Baalei Teshuva / Forefathers / Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto / Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld / Torah Parasha

Judaism on changing one’s name

B”H
Yesterday was Shabbat Mikeitz where we read Parashat Mikeitz in the Synagogues. The Parasha is teaching us that Yosef interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams and Pharaoh was thankful and gave Yosef an important job. Furthermore, he provided Yosef with a new name: YOSEF became ZAFNAT PANEACH.
In his commentary on the Parasha, the Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, 1707 – 1746) is asking why Yosef’s name had to be changed into the Egyptian sounding name Zafnat Paneach. The Ramchal’s answer is that Pharaoh feared that the people of Egypt would realize that a mere slave was ruling over them and that this would spark a rebellion. The second reason that Yosef’s brothers were destined to descend to Egypt in search of food from Yosef himself. Had he kept his name Yosef they would have immediately recognized him as their brother. 
It is very common in Judaism that Jews change their first name at a certain point in life. The reason may be a serious illness someone overcomes. It is taught that a name provides a Jew with a G – dgiven task in life. Once this task is fulfilled, the Jew has no more reason to live. In order to remain alive, various Jews either give themselves a new first name or they add another name to their first name. Famous example: Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, one of the founders of the Edah HaCharedit. He was born as Chaim Sonnenfeld and survived a serious illness. Afterwards he added another name to his existing one: Yosef Chaim.
Also our forefathers had their names changed: Avram became Avraham, Sarai became Sarah and Yaakov turned into Israel. 
A Gemara (Rabbinic Discussion) in Talmud Rosh Hashana 16b teaches:
Rabbi Yitzchak said:
Four things cause the unfavourable decree against a person to be torn up: 
Charity (Zedakah), crying out to G – d, change of name and change of action. 
In addition to that the Gemara also lists the change in someone’s place of living or moving to another country, as Avraham did. 
A Jew changing his first name doesn’t want to identify with his previous sins anymore but start all over again. Rambam (Maimonides, 1135 – 1204) lists the above points as well as further points in his Mishna Torah – Hilchot Teschuva 2:4. If a Jew wants to do Teshuva he should consider moving somewhere else in order not to be confronted with his former environment which may cause him to get astray. This only as a brief example but one doing serious Teshuva has to take a couple of serious considerations into account.
It is not unheard of that secular Jews suddenly change their first name when starting a Teshuva process. However, one should refrain from giving himself a new name if his intentions are not serious. If you change your name and continue the same path in life, the new name won’t help you very much. 🙂
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