For most millennia, Jews had no surnames other than 'ben'. Now, thanks to Spanish inquisitors starting the trend, they do.
Many Jews stayed away from surnames until the late 18th century, when Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II forced German surnames on all his subjects. Photo by Wikimedia Commons
There are a lot of myths and fairy tales out there about Jewish family names — where they came from and what they mean, to name but two issues that often get mangled. Here we set the record straight.
For millennia, Jews contented themselves with a given name and when needed, tacked on the names of their fathers, for example Shmuel Ben- (“son of”) Avraham. That’s how people were named in the Bible, the Mishnah, the Talmud and the rabbinic writings of the Middle Ages and the early modern period.
The process by which Jews took on surnames was gradual and varied from place to place. Some Jews continued to go just by given names well into the 20th century.
Spinoza of Espinosa
Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 were the first to assume last names en masse.
As they settled in their new homes, they often affixed the names of their old hometowns to their given names, thus creating last names. The surname of Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, for instance, harkens back to his family’s origins in either the town of Espinosa de los Monteros or Espinosa de Cerrato. Members of the Batsri family can know their forefather lived in the Iraqi city of Batsra.
Such names, derived from locations, are called "toponyms." Toponyms aren't always taken from people's places of residence, though, other associations with a places, say through trading, can be enough.
From the 1500s, Jews in Central Europe and Italy slowly began adopting last names from other sources. The “Rothschild” name, for instance, comes from the German for “red sign.”
Most other Jews stayed away from surnames until the late 18th century, when, as part of a modernization process, Austrian Emperor Joseph II forced surnames on all his subjects to help account for them. He decreed the names had to be German.
At the time, much of Eastern Europe was under Austrian control, and many Jews who didn’t know a word of German acquired Germanic names.
The process of surnaming the Jews, often resented or ignored by its targets, continued into the 19th century and spread to other countries, such as France and Russia, where non-German names were given.
From the second half of the 19th century, masses of Jews emigrating from Europe to the United States changed or anglicized their names. Zonszeins became Sunshines, and so on.
A small number of Eastern European Jews migrated to Palestine where, as a part of the Zionist movement and the rebirth of the Hebrew language, some translated their names to Hebrew. Or they just took on Hebrew names that either sounded like their old names, or didn’t. This process was actively encouraged by the government in Israel’s first decades.
Game of the name
Jewish names can be filed under seven categories: Lineal, patronymic, matronymic, toponymic, artificial, nicknames and Hebrew names. Here is a list explaining the categories and providing some of the most common names in each of them.
Note that many names appear in more than one category: The same name can originate in different ways. For example, in some cases, the name Goldberg is simply ornamental, meaning “gold mountain”; but in others, it's a toponym related to the town of Goldberg, Germany, or Silesia, Poland — called Goldberg in German.
The two most common Jewish names are Cohen and Levi.
Cohens descend from the priestly caste — Cohen is the Hebrew word for "priest." Levis descend from the priestly tribe of Levi. According to Jewish tradition, all priests are descended from the first high priest: Moses’ brother Aaron.
There are many variations on “Cohen”: Kogan, Kahane, Koren, Kahaneman, Kaplan — and the acronyms Katz ("kohen zedek," or "true priest") and Maze, ("mezera Aharon Hakohen, or "from the seed of Aaron the Priest).
The name Levi also has many variations, such as Levin, Levine, Levitt, Levinsky, Levinson and Lewinsohn.
Basing family names on fathers' given names is very common among Jews and gentiles alike. Practically every Jewish given name has been used as a surname in this way — sometime as is and sometimes by adding the Hebrew word for son — "ben" — before it.
It is also common to add a suffix indicating “son of” or “of,” as in the Germanic: "-son," "-sohn"; the Slavic "-ich," "-off," "-ov," "-sky," and "-owitz," and the Persian "-zada." Patronyms use Hebrew names; their Yiddish, Arabic, Russian or other-language equivalents, or animal names that have become synonymous with Jacob's sons. In the Book of Genesis 49:1-27, the patriarch blesses his sons, in some cases mentioning animals. Hence, Juda is a lion (Löwe), Naphtal is a deer (Hirche), Benjamin is a wolf (Wolf) and Issachar was a donkey, but due to the low regard for donkeys in Europe, later became a bear (baer).
Here are some of the most common patronyms arranged by the Hebrew given name of the father:
Jacob: Jacobson, Yaacov, Yankel, Koppel, Yanko, Yankels, Yankelevich, Koppels, Koppelmann, Cooperman, Kopelovich, Kopf, Kauffman, Ya’akovi or Yakovitch
Abraham: Abramovich, Abramson, Avraham, Aknin, Vaknin, Abrahams, Abrams, Abramoff, Abramsky, Ben Avraham, Avrahami or Abramzada
Naphtali: Naphtali, Hirsch or Hershkovich
Isaac: Isaacson, Isaac, Isakovich or Itzhak
Meir: Meir, Meirson, Meirovich or Meiroff
Judah: (Leib, or "lion"): Yehudah, Leib, Leibovitch, Leibeles, Laybl or Liebenson
Issachar(Baer, or "bear"): Dov, Baermann, Baer or Berkovich
Benjamin(Wolf): Benjamin, Binyamin, Ze’ev or Woolf
Solomon(Frid, or "peace"): Freed, Freedman, Solomon, Shlomo, Frid, Friedman or Shalom
Moses: Moshe, Ben Moshe or Mosenson
Menachem: Mendel, Mendelson, Mendelevich or Mendeloff
Simon: Shimon, Simon, Bensimon or Shimoni
Mark: Markov or Markovich,
Haim: Haimov, Haimovich, Hemo, Yehiya, Ben Haim, Haim, Avidan,Biton, Ohayon, Fiszman, Fishman, Fisch or Fiser
Ephraim: Fiszman, Fishman, Fisch or Fiser
David: David, Davidov, Davidovitch, Davidson or Ben David
Reuben: Rubenstein, Robin or Roby
Hemo: Ben Hemo
Malka: Melekh or Malka
Other common patronyms include: Baruch, Asher, Harari, Menashe, Peretz, Mordechai, Becher, Hillel, Maor, Ovadia, Yifrah, Barzelay or Peri
Some Jewish surnames derive from women’s given names, either a mother or a wife. In some cases when the wife’s name is used, the suffix "–man" is affixed to the end to the wife’s name.
Bluma: Blum or Blumstein
Sarah: Soros or Sorotskin
Rebecca: Rivlin or Rivkin
Pearl: Perlman or Margolis
Zipora: Zipkin or Zipres
Shoshana or Rosa: Shushan, Sasson, Ben Sasson or Rosenberg
Another common naming pattern among Jews and gentiles alike is based on occupation. Sometimes, the name of a tool or material is used instead.
Tailor: Hayat, Schneider, Portnoy, Kravitz, Nudel, Needleman, Fudem, Fingerhut, Scherman, Schneidman, Hefter, Demsky, Talisman or Bouskila.
Smith: Schmidt, Haddad, Schlosser, Blechman, Koval, Sayag, Goldschmidt, Zlotnick or Argentero
Scribe: Sofer, Schreiber, Schreiberman or Sas (an acronym of "sofer stam," or "a writer of religious texts")
Synagogue attendant: Shamash
Rabbi: Rabin, Rabinowitz, Rabiner, Rabi, Hacham or Lamdan
Ritual slaughterer: Shohet , Schecter, Shub Treiber or Menaker
Scholar: Zehnwirt, Talmud or Mishnayos
Synagogue administrator: Shames, Gabbai, Shkolnik, Parnas or Nagid
Cantor: Cantor, