Shinui Shem: Changing the Name of One Who is Ill

There is a well-known custom to change the name of one who is severely ill. Doing so is said to assist in improving their condition.[1] It is believed that if illness and death were decreed on a particular person, changing that person’s name can “fool” the evil decree (or “Satan”) into believing that the ill person is actually someone else. As a result of this “error,” any such decree is dismissed and the person recovers.[2] Indeed, the Talmud itself teaches that changing the name of one who is ill has the power to eradicate any evil decree that may have been decreed upon that person.[3] One should not change the name of one who is ill without their knowledge and approval.[4] A person’s name is said to convey his essence.[5]

There are several precedents in Scripture where we find that people’s names were changed and then shortly thereafter their fortunes changed for the better. For example, it is only after Avram and Sarai’s names were changed to Avraham and Sara that they were blessed with children. It is also said that changing a person’s name causes him or her to feel born anew. This encourages a person to do teshuva and renew their commitment to Torah and mitzvot.[6] In fact, there is an opinion that a ba’al teshuva should change his name, though common custom is not in accordance with this view.[7] There was once a custom for one having difficulty in making a living to change his name.[8]

Common custom, however, is to add a name to one who is ill rather than to change it completely.[9] When this is done, the added name usually precedes the given one.[10] Some of the more prominent names that are used when adding a name include: Refael, Chaim, and Shalom for men, and Chana and Sara for women.[11] Some have the custom to randomly open a chumash or Tanach and to use the first name that they see.[12] A person’s name should only be changed in the presence of a minyan and preferably in the synagogue during the Torah reading service.[13] Alternatively, there are a number of formulas for changing the name of one who is ill that can be recited in the presence of a minyan at any time or place. While adding a name can be undertaken by anyone, completely changing a person’s name should only be done under the auspices of a great rabbi.[14]

There is a mysterious custom to “sell” a sick individual to a different family rather than to change his or her name. This is based on the belief that an evil decree can only be decreed upon “the son” of a particular person and not necessarily on that person alone. By “selling” the sick person to a different family he now becomes the son (or daughter) of someone else, leading to the dismissal of the decree and a recovery.[15] Some authorities, following the precedent of Avraham and Sara, recommend that a couple that has remained childless for over a decade change their names in the hope of conceiving.[16] There is an opinion, with some precedent in fact, that the residents of a city that suffers from severe troubles should change the name of the city to something representing strength and positivity.[17]

It goes without saying that adding or changing the name of one who is ill does not guarantee that the individual will be healed. Such practices are merely a segula. One whose name was changed, but nevertheless dies shortly thereafter, continues to be referred to by his former name, and the new name is ignored.[18] One who recovered from an illness, and then lives for a significant time thereafter, continues to be referred to by the new name even if he or she later dies.[19] It is suggested that living for at least one month in relatively good health following the illness is considered to have recovered from the illness, and in such instances, the new name becomes permanent.[20] Other authorities maintain that the new name may be retained even if the person dies within a month of recovering from the illness, if the new name was well known and widely circulated.[21] The new name is to be used in all documents, such as a ketuba upon marriage and a get in the event of a divorce.[22] Indeed, some authorities advise those who are married to rewrite their ketuba with their new name, while others are not particular to do so.[23]

[1] Rema, YD 335:10; Aruch Hashulchan, YD 335:12.

[2] Bereishit Rabba 44:15; Kohelet Rabbati 5:4.

[3] Rosh Hashana 16b.

[4] Orchot Rabbeinu 1:338.

[5] Berachot 7b; Yoma 83b; Tanchuma, Haazinu 7; Sefer Chassidim 244.

[6] Ran, Rosh Hashana 16; Semag, Aseh 17. See also Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva 2:4; Sefer Chassidim 20.

[7] Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva 2:4.

[8] Yerushalmi, Shabbat 6:9.

[9] See Aruch Hashulchan, EH 129:12.

[10] Minchat Elazar 4:27; Taamei Haminhagim p. 105. See Be’er Mayim Chayim, Bereishit.

[11] Otzar Dinim U’minhagim p.428; Devash L’fi, shin, 14.

[12] Sefer Chassidim 244; Mahari Bruna 101. But see Kovetz Teshuvot Harambam

V’igrotav 1:52 for a dissenting view.

[13] Rabbeinu Yerucham 28:1; Ziv Hashemot 28:7. See Siddur Beit Yaakov.

[14] Ziv Hashemot 28:2.

[15] Sefer Chassidim 245.

[16] Teshuvot V'hanhagot 1:790.

[17] Nefesh Kol Chai, shin, 37.

[18] Chelkat Mechokek, EH 129:1; Mabit 1:125; Gesher Hachaim 1:4.

[19] Avnei Tzedek 28.

[20] Yad Sofer 2; Levushei Mordechai, YD 1:215; Igrot Moshe, EH 4:104.

[21] Mishne Sachir, YD 228.

[22] Rema, EH 129:18; Pitchei Teshuva, EH 129:53,54.

[23] Minchat Yitzchak 10:132. See also Shevet Halevi 8:286:3.