May a convert use a name other than “Ploni ben/bat Avraham Avinu?”

By Rabbi Barry Leff

17 Av 5768

August 18, 2007

Question:

May a convert choose to use a name other than Ploni ben/bat Avraham Avinu v’Sarah Imanu?  If a proselyte had a halachically valid conversion, but the rabbi allowed a patronymic other than “ben/bat Avraham Avinu” is it acceptable to continue using that name, or must the convert change his/her name? 

Response:

There is a clear tradition that converts are named ben/bat Avraham Avinu.  In the Shulhan Arukh it states: בגט גר כותב: פלוני בן אברהם אבינו In a convert’s get is written: Ploni son of Avraham Avinu.”[1]  The Rosh in a teshuva states, אלא כך נוהגין לכתוב בכתובות וגטין של גרים: פלוני בן אברהם, ושמו המובהק כותבים, ואב המון גוים הוא אבי כלם thus it is our custom to write in ketubbot or gittin of converts: Ploni ben Avraham, and his preferred name is written, and he is the father of a great nation, father of all.”[2] 

Isaac Klein confirms this as normative for Conservative Jews as well:  “The patronymic ben or bat Avraham Avinu is insisted upon for purposes of identification.”[3] 

From looking at the various teshuvot on the subject, it is clear that identification means simply identifying the correct person, not that there is any other reason to identify a convert.  The Tur elaborates on this concept.  The Tur states על אחד ששמו יוסף בן שמעון והמיר אביו והבן היה לו לגרש ולא רצה להזכיר שם אביו וכתב יוסף בן שמואל שהגט פסול שהרואה אומר אחר מגרשה כי שם בעלה יוסף בן שמעון וזה היה יוסף בן שמואל “regarding one who’s name is Yosef ben Shimon, and the father converted (to another religion) and they were estranged and the son did not want to mention his father’s name, and he wrote ‘Yosef ben Shmuel’ the get is invalid, for one who sees it will say ‘someone else divorced her, for her husband’s name is Yosef ben Shimon, and this was Yosef ben Shmuel.’” [4]

The Beit Yosef, however, gives us an opening to use a name other than Avraham Avinu for a convert.  The Beit Yosef on the Tur brings a teshuvah from the Mintz, Moses ben Isaac (15th century Ashkenaz) which says: מצאתי שצריך שיכתוב בלשון דלישתמע מיניה שהוא גר כגון שיכתוב הגר או בן אברהם אבינו “I found that one needs to write in language that implies that the person is a convert, for example write “hager,” the convert, or son of Avraham Avinu (emphasis added).”[5]  This teshuvah clearly says that even in a get it is sufficient to identify the person as a convert, without necessarily also naming them after Avraham Avinu.

This is reaffirmed in a contemporary responsum from the Beit Din of the Chief Rabbinate of Jerusalem: בגט גר כותב פלוני בן אברהם אבינו. ובב"ש ס"ק לט ואם לא כתב אבינו צריך לכתוב הגר, ואם לא כתב גר פסול דמשמע שהוא בן אברהם.  In a convert’s get Ploni ben Avraham Avinu is written.  And if Avraham Avinu is not written, ‘the convert’ needs to be written, for if ‘the convert’ is not written the get is pasul, as it could be implied that he was the son of [a person named] ‘Abraham.’”[6]  While the Beit Din of Jerusalem clearly anticipates that the convert is at least named “son of Abraham,” the message is reaffirmed that the concern for naming converts “ben Avraham Avinu” is for identification purposes.

            Tosefta Gittin 6:4 (cited by Tosafot to Bavli Gittin 34b) goes even further: it says גר ששינה שמו בשם הגוים כשר (וכן אתה אומר כשר) וכן אתה אומ' בגירה גיטין הבאין ממדינת הים אע"פ ששמותיהן כשמות הגוים כשרין מפני שישראל שבמדינת הים שמותיהן כשמות הגוים “a convert who changed his name to a gentile name [the get] is kosher, and thus you say regarding gittin that come from overseas, that even though the names are like gentile names, they are kosher, because Jews who are overseas have names like Gentile names.[7]

            We do have records of converts using names other than ben/bat Avraham. In his teshuva “On the Conversion of Adopted and Patrilineal Children,” Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner shows that using the name “ben/bat Avraham” is just a custom.  R. Reisner writes:

“Yet even the standard custom is simply that, as evidenced by many historical converts who did not carry the name בן אברהם (son of Abraham).  Thus, in Yevamot 101b the amora Rav Samuel son of Judah reports about himself: ואנא גר אנא (“I am a convert”), yet he is named בר יהודה (son of Judah), as Rashi explains it, after his natural father who converted together with him.  Similarly, among many converts working in the early Jewish printing trades we find alongside Jacob son of Abraham and Moses son of Abraham the names of Jacob son of Gedalya, Moses son of Gedalya and Moses son of Jacob.”[8] 

 

Rabbi Reisner concluded that adopted children who are converts do not need to use ben/bat Avraham.[9]

Even if it is minhag, not halakhah, one might argue that ever since Caro codified the use of the name Avraham Avinu in the Shulhan Arukh, the use of that name has become a longstanding tradition that we should be reluctant to change. 

It is good to honor tradition.  However, in this case, we have a clear understanding of why the tradition came about—it was to make sure that converts were accurately identified in documents.  This need can be fulfilled in other ways, by simply identifying the person as a convert in the document.

