Saying A Wicked Name

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by R. Gil Student

I. The Hungarian Apostate

Are you allowed to say the name of someone wicked or should you avoid saying it? Mishlei (10:7) says, “The memory of the righteous shall be for a blessing but the name of the wicked shall rot.” Are we obligated to abandon the name to rot?

The Gemara (Yoma 38b) says: “What is the meaning of: But the name of the wicked shall rot? R. Elazar says: Decay will spread on their names, that we do not call others by their names.“ Does this mean that we should completely refrain from saying their names?

Rav Meir Katzenellenbogen (Maharam Padua, 16th cen., Italy; Responsa, no. 87) was asked how to call to the Torah someone whose father converted to Christianity. The full story is interesting. A leader of the Jewish community of Oifen (also called Budon), Hungary, a married Jewish man with two sons, once while traveling on communal matters succumbed to temptation with the daughter of a prominent Christian. There are two versions of what happened next. Either the local rabbis insisted that he repent by shaving his head and beard, which he refused to do and instead converted to Christianity. Or, the woman’s father utilized his powerful connections to force the man to convert.

Regardless, most stories like this end with the apostate become a Jew-hater. Indeed, the man became rich and powerful, and was even appointed Hungarian Minister of Finance. However, over the years, he consistently used his wealth and connections to help Jews who were threatened physically and financially by powerful Christians. He may even have kept the Torah privately because at one point, he was jailed and sentenced to burn for being a secret Jew, saved only by large bribes. He later saved the Jews of his town from a blood libel and prevented the expulsion of Jews from Prague.

Despite all this, he could not return to Judaism and did not flee the country for a place where he could live as a Jew. Reportedly, as the end of his life approached in 1526, he asked to be brought to shul on Yom Kippur where he confessed publicly his sins and begged people to pray for him, after which he died. From then on, the rabbi of Oifen recited kaddish on Yom Kippur in his memory. (On all this, see my teacher Rav Asher Siev’s English article, “The Strange Path of an Apostate Jew,” in the memorial volume for Rav Shmuel K. Mirsky.)

II. Father or Grandfather?

Maharam Padua was asked whether this forced convert’s sons should be called to the Torah as the son of their father (e.g. Reuven ben Ya’akov) or their grandfather (Reuven ben Yitzchak). Before his apostasy they were called by his name. After the apostasy, they would be called by their grandfather’s name, which they found so embarrassing that they refused to be called to the Torah. Is this necessary? Maharam Padua quotes Rav Yisrael Isserlein (15th cen., Austria; Terumas Ha-Deshen 1:21) who quotes Sefer Chasidim as saying that you call the son of a convert by his grandfather’s name.

Maharam Padua suggests that this case is different than that of the Terumas Ha-Deshen. First, he quotes the Gemara above and says that we only may not name a baby after someone wicked and we should curse in some way the wicked when referring to him. This does not impact a reference to his son. When we talk about the righteous king Chizkiyahu ben Achav, we are referring to a tzadik even though his father was wicked.

Additionally, Maharam Padua makes a powerful point that should impact all areas of our lives. In his case, the boys were called to the Torah by their father’s name before he converted. Changing how they are called to the Torah would embarrass them. Sefer Chasidim’s statement to call the son of a convert by his grandfather’s name is a recommendation, a chumra, a proper but not obligatory practice. We do not practice chumros when that would embarrass someone because that is counterproductive. Rather than accomplishing something proper, it causes damage.

Therefore, Maharam Padua concludes that Terumas Ha-Deshen is talking about a case in which the sons were never called by their father’s name (i.e. he left Judaism when they were still young). In such a case, they should be called by their grandfather’s name. If they were older when their father left and they had been called to the Torah by their father’s name, then they should continue to do so in order to avoid their embarrassment. Maharam Padua notes that Rabbeinu Asher (Rosh, 14th cen., Germany-Spain) says to call the sons of a convert by their father’s name, which seems to disagree with Sefer Chasidim. Maharam Padua explains that Rosh was speaking about older sons who had already been called by their father’s name.

In his specific case, Maharam Padua adds that the apostate was a high-ranking government official. Since we regularly bless important government officials in the synagogue, there would be additional reason to allow mention of his name. Even more-so in this case, in which the apostate is reported to have regretted his actions and advocated for the Jewish community.

III. The Name of the Wicked

Maharam Padua’s younger cousin, Rav Moshe Isserles (Rema, 16th cen., Poland; Responsa, no. 42), takes a slightly different approach. Rema identifies the Rosh discussed above (Responsa, 17:12, quoted in Tur, Even Ha-Ezer 129). If Rosh says to call the son of an apostate by his father’s name, how could Terumas Ha-Deshen disagree? Rema suggests that Terumas Ha-Deshen was offering advice to the son of an apostate. If he refuses to be called by his father’s name, his father will be embarrassed which will serve as partial atonement for his sin. However, this is optional for the son.

According to Maharam Padua, a young son whose father converts must use his grandfather’s name while according to Rema, he can choose whether to use his father’s or grandfather’s name. In an act of extreme humility, Rema defers to his older cousin in his responsum and rules like Maharam Padua — against himself — in his glosses to Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 139:3).

According to both Maharam Padua and Rema, there is no prohibition against mentioning the name of someone wicked. At best, it is a proper but not obligatory practice. Rav Chaim Yosef David Azulai (Chida, 18th cen., Israel; Yosef Ometz 11:3) disagrees. He quotes Tosafos (Megillah 23a s.v. Ya’akov) who say that the person mentioned in a specific Gemara is not an apostate because if he was, his name would not be mentioned in light of the verse, “But the name of the wicked shall rot.” According to Chida, we may not mention the name of someone wicked.

Mishnah Berurah (139:9) and Kaf Ha-Chaim (139:11-12) accept the Rema’s ruling according to Maharam Padua that if the father converts when his son is older, you use the father’s name (in places where they call someone to the Torah with the father’s name). Both add that you should not add any honorifics (e.g. Reb) to the father and if the son gets called to the Torah in a different town where they don’t know him, he should use his grandfather’s name. It seems normative practice allows for, but discourages, saying the names of wicked people.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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