How important is the moment that a child is given a name?
The best way to begin this discussion is by quoting a remarkable halacha from the Drisha. (The Drisha is the name of a gloss on the Tur, written by Rav Yehoshua Falk, a student of the Rama and the Maharshal. He is also the author of the Prisha and the Sma, and was one of the great community leaders of his time, the founding member of the Vaad Arba Ha'aratzos.)
The Drisha is in YD 360 (easy to remember, it's Shin Samach, Shas.) The halacha there deals with precedence: If a person has several events that he ought to attend, and he has to chose which to attend first, (also, possibly, where he can only do one but not both, which would broader the discussion to include not only precedence but also priority,) which event has precedence? The occasions listed include bikkur cholim, attending a funeral, nichum aveilim, accompanying a Chasan or Kallah to the Chupa, attending a Sheva Brachos, and going to a Bris. I'm not going to write the list, because there are many qualifying factors. But, all things being equal, the halacha is that Bris Milah comes before Chasan and Kallah. The Drisha says that attending the naming of a girl has a status equal to attending a Bris Milah. The same way that attending a Bris has precedence over attending to simchas chasan v'kallah, so too, attending a girl-naming has precedence over simchas chasan v'kallah.
Please note that even though I say "the naming of a girl," the gender of the child is irrelevant. When the Drisha says that the naming ceremony is of equal weight to that of a bris, he is referring to the naming of a child in general. His assertion only has practical relevance for the naming of a girl, because a boy is usually named at his Bris. But the rule is gender neutral. It is the naming of a child that the Drisha highlights.
We all realize the enormous significance of a Bris Milah. In the Tur and Shulchan Aruch, one siman (YD 260) is entirely dedicated to the statement that the Mitzva of Bris is uniquely important- "מצוות עשה לאב למול את בנו, וגדולה מצווה זו משאר מצוות עשה". It is so unusually important that one who does not attend the festive celebration of a Bris to which he was invited is viewed as if he were in a state of excommunication (YD 265:12.) In light of this extraordinary significance, one would think that merely naming a child is far less meaningful. Thus, the Drisha's statement, made without any citation, is very novel. In fact, the lack of a citation indicates that the Drisha held its truth to be self evident.
How are we to understand the profound significance the Drisha attaches to the naming of a child?
1. The Giving of a Name reflects significance and a meaningful destiny. Being Called a name means that you have a Calling.
A. The Rashba
The Rashba (Teshuvos 4:30) was asked why the Torah lists the names of the predecessors of Avraham Avinu in a form that is different from the one used elsewhere in the Torah. In most places, the Torah says "a child was born and he was given a name." Here, most of the names are listed, but it does not say "was born to X and he called him/gave him the name Y."
He answers that a name relates to permanence, to firm establishment. Something that is ephemeral and insubstantial does not really have a name. Therefore, until Sheis was born to Adam, none of the children are introduced with the "and he called him...." form. Only when Sheis, who was the progenitor of all mankind, was named, does it use that form. His son, Enosh, also was of such a significance as to merit this usage. But the descendants of Enosh, till Noach, where utterly without significance. Noach, who survived the Mabul and was the progenitor of all that lived after the Mabul, also is "given a name." After Noach, in that the permanence of the world was guaranteed, there was no need to use the phrase "gave him a name."
ויורה ע"ז: 'שם רשעים ירקב', 'ולא שם לו על פני חוץ'. וההפך: 'ונתתי להם בבתי ובחומותי יד ושם', 'לפני שמש ינון שמו'. ועל כן, תמצא דקדוק הכתוב כל התולדות שנולדו מאדם ועד שת, שנמחו כולם, ולא נשאר להם שורש, לא הזכיר בא' מהם: ויקרא את שמו, עד שנולד שת. ומפני שנשתת ממנו העולם, כתוב בו: וידע אדם עוד את אשתו, ותלד בן. ותקרא את שמו שת: כי שת לי אלהים זרע אחר. וכתב הטעם בצדו: כי שת לי אלהים זרע אחר תחת הבל. שזה זרע אחר שיש לו קיום, תחת הבל, כי הרגו קין, ואין לו קיום, ולא נשתת זרעו. וללמד: כי מזה נשתת העולם, ולתולדותיו יהיה קיום. והוא שאמר: ולשת גם הוא יולד בן, ויקרא את שמו אנוש. אח"כ חזר והזכיר התולדות עד נח. ומפני שאף תולדות אלו גם כן נמחו במבול, ולא נשאר מהם רק נח, חזר שלא להזכיר בהם קריאת שם. ונח, שנשאר ונתקיים ממנו העולם, חזר ואמר בו קריאת שם. דכתיב: ויחי למך וגו', ויולד בן. ויקרא את שמו נח לאמר: זה ינחמנו. ואחרי שהיה לעולם קיום, ולא נשחתו הדורות אח"כ, אלא שנחלקו לאומות, לא הקפיד בקריאת השם.
The lesson of the Rashba is that not the name, but the act of giving a name, is associated with a significant life and a lasting legacy. One might say that the Rashba holds that קריאת שם, calling a name, means that this child has a calling. If the child has no "calling," there's no point in calling him anything.
With the Rashba we understand precisely the tefilla said at a bris, a tefilla quoted by the Rishonim ר"ש מגרמייזא and ר"י ב"ר יקר. When we name the child, we say
We find this idea expressed almost exactly the same way in Reb Chaim Volozhiner's Ruach Chaim in the beginning of the first perek of Avos.
Similarly, Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch (Breishis 2:19) says the word Shem (name) comes from the word Sham (place). A person's name (Shem) indicates his place in the world. When someone is given a name, that name has a profound effect on that person's essence.
