A few months ago there was a Mishpacha LifeLines about a soon-to-be mother who was extremely nervous to name her child after her grandmother. Her grandmother was a difficult woman, and all the memories she had of her were not pleasant ones. She asked a sh’eilah, and was told that the experiences her grandmother went through during the war are what must have caused her to become bitter and unpleasant. The young mother then calmed down and happily named her child after her grandmother.
I’m in a similar predicament. My husband lost his mother, and I’m, baruch Hashem, expecting. My mother-in-law was not an easy person and the memories I have of her are not pleasant ones. These are not just my memories though. I hear different tidbits and stories from other family members, and the picture I get of her is not one I am proud of. To be fair, I must say that every person does have maalos, and I definitely heard of her maalos too. In general though, she was known as a difficult woman — in the family, I’m not sure what outsiders have to say — from way back when … and I don’t have the war to put the blame on.
If we have a girl, understandably, my husband will want to name her after his mother, even though he too agrees she was not easy. My question is: what is it that’s actually in a name? What’s brought down in the Torah about names? Aren’t we careful to name after tzaddikim and close relatives that we knew because the personality/middos can be passed down to those with the same name? If so, I am extremely nervous about giving my mother-in-law’s name to my innocent, precious child. If she grows up to be difficult, I will always feel that it’s because of the name.
Maybe I shouldn’t have, but I did speak to my husband about this topic. He was not so comfortable discussing his mother in this way. On the one hand, my husband does hear my side, but on the other — it’s his mother after all, and he does want to give the name. Everyone will be expecting it — it seems we’re doomed to that name. What now?!
Rabbi Zev Leff is the rav of Moshav Matityahu, rosh yeshivah of Yeshiva Gedolah Matityahu and rosh kollel of kollel Yesod Refael. Rav Leff is an internationally recognized lecturer and teaches in numerous seminaries, where he is valued for his incisive classes, which combine scholarship, wit, and a deep understanding of contemporary issues.
Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman is a licensed mental health counselor with specialties in marriage, relationship, and parenting. He works with parents and educators, and conducts parenting groups for men and women in Brooklyn, NY.
Dr. Aviva Weisbord is a licensed psychologist who was in private practice for over 25 years. She is the executive director of Shemesh, a Baltimore-based organization that provides resources, support, and advocacy for children with learning differences. Dr. Weisbord regularly writes and lectures about issues affecting the frum community, with a particular focus on marriage and family.
Rabbi Zev Leff
The current minhag among Ashkenazim is to name children for deceased relatives. This gives continuity and stability in the unstable conditions of galus. It is also a form of kibud av v’eim to name after a deceased parent and grandparent, fulfilling the commandment of honoring a parent even after death.
Additionally, the soul of the person for whom another is named has a connection to the namesake, and the person named has a connection to the one he is named for. He gives certain satisfaction and merit to the neshamah of the deceased.
Since there is a mitzvah of kibud av v’eim even to parents who are reshaim, that aspect of the naming cannot be circumvented merely because your husband’s mother was a difficult personality. However the effect the personality of the deceased might have upon the one named is a consideration. Additionally, the psychological and emotional feelings of resentment against the name may affect your attitude to the child, even if only minimally or subconsciously.
I would therefore suggest that the mother-in-law’s name be used either in conjunction with another name of a tzidkanis who was known to have an exemplary, soft personality. Or at least, when the name is given, your and your husband should have the intention to name her not only for the mother-in-law, but also for some tzidkanis who has the same name.
This way, you can use the second name to alleviate the resentment, or know that the connection is not only to the mother-in-law but also for some tzidkanis. Proper honor will be given to the deceased parent, and the possible negative effects will be minimized.
You should also remember that Chazal say that everyone has four names: the name Hashem gives, the name the parents give, the name friends give, and the main name — the one a person makes for himself throughout his lifetime. Focus on helping your child make this name remarkable.
May you have a healthy birth and raise your child l’Torah, l’chuppah, u’l’maasim tovim, l’orech chayim tovim.
Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman
Your question reminded me of the classic psychoanalytic term “transference.” Transference occurs when you unconsciously redirect feelings from one person to another. Someone reminds you of a figure from your childhood and you then react to the person as though they were the person they remind you of. Classic transference is usually with an important figure from our childhood, but I find that it can also occur with someone from our adult life.
It sounds to me that you’re concerned that if you name your daughter after your mother-in-law, you will have issues of transference. Your child will remind you of your mother-in-law, and consciously and unconsciously, you will feel threatened by this connection.
Transference may have nothing to do with the person you are transferring upon, but it harms the relationship. The easiest, but not necessarily ideal, way to deal with transference is to avoid the person, so you prevent this difficult visceral reaction. But you can’t avoid your child. And it sounds from the last lines of your question that you don’t have many options here regarding the name, in fact, you say you’re “doomed.”
