I noticed in B'reishit 38 that Yehudah names his first son Er, but his wife bat Shua names the other two. Yaakov's wives name all of their children (except that Yaakov changes Ben-oni to Binyanim). Yitzchak and Yishmael are named by God, and for Esav "they" named him and Yaakov's naming is passive ("his name was"). For the genaeologies we're just given names, not who bestowed them.

What is special about Er (or Yehudah) that he gets special naming treatment? Rashi is silent on this, and I didn't find anything in the chumashim I have.

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    Levi seems to be named by a male. (Compare the word קרא by his name versus קראה by Yehuda and Dan.) Also, Efraim and Menashe are explicitly named by Yosef (41:51). – Double AA Nov 27 '12 at 0:18
  • See Da'as Zekeinim – b a Nov 27 '12 at 1:03
  • Don't forget that we call Binyamin by the name Yaakov gave him and not Ben Oni, the name Rachel gave him. – DonielF Jul 13 '16 at 1:09
  • @DonielFilreis yes, I noted that exception in the question. Binyamin might be special because it overrides a negative-sounding name, though that's just a guess. – Monica Cellio Jul 13 '16 at 1:12
  • @MonicaCellio: Whoops. Completely missed that one. – DonielF Jul 13 '16 at 1:18

According to Abarbanel, at that time and in that area, it must have been customary for the father to give the name to the first child and then alternate with the mother for future children. Here then, Yehuda names Er, his wife, the daughter of Shua, names Onan, then Yehuda should have named the third child, except that he was absent during the birth ("וְהָיָה בִכְזִיב בְּלִדְתָּהּ אֹתוֹ"), so the mother named him instead.

In modern Biblical scholarship, the fact that sometimes the father names a child and sometimes the mother does is seen as strong evidence for the Documentary Hypothesis. One source must have originated in a culture in which the father customarily named the child while another was written in a culture where that custom belonged to the mother.

Professor Umberto Cassuto, in his book (actually a transcribed and translated series of lectures) "The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch" to combat this evidence, writes as follows:

When the Torah informs us of the name given to any child at birth, mostly it advances, as we know, an etymological explanation alluding to some circumstance that preceded or accompanied the birth. Now whenever this factor, to which the name owes its origin, is connected with the father, then the naming of the child is ascribed to the father, and when it is related to the mother, then she is said to name the child. This rule is simple and logical, and is valid in every case, without exception. When the circumstance appertains to the son himself or no etymological explanation is offered (which rarely obtains), then the rule does not, of course, apply; in one of these instances the naming is ascribed to the father, in another to the mother, and in the rest it is stated indefinitely, "one named" or "they named".

This case seems to be the exception to the rule mentioned by Cassuto. No explanation is offered for the naming of Er nor of Onan. (One can consider "וְהָיָה בִכְזִיב בְּלִדְתָּהּ אֹתוֹ" to be the explanation for Shelah's name.) Why, then, does the Torah specify who named the child? We can revert back to Abarbanel's explanation that this was merely the custom at the time. Or, more likely, the names were inspired by circumstances that preceded or accompanied the birth just like the other namings in Bereshis, except that for some reason the circumstance is not specified in the text. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a midrash somewhere that fills it in, but I know of none.

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  • While less than completely useful without the footnotes "What's in a Name" brings opinions that the father names the first child and the mother the second (as well as the reverse. - chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/273282/jewish/… – Menachem Nov 28 '12 at 17:02
  • Emes L'Yaakov by Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky ztz"l has a substantial article on it. – Avrohom Yitzchok Dec 6 '12 at 21:19
  • I wouldn't call 19th century "higher anti-Antisemitism", "modern Biblical scholarship". I might call this "modern Biblical scholarship". – mevaqesh Jan 1 '17 at 16:13

In footnote 5 of "What's in a Name" chapter 1 (footnotes unavailable in the online version), R. Wilhelm goes into great length bringing sources for the custom of the father naming the first child, the mother the second child, the father the 3rd child, etc. (later in the chapter he brings many sources for the opposite opinion).

He says that there may be a source for this custom from the naming of Yehuda's first 3 children. Yehuda Named Er, his wife named Onan, and Yehudah would have named Shilah, if not for the fact he was out of town during the birth (Bereshit 37:5).

The Ramban on the verse says that trying to connect the two ideas "has no taste or smell", but R' Wilhelm says (perhaps quoting some of the sources he brings) that perhaps the Ramban is not disagreeing with the custom, but only of trying to prove it from this verse.

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