I hope that you noticed that the Reb Yosi that says that the early generations used to give a name that was informed by Ruach Hakodesh, but that we just name for our ancestors, is the same Reb Yosi in Yoma 83b who initially ignored Reb Meir's warning that a person's name reflects their personality. Apparently, Reb Yosi holds that because we no longer have Ruach Hakodesh, the names we give our children don't show anything about them, and Reb Meir holds that for some reason it still does. Alternatively, everyone agrees that a name does say something about the person, but Reb Yosi holds that the predilections a person was born with do not determine what he will be when he matures, and Reb Meir was a Determinist (at least as far as taking risks was concerned. Reb Meir certainly didn't deny that Bechira enables a person to change, but, as Damon Runyon said, “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's how the smart money bets.” Or, in Reb Meir's own words, ?אימר דאמרי אנא חששא, אחזוקי מי אמרי) In the end, though, the Gemara in Yoma does say that Reb Yosi did pay attention to the implications of a person's name. It's hard to know whether the Medrash is the pre-Kidor Reb Yosi or the post-Kidor Reb Yosi.
Furthermore, we need to mention that although the Medrash says that the Ruach Hakodesh of naming a child no longer pertains, the Arizal held that it does.
האר"י ז"ל כותב ב"שער הגילגולים" (פנ"ט) ש"השם שקוראים לו אביו ואמו בעת שנימול, הוא נכתב למעלה בכסא הכבוד וכך הוא נקרא באקראי, כי הקב"ה מזמין אותו השם בפי אביו ואמו שיקראוהו כן, ולכן רבי מאיר ורבי יהושע בדקו בשמא".
F. The Yalkut
The Yalkut Shimoni in Yeshayahu 449 (in Perek 41) says that if mankind would only have merited it, Hashem would give every person a name, and from that name his character and his behavioral traits would be known.
It is important to realize that there might be two disparate approaches in these Medrashim. One is that the Ruach Hakodesh of giving a name enables a person to identify the essential personality and life-purpose of the child. The other approach is that the name alludes to what the future holds for that child- of Ruach HaKodesh gives a person an omniscient awareness which enables him to "remember" the child in the context of his life experience, even before that experience has taken place. For example, this is the opinion of the Tiferes Yisrael in Shekalim 6:1, where he says that many kings' names reflected their life experience, and they were named to reflect that which was later to come.
On the other hand, it is equally possible that the Medrashim do not disagree at all. They mean to say that the person's essential character and life-purpose inexorably and inevitably lead to a life-experience that expresses that character and purpose. The Yalkut in Yeshayahu that says that the Livni family got their name because they worked with bricks (הלבני - על שם טיט ולבנים) might mean that they gravitated to that work because of an inherent predisposition.
A. Reb Moshe
The idea that this is the will of Hashem makes it what I think of as a super-Mitzva- something that is not listed among the Taryag, but might be so fundamental that it is more meaningful than and stands above the Taryag mitzvos in general. Another example of a Meta-Mitzva is tikun hamidos, which might be the whole tachlis of man's existence (See Reb Itzaleh Volozhiner's intro to his father's Ruach Chaim,) but is not the subject of any particular mitzva.
If so, this approach might validate the parity the Drisha gives to attending a Bris Milah and attending the naming of a child.
A. Rabbeinu Nachshon Gaon
The Rosh, (פ״ג דמ״ק ס״ס פח) and other Rishonim (see Ramban in Toras Ha'Adam,) bring a minhag from the Gaon Rabbeinu Nachshon:
דמהלין ליה על קכרו ומסקינן ליה שמא, דכד מרחמין מן שמיא והויא חחייח המסים, הויא ידיעה בינוקא ומכחין ליה לאכוה. ע״כ.
He says that in the tragic event of a child's death after a few days, the minhag is to make a bris at the cemetery and name the child there before the burial. More interesting, he says that it is this naming that will enable the child and the parents to recognize each other at Techiyas Hameishim.
See also here, especially in notes 222 and 224.
What would the minhag be with a girl? It should be obvious that the naming would take place for a girl as well. It is not the bris itself that creates a permanent bond, it is the act of naming and making a part of the family. For a boy, that requires two actions, both giving a name and making a bris, because the bris milah is a part of enfolding a male child into the nation of Israel. For a girl, it is giving a name alone that creates that permanent bond. The act of giving a name concretizes the relationship of that child to its family and to Klal Yisrael. This explains the Drisha as well. Giving a name accomplishes precisely that which a bris accomplishes.
I don't want it to sound like saying that a child that never got a name is meaningless. What I understand them to be saying is that a child that was never named is pure neshama without any meaningful bond to this physical world. Naming bonds the neshama to the physical world. Only after such a bond is created does a relationship with the parents have meaning.
4. Having a name makes receiving Bracha possible; the name is a window to the soul.
A. The Ramban
The Ramban (Bamidbar 1:32) says
Rav Shamshon Refael Hirsch toward the beginning of Bamidbar discusses the idea that a person's name is a window to his soul, but I don't have the exact MM in front of me.
5. The Mysterious שבוע הבת
A. Eli's suggestion.
In the original of this post, Eli brought an opinion that the expression שבוע הבת might refer to the naming of a daughter. This is what he said:
Ramban in Torat Ha'adam (p.109 in Shevvel's edition) brings a Beraita that could have been the Drish'a source. In there it says "שבוע הבן ושבוע הבת, שבוע הבן קודם". We have no clue what שבוע הבת is, but some speculate that it's a Naming occasion (If one so wishes, it can be argued that based on this Naming should be delayed to the eighth day, or to the next Shabbat), and we see it is comparable to שבוע הבן, which some Rishonim explain as Mila.
6. The Nusach of the Mi Shebeirach when naming a daughter.
Reb Moshe has his own nusach for this mi shebeirach, as follows: