I remember one thing about my first day in Hebrew School. The Rabbi asked me for my Hebrew name. I said I didn’t know. He said, “it’s the name your parents call you when they speak Jewish. My face lit up and I confidently answered, ”Shaina Panim.”
The Rabbi was not as confident about that response. He suggested that I ask my parents when I got home and let him know what they said. He was right. That’s not my Hebrew name, and I found what it is.
I was then aware of my Hebrew name but I continued to go by my English name for many years. When I decided to use my Hebrew name instead, I first asked my parents, A”H, permission. They were fine with it, and ever since, I’ve continued to be Everett to my family and friends who knew me then, and Yitzchak Shmuel to everyone who has come into my life after the name change. I have two sets of machatonim who call me Everett and two sets who call me Yitzchak Shmuel and I like it that way.
I enjoy hearing my English name from the people I’ve known from that part of my life, the part that includes my years as a Rav. I enjoy hearing my Hebrew name as well.
That’s not unusual.
A person's name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.
So wrote Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, first published in 1936. It is one of the best-selling books of all time. In 2011, it was number 19 on Time Magazine's list of the 100 most influential books.
But is that statement true? Was there any scientific evidence to support that sweeping statement in 1936? Probably not. There is, now.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, brain activation patterns were examined in response to hearing one’s own first name in contrast to hearing the names of others. There are several regions in the left hemisphere that show greater activation to one’s own name, including middle frontal cortex, middle and superior temporal cortex, and cuneus. These findings provide evidence that hearing one’s own name has unique brain functioning activation specific to one’s own name in relation to the names of others.
The findings of this simple paradigm are consistent with the findings in the literature. There is unique brain activation specific to one’s own name in relation to the names of others. (Carmody, D. P., & Lewis, M. (2006). Brain activation when hearing one's own and others' names. Brain research, 1116(1), 153–158. doi:10.1016/j.brainres.2006.07.121)
Although I doubt that Dale Carnegie was aware of it, there was Torah evidence of the visceral effect of hearing our name long before 1936.
The Or HaChaim haKodesh, who was niftar in 1743, wrote: u’kvar ya’data sode ha-shaim ki hu ha’neshama, our name is [in some way] our neshama. (Devarim 29:17)
Our name touches our very essence every time we hear it.
We see from Adam haRishon that the name he intuited for each animal was an accurate description of that animal’s characteristics. He then named himself Adam because he was formed from the adamah and he called Hashem by the name denoting Adnus thus recognizing that Hashem is the master of the universe. Every name he gave was accurately descriptive. (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:3)
The Medrash Tanchuma (Vai-yak’ail 1) tells us that we have three names: the name we are given by our parents, the name people call us, and the name we earn for ourselves, our reputation. All of these apply when we are adults.
Children only have two names. The name you gave them and the name you call them, or don’t.
We’ve heard the expression that when a child hears her full name, including her middle name if she has one, she knows she’s in trouble. RIVKA MIRIAM COHEN!! The following words are not going to be fun.
When else do you call her by her name? Any of her names? How often do you say, “Thank you for setting the table,” rather than saying, Rivka Miriam, you set the table so neatly and carefully! Thank you, Rivky!”
How often do you see your child coming into the front door and you say, “Dovy, hi! I’m glad you’re home!” Or is it just, “hi, how was school?” Or worse, “Hi, remember to hang up your jacket and bring me your homework sheet.”
You have the opportunity to touch your child’s neshama, your wife or husband’s neshama, so many times a day. You can single out each individual and acknowledge their unique significance in your life, or you can simply notice that somebody has come into your environment. Nobody likes to feel generic. Each of us thrives when we are valued as individuals. One really simple way to do that is to say a person’s name.
I have to admit, I know someone who has never liked her name. I’m not a huge fan of my English name either. Ever since Senator Everett Dirksen passed away in 1969, the name Everett leaves most people scratching their heads, and me repeating and spelling it. I understand that it is one’s Hebrew name that connects to, or in some way, is their neshama.
I am pretty sure that for those who go by their English names, the visceral reaction is just as strong.
You often want to get your child’s attention.
You will most likely do so when you say your child’s name, wait for eye contact, and then speak. It takes longer. It always takes longer to dig deeper, connect more closely, and nurture your relationship. And it’s always worth it.
Rabbi Ackerman is the author of Confident Parents, Competent Children, in Four Seconds at a Time
Available at bookstores and on Amazon.
He can be reached at 718-344-6575