Zev: Baby Name of the Day

Gray wolf. Français : Loup. Nederlands: Wolf T...

Photo credit: Wikipedia

He begins with a z, and ends with a v – how can the name be anything but a winner?

Thanks to Kells for suggesting Zev as our Baby Name of the Day.

Marissa Jaret Winokur named her son Zev Isaac back in 2008.  I’d never heard of Zev, but I instantly saw his appeal – those high value Scrabble letters!  So much attractive sound in just a single syllable, and yet something about Zev sounded complete.  Unlike Jeb or Dex, I didn’t need to think of a formal name for Zev.

Which makes it kind of wacky that Zev is originally two syllables –  Ze’ev –  zeh EHV – in the Old Testament.

Another twist?  While there is a character called Ze’ev in the Old Testament, and Ze’ev is a common name in Israel, the original character was a villain, and isn’t the reason the name caught on.

Instead, Ze’ev and Zev mean wolf.

And here we go down an interesting path.

Animal names had a really good run amongst Jewish families, ages before we Americans embraced Fox and Wren.  Think of many of the Hebrew names you might recognize – Tzipporah, Ayelet, Ari – they all have animal associations.

But that’s not what’s so curious.  After all, names like Caleb and Todd have ties to four-legged creatures, too.

Instead, it is the Eastern European custom of using a Yiddish name in everyday life and the Hebrew equivalent as a religious name.  I may be over-simplifying things here – Yiddish changed over time and place, and was used mostly a household language, at least until the nineteenth century when a literary tradition emerged.  The Holocaust annihilated so many Yiddish speakers – and the founding of Israel post-war helped boost a preference for Hebrew – that some of the everyday usage of names is guesswork.

A handful of prominent Jewish men answered to two forms of their names.  The best example I can find is Dov and Ber or Bear.  I thought that Ari and Lev might work the same way, but now I’m not so sure, even though I can find a handful of Jewish men who clearly have both names: Ari-Lev.

It appears that Zev evolved this way, too.  Wolf has a long history of use in German, along with compound names like Wolfgang.  Yiddish speakers embraced Volf and paired it with the Hebrew word for wolf: Zev.  They ignored the reference to a Ze’ev in the Book of Genesis and instead associated the names with a different phrase:

Benjamin shall ravin as a wolf: in the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the spoil.

Benjamin is the youngest of Jacob’s twelve sons, ancestor of the Tribe of Benjamin, and he’s a loyal, steadfast fellow.  But he’s described as a ravenous wolf – doesn’t that sound like a put down?


Or maybe he’s fierce and stands up for his beliefs.

In any case, there’s certainly a positive reading of the name Wolf, and Zev shares it.

Factor in his thoroughly modern sound, and it is easy to imagine parents considering Zev.  Zev Senesca is a minor figure in the Star Wars movies, and I’ve found a few real-life Zevs in the US, too, who don’t seem to be wearing the name for heritage reasons.

All of this makes Zev an intriguing choice – brief and complete, with a tough guy meaning and a space age sound.


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  1. Panya says

    I can see the “lion-lion” argument of Ari-Lev, since Ari means “lion” in Hebrew and Lev is “lion” in several other languages, including Yiddish. But it’s just as likely to be “lionhearted” since Lev is “heart” in Hebrew. Both meanings are spelled lamed.bet, לב. The Yiddish Lev/Leb is a form of Leiv/Leib [lamed.yud.yud.bet, לייב], which is from the German Loeb.

  2. Jonquil says

    I think I marginally prefer Zvi, meaning a deer.
    Incidentally, during the Napoleonic Wars King George III was inspecting the volunteer militia in London, which included a significant contingent of Jews. He was intrigued by the large number of animal names among Jewish militiamen, and commented good naturedly on it.

  3. Steg says

    Traditionally, “Aryeh/Ari” doesn’t go with “Lev” — ‘lev’ means ‘heart’, whereas the Yiddish name that means ‘lion’ is LEIB (pronounced layb or libe), which is just written similarly in Hebrew. My father’s religious name was Aryei’leib — Aryeh/Ari + Leib.

  4. Josie says

    Must quibble about Yiddish literature only hailing to the 19th C. I don’t know where that comes from. There are Yiddish epic poems hundreds of years prior.[/unlovable nerd]

    Anyhow, it’s my brother’s religous name. He likes it. I like it too, but of course can’t use it. His English name is Wolf. Another cousin has the same religious name but is a William, because Zev > Volf > Velvel > Americanized to sounding sort of like William if you REALLY want it to. Most Jewish Williams I’ve met, are Zevs.

    Ari Judah is a pretty typical pairing – Judah being linked up with lions like Benjamin with wolves. Judah with Lev and from Leo etc. as well. It wasn’t always good to be a Judah in Medieval (or early 20th C.) Europe, being a Leo/Leon etc. was often far more conducive to good health.

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