Patrilineal and Matrilineal Names

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Parsha Halacha/Parshat Shemot

When and Why We Use Our Father’s or Mother’s Names in Jewish Law and Custom

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The second book of the Torah is called the Book of Shemot – Names.[1] Although the book begins with the words Ve’eleh Shemot (and these are the names), our sages explain that there is a deeper reason why this book, the book about the exodus, is called “Names.”
The Midrash says[2] that one of the reasons G-d redeemed the Jewish people from the exile in Egypt was that they continued to use their Jewish names in exile. Since the names they used alluded to their eventual redemption, the fact that they didn’t change their names indicated that they still anticipated the redemption. It was this anticipation that made them worthy of redemption.
  • Reuven alludes to the fact that G-d saw their pain and redeemed them. (Ra’a means “see”)[4]
  • Shimon refers to the fact that G-d heard their outcry and remembered his covenant to redeem them. (Shama means hear.)[5]
  • Levi alludes to the fact that G-d was connected to them during their pain, as we find that G-d appeared to Moshe in a burning bush to indicate that He, too, was suffering. (Levi means to accompany.)[6]
  • Yehudah alludes to the fact that the Jewish people praised G-d when He redeemed them. (Hoda’a means “praise.”)
  • Yissachar alludes to the fact that G-d repaid them for their years of hard labor by giving them spoils in Egypt and spoils at the sea. (Sachar means “reward.”)[7]
  • Zevulun alludes to the fact that after the exodus, the Jewish people built the Mishkan, a dwelling place for G-d. (Zevul means “dwelling place.”)[8]
  • Binyamin because G-d used His right hand to smite our enemies. (Yamin means “right.”)[9]
  • Dan because G-d judged (and punished) the nation that oppressed us. (Dan means “to judge.”)[10]
  • Naftali because G-d gave us the Torah which is sweeter than honey. (Nofet means (“dripping honey.”)[11]
  • Gad because G-d gave us the Manna which resembled coriander seed. (Gad means “coriander.”)[12]
  • Asher because all the nations of the world will acknowledge the exodus of the Jewish people. (Asher means “acknowledge.”)[13]
  • Yosef because very soon G-d will once again redeem us from this exile just as He redeemed the Jewish people from Egypt. (Yosef means “to add.”)[14]
By listing these names before the story of the slavery, the Torah is alluding to the “cure” of the upcoming “ailment” of the exile, even before it began. This follows the principle that G-d does not bring suffering upon the Jewish people unless he first creates the “cure” for that suffering.[15] This is why the Torah only lists the names of the tribes in this Torah portion, as opposed to the Torah portion of VaYigash where it lists all 70 people who went down to Egypt, since it is only the names of the tribes that allude to the redemption.[16]
The rest of this e-mail will discuss the proper usage of one’s Jewish name.
When to Use One’s Father’s Name
It is customary to use one’s father’s name (e.g., Reuven ben Yaakov) for the following:
  • When calling someone to the Torah[17]
  • When signing a document. This has basis in the Talmud[18] where it says that witnesses would write “Ish Ploni ben Ish Ploni – so and so, son of such a man” when signing a document.
  • When mentioning family members at a Mi Shebeirach after an Aliyah, it is customary to use the father’s name as well.[19]
  • When writing a Ketubah (marriage) or Get (divorce) document, one uses the father’s name. [20]  This applies to both the chattan and the kallah (bride and groom).
  • When engraving a name on a tombstone.[21]
When to Use One’s Mother’s Name
It is customary to use one’s mother’s name (e.g., Reuven ben Leah) for the following:
  • When praying for a refuah (recovery) of an ill person. In fact, the Talmud says[22]that “regarding all matters of incantations, one should use the mother’s name.” Similarly, the Zohar points out[23] that King David prayed to G-d while referring to himself as “the son of Your maidservant.”[24]
  • The same applies whenever praying for someone else (e.g. that they should find a Shidduch, have children etc).[25]
Name not Found
If one doesn’t know the name of the mother of the ill person, he should pray using the person’s father’s name.[26] If this too is not known, he can pray by identifying them with their profession.[27] It is possible that the person’s last name can be used for this purpose as well.
Why Use the Mother’s Name?
Several reasons are given as to why we use the mother’s name when praying:
  • The identity of one’s mother is 100% verifiable unlike the identity of one’s father. When praying, one should always use language that is one hundred percent true.[28]
    • Some question this interpretation since it is disrespectful to suggest that one’s father is not their actual father.[29]
    • When praying for someone in this world there are always accusations against the person emanating from Divine judgment. It is therefor appropriate to mention the mothers’ name as women too are associated with Divine judgment. This will scare the accusers and they too will agree to the prayer being uttered.[30]
    • In the formation of every baby, it is the mother that provides nearly all the physical matter from which the child is formed while the father’s contribution gives form to the matter that develops. It is therefor appropriate that, when praying for a live person who is made of physical body mostly provided by his mother, one should pray using the mother’s name.[31]
    • It is better to mention the mother’s rather than the father’s name as mentioning the father’s name may cause Divine judgment to be rendered due to the father’s sins. It is likely that the mother has less sins then the father for the following reasons:
      • Women are not commanded to keep time bound positive mitzvot and are therefor not liable for not observing them,
      • Women are not commanded to study Torah. Since men are commanded to study Torah during every spare moment, it is likely that they have sinned (at least somewhat) in this respect.
      • Men can have the sin of keri (wasted seed) whereas women cannot sin in this manner.
For these (and other) reasons, the accusing angels do not seek to cast aspersions on women as much as they do of men. It is therefor wiser to mention their names rather than the names of the fathers.[32]
Other Opinions
It is noteworthy that some say one should pray for the sick using the fathers’ name.[33]                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
Prayers for Souls in the Next World
The Ashkenazic custom when praying for the soul of a departed person is to mention the father’s name.[34]
Several reasons are given for this.
  • Regarding matters of the next world we follow the Torah’s ruling which accepts the concept of rov (majority). Based on this principle, the identity of the father is considered to be absolutely true.[35]
  • In the next world there are less forces of evil and accusing angels (see above).[36]
  • Since the person has passed away we are no longer praying for the body which came (mostly) from the mother but, rather, for the soul. In addition, after the body decays, the one thing that remains is a small bone from which G-d will resurrect us. The Talmud says that the bones come from the father,[37] so we mention his name.[38]
The Sefardic custom is to pray for a departed soul using the fathers’ name.[39]
Getting an Aliyah
  • Calling by Name
It is customary in most shuls to call the people who are receiving an Aliyah, by name.[40] In some communities,[41] however, the Gabbai informs the person which Aliyah he will be receiving beforehand, and the Gabbai simply says, “Ya’amod Kohen” or “Ya’amod Levi” or “Ya’amod Shelishi” etc. The person must recognize his cue and go up to the bimah at that point.
  • An Apostate Father (r”l)
 If a person’s father, G-d forbid, converted out of the Jewish faith, the son should be called by his paternal father’s name. If this is embarrassing to him (as the people in his city will notice that his father’s name is not being used), he may be called up using his father’s name, but no honorific titles should be mentioned.[42] If even this might be embarrassing (as people are used to hearing his father’s name be mentioned with titles), the gabbai should say the titles under his breath so that they are not noticed by the people.[43] If the son goes to another city and is offered an Aliyah, he should simply tell the gabbai his name and paternal grandfather’s name.
  • An Unknown Father
If a person does not know his father’s identity, he may use the name of his mother’s father.[44]Some say he should simply call himself the son of Avraham.[45] Also, if one does not know the identity of either of his parents, he should call himself the son of Avraham.[46]
  • Calling Up One’s Father for an Aliyah
If a gabbai calls up his own father for an Aliyah, some hold he should simply say Ya’amod Avi Mori (may my father and teacher stand)[47] while others hold he should say Ya’amod Avi Mori and then say his father’s name.[48]
May we Bring Merit to our Names as well as to those of our Parents!

