Reprinted with permission from “The Rabbi’s Letter,” a publication of the National Council of Young Israel Rabbis. Although primarily focused on the responsibility of the Rabbeim, this essay is presented for the enrichment of our readers.
The Bait Shmuel (addendum to Even Haezer 129, Sheimot Nashim) writes that one should take the same care in the writing of the names of the man and woman in a Ketuba as one would in the writing a Get. Many Sefarim and Teshuvot have been written regarding the proper spelling of names including a lengthy addendum to Even Haezer 129, authored by the Bait Shmuel. Thus, one may not randomly determine the spellings of the names of the Chatan and Kallah. Similarly, there are established rules and practices regarding the appropriate transliterations of non-Hebraic names and words. The Rama and Bait Shmuel to Even Haezer 129 present many of these rules according to the Ashkenazic tradition.
Two responsa of the Noda Biyehuda dramatize the necessity of appropriate transliterations. In one Teshuva (volume one, Even Haezer 87-88), the Noda Biyehuda was strongly inclined to rule that a particular Get was invalid because the name of the city (Piltz) was not transliterated properly. In another responsa (volume two Even Haezer 124), Rav Landau disqualified a Get because the wife's name (Toltza) was improperly transliterated. It is obvious from the aforementioned sources that it is wrong to arbitrarily transliterate non-Hebraic names and words in a Get or even a Ketuba. Rather, the transliterations for a Ketuba must be prepared well in advance of the wedding in accordance with the rules set forth in the Shulchan Aruch and its Meforshim.
There are also established practices regarding the transliterations of English names. Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin (see Kitvei Harav Henkin 1:229-236) describes at length how to transliterate English names according to the Ashkenazic tradition. Rav Henkin’s list of transliterations of English names serve as an important benchmark for Mesadrei Gittin, although very significant, debate exists regarding many of his transliterations. Many of these debates are recorded in Rav Mendel Senderovic's Ha-Aretz L’Areha (Rav Senderovic is the Rosh Kollel of the Milwaukee Kollel and is an active Mesader Get). This remarkable Sefer lists the towns and cities across North America where there exist a tradition to write Gittin. The Sefer records and discusses how the names of the places and its rivers are transliterated from English to Hebrew characters. Rav Senderovic records and analyzes the many debates that exist regarding this area of Halacha. He also presents the sources of these debates, which are scattered throughout the twentieth century responsa literature in works such as the Igrot Moshe, Minchat Yitzchak, and many obscure volumes of responsa.
One should note that the Sephardic tradition differs significantly from the Ashkenazic tradition of transliteration. The transliteration of the letter J is one example of this phenomenon. The Sefer entitled Shem Chadash is an invaluable resource regarding Sephardic practices of transliteration.
Writing English Names in a Ketuba
A Mesader Kiddushin must transliterate English names for a Ketuba in a number of contexts. He must transliterate the name of the place where the Ketuba is written. Of course, if there is an accepted (by Talmidei Chachamim) manner of transliteration of the locale where the Ketuba is written, one should abide by that tradition. A Mesader Kiddushin must transliterate the family names of the Chatan and Kallah if it is his practice to record the family names in the Ketuba (see Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Even Haezer 1:178, Teshuvot Chelkat Yaakov 1:161, and Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik's ruling recorded in Nefesh Harav pp. 259-260). If either party is a Baal Teshuva, that party's father might not have a Jewish name and his English name must be used and appropriately transliterated.
It is worthwhile noting that one should exercise great caution regarding writing the Jewish names of non-observant Jews in Ketubot. Unfortunately, many non-observant Jews rarely use their Jewish names, and experience demonstrates that they often err when inquired for their Hebrew names. For example, they often forget that they have a second Jewish name. Similarly, one should be skeptical of claims of non-observant Jews that they are either a Kohen or Levi (see Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Even Haezer 3:26). In order to avoid writing an invalid Ketuba in such circumstances, the Rav must prepare the Ketuba well in advance of the wedding to adequately research these issues. For further discussion of this issue, see this author’s essay that is printed in the volume fifteen of the Israeli Torah journal Techumin (pp.297-300).
