson thread; he was named Zerah (Genesis 38:27-30).
Finally, Isaac was clearly named by Abraham (Genesis 21:3-4) before his brit , as opposed to the custom today.
- II) The First – Eighth Centuries (See S. Krauss, Talmudische Archaeologie , Vol. II, Leipzig, 1911, pp. 12, 439 n. 123; H. L. Strack and P. Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch , Vol. II, Munich, 1924, p. 107; T. Gaster, The Holy and the Profane , New York, 1955, pp. 33-34).
Amazingly enough, there is no explicit source in the Mishnah or both Talmuds which teaches us when boys or girls were named.
The New Testament Book of Luke, which was written in Israel in the first century, says that both Zekhariah (1:59) and Jesus (2:21) were named at their brit ceremonies. The Church Father Clement of Alexandria (d. ca. 220) says that Moses was originally named Yehoyakim at his brit. Finally, an eighth-century Midrash, Pirkey D’rabi Eliezer (Chapter 48), says that Moshe was called Yekutiel at his brit.
Why was the naming of boys moved from birth to the circumcision ceremony? Theodor Gaster suggests that the Jews at that time were afraid of demons attacking the baby before the brit , just as Christians only give a name at Baptism and just as other peoples hide the name for a while after birth. Therefore, they moved the naming of boys to the brit ceremony.
And what about girls? There is no explicit source from the Talmudic period. Samuel Krauss, writing in 1911, assumed that girls still received their names at birth as in the biblical period. This is an “argument from silence” but, for the time being, this is all we have.
III) Shavua Habat (See L. Low, Die Lebensalter in der Judischen Literatur , Szegedin, 1875, p. 89; J. Bergman, ” Schebua ha-ben “, Monatsschrift fur die Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums 76 (1932), pp. 465-470; idem , Ha’am V’ruho , Jerusalem, 1938, pp. 105-108).
The term Shavua Haben “the week of the son” appears as the name of a birth celebration in nine places in rabbinic literature (e.g. Sanhedrin 32b). Rashi (ibid.) and others assumed that it means the brit milah , but this is surprising since the brit occurs on the eighth day and not on the seventh .
This interpretation is also contradicted by a source quoted by Nahmanides (Spain and Israel, 1194-1270) about which event takes precedence over another: “and in another version of [Massekhet Semahot ] it is taught: Shavua Habat [= the week of the daughter] and Shavua Haben – Shavua Haben comes first”.
In other words, if you have to choose between going to Shavua Haben or Shavua Habat , the former takes precedence. It is clear from this source that Shavua Haben is not a brit , because girls do not have a brit! Various scholars have said various explanations for Shavua Haben . Leopold Low said in 1875 that the Greeks held a Hebdomeuomena festival on the seventh day after a boy was born and he suggested that this is called Shavua Haben in our sources.
If we jump forward 1800 years, we know that Iraqi Jews hold a Shisha festival on the sixth night after birth for boys and girls. At that festival, girls receive their names. In other words, the festival is identical for boys and girls except that girls are named at the Shisha, while boys are named at the brit. The same may have been true for Shavua Haben/Shavua Habat . A festival may have been held for boys and girls on the seventh day, except that girls were named then, while boys were named at the brit . This suggestion will remain a hypothesis until further evidence is found.
- IV) The Ashkenazic Custom – The Hollekreisch (See Y. Baer, Seder Avodat Yisrael , Rodelheim, 1868, p. 494; Low, op. cit ., pp. 104-105; J. Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition , New York, 1939, pp. 42-43; B. Sh. Hamburger, Shorshei Minhag Ashkenaz , Vol. 1, Bnei Berak, 1995, pp. 415-455; E. Baumgarten, Mothers and Children : Jewish Family Life in Medieval Europe , Princeton, New Jersey, 2004, pp. 93-99).
This custom existed for some 900 years in Germany and has been discussed by many scholars. It took place on the first Shabbat when the mother went to the synagogue, which was on the fourth Shabbat or on the thirteeth day after the birth. It took place after Shabbat lunch. Boys recited the Hollekreisch for boys and girls for girls. The newborn children were dressed up; baby boys were dressed in a tallit and the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) was placed in the crib.
