Let’s consider the dilemma a person faces when he discovers his parents have given him an inappropriate name. A name with a negative connotation, for example; the name of a person who died a strange death, or a man given a girl’s name, etc.
The practice of changing a name is mainly applicable to critically ill people whose lives are in danger. Since a man’s name has a great influence on his life and destiny, one way to affect the course of man’s life is by changing, or adding a name. There are remarkable incidences of terminally ill patients who — before the eyes of their astonished physicians — regained their health after changing their name.
Still, it is precisely because we are aware of the power and influence borne by a name that we must take great care when bestowing one, recognizing the awesome responsibility this act entails. Not every person is knowledgeable enough to decide on matters pertaining to the changing of a name, and doing so is not always beneficial. On the contrary, it might even trigger a negative influence. A name change must be carried out with the utmost care. This problem is compounded by the presence of money-grabbing charlatans who automatically advise people to add, or change, a name as if their entire fate depends upon it.
Our Sages have already stated in the Gemara: “Four things annul a person’s decree, and they are: charity, a scream (i.e. prayer from the depths of one’s heart), changing one’s name, and changing a deed” (Rosh Hashana 16b). We see that there are other factors that can annul a harsh decree apart from the changing of a name. One should start from any one of those. Altering one’s name is only to be considered after consulting with a Talmid Chacham who understands these matters.
As a general rule, even when it becomes apparent that a person bears a difficult name, one shouldn’t rush to change it. Every Hebrew letter conveys two contrasting aspects—both positive and negative.
When a person is called by a certain name, that name is composed of letters which can each point to a separate destiny — either positive or negative — depending on the person’s choices. And even if the overall composition of letters in a person’s name adds up to a negative connotation, man possesses the power to force his name (and his nature) towards positive things. It won’t be easy, obviously. The harder the influence exerted by his name, the more he’ll struggle — but, still, he who consistently strives in the right direction — will succeed!
One can find two men who both descended to this world at precisely the same moment — both come from similar backgrounds; both were raised in a similar environment, and both go by the same name. And yet— one displays positive character traits, while the other demonstrates negative ones. One is goodhearted, refined and sensitive to others; the other is insolent and indifferent to those around him. How can we explain this?
Our Sages say (Niddah 16b):
The angel in charge of conception is called ‘night’. He takes a drop (of semen) and presents it before Hashem, and tells Him: ‘Master of the universe, what will be with this drop? Strong or weak, wise or foolish, rich or poor?’…” But it doesn’t state whether the person will be evil or righteous. Why not? Because “Everything is in the hands of Heaven — except for fear of Heaven.
Even if many of a person’s character traits are heavily influenced by his name, every man has free choice. He can head towards the direction of his choosing. So, while it is true that a person may face harder challenges and trials than another — the choice remains his.
We find a similar concept when it comes to destiny. A man’s fate, or mazal, is predestined. And yet, he has the power to change its course — not just regarding trivial things, but down to the most fundamental issues, such as his time of death.
We find mention of this in Chazal (Shabbat 156b) who relate that the stargazers told Rabbi Akiva that his daughter was destined to die on her wedding day, and they even told him how she was fated to die — by the venomous bite of a snake. But, on the night of her wedding, his daughter stuck a pin into a crack in the wall, and — unwittingly — killed the reptile. Rabbi Akiva asked her: “What good deed did you do (to merit this)?!” His daughter replied that a poor person turned up at the wedding meal, and she gave him her portion of food. Rabbi Akiva told her: “You committed a mitzvah, of which it is said (Mishlei 10;2): “…charity will save from death.”
We have a golden rule: Hashem does not hand a person a trial that is too hard for him to endure. If someone is born with difficult givens, he is also provided the necessary tools with which to overcome them. If he faces harder challenges than his friends do, he is certainly equipped to deal with them. Because everything is determined from Above, down to the tiniest detail.
The same applies here. Should a person bear a name that implies difficulty in any area, he will also have the ability to channel the powers conveyed through his name to a positive, productive end. Only if a Talmid Chacham of superior calibre — someone knowledgeable in the meanings of names —assesses his situation and determines that his name is impacting him badly, should a person follow the recommendation to change or add a name. Since his name may also be a conduit for positive influences, an impulsive change can sometimes interfere with the flow of blessings, and even make things worse. It would have been better for the person to persevere in overcoming the difficult tendencies inherited through his problematic name, and learn to elevate them, rather than change his name altogether.
Take the letter Daled, for example.
This letter has two aspects — the positive, and the negative. On the one hand, it represents poverty, coming, as it does, from the root “Dal” (pauper).
If we look at the Alphabetical sequence Aleph-Bet-Gimmel-Daled, Aleph — hints at Alupho shel Olam, the Master of the Universe, Bet represents Bayit — home, Gimmel is Gommel, and Daled is Dal.
Hashem tells us: Leave your home and act kindly charitably towards the poor. That is why Gimmel resembles an upright man who walks on two feet, and he “faces” the daled–the pauper. Therefore Daled, the pauper, stands weakly on one leg and faces the other direction — for he is too embarrassed to face his benefactor, the Gimmel.
We see, therefore, that Daled has a negative connotation, for it represents the pauper. On the other hand, it also possesses a positive quality — as it reflects the act of deliyah: raising something from the depths, as in: “I will exalt You, O Lord, for You have raised me up,” (Tehillim 30;2).
We see, therefore, how the letter Daled is an extraordinary force. It represents something that is either sub-standard, or uniquely above average — two polar opposites.
The name David starts and ends with Daled, and has a Vav — known for its connectivity — positioned between the two. The name David reflects, at its root, two extremes: the positive facet of elevation and exaltation, and the negative facet of poverty and degradation. These are two antithetical situations. Man has the power to change direction — to pull higher, or lower, chas v’shalom.
King David personifies this concept. In his impoverished state, when he was degraded by his siblings and pursued by King Saul he wisely channelled his emotions to feel lowly before Hashem, bowing to His will. As he says in the Tehillim: “A prayer for a poor man when he enwraps himself, and pours out his speech before the Lord…” (Tehillim 102;1). With this approach, he was able to cling to Hashem at all times, in every situation, to the extent that he said of himself: “I have placed the Lord before me constantly,” (Tehillim 16;8). By doing so, he manged to raise himself from his lowly role of humiliated refugee to the lofty position of King of Israel — the forefather of Mashiach.
In summary — a decision like this cannot be taken lightly. One needs to bear in mind that every letter, every word and every name has multiple layers of meaning, and changing one’s name is not always the right course of action. Either way, the wise man thinks ahead. One can prevent the need for a name change by considering the child’s future and granting him a positive name at birth, following Chazal’s guidelines.
In case of doubt, consult with a reputable, definite Torah sage — someone well versed in these matters.
Adapted from ‘Man and His Universe’ by Rabbi Zamir Cohen. Coming to you soon in English