Accordingly, it is incumbent upon the Mesader Kiddushin to master the Halachot of transliteration. The following is an outline of some of the Halachot and practices regarding transliterating English names into Hebrew characters. It should be emphasized that this list is not exhaustive and one must check one's transliterations with a competent Posek. It is recommended that one consult with a Mesader Get, as Mesadrei Gittin have extensive training and experience in this challenging area of Halacha.
Some of the Rules
The goal is to transliterate the name as coherently as possible into Hebrew characters. This poses a significant challenge when dealing with sounds that do not exist in Hebrew (as traditionally spoken by Ashkenazim) such as the J or TH sounds. Poskim have attempted to transliterate these sounds into the closest Hebrew equivalents (see Get Pashut 129:142 citing the Raanach).
1) The letter T is transliterated as a Tet (Rama Even Haezer 129:31).
2) The letters TH is transliterated as a Tet (Rav Henkin p.229).
3) The letter J is transliterated either as a Daled-Zayin (Ray Henkin p.229 and Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Even Haezer 1:132) or Daled-Zayin-Shin (Teshuvot Melamed Lehoil 3:41, Teshuvot Yabia Omer 4:E.H. 13, Teshuvot Minchat Yitzchak 1:103, and Get Mesudar p. 215 regarding James). This debated has not been resolved and variation exists even regarding the transliteration of cities and rivers in Gittin (see discussions of Los Angeles, Jacksonville, Lakewood (river), and Rochester (river) in Ha-Aretz L’Areha).
4) The letters CH (as in Charles) are transliterated as Tet-Shin (Bait Shmuel Sheimot Nashim letter Tet).
5) Both the V and W are transliterated with two Vavim (see Rama E.H. 129:34 and Rav Senderovic’s discussion of transliterating the towns of Lakewood and Woodbourne).
6) The letter K is transliterated using a Koof (based on Rama E.H.129:31; see many examples in Bait Shmuel's list of names in his addendum to E.H.129).
7) The long A vowel (such as in the name Abe) is transliterated using only one Yud (Pitchei Teshuva to Bait Shmuel's Sheimot Nashim Even Haezer 129, letter Pei and discussions of Milwaukee (river), St. Louis, Dayton, and Santa Fe in Ha-Aretz L'Areha).
8) The short A vowel (such as in the names Harry and Gary) might be transliterated with an Aleph or an Ayin (see Rav Senderovic's discussion of Miami Beach, Santa Fe, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Dallas, and San Antonio).
9) The long E vowel (such as in the name Leo) is transliterated with a Yud.
10) The short E vowel (such as in Mexico) is transliterated (by Ashkenazim) using an Ayin (see the many examples in the Bait Shmuel).
11) The long I vowel (such as in ice or Michael) is transliterated using two Yuds (see the many examples in the Bait Shmuel).
12) The short I vowel (such as in the word bit) is transliterated using one Yud (see the many examples in Rav Henkin’s list).
13) The long O vowel (such as in the name Joe) is transliterated using only an Aleph or using both an Aleph and a Vav (see Rav Henkin p. 137 regarding the name Rose, Teshuvot Minchat Yitzchak 1:103, and Ha-Aretz L’Areha regarding Boca Raton and Teaneck’s Overpeck Creek).
14) The short O vowel (such as in the word short) is transliterated with an Aleph (see the many examples in the Bait Shmuel).
15) The long U vowel is transliterated using a Vav (see the many examples in the Bait Shmuel).
16) The short U vowel (such as in Bud) is transliterated using an Aleph (such as when transliterating New York's Hudson River).
It should be emphasized that one should regard this presentation as a mere introduction to a challenging area of Halacha. We have not broached even a quarter of the issues that a Posek must address when dealing with questions of this nature. I suggest for all Rabbanim involved in Siddur Kiddushin to establish a relationship with a Posek whose expertise extends to this complex area of Halacha.