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I know many Jews whose actual bris-given name is Alexander, and this has been a popular name even among great tzaddikim of the past (such as R. Alexander Ziskind). I've heard a legend (mentioned on sites such as Ohr Somayach, Aish, and JewishHistory.org) that when Alexander met with the Jews and supported them(Yoma 69a), the Jews in turn honored him by naming children 'Alexander'.

(See also Igros Moshe O.C. 5:10 where he rejects another version of the story)

What's the earliest source for this story/explanation?

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apparently there's a source in Yalkut Yosef on Kibud Av V'Eim ch 8 seif 11 –  Matt Jul 8 at 19:56
    
Rav Moshe says it can't be that the Jews were forced to name their children Alexander, or else he would have forced them to have the statue. (As the Gemara says he respected the Jews.) It's certainly possible that he asked nicely about the statue, and they felt bad so they offered to name their kids instead. (Rav Moshe's point is that it's not all-out prohibited to give your kids non-Jewish names. "And don't tell me those who named their kids Alexander were absolutely forced to do so..." –  Shalom Jul 9 at 0:15

2 Answers 2

Bais Aharon - page 510 says that it is mentioned in Yossipon, end of first book - Chapter 5.

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I believe that the earliest source is in the Book of Yossipon (top of this page):

ויאמר הכהן אל המלך הזהב אשר נדבו שפתיך תנהו למחית כהני אלהינו לעניי הכהנים אשר יולדו בשנה הזאת בכל יהודה ובכל ארץ ירושלם יקראו כשמך אלכסנדר ויהי לך לזכרון כאשר יבאו לעבוד את עבודת אלהינו בבית הזה כי אין לנו לקבל בבית אלהיגו פסל וכל תמונה ויעש המלך כן ויתן את הזהב לנהנים

And the Priest told the king, the gold that you have sworn [to use for a memorial statue] should be given to sustain the priests of our God, to the poor among those priests that will be born this year in all of Judea and in all of the Lands of Jerusalem will be named for your name, Alexander, and this should be a memorial to you when they come to serve in the service of our God in this House - that we do not accept in the House of our God idols or any figure. And the king did so, and gave the gold to the priests.

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This answer is quite correct, however the translation is erroneous in describing (in brackets) Alexander's intent as being for an idol. Jossipon states that Alexander wished to erect a statue as a memorial for himself: "עתה אעשה לי זכר הנה ואתן זהב לרוב לאומנין ויבנו את צלמי ויקימו אותו בין הבית ובין קדש הקדשים ויהי צלמי לזכרון לי בבית הזה, בית אלוק הגדול." A fuller quote of the text can be found, with translation, in my blog post: shesileizeisim.blogspot.com/2013/07/shimon-hatzadik.html –  LazerA Jul 8 at 22:19
    
@LazerA correct, when I wrote 'idol' I had intended that definition, which I thought was obvious from context (because he was appeased with a different form of a memorial). I'll edit though as you are right in thinking that statue is probably a more accurate word –  Matt Jul 8 at 22:41

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