Before the naming, a series of verses were recited from the Pentateuch.
Then, they would lift up the crib and shout in German:
Hollekreisch! How shall the baby be called? Ploni Ploni Ploni (i.e. his or her name three times).
This is repeated three times and then nuts, sweets and fruits were given to the boys and girls.
Originally, this was the German custom for both boys and girls. In time, they stopped performing the ceremony for boys, since they were named in any case at the brit , and they observed it only for girls. Rabbi Ya’akov Emden (d. 1776) says there was not a fixed custom to recite the verses for girls. Girls received a Hebrew name or a secular name at the Hollekreisch.
There are at least six different explanations for the word Hollekreisch . For example, some suggest that it comes from the French “haut la crèche”, to raise the crib. This is not convincing because the word is always quoted by German rabbis, not French. Others said that Hollekreisch means a “holy cry”. This interpretation is not correct, because the ceremony included giving a secular name or just a secular name.
The most convincing explanation is that Holle is Lilith or an evil spirit which attacks infants and that they cried “Holle” in order to chase away the evil spirit from the baby. This explanation fits the well- known method of making noise in order to chase away evil spirits. (See D. Golinkin, “The Satan and Rabbi Yitzhak Revisited”, Conservative Judaism 35/3 (Spring 1982), pp. 50-54 and the literature cited there).
- V) A Wide Variety of Customs from the Sixteenth-Twentieth Centuries (For literature about these customs, see the Hebrew version of this article, notes 49-68).
Beginning in the sixteenth century, we hear of twenty different customs regarding the proper time to name a baby girl. In Ashkenaz, they preferred synagogue ceremonies, while the Sefaradim and Oriental Jews preferred home ceremonies. Here is a sampling of different customs:
1) The first time the mother comes to the synagogue after the birth;
2) On the day of birth;
3) At the first Torah-reading after birth;
4) On the first Shabbat after birth;
5) On the second Shabbat after birth;
6) At the Shisha , on the sixth night, as mentioned above;
7) One full week after the birth;
8) On the eighth day;
9) Two weeks after birth;
10) On the thirteeth day;
11) On the fourteeth day;
12) On the eighteeth day;
13) On Rosh Hodesh;
14) Within a year of birth.
- VI) Some Concluding Observations
It is clear from the above that the most ancient custom is to name a girl at birth. This was the biblical custom which seems to have continued throughout the Talmudic period even when boys began to be named at the brit . If my hypothesis about Shavua Habat is correct, there was a custom in the third century to name girls on the seventh day after birth.
A more well-attested custom is the Hollekreisch , going back 900 years. According to this custom, a girl is named on the fourth Shabbat or on the thirteeth day after birth.
All the other customs are late, and each was or is practiced by various groups of Jews and is explained in various fashions.
What can we learn from all of the above about the status of women in Judaism? It is difficult to give a definitive answer. On the one hand, the time for naming babies in the biblical period and in Ashkenaz was egalitarian for boys and girls, and in Ashkenaz the entire ceremony was almost identical. On the other hand, one could claim that the lack of a unified custom for girls beginning in the sixteenth century shows that girls are less important in Judaism than boys. However, there is another way to explain the different customs. One could claim that originally, in the biblical period, the naming ceremony was uniform and egalitarian. (For the equal status of women in the biblical period as opposed to the Talmudic period, see Rabbi Theodore Friedman’s important article in Judaism 36/4 (Fall 1987), pp. 479-487 = D. Golinkin editor, Be’er Tuvia: From the Writings of Rabbi Theodore Friedman , Jerusalem, 1991, pp. 47-57). The transfer of the naming of boys to the brit in the first century weakened the status of the original custom of naming girls at birth. This weakening led to the creation of the wide variety of customs described above.
Prof. David Golinkin is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate the article, please contact Rabbi Golinkin at:mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute.