Monday, January 14, 2008

Question & Answer With Neil Harris - What's In A Name?

A Simple Jew asks:

Unlike some other baalei teshuva, you continue to go by your English given name. Whether it is the fact that Neil was the name your parents gave you or that is the name your wife now knows you as, obviously you feel more of a connection to the name Neil than the name Nisan. Is their a reason that you feel that the name Neil reflects the real you?

Neil Harris answers:

As usual, you have given me something to think about, A Simple Jew. In truth, I have never really felt that my English name represents me (even before becoming Torah observant). It's a name, the same as the word "paper" or the name "Fred", and is only a word.

Nisan Zorach is the name that I was given (named after both of my grandfathers) at my bris and, as your readers know, our Hebrew name truly reflects our inner being. That name is how I relate to Hashem. I have had several Rabbeim who will only call me Nisan (as well as several Chabad shliechim, who only refer to me as Nissen). So, why keep using "Neil", you might ask?

The fact, as you indicated, that my parents did put thought into my English name is a small factor (most probably on a sub-conscious level) in my choice to, for now, stick with Neil. When I became observant during high school, there really wasn't this 'trend' of switching over to your Hebrew name. Later, while learning in yeshiva I knew plenty of people who went from Eric to Akiva, Jason to Chaim, and Steve to Simcha. I didn't really feel the attraction or pull that other did to make that move. I probably stems from not being all that concerned with what falls into the category of "what's popular to do". I could have easily returned after two years of studying in Eretz Yisrael and gone by the name "Nisan". I really didn't feel the need to say to the world, "I've totally changed myself" (although the Rambam does write in Hilchos Teshuva about changing one's name. This may also refer to how others relate to you, not just the action of changing your name). I feel that I am a Torah observant Jew that happens to go by the name "Neil". It is an exteral factor, just like my glasses or my brown hair.

An interesting fact that is specific to my name is the fact that all of our "Hebrew" months are based on the names that we called the months while living in Bavel and brought back with us to Eretz Yisrael after that exile ended. After learning this, I have always felt that, at some level, if my name "Nisan" (like the month, not like the car) is a name carried on from a previous Galus, then maybe I should keep using Neil until the Geulah.

(I do not exclusively use "Neil". When I am introduced to a Rav or Rebbe, I will opt for "Nisan", because if I use "Neil", the next question usually is, "Nu? What's your real name?")

All three of my children have beautiful Hebrew names (none based on a month) that reflect the society they live in as well as being easy to pronounce for the non-Jews they come in contact with.

Interestingly, only three night ago I was out with my family at one of the pizza shops in town and after I placed my order, the Israeli behind the counter asked for my name. I had been thinking about this post and decided to tell him "Neil". He looked at me and said, "Neil? Like the hammer and the neil?"

"Nachon (correct)", I told him. This just reminded me that it's only a word (in English). Hashem knows quite well which name is my true one.


At January 14, 2008 at 9:43:00 AM EST, Blogger PsychoToddler said...

I've never been completely comfortable with people who suddenly change their name, especially if they are out in the work force and start going by something unpronouncable. It's like they're shining a giant spotlight on an unstable personality.

On the otherhand, I gave all of my kids only Jewish names so they wouldn't have to deal with the dichotomy. I just made sure to avoid the "ch" sounds.

--Mark (very visibly orthodox in the workplace despite the "christian" name my bother bestowed on me).

At January 14, 2008 at 9:44:00 AM EST, Blogger PsychoToddler said...

I meant "mother"

At January 14, 2008 at 9:45:00 AM EST, Blogger PsychoToddler said...

I have a little cold

At January 14, 2008 at 2:06:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting piece. We are Spanish Sephardim and give our children Spanish names that have Hebrew equivalents. We do this to remind ourselves (and our children) that our ancestors had to hide the fact that they were JEws, not to mention that we are Spanish.

At January 14, 2008 at 3:50:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How does one change the name they use if not "suddenly"? If they are using Louis today and they want to start using Leib, should they ask people to call them Leib on alternate Tuesdays for three months, and then up the ante to 3 days a week?

And if their name has a ches, what should they do? That is their name.

I think that someone that is overly timid and afraid of what others will think if they use their Hebrew name, might be more likely candidates for the unstable label.

At January 14, 2008 at 8:40:00 PM EST, Blogger Neil Harris said...

PT: We do the same. "Ch" is, for sure, out of the question. We would never have a Chanania Yechezkeil Chaim Harris.

ASJ: Great license plate!

At January 14, 2008 at 10:44:00 PM EST, Blogger DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...


Your comment reminds me of a line from an old Danny Kaye movie, "The Court Jester," from the 60's. In it, Danny Kaye's character is pretending to be a internationally known "court jester." The King of England asks him, "Shame about the death of the Dutchess, eh?" And he answers, "Oh yes, so sudden." The King looks suprised and then asks, "But she was bedridden and sick for months leading up to her death!" Thinking quickly, Danny Kaye answers, "Yes, but the actually moment of death. That was sudden."