In the Mishnah in Bava Metzia we findאם הוא בן גרים לא יאמר לו זכור מעשה אבותיך שנאמר +שמות כ"ב+ וגר לא תונה ולא תלחצנו “if he was the son of converts, do not say to him “remember the deeds of your ancestors, as it is written ‘do not wrong or oppress the stranger (Exodus 22:20).’”[10]  The Gemara continues and warns us לא תונו איש את עמיתו - באונאת דברים. הא כיצד?... אם היה גר ובא ללמוד תורה אל יאמר לו פה שאכל נבילות וטריפות, שקצים ורמשים בא ללמוד תורה שנאמרה מפי הגבורה  “A man shall not oppress his neighbor – refers to oppression with words … If he is a proselyte and comes to study the Torah, one must not say to him, ‘Shall the mouth that ate unclean and forbidden food, abominable and creeping things, come to study the Torah which was uttered by the mouth of Omnipotence!”[11] Thus we learn from the Talmud that to remind a convert, or the child of a convert, of their former status is a violation of oppressing the stranger. The Gemara continues with a discussion of how really terrible it is to publicly embarrass someone—going so far as to say   כל המלבין פני חבירו ברבים כאילו שופך דמים”anyone who embarasses (lit. ‘whitens the face’) of his fellow in public is as if he spilled blood.”[12]

The Shulhan Arukh affirms the requirement not to oppress converts: צריך ליזהר ביותר באונאת הגר, בין בגופו בין בממונו, לפי שהוזהר עליו בכמה מקומות “One needs to be especially careful about oppressing the convert, whether himself or monetarily, therefore we are cautioned about this in several places (in the Torah).”[13]

There are those who would question, how can it be viewed as “oppression” to name converts after one of our greatest heroes, Avraham Avinu?  It is, to the contrary, an honor.  To that we respond that honor is also in the eyes of the recipient, and if that honor results in them being readily identified as a convert, it may be an honor they would choose to decline.

If we continue to insist on Avraham Avinu (and Sarah Imanu), especially in these times when the name of both the father and mother are used in calling someone to the Torah, we will effectively be labeling converts as converts every time they get called up for an aliyah, and this could be a violation of באונאת הגר.

Furthermore, as the Tosefta Gitin shows, it is acceptable for people to take on all kinds of names for themselves, even gentile names.[14]  According to halakhah, the convert has made a complete break with his or her former family; for many purposes, a convert is treated as if he or she has no relatives (see, for example, Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 269:1, as a matter of Torah law a convert is allowed to marry his mother or sister that converted; the rabbis had to make a decree against this).  However, in these days where there has been significant intermarriage, divorce, blended families, etc., converts do not turn their backs on their gentile families, and in fact we counsel converts in ways to be both Jewishly observant and to maintain peace with their families.  Some converts may wish to acknowledge their non-Jewish blood relatives with their name; for example, if the father was named “John” a convert might want to call him or her self “ben or bat Yohanan.”  Or if a convert has a beloved relative who has passed away, he or she may want to acknowledge a connection to that person.  The only proviso we would attach is that in keeping with the universal custom for Jews to have Hebrew names that are Jewish names, any name used for ritual purposes should be a Jewish name.

Other converts may find that they simply have a stronger sense of identification with biblical characters other than Abraham and Sarah.  If a convert feels a particularly strong connection with Ruth and her journey, for example, she may feel herself a “spiritual descendant” of Ruth, and prefer to call herself “bat Rut” instead of “bat Sarah.”  Allowing a convert to select a name that resonates more strongly with him or her may have the beneficial effect of increasing the sense of comfort he or she has with their new Jewish identity.

Conclusion / Psak Din

Therefore we conclude that while we may wish to encourage converts to choose the name ben/bat Avraham Avinu v’Sarah Imanu to honor a long-standing tradition, we need not insist on it, even לכתחילה (before the fact) if a proselyte has a preference for a different name.  The only caveat is that the person must take care that in any official documents, such as ketubbot or gittin, that the convert must be identified as הגר or הגיורת in order that there will not be any possibility of confusion in identifying the person, as described in the teshuvah from the Mintz.  For example, if a convert chose to call himself Shmuel ben Yosef, we would not want someone looking for a non-existent Yosef, or confusing the convert with someone else of that name. The same thing applies if the convert was known as “ben Avraham” without the “Avinu” – any official documents must specify “hager.

And certainly, בדיעבד, after the fact, if a convert had received a name other than Ploni ben/bat Avraham Avinu at the time of a halachic conversion, there is no requirement for the person to change his or her name.

 

 

Tosafot chagigah 9b

בר הי הי להלל. יש מפרשים שגר היה והיינו בן אברהם ושרה שנתוסף ה״א בשמן וכן בג בג דכולה הגמרא עולה ה׳:



[1] Shulhan Arukh Even HaEzer 129:20

[2] Rosh, Clal 15:4

[3] Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, p. 445

[4] Tur, Even HaEzer 129

[5] Beit Yosef, Even HaEzer 129:20, quoting Moses ben Isaac

[6] Piskei Din Yerushalayim, Dinei Mamonot u’birurei Yahadut 5 page 201.

[7] Tosefta Gittin 6:4

[8] On the Conversion of Adopted and Patrilineal Children (Proceedings of the CJLS 1986-1990, p. 168)

[9] Ibid, p. 174

[10] Talmud Bavli Bava Metzia 58b

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Shulhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat 228:2

[14] Tosefta Gittin 6:4, op. cit.