The Gemara relates a story in which people gave their children the name ‘Nosson HaBavli’, was HaBavli part of the name even though it is a place?
אמר רבי נתן: פעם אחת הלכתי לכרכי הים ובאת אשה אחת לפני, שמלה בנה ראשון ומת, שני ומת, שלישי הביאתו לפני. ראיתיו שהוא אדום, אמרתי לה: המתיני לו עד שיבלע בו דמו. המתינה לו עד שנבלע בו דמו, ומלה אותו וחיה. והיו קורין אותו נתן הבבלי על שמי. שוב פעם אחת הלכתי למדינת קפוטקיא, ובאת אשה אחת לפני, שמלה בנה ראשון ומת, שני ומת, שלישי הביאתו לפני. ראיתיו שהוא ירוק, הצצתי בו ולא ראיתי בו דם ברית. אמרתי לה: המתיני לו עד שיפול בו דמו. והמתינה לו, ומלה אותו וחיה, והיו קורין שמו נתן הבבלי על שמי
The Midrash (Breishes Rabah, 37:7) tells that in the early generations when people had Ruach Hakodesh they would give a name after an event. In our generation that we do not use Ruach Hakodesh, we give a name after our ancestors.
In our Gemara we find as well the concept of giving a name after a Godol, as they gave the name Nosson Habavli. Similarly Chazal tells us (Avos D’Reb Nosson 15) that the person whom Hillel converted, named his son Hillel. Chazal also tells us (ibid 12) that thousands of boys in the midbar were called Aharon, for any couple that benefited from Arahon Hakohen by the peace he encouraged would name a child after him. In Mesechtes Kallah Rabosi (Perek 3) we see that there were eight thousand boys named Aharon.
Rabbi Menashe Klein writes (6:252) that he saw a letter from the Machne Chaim where he writes that he regrets promising to give a name after his Rebbe, for there are many reasons and secrets why one should only give a name after family. He further writes that only now does he understand why the Chasam Sofer did not give a name to any of his children after his Rebbe, Reb Nosson Adler, although he did not have any children, for it is preferable to give a name after family.
In the Sefer Agudah (from Rav Alexander Suslin HaKohen, a 14th century Rishon) it is said that one should name after his ancestor, for one should always name after a Tsadik, and in a child’s eyes his father is always a Tsadik.
We also see from this Gemara that people would give a name after one who is still alive, as was the case by Reb Nosson Habavli.
Although this was not the generally accepted custom by the Ashkenazim to name after a person who is alive. The Ba’al HaNesivos, Rabbi Yaakov ben Yaakov Moshe Lorberbaum had the same name as his father. It is said that at his bris, his father was preoccupied with his learning and thought they asked for his own name.
There is another interesting concept we learn from our Gemara. This idea I heard from my great uncle Reb Akiva Eiger Schlussel A”H. When I once asked him why he had such an interesting name, as Eiger is a family name and not as a first name? He told me the following story.
He was born in Munkatch to his father Reb Chaim Yechezkel Schlussel who was a son of the Dayan of Munkatch Reb Dovid Schlussel. At his bris the Minchas Elazar (Reb Chaim Elazar Spiro) was Sandek and Mohel, as was usually the custom in Munkatch. When it came time to give a name to the child, the Minchas Elazar asked his father what name he wished to give, he answered Akiva. The Minchas Elazar paused and told his father that he must add on a name, since Rabbi Akiva (the Tana) was killed by the Romans with a misah meshunah — a cruel and torturous death (Brachos 61b). His father replied, “I wish to give the name after my father-in-law, who was named after Rabbi Akiva Eiger, who had only one name, Akiva.” “Nevertheless,” the Minchas Elazar insisted, “I have a hakpadah (stringency) in this matter, and another name must be added.”
Reb Chaim Yechezkel thought for a while and then told the Rebbe, “So call him Akiva Eiger”, to which the Rebbe replied “How can you give a last name as a first name?”
“Rav Akiva Eiger’s last name was Gins, as we see he signed in all his teshuvos,” his father replied. “The name Eiger by which he is known is because his maternal grandfather, the author of Mishnas d’Rebi Akiva, was known as Eiger (and thus was called ‘the first Rav Akiva Eiger’), since he came from the region of Eiger.”
The Minchas Elazar was not satisfied with this answer and challenged him, “How can you give the name of a location as a child’s name?”
He replied from our Gemara we see they called their sons ‘Nosson HaBavli’ in Rabbi Nosson’s honor. From the Gemara, it seems they did not just call him ‘Nosson,’ but ‘Nosson HaBavli,’ meaning his location (Bavel) was part of his name.”
The Minchas Elazar agreed to this, and the child was called “Akiva Eiger”!
In truth, we find other places in the Talmud where people would have a title as part of their first name. The Gemara in Bava Metzia (Daf 84b) tells us the following story about Reb Eliezer:
אייתו לקמיה שתין מיני דמא טהרינהו הוה קא מרנני רבנן, ואמרי סלקא דעתך לית בהו חד ספק, אמר להו אם כמותי הוא יהיו כולם זכרים ואם לאו תהא נקבה אחת ביניהם, היו כולם זכרים ואסיקו להו ר’ אלעזר על שמיה
The Rabbis questioned how Reb Eliezer was able to say that all the women were Tahor, without any doubt? Reb Eliezer answered if I am correct they will all have boys. Chazal tells us that so it was, they all had boys and they were called Reb Eliezer after him. Now some have suggested that Chazal do not say they were called Eliezer in his name rather they were called Reb Eliezer in his name. It seems that Reb was part of their names.
If this is true, and we say that one can have a name of a place or title as a first name. Perhaps we can understand the following Gemara in Pesachim (Daf 86b):
רב הונא בריה דרב נתן איקלע לבי רב נחמן בר יצחק, אמרו ליה מה שמך, אמר להו רב הונא אמרו ניתיב מר אפוריא יתיב יהבו ליה כסא קבליה בחד זימנא ושתייה בתרי זימני ולא אהדר אפיה, אמרו ליה מ”ט קרית לך רב הונא, אמר להו בעל השם אני.
They asked Rav Huna what his name was, to which he replied “Rav Huna”. They asked him, why did you say Rav when we asked you your name as it implies conceit when one uses a title to address himself. He replied I am a Bal Shem. Rashi explains that he meant to say that he has been known as Rav Huna since his young age and therefore he was not being haughty when he used a title for his name.
In the Journal Or Torah (Volume 369) Rabbi Maimon suggests that Rav Huna meant to say he was given the name Rav Huna as his first name. As we have seen in other places there were some people who had a first name that was the name of a place or a title. Rav Huna told them, I have been known by this name since my youth, meaning it was given to me as a baby, and in no way was I being haughty when I called myself with a title.