What’s in a Name – Matisyahu?

One gratifying moment in my Baal Teshuvah life was when I legally changed my “American” first name to my Jewish first name. I have tremendous pleasure every time I have to spell out my name to someone official: “M A T I S Y A H U.”

Many BT’s would gladly change their legal first name, however, they do not do it, due to the hassle involved with possible court proceedings, changing the social security, passport, car registration and driver license, credit cards, etc.

As for me, my name change was even more involved due to the fact that I hold professional licenses in three states. The legal-proceedings aspect of my name change was actually easy; I was able to do it through the mail in the county in which I live (Rockland County, NY). The whole thing cost under $200. I made the remaining changes to the driver license, etc., little by little. It took me almost a year to change everything.

These days, I receive a random piece of mail addressed to my old name. However, everything else is in my Jewish name and I like it!

Some BT’s are reluctant to legally change their names because they may be concerned with their image in the “business world.” Yehoshua, for example is a beautiful name, but Josh is so much easier for Chris to pronounce.

As for the affect on business, my Jewish clients love it, and many of the non-Jewish clients think it is a “cool” name. Besides that, a large number of my clients are from foreign countries, and they themselves have “strange” names. In any case, parnassa depends on Shomayim. As long as someone does not do something which is against hishtadlus (such as slapping the boss), then Hashem will help with parnassa.

In fact, many companies would probably love to have an authentic Jewish name on their company roster; because a Jewish first name brings, even if only the appearance of, “diversity” to the company image.

We are living in a very open world, where the moral standard is going down and down every day. Everyone is proud of flaunting their immorality. Why can’t we Jews, l’havdil, be proud in doing the right thing? For the same reason, I would urge parents to give Jewish names to their children as the child’s legal name also.

Boruch Hashem that we are not living in Berlin of 1943. These days in America, I don’t see any real danger of anti-Semitism towards one who goes by his Jewish name. I myself have done business with all types, and nobody has ever seemed to care. The main thing in business today seems to be: if you deliver results, who cares what your name is or what you dress like?

In conclusion, for whatever reason, many BT’s do not change their names legally. However, I personally would highly recommend the name change; for me it has been an empowering experience.

54 comments on “What’s in a Name – Matisyahu?

  1. Thanks. Oy, “Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog” was the catalyst for “Jerry” instead of “Jeremiah”. Yirmiyahu and David are both family names. I think that’s how I ended up with my name. My sisters, Shira and Matea both ended up with their names despite my parents becoming frei. Also, probably because my parents are first generation Americans. However I have heard that my last name, Parker, was most likely anglicized. My family doesn’t agree from what, or when it happened though. Could be: Pourker, Buparker, Barkan, or Berger depending on which aunt or uncle I ask. Now I’m going to be singing “Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog” for the rest of the day….”was a good friend of mine…”

  2. I’m amazed that Yirmiyahu David is also your English name. It’s a wonderful name.

    Most of the time, Yirmiyahu ended up as Jeremy, even among Orthodox Jews of the former generation.

    Do people over a certain age start singing, “Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog” to you?

    I once spoke to a young man, a potential client, named Jeremiah, and asked him whether people ever sang that song to him. I got a blank look: he had never even heard of the song. Maybe it was ubiquitous forty years ago, but since then it seems to have passed out of the cultural Zeitgeist.

    It is interesting to note that the famed Yippie, Abbie Hoffman, named his son “America.” Well, America Hoffman found his name a little too weird and ended up using the more prosaic “Alan” instead.

    I remember also that a very smart girl who graduated from my high school two years ahead of me changed her very Jewish sounding last name into a WASPy-sounding name to improve her chances of getting into a top college.

  3. Judy,
    Actually I hadn’t noticed the date of the post. I guess I probably shouldn’t wait for a response from Matisyahu. Judy Sue is a beautiful name, as is Yehudis. As a child growing up in Portland OR I thought my name was weird and I tired of people calling me “yahoo”, so I started introducing myself as Jerry, partially after Jerry Garcia I have to admit. Only since my return to Torah and Eretz Yisroel have people other than my grandparents (or my parents when angry) have people been addressing me by my given name.

  4. To Yirmiyahu David #50: With all due respect, kindly note that this article was posted more than five years ago, in early 2006. I don’t know whether the author is still responding to comments on this thread.

