Hebrew Name Meanings

hebrew name meaningsHebrew is a language believed by the Jewish Sages to carry the very power of life and death within its letters. Continuing from the Mesopotamian Semantic civilizations, Hebrew is one of the most ancient languages still spoken to this day. It predates Greek, and has survived when other languages such as Latin have died. As the official language of the Jewish people and their religion, Hebrew has captured their traditions throughout the centuries sometimes with a single word. For example the word Shalom (שָׁלוֹם), peace in English, has evolved from a blessing into a greeting into a name, all the while still retaining its original purpose and meaning.

Such a beautiful, mysterious language is worth the hours of study, and now, thanks to Udemy, can easily be learned. For native speakers of English beginning to search out this mystical, Near-Eastern language ––which the Jewish people call Leshon HaKodesh (לֶשׁוֹן הֲקוֹדֶשׁ), or “The Holy Language”––Udemy offers a thorough, beginners course taught by a native Israeli.

A Brief History of the Hebraic Language

Since roughly the 10th century BCE, the Hebrew language has existed. However, after the first expulsion of the Jewish people from the land in 587 BCE by the Babylonian Empire, the spoken language of Hebrew diminished, and continued to do so throughout the Medieval Age when it existed primarily as a literary language as it was mostly used by Rabbinical scholars for religious practices. It was not until the late 19th century that by the activist Eliezar Ben-Yehudah Hebrew reemerged as a spoken language.

Since then, the number of daily Hebrew speakers has increased, and within the last century as Israel has miraculously become an independent nation once more owing exponentially to the popularity of the Hebrew language. This attributes to the surging popularity of Jewish names as a somewhat nationalistic movement since the reforming of the Nation of Israel.

In spite of all this, though its primary speakers, the Jewish people, have been scattered throughout the world since the ancient times of civilization, somehow their very language, Hebrew, has survived, which is unheard of for other conquered, assimilated people groups. Though it has obviously evolved throughout the ages, the Hebrew language has popularized to a defying degree within the modern world, such as with the increase of Jewish names in or outside of Jewish contexts.

For more information on the Hebrew language itself, Udemy’s article on Hebrew phrases outlines more of the history of the language as well as some of the basic fundamentals of the language.

Names within Jewish Tradition

One way in which Hebrew has gained such popularity is through its names, which provide a person not only with their identity, but also with a purpose and a meaning – something that will become a part of their identity as it is spoken over them each and every day of their lives through their name. That is why in Jewish tradition, names are of such significance and chosen with the upmost care for a child.

In ancient, Biblical times, there is strong evidence that names were chosen for their spiritual significance. Examples of this are King Solomon receiving the name of Jedidiah יְדִידְיָהּ , meaning “friend of G-d”or “beloved of G-d”, from the prophet Nathan, or Jacob receiving the name Israel יִשְׂרָאֵ, meaning “persevere with G-d,”after wrestling an angel. These are but a few of several other accounts similar to these.

Personality characteristics or physical attributes also played a part in choosing a name for a child. For example, Esau עֵשָׂו, meaning “hairy”or “rough”, was known for his hairiness, and this plays a consequential role in the Biblical narrative when he was swindled out of his birthright by his mother and brother. Another is Barak בָּרָק meaning “lightning”who was a military general for Israel, and is found in the Biblical book of Judges.

Another significant trait in naming a child was the circumstances of their birth. This is most often seen in the account of Jacob and his twelve sons found in the Biblical book of Genesis. Jacob’s wives, Leah and Rachel, though sisters, were fighting for their husband’s affection. The birth of their children accounts for their striving, as seen with name of Rachel’s son Naphtali נַפְתָּלִי meaning “my struggle”. Names of animals were also adopted as human names, such as Jonah יוֹנָה for “dove”or Caleb כָּלֵב for “dog”. Occupational names are not found in the Bible to correspond with the traditions of other later cultures, such as that of the Anglo-Saxons or Germanic peoples.

