By RABBI JOSEPH H. PROUSER
There is an old custom of changing the name of a seriously ill patient, in hopes of altering that individual’s fate and reversing any lethal divine decree that may be in place. I have personally officiated at such rituals.
In selecting the “new” or added identity, some take the first suitable name mentioned in the weekly Torah Reading. Others choose names based on their meaning: Alte/Alter (Yiddish: “old” – signifying added years), Chayim/Chayah (Hebrew: “life”), etc.
Among Native Americans, the Cherokee have the same religious tradition! In her autobiography (“Mankiller”), Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller explains:
“If prayers and medicine fail to heal a seriously ill person, the spiritual leader sometimes realizes that the patient’s name itself may be diseased… and, with the appropriate ceremony, bestows a new name on the sick person. The healer then begins anew, repeating the sacred formulas with the patient’s new name, in the hope that these measures will bring about restoration and recovery.”
Rosh Hashanah 16B, the Talmudic source on which Jews base this practice, lists changing one’s name as but one among four methods of altering the course of one’s life. Reflecting the Rabbis’ priorities in our continuous quest for restoration, only the other three found their way into the High Holiday liturgy:
Teshuvah, u-Tefillah, u-Tzedakah… Repentance, Prayer, and Charity.
(Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey and the former National Chaplain of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting.)