Simon Jackson
Legal Advisor to Torah Mitzion


The Right To A Name…

“And these are the names of the Children of Israel…”

Ever since the founding of the State of Israel, the Israeli Foreign Ministry has required all State representatives with foreign names planning to travel abroad on a diplomatic passport to change their names to Hebrew names – or at least to add Hebrew names alongside their foreign names.

The surname of the founder of the modern-day Hebrew language thus became Ben-Yehuda (from Perlman); and that of the first Prime Minister became Ben Gurion (from Gryn). However, this was by no means universally accepted by the State’s leaders: the first President, for example, retained his foreign surname ‘Weizmann’ and the majority of the country’s judges retained their foreign names.

In light of Israel’s status as “a Jewish and democratic State,” what should be its policy towards compelling its representatives abroad to change their birth-names to Hebrew names?

The Book of Shemot opens with the above words – words which only underline the importance of a person’s name in our heritage. Indeed, the entire Book is called Sefer Shemot (The Book of Names)!

The Tanach is replete with examples regarding the importance of naming a person. One prominent illustration of this is Adam’s calling his wife “Chava” (Life) “because she was the mother of all living” (Bereshit 3:20); and when their firstborn son was born, Chava called him “Kayin” (to acquire) because “I have acquired a man with the help of Hashem” (4:1).

Each of the 12 Shevatim acquired their names based on their parents’ almost instinctive reaction to their birth: Thus Reuven receives his name because ra’ah Hashem be’onyi (Hashem has looked upon my affliction [for now my husband will love me] – 29:32); and Levi (from the Hebrew root lavah – to join) acquires his name, because “this time my husband will become attached (yilave) to me [for I have borne him three sons – 29:34].” An intriguing insight into Levi’s name is brought down by Hizkuni who states: “Until now, I was able to use my two hands to take care of my two sons, but now that I have a third son my husband will need to assist me in looking after them!”

Moshe Rabbeinu’s name is given special emphasis by the Torah. Even though (according to the Midrash) Moshe had as many as 13 names, Hashem chooses to call him only by the name given to him by Pharaoh’s daughter: “and she called his name Moshe ‘because I drew him (meshitihu) from the water’” (2:10) – “to demonstrate the reward given to those who perform acts of chesed…” (Midrash Shemot Rabbah, 1:26).

The Midrash at the beginning of the book of Shemot gives several explanations as to why the Torah goes out of its way to state the names of the Hebrew midwives (“And the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, of whom the name of the first was Shifrah and the name of the second was Puah” – 1:15) rather than just making do with a description of their professions. Chazal identify the midwives with Yocheved and Miriam respectively: Yocheved was called Shifrah because she would beautify (meshaperet) the newborn babies, while Miriam was called Puah because she would blow (nofa’at) into the baby’s nostrils to revive him…

Finally, Bnei Yisrael themselves merited to be redeemed from Egypt, first and foremost, because they retained their distinctive Jewish names in Egypt. In the words of the Midrash: “Reuven and Shimon went down to Egypt – Reuven and Shimon came out of Egypt. Reuven was not called Rufus and Shimon was not called Luliani…”

From all of the above, it thus becomes apparent that a name is not merely a technical, functional means of identifying a person, like a number, but encapsulates within it the past and the present, as well as prayer and hope for the future. A person’s name expresses his connection with his past and his heritage and is a guarantor of his Jewish identity – even while languishing under conditions of servitude and slavery – in the face of the danger of assimilation. ‘Cutting off a person’s name’ is akin to killing him and everything he represents: “let us cut him off from the land of the living, so that his name will not be remembered”* (Jeremiah 11:20).

In 1950, the Israeli Prime Minister’s office published a circular which stated: “We hereby bring to your attention the following decision of the Foreign Minister. The Foreign Ministry will not issue service or diplomatic passports to people with foreign names, whether these are surnames or first names.” This directive was softened somewhat in 1987 when a further circular decided to allow the registration of two names in official passports – the original family name alongside a new Hebrew family name.

It is arguable whether, in fact, the Foreign Ministry has authority to issue a directive of this sort, because the Names Law of 5716 – 1956, gives the authority for registering and changing names to the Interior Ministry. Moreover, this Law itself empowers the individual to decide whether or not he wishes to change his name.

The ‘right to one’s name’ can be viewed as an independent right, a ‘natural’ right which is laid down by custom and tradition. Alternatively, it can be viewed as a sub-set of a person’s right to ‘the freedom of expression’: a person has the right to call himself by whatever name he chooses save where this injures other legitimate interests. Either way, it is apparent that a person’s name becomes part of his personality and reputation earned by him and by which he is identified; which is why he is entitled to keep his name and cannot be forced to change it!

The Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, passed by the Knesset in 1992, laid down a further basis for a person’s entitlement to his own name. In the words of Supreme Court President Barak: “The basis of regarding a person’s dignity as a supra-constitutional value is the fact that a person is a free individual, who is given free rein to shape his personality… From the right to one’s dignity stems a person’s entitlement to choose for himself any name he wishes.”

To coerce a person to change his name constitutes a violation of both the principle of “human dignity” and “his liberty”. The addition of a Hebrew name would certainly suffice in order to represent the State of Israel, and there can be no justification, neither from a “Jewish” nor from a “democratic” perspective, for forcing a person to erase the name he was given at the time he was born.

Even the interest which stands at the basis of the State’s directive – the desire to represent the renewed Hebrew State in a proper and fitting manner – cannot override the liberty of the individual and his right to be called by the name given to him by his parents. In the words of Justice Barak:
“A person’s name is a part of his personality. It is his societal ego. It is the key through which he strides through society. It is no mere identification code. It is an expression of personality, of emotions, of duty, of tradition and of destiny… A democratic society… recognizes and values a person’s liberty to be called by whatever name he wishes and his freedom to change his name…”
*Based on an article by Adv. Elisheva Hacohen, “And these are the names – a person’s right to a name,” Israel Ministry of Justice Parshat Hashavua e-mail sheet 5761