One of the most common traditions of Biblical onomastics is the use of compound names. Two examples are that of the prophet Isaiah’s son Shear-jashub, meaning “the remnant shall return”, and Hephzibah חֶפְצִי־בָהּ meaning “my pleasure is in her”. These names are full sentences utilizing the knowledge of the Hebrew language to its fullest extent to give a name carrying a weighty, spiritual significance.

The majority of composite names found within the Bible are those that are theophorous, which refer or mention the Deity called YHWH or El by the Hebrew people. Two prophets ––Zechariah זְכַרְיָה meaning “G-d has remembered”and Jeremiah יִרְמְיָהוּ  meaning “Yah exalts”––of the Bible have such a name. These composite names and many more are found within the Biblical narrative. 

Significance of the Hebrew Language within Names

If you are wishing to teach yourself a foreign language, such as Hebrew, then the study of words, or etymology, is always an easy way to begin, especially in Hebrew, for as you can see the language itself has traditionally always played an important role in choosing a name for a person.

Another, non-Biblical example of this is found within Jewish folklore. While in most Jewish stories, the name of G-d, or the Tetragrammaton, is used as a mystical weapon against the powers of darkness, there is a specific tale that is a play on words. This tale is known as “The Golem of Prague”.

As the story goes, during the Medieval Age, in the city of Prague, a Rabbi wishing to protect his people from anti-Semitic attacks and pogroms created an anthropomorphic being out of mud or clay from the banks of the Vitava River, and he brought the creature to life by writing the word emet אֱמֶת, or “truth,”on the creature’s head. To kill it, he need only remove the letter alef אֱ, and the word would become met מת, or “death”. This example shows the importance of the knowledge of the Hebrew language in that by removing one simple letter, a word that brought life turned into a word which brought death.

Popular, Modern Hebrew Names

Hebrew names are beginning to gain popularity outside of Jewish contexts. One such example is in Christian circles that borrow from the Jewish texts. As either someone wishing to study the Hebrew language, or perhaps an expectant parent researching names for their future child as well as other parenting skills, if names stemming from the Hebraic language attracts you, foreknowledge is critical as with a Hebrew name comes thousands of years of history and tradition. Though it might be an intimidating concept, if the correct name is chosen it could bring about wonderful significance to your child’s life as it is a language steeped with rich religious magnitude.

Some modern examples of Hebrew names are Chaim חַיִּים meaning “life”, or Mayim מָיִּם meaning “living waters”. All these and more can usually trace their roots back to some form of Biblical name or word carrying with it a vibrant history. The name Chavalah meaning “bird,” which can also mean “life”from Chava חוה,  being traced back to the Biblical form of the name Eve,  is but one example of this.

Below is a list of some of the most common names from or derived from Hebrew.

  • Aaron –male; אַהֲרֹן; high mountain or exalted
  • Daniel –male; דָּנִיֵּאל; G-d is my judge
  • David –male; דָּוִד; beloved
  • Deborah –female; דְּבוֹרָה; bee
  • Esther –female; אֶסְתֵר; star
  • Eve –female; could either derive from חוה, “to breathe,”or חיה, “to live”
  • Jacob –male; יַעֲקֹב; holder of the heel or supplanter
  • Jeremy –male; Medieval English form of Jeremiah > יִרְמְיָהוּ ; YHWH has lifted up
  • Joseph –male; יוֹסֵף; he will add
  • Leah –female; לֵאָה; weary
  • Rachel –female; רָחֵל; ewe
  • Rebecca –female; רִבְקָה; a snare
  • Ruth –female; רוּת; friend
  • Sharon –female; שָׁרוֹן; a geographical plain
  • Zach or Zack –male; short form of Zackary or Zachary from the usual English form of Zacharias, which is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Zechariah זְכַרְיָה meaning YHWH remembers.

Of course, one does not need to halt their research here. One could further their study by either taking a beginner’s course in the Hebrew language online at Udemy, or learn basic, conversational Hebrew. Both are excellent building blocks to enrich one’s linguistic studies, or find that unique name that stands out from the other popular baby names all the while giving your child a name of deep, eloquent meaning that will stay with them throughout their lives.