Librarian's Lobby
by Daniel D. Stuhlman
March 2005

Naming a Baby "Alter"

Disclaimer: This month's column is Purim Torah. This means I am trying to be humorous and satirical.

Question: We are eight months pregnant and we know the baby will be a boy. Recently Alter Zede died and we would like to name the baby after him. I know that Zede is Yiddish for grandfather. May we name our child, "Alter?"

Answer: The Talmud in Berachot 7b teaches us that the name you choose has an influence on the character of the bearer. Think of the connotations a name gives even before you meet the person with the name. What kind of person would you imagine fits the n ames, Mabuto, Princess SummerFallWinterSpring, or Tzemmer? If you were the CEO of large company would you want your introducing to be confused over the pronunciation of your given name? Hence you are very right to be concerned about the name you choose. You should be naming your child after an individual with positive character traits that you hope will bring fortune and goodness to the baby, the family and the world. Even the numerical values of the letters of the name are important. We also have lists of pesukim (verses) of the Tanakh (Bible) that begin and end with the same letters of many names.

We have to analyze your question. Just to be sure I assume that you have not made a typo in your question. You are not asking if you can name your name "later," meaning at a later date. Just in case that is the question, the answer is: We do not name babies before they are born. I do know of one person, who is now in his mid-20, who was given a nickname in utero. To this day people still call him by that nickname even though his has a perfectly good Hebrew name that is not long or hard to pronounce. Baby boys are named at their brit milah; girls are named at the first opportunity the Torah is read in shul after the birth.

Some names are very common Hebrew words. Examples are Shalom (peace), Bracha (blessing), Haim (life), Tova (goodness), and Mazel (luck). These names are sometimes added to sick people in hopes that will change the fortune and help in the recovery. When a child is named after a deceased relative, the soul is elevated to a higher realm in heaven. The parents hope that a spiritual affinity is created between the two souls. This is a way of achieving continuity and tradition. When the parent tells the child about the decedent, a deep spiritual bond between these two souls is possible. The child may develop a profound impact from that bond. Are you concerned about the name "Alter" and its meaning? The word "alter" is from the German-Yiddish "alt" meaning "old" (which is a direct cognate.) I assume you are not talking about the "alter" in "alter ego," alternate," "alteryears," alterNet," or any such names. That must be the reason for your concern. Would you want a baby to have an old name?

There are several famous authors with the last name of Alter: Alter, Isaac Meir, 1789-1866. [fn 1] ; Alter, Joseph S.. [fn 2] ; and Alter, Judah Aryeh Leib, 1847-1905. [fn 3] . Here are some with Alter as a first name: Litvin, Alter L.; Pekier, Alter; [fn 5] and Kacyzne, Alter, 1885-1941. [fn 6]

The words "elder" and "alderman" are related to "alter." That means the name is associated with the wisdom and experience of many years.

All this reminds me of the story of Tzemach Alter and Henoch Navi. They were best friends through their yeshiva days. While their Jewish teachers had no problem pronoucing their names, others outside the community had difficulty. For example "Tzemach" became "zemash" and the "Het" of Henoch became the /h/ sound. They were always scheming for ways to make money. During summer vacation Tzemach worked in his father's clothing store, "Alter's Zahim" and Henoch worked in his father's store, "Mind the Gap Hardware and Houseware." One summer they worked for each other's father so that they could learn another business and learn how to get along with other people. After yeshiva high school they went to separate colleges. They remained good friends and saw each other often. After college they went to work for their own fathers, but the stores were too small for dreams. Eventually they decided they could do better and decided the best preparation was to earn MBAs from Columbia University. In 1992 they received their degrees.

The fathers decided to expand with the help of the sons. Before the plans could be completed, Tzemach's father decided to retire and give his son the store. Henoch hated the hardware business. He thought the clothing business was a better way to make money. The friends decided to join forces.

They had animated discussions concerning the name for the new business. Since their non-Jewish associates could never pronounce the "het" or "tzadik" sound. Henoch suggested "The Gap." But was told that name already was on clothing store. "Alter's Clothing" was not a good name for a ready-made clothing store. They also rejected, "T and H Clothing" as it did not sound "cool" enough. "Alter and Navi" didn't have the right flow; it sounded like an old prophet.

"Navi and Alter, Alter Navi, Alter Navee"

"Hmm sounds like, Alter Navy, Alter Navy, Aha! Old Navy."

They opened two Old Navy stores in Brooklyn in the fall of 1993 and were an immediate success. Later they expanded to Queens and Long Island. In 1998 The Gapp, Inc. liked their concept of selling clothing and bought them out. That's how two yeshiva boys from Brooklyn started "Old Navy." [fn 7] Today they are vice-presidents of divisions of Gapp, Inc.

You may name your son anything that you want. However, my advice is to give your son a name that more closely resembles your Zede's Hebrew name. Because your child will carry his name for life, his name should contain only positive connotations and should be a name he will be proud of for his entire life.


1. His books include: Sefer ha-zekhut. (1963), Mile de-avot (1993), Sefer hidushe ha-Rim (1997), and She'elot u-teshuvot ha-Rim. (1867).
2. His books include: Yoga in modern India : the body between science and philosophy (2004). 3. His books include: Derashot sefat emet le-Shabat ha-gadol (1998); Masekhet Avot 'im perush sefat emet (1932); and Sha'are sefat emet : Hagadah shel Pesah (1994)
4. His books include: Writing history in twentieth-century Russia : a view from within (2001)
5. His books include: From Kletzk to Siberia : a yeshiva bachur's wanderings during the Holocaust (1985)
6. His books include: Poyln : Jewish life in the old country. (1999)
7. This article is for amusement purposes. Any connection to actual companies with the same or similar names is purely accidental or coincidental.

Daniel D. Stuhlman is president of Stuhlman Management Consultants, Chicago, IL, a firm helping organizations turn data and information into knowledge. We are looking for new clients and opportunities. Visit our web site to learn more about knowledge management and what our firm can do for you. Previous issues of Librarian's Lobby can be found at:

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 ©2005 by Daniel D. Stuhlman. All rights reserved.
Last revised November 22, 2005