I was recently asked this question by a friend:
“Unfortunately, I have serious health problems and have just returned from a lengthy hospital stay involving an operation.
“I’ve heard of people changing their names in such situations and wonder whether I should consider it? Why do people do it? Is it to try and change their fortune? How would I go about doing it if I decided to?”
Here’s my reply…
I’m really sorry to hear of your ill health, and wish you a speedy convalescence from your operation, good health, good spirits and a long happy life.
The practice of name changing goes back to the Talmud where it says (Rosh Hashana 15b):
“Four things can change an evil decree: praying, giving charity, changing one’s name and changing one’s behavior.”
Notice that the other three all entail the person doing something while #3 seems – and in practice today usually is – passive. In fact name changing is today most often used when someone is in a life threatening situation, and even without their knowledge or consent, as they are too ill to be consulted.
I must confess at this point that I have often thought how unhappy I would be to wake up and find that while I was unconscious someone had changed my name!
Although I do not consider myself a “rationalist”, and am certainly open to metaphysical ideas, in this case I would suggest this is a mistaken understanding of the text. Understood that way, changing one’s name is the odd-man-out in that it involves no change-for-the-better in the person. The other three all do!
Obviously one’s name is tightly bound up with one’s self-image and persona, and therefore I would suggest that the main purpose of “changing one’s name” – as suggested in the Talmud – is not a superstitious belief that it can change one’s destiny, but the actual knowledge that changing one’s persona for the better – like the other three things – can actually cause one to merit health and life that one did not merit before.
So I would say that even if one does decide to actually change one’s name, it should be linked to a decision to lead a different and better life. I would also warn against changing one’s name, because – unless you really dislike it – you would be discarding part of your identity! In my opinion you can achieve the purpose of “changing your name” – in the most meaningful sense – without necessarily doing so. But that is entirely your personal decision.
If you do decide you want to go ahead with a name change, I suggest you consult a local rabbi, as this is usually done in the presence of a minyan.
I should add that kabbalistic tradition (which is often more modern than people realise, such as Hida – Rabbi Chaim Joseph David Azulai, 1724-1806) recommends name changing in the case of serous illness – especially when done by a “great rabbi” and accompanied by esoteric “kavanot” (thoughts), and there are modern rabbis and kabbalists (and more than a few “so-called-kabbalists”) who would support this approach more than I do.
I hope this helps you make your own decision, because more than anything else I believe it is essential that a change like this is only made if it is your decision.
May the Almighty help you make the decision that is best for you, and bless you with good health and great opportunities.