    I’ve always used my English name “Judy” rather than the Hebrew name, “Yehudis.” My oldest son married a fine young lady whose English and Hebrew names are both “Yehudis.” So it would cause major confusion in the family if I started using my Hebrew name “Yehudis Resnick” because that’s my daughter-in-law’s legal name.

    As far as not having a mother and a wife with the same name, I am actually “Yehudis Sima” while my daughter-in-law is “Yehudis Raizl.” My son asked some rabbonim about that issue before his marriage, and they told him it wasn’t a problem.

    My husband Ira is used to being called “Yitzchok” by our rabbi and the men from shul, and of course he is called up to the Torah as “Yitzchok Avraham.” Nobody ever uses his English middle name or even knows how it is spelled; combined with his first name, it actually makes a great UserID to sign in on various websites.

    I saved the best for last: My parents had Ruach ha-Kodesh, prophetic insight, when I was born. They didn’t know I was going to be a lawyer when I grew up.

    You’re not going to believe me, but if I ever get to show you my birth certificate, you’ll start laughing. Guess what my middle name is.

    You’re absolutely right. At birth my parents named me “Judy Sue.”

  5. Matisyahu,
    Have other Frummies suggested that you are trying to represent yourself as something you are not by changing your name? I don’t think so, but I know some who might.

  6. My great, greatgrandfather was called Zacharia Benoni, with Benoni as a last name. Does anybody know if Benoni as a last name is Jewish?

  7. sorry about the repetition at the end. I wrote that in the little box for comments and didn’t edit properly.

  8. “However, the Tanach is not at all a “Testament.””

    Sure it is! E.g. Toras hashem t’mima etc eydus hashem ne’emana etc.

    As I’ve said, OT and NT go together. The term New Testament was used to imply that the old (i.e. original) covenant was replaced by the New one. Not really putting them on the same level – actively promoting the New over the Old. I don’t think the term OT on its own is the issue. I would gladly stop using the term NT if anyone comes up with a useable alternative for the specifically additional texts in the Christian Bible. But once one is using NT, assuming that it’s just a term and not any longer used to convey this theological belief, OT just means “original”.

    I think we’ve beaten this to death…:-)

    I think we’ve milked this one to death. To me, it makes no sense to argue against OT while retaining the term NT.

  9. Old is not a negative term by Jews, just by goyim.” Good point tfb.

    However, the Tanach is not at all a “Testament.”

    I just don’t like the term Old Testament because I used to hear it from goyim. It tends to put the Tanach, chus v’sholom and the New Testament garbage on the same level. For example, “this is the old one and here is the new one,” when there is nothing in common in the two, l’havdil.

  10. Mattishyahu, if you scroll up to the original discussion, you’ll see why the term new testament was necessary and that is the term that is loaded theologically
    Old is not a negative term by Jews, just by goyim. We Jews respect that which is older, more traditional, etc, and are suspicious of innovation. We don’t normally think newer is automatically better.
    Once one is using the term NT, I don’t see much room to complain about OT.

    I am also a bit dismayed to see so many people making fuss about superficial things that I have seen many rabbonim and roshei yeshiva not makpid on. Let’s not get bent out of shape over trivialities.

  11. “Every time I am proud to have such a name, and proud to say it is modern Hebrew from Israel. I believe that my distinct name has helped shape my character.”

    I am glad that you are proud of your name, by being frum, you will be m’kadesh the name. Who knows, maybe in 150 years, Ilanit will be the most popular girl’s name in Bais Yakov, etc. schools!

  12. Last time I checked tfb, this is not a discussion among Xtians, so why bother with the phrase “Old Testament” at all?

    Which law book would you reach for, the old law book or the new one.

    Old has a negative connotation and Old Testament is a goyishe term.

  13. Folks, again:

    Christian Bible includes tanach PLUS the New Testament. It cannot be used to refer exclusively to New Testament, because it *doesn’t* refer to that exclusively.

    Old Testament is by contrast to NT – The words new testament originally implied a new convenant. If you *don’t* have an issue with the term NT, it is just pedantry to talk about a problem with the term “Old Testament,” as it is only Old by contrast with the New.