Now think — what is the threat? Let’s imagine that this child will have some of the same basic characteristics and middos of your mother-in-law. Does that mean that she’ll have to be an unpleasant person? Middos are essentially raw material that gets shaped into who we become. Every child is born with specific middos, but how those middos develop, and what they are shaped into, is greatly dependent upon their upbringing.
You speak about your mother-in-law’s maalos. If you fear that a child will get her bad middos, you might also hope she’d get those maalos too.
You say that your husband hears your side. What makes you think that he appreciates your concerns? Does he realize how afraid you are? And if he considers it so critical to use the name that he’s willing to use it come what may, what are his plans to work with this child if she does end up having some of your mother-in-laws more difficult traits? I think you both need to discuss your specific concerns about specific behaviors and how you’d help your child if these traits showed up in her. Keeping things vague makes it hard to get a handle on your concerns and address them constructively.
Think of which middos made it hard for your mother-in-law to get along with others. And then think, what would you do if you had a child with the same basic middos? Let’s imagine your mother-in-law was an impatient person. What would you do if you had a child who’s impatient and often interrupts people? You could speak to her about it. You could ask her, “Even if you know what your friend is going to say, what would happen if you let her finish her story? How will she feel if you interrupt and how will she feel if you let her finish? Where will each choice lead you?” Over time you can help her appreciate how having patience makes her relationships better.
Your mother-in-law didn’t go through the war. What did she go through? What was her environment like? How did the people around her help her or not help her in her struggles? If she didn’t have the awareness or the humility to seek help, maybe you will. You can be a role model for your children and teach them how to deal with difficult circumstances.
No one is born a tzaddik, even if they are named after the greatest tzaddik who ever lived. “Everything is in the Hands of Heaven except for fear of Heaven.” Spiritual greatness is always the result of hard work.
Every child has traits that are successful and adaptive and others that are unsuccessful and maladaptive. It doesn’t really matter if your daughter’s maladaptive traits will be a result of her being named for your mother-in-law, or simply because she’s human, and all humans are flawed. You can help your daughter channel and mold her natural tendencies so that she can emerge as a very different person than your mother-in-law became.
Dr. Aviva Weisbord
I feel for you, and certainly wouldn’t want to see the joy of your pregnancy diminished with these concerns. While it’s not in my domain to comment on the halachic/hashkafic issues of your dilemma, I have a few thoughts to share with you about the emotional components.
You mention the young mother who felt a sense of calm after her rav pointed out that wartime experiences could have had a permanent negative impact on her grandmother’s personality. While there is absolutely nothing in our experience that can ever compare to the horrors of the Holocaust, we can nonetheless comprehend that life’s battles, losses, disappointments, and even traumas can affect a person in powerful ways, creating bitterness where once there may have been sweetness, a tough shell where once there may have been softness. Chances are, even your husband may be unaware of the forces in his mother’s life that shaped her character and personality. We simply don’t know what her true nature was; we know only that as an adult, she was a difficult person and not easy to get along with.
It’s completely normal to agonize over a child’s name, to pour our hopes, dreams, and tefillos into that name and into that child. We want the name to fit those hopes and dreams. I know many parents who have hesitated to name a child after their own parent. Perhaps that person died young, or was sick for many, many years, or, as in your case, the parent was not a pleasant person. And sometimes, they just don’t like the name!
One solution people use is to add an appropriate name, a name that holds the promise and hope of positive traits and accomplishments. That way, the parent’s name is given, family members are happy, and there is an added dimension for the newborn’s character.
Please keep in mind that your worries are just that: Thoughts that keep turning and turning in your head. You can counteract those thoughts by recalling the positive traits of your mother-in-law and, even more effective, by thinking of the peace of mind, and the happiness your husband and his family will have, knowing that there is someone carrying the name of their loved one.
Remember, as difficult as she was, she played a vital role in your husband’s life. Whatever mixed feelings he may have, she was his mother, the source of his life and the one who helped him become who he is today, someone special enough for you to marry and with whom you will, iy”H, spend the rest of your life.
So even if it takes a tremendous effort on your part, my suggestion is to work on your thoughts, because that’s where everything is taking place. Ultimately, your child will be her own person, with her own personality and middos. If you think of her as wonderful, endowed with a beautiful nature and a good heart, she will live up to that. Please don’t confuse her with the person she is named after, especially if you add a name.
Remind yourself that you are providing a new neshamah to Klal Yisrael, who will, iy”H, be a source of nachas to the family and to Hashem Himself, and know that you are doing a tremendous chesed. As you find the inner strength — and you can! — to help this child be pleased with her name and feel loved, worthwhile, and a source of goodness in This World, you will reap the fruits and, iy”H, have immense nachas from her ad meah v’esrim shanah.