[1] The Sefer Dikukei Ta’amim by Rabbi Aharon ben Moshe ben Asher of 10th-century Tiberius (page 57) cites two other names for the Book of Shemot: 1) Sefer Yetzi’at Mitzrayim (i.e., the Book of the Exodus) and 2) Sefer HaBerit (the Book of the Covenant) based on Exodus 24:7
[2] VaYikra Rabbah 32:5 cited in Kli Yakar.
[3] Shemot Rabbah 1:5
[4] See Exodus 3:7
[5] See ibid 2:24
[6] Tehillin 91:15 that G-d is with us in our pain.
[7] See Gen. 15:4 that G-d promised Avraham that the Jewish people would depart with great wealth.
[8] See Kings I 8:13
[9] See Exodus 15:6
[10] See Gen. 15:14
[11] See Tehillim 19:11
[12] See Exodus 16:31
[13] See Malachi 3:12
[14] See Isaiah 11:11 – 16
[15] Megillah 13b
[16] Shem MiShmuel, Shemot, page 30
[17] See Rama O.C. 139:42. See also Taz there (1) that one’s genealogy, generally follows his fathers’ side, as the verse says, “to their families, to their father’s household.”
[18] Gittin 87b cited in Shemot Ba’aretz by Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky (Benei Berak 2012) page 117
[19] Ibid
[20] See Even Ha’Ezer 129 regarding Gittin. As far as Ketubot, the Nachalat Shiva, by Rabbi Shmuel HaLevi Segal of 17th-century Poland, (12:16) says “One should be particular when writing a Ketubah on all matters that one must be particular when writing a Get. So that if, G-d forbid it happens that one divorces his wife and they will not know how to write his name or his wife’s name or the names of their parents, they will be able to learn it from the Ketubah document.”
[21] Divrei Torah (by Rabbi Chaim Elazar Shapiro) 8:49. See there that he saw many tombstones in Hungary with the names of the mothers. He dismisses this as the work of people with minimal intellect. See below, however, that the Sefardic custom is to mention the name of the mother even after death.
[22] Shabbat 66b
[23] Parshat Lech Lecha, pg. 84a
[24] Psalms 86:16
[25] Shemot Ba’aretz ibid
[26] Ibid, in the name of the Chazon Ish
[27] Ibid
[28] Zohar, ibid. The Chatam Sofer (third section of Parshat Toldot) says that Yitzchak was an exception to this rule. Since he looked exactly like his father, there was no doubt about his lineage, and he therefore prayed by referring to himself as Yitzchak ben Avraham.
Although King David certainly had no doubt about his lineage, he wrote the book of Tehillim for all future generations and he wanted people to realize that prayers should be made using one’s mother’s name (Divrei Torah 2:4).
[29] Ben Yehoyada, Berachot 55b D.H. Ana Ploni bar Planita
[30] Ibid
[31] Mekor Chessed by Rabbi Reuven Margaliyot on Sefer Chassidim Siman 242. It is noteworthy that the Mekor Chessed cites the Ramban in the beginning of the Parshat Tazria as a basis for this explanation. The Ramban (there) cites this explanation in the name of the Greek philosophers.
[32] Ben Yehoyada (by the Ben Ish Chai, Rav Yosef Chaim of Bagdad) ibid. See also Responsa Torah Lishma (by the same author) Siman 399
[33] The Kolbo (Siman 141, cited in the Yalkut Bi’urim in the Metivta Shas on Shabbat ibid) says that one should pray for the sick with the father’s name. In addition, the Divrei Torah (ibid) mentions that this is the custom in Germany and in some parts of Hungary. (He disagrees with that custom.) See also the Megadim Chadashim on Shabbat (ibid) who cites the Mishmeret Shalom (Kodinai’ev) who questions the custom of praying using the mothers’ name.
[34] Panim Yafot end of Parshat Beha’alotecha. See Berachot 18b that when Shmuel went to the cemetery to communicate with his deceased father he identified him as “Abba bar Abba,” using his fathers’ fathers’ name.
[35] Divrei Torah ibid. This is different regarding prayers for live people where we apply the principle that we don’t follow the majority in capital cases.
[36] Ibid
[37] Niddah 31a
[38] Mekor Chessed ibid
[39] I have seen this in many places. In his will, the author of the Sedei Chemed (Rabbi Chaim Chizkiyahu Medini) instructed that prayers be uttered for him using his mothers’ name (Divrei Torah, ibid, citing Sedei Chemed, Ma’arechet mem, Chelek 14).
[40] See Rama on O.C. 139 ibid
[41] I have seen this in Syrian and Yemenite Shuls
[42] Rama O.C. 139:3 and Mishnah Berurah 10
[43] Sha’arei Efrayim, Sha’ar 1, 27
[44] Rama ibid
[45] Taz and Chayei Adam, cited in Mishnah Berurah, 10
[46] Rama ibid
[47] Rav Elyashiv and Rav Bentziyon Aba Shaul, cited in the Dirshu Mishnah Berurah, on Mishnah Berurah 9
[48] Responsa of Eretz Tzvi, 97, cited in ibid
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Aryeh Citron

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