    So when anyone comes up with a universally recognized term specific to the texts unique to Christians, I will be happy to use it. But the discussion here seems to avoid all the crucial theological points, as many of you accept NT and/or miss that Xian bible is an ambiguous term.

  14. I have lived my entire life with this issue of names at the forefront. I have a very Israeli name, a very modern Israeli name, and one that is hard to spell and hard to pronounce for most people. Not only have I always thought it to be convenient in Hebrew class growing up alrady having a Hebrew name, but I was always very proud of my distinct name (although I shall point out that a recent Miss Israel shares my name!) and the story behind it (it was a name and a singer my sister liked, and my dad could pronounce it!). Every single time I meet someone new (who is not familiar with Hebrew), I have to enunciate carefully, and invariably the question comes to its origin. Every time I am proud to have such a name, and proud to say it is modern Hebrew from Israel. I believe that my distinct name has helped shape my character.

    There is much in a name, and there is a beautiful poem by an Israeli poet named Zelda or something similar (I forget!) about this topic. That is why it is very important for parents to choose the right name for a child.

  15. My husband, who is active in anti-missionary work, prefers Jewish Bible and X-ian bible.

  16. Dear GW, great Question!

    When Moshiach comes and we are all living in Eretz Yisroel in freedom, then I will do it!

    Until them, I am concerned that If I were to translate my name to an Israeli sounding-name, I may be associated with certain groups in Israel who have made such changes to their last names.

    Notable Tzadikim such as Rav Shach, The Steipler, the Chazon Ish, the Baba Sali, and the Vishnitzer Rebbe, just to name a few, moved to Eretz Yisroel, but did not change their last names, so I learn from their example.

  17. Matisyahu,

    I absolutely commend you for changing your name, especially legally. I have yet the courage to do so. But why did you change just half your name. Wolfberg is just as un-Jewish as your previous first name. Granted many Jews have similar names, but its source is German. How about Matisyahu Har-Ze’evi?


  18. Shmuel,

    You wrote:

    While I have observed that phenomenon, I wouldn’t ascribe it to this particular rabbi. He’s just a straight shooter and not that impressed by change.

  19. I avoid “C-H-R-I-S…” whenever possible because it means messiah in Greek.

    My last word on this is: “Tanach” and l’havdil elef havdalos, “New Testament.” (sic.)

  20. How about “Tanach” and “Christian Bible”? That’s what I usually do for papers, since I also dislike using OT and NT.

  21. I would tend to agree with Shmuel that Old Testament is offensive. I thought only Goyim used the Term Old Testiment. Old has a negative connotation. Besides that, the Bible is not a Testament

    Stick with New Testament which is sheker and Tanach, l’havdil, which is emes.

  22. “How about Tanach?”

    nothing wrong with Tanach or Hebrew Bible for OT, but the underlying theology is problematic for “New Testament” and I don’t have an alternate term for that. It isn’t in dispute that the OT is older after all.

  23. “Incidentally, the only person who still calls me Chloe is the Chabad rabbi who introduced me to orthodoxy. Go figure!”

    Sometimes I wonder if some FFB’s subconsciously try to remind BT’s of their past because they feel threatened by the BT’s who may have become even frumer than the FFB.

  24. In response to the original post:

    I changed my name to Chaya in those first intense years of discovering traditional Judaism. I was hanging out in circles where this was a necessary BT rite of passage, and certainly no FFB I knew had an English name. My name, Chloe, was hard for most people to pronounce and spell anyway. It wasn’t exactly the passport to assimilation that Ann or Sue might be.

    Now it’s been 7 years, and I feel like Chaya. My family calls me Chaya, my childhood friends call me Chaya, my husband has only known me as Chaya. But I’m starting to miss Chloe a bit. Yes, it’s taken from Greek mythology. Yes, my mother named me for a French movie whose subject I would be embarassed to mention on this site. But sometimes, especially when I am in a kiruv setting, I feel like my first name, with its chet, is just one more barrier between me and the people I am trying to make a connection with. I would never take on an English name for this purpose, but I’m kind of bummed I gave up the one I had so quickly. I think I should have waited.

    Incidentally, the only person who still calls me Chloe is the Chabad rabbi who introduced me to orthodoxy. Go figure!

