Did you have a nickname growing up? Did you use it, or was it a name reserved for use by your closest friends or just family?

It is fascinating to note that Jewish law frowns upon bequeathing nicknames. This does not mean “Billy” instead of William or “Lefty” for a left-handed friend, but more the types of nicknames that a child might receive from a bully. These hostile nicknames are regarded in the Talmud as evil names, and it specifically states that “All who descend into Gehinnom (purgatory) re-ascend, excepting…[one who] gives an evil nickname to his neighbor” (Baba Metzia 58b).

In Talmudic times, far more so than today, a person’s nickname often distinguished them from others with the same name. As there were no last names at that time, people were often called by their distinguishing features. Sometimes that was as simple as the name of the person’s father (thus Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, Simon the son of Gamliel).  Other times, a nickname reflected a person’s job (such as Rabbi Yochanan HaSandler, the sandlemaker). Nicknames were sometimes as simple as descriptions of height, hair color, place of origin, etc.

When one gives a neighbor a negative appellation and uses it over and over, the name comes to stick. At first “Daniel the Dull” is a joke until it becomes the way people think of Daniel.

According to Jewish tradition, parents have ruach hakodesh (Divine inspiration) when choosing a name for their child, and a person’s name has spiritual influence on the person they become when they develop. Not only does a nasty nickname negate the positive influences of a person’s name, but embarrasses them as well.

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