In Breishit, God parades all of the animals in front of the first human, Adam, who names them effortlessly according to the way they look and behave. The rabbis imagined a fascinating prequel to this scene. In Breishit Rabbah 17:4, God first approaches the ethereal angels with this very important task of assigning names to all of the hairy, feathered, and slithery creatures. The Midrash teaches that those perfect heavenly hosts, however, were unable to complete the mission of naming the animals. Only Adam, with his first-hand knowledge of life on earth, was up to this challenge.
This week, our family will be adopting a puppy. Along with purchasing food and squeaky toys, we have had to figure out a name for this furry creature. Of all of my many concerns over bringing an animal into our home, I never thought that giving it a name would be so difficult. The dog’s chewing on shoes, homework, and furniture; soiling carpets and floors, whimpering at night; contracting single-celled intestinal parasites from ingesting bird droppings- these were my worries. Finding a name for a cute dog didn’t seem so arduous. I’ve bestowed Hebrew names on dozens of babies, whose parents were grateful for my suggestions. Over the past decade and a half, my husband and I sailed through the challenge of assigning what we consider lovely first and middle names to our children. Evoking images of Biblical queens, military leaders, strength, and virtue, these names sounded modern, yet nodded respectfully to a treasured past. The initials of our daughter’s name even managed to pay tribute to no fewer than four of her deceased great-grandparents and one beloved great-aunt. How hard could it be to name a dog?
By making the naming of the puppy a democratic process, we opened ourselves up to a multitude of dissenting opinions. My husband, who is still in shock over the imminent approach of a pet, abstained from all pertinent naming discussions, making me the single adult voice in the conversation. I prefer names with some literary or cultural resonance that acknowledges the past, a great work of literature, or a charming reference to a work of popular importance. Scout, Guinevere, Groucho, or even Adrian topped my list of potential monikers. Can you imagine calling to the dog outside, “Yo, Adrian!” It would never get old. I even held back my list of exotic Biblical names: Muppim, Chuppim, and most notably Shlomo-Zion Ha-malka.
My children, however, had different notions of the perfect pet name. Staunchly rejecting all cute labels that referred to foods or desserts, they preferred names with a vocal punch. My daughter was wedded to names with strong consonants in the middle, like Parker, Charlie, Jessie, and Maggie. My sons loved the names, Danielle and Teddy. “Who are these people?” I asked them. “What qualities are we bestowing on the puppy when we name her? Don’t you want to give her a beautiful name with some history? Don’t you want to name her something that evokes an image of a ballerina or a warrior or a musician? Don’t you want to name her something clever?”
I’m no angel, and I am not cut out for the task of naming animals. After an ulcer-inducing breakfast at which no one could agree on any suggestions, it seemed that we would be calling our new housemate, “Dog.” My fifteen year-old daughter hatched a compromise. She handed out four index cards to each person in the family except for my husband who was at a meeting and pledged to abide by the results. “Write down four names that you would happily give to the dog,” she instructed. Then she arranged the index cards onto the floor like an old-fashioned concentration card game. “Everyone takes a turn and flips over a card with a name he or she can’t stand for the puppy. Whichever card is the last one standing will be the dog’s name.” It seemed simple enough. “Giselle” immediately was overturned. I nixed “Parker.” The Marx Brothers’ names bit the dust, as well. Finally, the only name that remained was “Danielle.” When my husband came home from work, he asked how the naming process went. “Danielle?” he said quizzically. “What kind of name is that for a dog?” We were back at square one and needed help of Biblical proportions. Out of nowhere, my ten year-old suggested, “Sammi.” My husband and I had actually considered naming both of our sons Samuel, but neither of those bald seven pounders quite looked like a Sam at birth. Miraculously, everyone agreed to Sammi for this newest family member.
On Friday morning, we plan to pick up our newest family member, Sammi. When I made an appointment for her at the veterinarian, the receptionist asked if her name was Samantha or just Sammi. “I don’t really know,” I confessed. We’ll have to meet her first to figure it out. Sometimes in life, after all, we have to name ourselves.
Rabbi Sharon Forman was ordained as a rabbi in 1994 from the New York Campus of HUC-JIR and has tutored Bar and Bat Mitzvah students at Westchester Reform Temple for the past decade. She contributed a chapter on the connection between breastfeeding and Jewish tradition in The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality. She lives in Westchester County, New York with her husband, three children, and their new puppy, Sammi.