  25. The point re pronunciation is that there isn’t anything sacrosant about Ashkenazi pronunciation that makes it more “Jewish.” Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. The truth is that the average clerk is more likely to identify “Abraham” as a distinctively Jewish name than “Avrohom” – the latter is more likely to be filed away as just another ambiguously ethnic name.

    “In any case, I think the point of the post is that it is a good thing for Jews to go by their Jewish name because it shows pride and it tends to encourage Jewish identification in a Goyishe world.”

    I agree with this.

    “If so, I find the expression Old Testament offensive. It is a purely Goyishe expression which should not be used by Jews.”

    I disagree (and if it’s a problem, it would be because the expression is specifically Christian, not because it is “goyish”). The expression is nowadays divorced from its original ideological underpinnings, and is in common use. I use it because there are no other terms that are easily understood. You can use the term “Torah” or “Hebrew Bible,” but the Christian bible includes both the torah and the NT. “Christian Bible” is ambiguous for the point at hand, and NT has the same ideological baggage.

  26. I think I figured it out what TFB means by OT and NT, I think TFB means Old Testament and New Testament. If so, I find the expression Old Testament offensive. It is a purely Goyishe expression which should not be used by Jews.

  27. tfb

    At the risk of sounding anti-Semantic, I would say the following.

    Anyone who grew up or lives in America has seen the familar sign on synagogues “Beth Israel,” etc. I always wondered who “Beth” was, until I learned a little history of the Hebrew language.

    The ת without the dagesh is really pronounced “THOV”. The TH sound is however hard to pronounce. Thus it appears that most Sefardim have made it a “T” sound, while Ashkenazim made it a “S” sound.

    What of the practice of Ashenazim saying “Yankiv” for “Yaakov?” Ashkenazim are merely trying to say the guteral Eyein ×¢ sound, while many Sefardim and modern Israelis have dropped the guteral aspect of the letter ×¢and they pronounce it like an א.

    Then we come to the kometz vowel. The most correct pronounciation is probably closest to “oh.” Most Sefardim however pronounce it like a pathach (patach -pasach)”ah.” We hear this in brochos, where Ashekenazim say “Borcuh” and Sefardim generally say “Baruch.”

    In any case, I think the point of the post is that it is a good thing for Jews to go by their Jewish name because it shows pride and it tends to encourage Jewish identification in a Goyishe world.

  28. Rereading what I originally wrote, I can see what you were responding to. Actually, I think at least some of the parents *did* know they were NT names, but the practice then was not to distinguish. I know a handful of not just Pauls, (one youngish) but also Marks, and even some Matthews — and I suspect the parents are aware that the name derives from the NT but thought the name was sufficiently common to not care. I am just saying that if people are sensitive to the issue, I can hear it for NT names, or even other “secular” nonNT names, but just think it’s going way overboard to object to OT names.

    Didn’t mean to drag this out so much.

  29. Ruth: Right, and so what – if they gave the name and had no intention to give a specifically NT name – the name does after all derive from Saul.

    We’re discussing whether someone with such a name should change it. As a rule of thumb, I can understand this if they are uncomfortable with a NT name, not otherwise. I can’t understand why anyone would even think of objecting to an OT name, however it is spelled or pronounced.

    Remember, there is no halachic issue here. The gemara is full of Aramaic names – there are a whole lot of amaraim who would not meet the standards of some on this blog! There is no indication that there is anything wrong with having a nonJewish name. Given that this is so, and given that the only reason for such a name is that in a multicultural society it’s a sign of Jewish pride, or unwillingness to hide identity, I think there are only limited cases to consider being sensitive about.

    The notion of giving distinctively Jewish names comes from a relatively obscure midrash, and the standard explanation is that in Egypt – before matan torah – names, clothing etc were means of keeping a collective identity that became unnecessary once national identity solidified around shmirat mitzvot.

  30. I changed my name when I made aliyah, quite a simple procedure. However, the misrad hapanim got to decide who my ‘new’ name was spelled in English. My Israeli passport dubbed me ‘Chava Rachel’ in English thus giving me a third name to throw in the pot. Now that I am in the US, I don’t mind. At least when someone says ‘but what is your middle name?’ it’s something they are familiar with and doesn’t have a ‘chet’!

