The list of names with which it commences is more than a genealogical curiosity. It introduces us to the members of the cast that makes up the Jewish story.
Some of these names as they apply to the tribes of Israel tell us of groups that are still part of Jewish life, such as Judah, from whom come the names Jew and Judaism, and Levi, from whom descend the Kohanim and Levi’im.
Some tribes found in the list in Sh’mot, however, have vanished: they are part of the so-called Lost Ten Tribes. But the names of these tribes have been preserved on an individual basis, chosen by loving parents for their children. There has never been a shortage of Reuvens, Shimons, Ephraims, Naphtalis and so on.
In all, there are very few Biblical names that parents have discarded; Esau and Lavan – for obvious reasons – are two, though, perhaps surprisingly, parents seem to have had little problem with the name Ishmael.
The reason may be that the original Ishmael eventually abandoned his evil ways in the lifetime of his father Abraham and became a ba’al t’shuvah (B.B. 16a).
The choice of a name was often dictated by the weekly sidra. If a sidra featured a particular personage, that name might well be given by the parents to their newborn child.
Sometimes it is the rabbinic commentary that suggested a name; thus, in the week of B’shallach when the Song of the Red Sea is read, a child might be called Amminadav because the sages say that the waters of the sea only parted when Nachshon ben Amminadav had the courage to step into the water (Sotah 37a; Num R. 13:9).
Sometimes a name reflected a period of the year, such as Pesach, Sinai or Yom-tov. The name Shabbatai may derive from a child having been born on Shabbat.
Some names became popular in particular localities, such as Yefet in Greece. This is explained by reference to Gen. 9:27, “May God enlarge Yefet and he will dwell in the tents of Shem”. “Yefet” is thought by the rabbis to come from yafeh, beautiful; they speak of Greek as “the beautiful language of the Greeks, descendants of Yefet” (Meg. 9b).
There are many customs concerning the choice of a name for a child. The Chazon Ish urged parents not to choose an uncommon or strange name for their child as this might embarrass the child later on in life.
Many rabbinic texts which praise the Jewish loyalty of the Israelites in Egypt stress that they did not change their names: in other words, Jewish names were not discarded in order not to appear different. This was a constant problem in the Diaspora but these days the trend is to go back to more Jewish-style names.
It goes without saying that Jewish children should not be given names that clearly refer to another religion, e.g. Christine or Christopher.