-Dixie Yid

At January 15, 2008 at 12:09:00 AM EST, Blogger Spiritual Dan said...

How can we be reluctant to change our names or have them changed by the Ruach HaKodesh? Didn't Avraham Avinu change his name? And to think back then it was a much bigger deal, the social costs were much higher. Nowadays, with the number of Baal Teshuvahs, Baruch Hashem name changes are normal.

At January 15, 2008 at 1:30:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds strange, to avoid certain names / sounds, just because it sounds "not right" for someone. We name children because of them, not because of "someone else" out there.

Bney Yissoschor ztz"l writes (in Hoysofoys Mohartz"o), that as we know one of the merits that yidden in Mitzraim had was not changing their Jewish names. He points out, that Toyro says, that Pharaoh called Yoysef "Tzafnas Paneach" but that name is never used afterwards. Why? He said, because Yoysef never reacted on that name, while being called, only when he was called Yoysef he responded. This was also because mitzrim wanted to control yidden by giving them alternative names (in klipo).

We once learned "Pri Hooretz" of Reb Menachem Mend miVitebsk ztz"l with a chaburo and came across an intersting piece. It says there, that everyone has essentually two names - one in kdusho, and one in klipo, and the change according to one's condition! This is the meaning of the statement of mekubolim, that when the rosho is dying he forgets his name in the Beys Din Shel Maylo. He becomes his evil name!

So we wondered if this has anything to do with the subject of Jewish non Jewish names.

At January 15, 2008 at 11:48:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We are taught that one of the reasons the Yidden merited to be redeemed from mitzrayim was 'shelo shinu es shemom' - they did not change their names (as well as their language and clothing).

Interestingly, however, the Maharal says that that was very important before matan Torah, when they didn't have the Torah to keep them separate from the mitzriyim. However, after matan Torah, it is different, as the Torah separates us from them.

Additionally, there is an old tradition of having two names, a shem chol and a shem kodesh. Therefore there are names like Dov Ber (bear), Zev Wolf, Shlomo Zalman and others. In these cases the latter name is a translation or different version of the former Hebrew one.

I am not saying that people should not use Hebrew names, chas vesholom. However, the issue is not as simple as some people think.

At January 15, 2008 at 2:02:00 PM EST, Blogger Rafi G. said...

very interesting. I never had an English name, though some of my brothers do... They use both their english and hebrew names, depending on the setting. As you say, it is a word, an identification (like nail), and not overly significant

At January 15, 2008 at 2:05:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

These "choyl" names already became koydesh, together with Yiddish.

Reb Hillel Paritcher ztz"l said, that precisely in times of ikveso deMeshicho it is important to strengthen these 3 things (those merits which yidden in Mitzraim had). He bases his statement on Reb Pinchos Koritzer zy"o. Because of that Reb Hillel Paritcher was moyser nefesh not to cut his peyos when the government in Russia commanded to do so.

At January 15, 2008 at 10:44:00 PM EST, Blogger Neil Harris said...

Antigonus, of Socho comes to mind.

At January 16, 2008 at 1:53:00 AM EST, Blogger Ezzie said...

Interesting subject...!

I'm always interested in names, as my own name (Eliezer Chaim) actually has a lot of meaning. I was deemed the "miracle child" [long story - mother in NE Journal of Med], so 'God helps/ed me live' was fitting. My sister born Jun 22 was called 'Aviva Tova', or 'good spring'. We named Elianna for a reason as well. At the same time, I go by Ezzie, which was what I was called since I was a kid, and I never go by Eliezer, nor do I have interest in doing so. My wife, Serach, pretty much will refuse to name any child with a 'ch' in their name after being told many times that "That's such an interesting way to spell Sarah!" and asking why there were two Sarahs in her family.

Interestingly, it seems clear that in Jewish history people went by names that were fitted to the languages they were around at the time. (Yaakov = Akiva in Aramaic, for example.) I once had a nice discussion with a Rebbe about this in Israel, and he also didn't understand the emphasis people had on suddenly 'going by' their Jewish name, feeling it wasn't a big deal.

At January 16, 2008 at 10:52:00 AM EST, Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

When I am introduced to a Rav or Rebbe, I will opt for "Nisan", because if I use "Neil", the next question usually is, "Nu? What's your real name?"

That's an offensive way to react to someone introducing themself. I would have a hard time respecting someone as a rav who didn't have a basic respect for my self-identity.

At January 20, 2008 at 9:31:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i learned that the three things yisroel kept in mitzraim merited redemption: shem(name),loshon(language) and malbish (sp? spells sha-l-em shalem=complete, whole

so perhaps using one's hebrew name is an aspect of one's wholeness.

but, many chachamim in the talmud don't use their hebrew names....go figure!!


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