  31. tfb:

    You might be surprised how little most ffbs know about the New Testament. I have an uncle whose English name is Paul (he doesn’t use it now), and I am quite sure my grandmother had no idea it was a Christian name when she gave it to him. In Vienna, where she was living at the time, most frum Jews were called by their English (or German or Hungarian) names and my uncle was not the only Paul.

  32. Shmuel – Michael *is* Michoel. “Michael” is spelled properly for the Sephardic pronunciation, which is more authentic than the Ashkenazic one. It’s stretching matters to change ones birth certificate to get the name to reflect imperfect Ashkenazic pronunciation.

    “I guess Jewish parents need to brush up on the New Testament, before giving names.”

    it’s hard to conceive of a kid with the name Paul or Matthew whos parents aren’t aware that it’s a New Testament name. If someone *does* give the name Matthew thinking only that it derives from Mattisyahu, I don’t see a problem with it, but I can see why it would make them uncomfortable. Similarly, I guess not that many people realize that “Elizabeth” derives from Elisheva, so while I wouldn’t make a fuss, I can sorta understand the issue.

    For the rest, I think the idea that biblical OT names need to be modified to be in line with Ashkenazic pronunication or can’t be spelled in a way that most Americans will recognize or find easy to pronounce is a bit over the top. America was founded by Protestants, our founding fathers were Deists – and if OT names are common in the US, it’s only because these groups identified strongly with the OT. Good for them! We can’t give up the name Sarah (how could one spell the name Sarah to indicate that it’s “Jewish” anyway?) because some Gentiles give the name too. Fussing over the “B” in Abigail or Abraham is also IMO beside the point; these are Old Testament, Biblical, Jewish names and recognized as such.

  33. The the Editor,

    perhaps the email addresses should be published so that bloggers can deal directly with each other when necessary. So as to avoid the comment above which people will read for no reason.

  34. YD- That would be really great. I’d love to ask her about her name change. You could also give her my e-mail, which you can ask Mark or David for so I don’t have to post it up here.

  35. Ruby, beautiful real life story to back up the post.

    Recently I saw a uniformed NYPD officer with dred locks (sp?). When I grew up the rule for police officers was that the hair may not touch the top of the collar in the back. We are definitely living in a world with loosened standards. Why shouldn’t yidden take advantage of it!

  36. “We are living in a very open world, where the moral standard is going down and down every day. Everyone is proud of flaunting their immorality. Why can’t we Jews, l’havdil, be proud in doing the right thing?”

    Reminds me of a dilemma that I once faced. After 18 years of yeshiva, I started graduate school (NYU). For the first time in my life, I would be sitting in class among non-Jewish classmates. Should I continue to wear my tzitzis out or not? I decided to tuck them in. Until March 17. It was St. Patrick’s Day. As I walked through the halls of the university, my fellow classmates were sprawled all over the place in various states of sobriety. I realized then that if they can express ethnic pride in their own way, I could express it in mine. The tzitzis came out to stay.

  37. I’ve got a Hebrew name, it’s Avraham. All the Judaic studies teachers in my years of Jewish school called me that.

    It’s a fine name, but outside of 4 hours a schoolday and when getting an aliyah, etc, I’ve always been called “Alan”, and that what I recognize first, and that’s who I think of myself as, as much as I think of myself as “Avraham”.

    I think having multiple names doesn’t have to be negative in any way. It helps us see the inherent multivariousness within all of us. In fact, many people have nicknames, or special names only their family call them.

    So while I know that in an eternal sense I’d always be Avraham as a Jew no matter where I was born or when, the fact that my parents gave me an additional name the reflects their own heritage as Jews living in American in the mid-late 20th century only adds to my identity and my sense of Jewish self, not, chas-veshalom takes a way from it like some kind of slow nomenclaturish cancer that must be cut away.

  38. Here’s the opposite concept. You’ll probably never find me using my Hebrew name, except where required because, to be honest, I don’t like it. It’s not a really a Hebrew name, more like a Yiddish/Russian deviation. Besides, I know I’m Jewish, regardless of what other people call me.

    Your professional story reminds me of something that a very highly regarded FFB attorney in our family told my husband when he was admitted to the Bar – not to wear his yarmulke in court because it might prejudice judges and even other attorneys. For years he held that way, but now, because he sees basically the same judges all the time, he’s comfortable with it on.

  39. TFB

    So I guess you have to revise your statement from above to say that it is ok to have a Americanized Jewish name, as long as it is not one that is in the New Testament.

    I guess Jewish parents need to brush up on the New Testament, before giving names.

  40. I’m not sure where in the third Reich this happened (I believe it was Gemany post Nuremberg Laws but pre- WW II) the Nazis YM”S forced all Jewish men to change their names on their official identity papers (passports birth certificates etc.)to Abraham or Israel and all Jewish women to Sarah.

  41. “I believe the point of the post is that one should have a name which davka sounds Jewish. John, Matthew, Michael and Elizabeth wouldn’t make the grade, becuase they are names which are popular among non-Jews also.”

    I think you’re being a little silly here. John (*not* Jonathan) and Matthew don’t make the grade because they are very specifically associated with the New Testament. If nonjews are called “Sarah” they clearly are choosing Old Testament, I.e.Jewish names. If goyim copy Jewish practices, is that a problem?

  42. Rachel Adler

    I know someone whose parents never gave her a jewish/hebrew name but who created one for herself as an adult. She was neither sick nor in need of repentance for heinous crimes agsinst humanity at the time of her name change. If you’d like I’d ask her permission to forward you her email and you could ask her about the process.

  43. I never used the name “Kressel” until I married my husband. It’s such an old-fashioned Yiddish name that nobody had ever heard of. Even in the Hasidic community, it’s an unusual name. So when my husband insisted, I thought I’d NEVER get used to it.

    Well, I got used to it within a few months; the sheitel was the harder transition. But I really proved to myself that it was my name when I was being admitted to the hospital to have my second. I told the admitting nurse my name was “Kressel” and it was my husband who had to remind me of my legal name. I’m not saying that I forget it ordinarily, but at the important moments of life, I’m Kressel.

  44. TFB,

    John is also a biblical name. It comes from Yochanan or Yonason.

    Matthew comes from Matisyahu.

    Michael comes from Michoel

    Elizabeth comes from Elisheva.

    So, according to your approach, going with biblical names which are similar in English, one could still have a non-Jewish sounding first name which is technically from the Bible.

    I believe the point of the post is that one should have a name which davka sounds Jewish. John, Matthew, Michael and Elizabeth wouldn’t make the grade, becuase they are names which are popular among non-Jews also.

  45. Shoshana-

    I guess you just grew up as “a girl named Sue”*

    * Sue is short for Susan/Suzanne/Susannah all transliterations of the Hebrew “Shoshana” as in “I am the Rose of Sharon (Havatzelet HaSharon)the Rose/Lilly of the Valleys (Shoshana[t] Ha’Ahmakim)-Shir HaShirim”

  46. “Yehoshua, for example is a beautiful name, but Josh is so much easier for Chris to pronounce.”

    I think it’s getting a little carried away to change Biblical names to reflect Hebrew pronunciation. Joshua is a Biblical name, so is Rachel. These are Jewish names.

    When it comes to a name like Rachel, most Americans wouldn’t be able to pronounce the “Ches” anyway, and the spelling wouldn’t necessarily change for the hebrew pronunciation anyway.

  47. I don’t have an English name, despite my non-religious upbringing. My parents, though not Orthodox, have a strong connection to Judaism, and thought it important to give their children names that reflected it. However, growing up in non-observant environments, I hated having a name that was so different, and often got comments about it.

    After becoming religious, however, I came to love my name and feel like it really represented who I am, though it took me until that time to realize it. Now I proudly tell people that I don’t have an English name, and I am happy I didn’t have to deal with the issue of wondering whether to change my name or not.

  48. Rachel,
    No need to change your name. Your name connects you with your ancestors and your mission in this world. Practically,think about it this way, you just saved the hassle of a legal name change,ie:cost, etc.

  49. I wish I could change my name, but unfortunately my Hebrew and English names are almost the same- Rachel and רחל. And there are tons of frum Jews named Rachel, so it’s not an unfrum enough name to merit changing, and רחל isn’t different enough from Rachel that people would easily remember to call me רחל. And there’s no good way to write it in English. [If I wanted to be academic I could put a dot underneath the H, but that doesn’t work when typing online].

    Is there any way for one to change their Hebrew name without the grave reasons of being sick or needing major repentance for past sins?

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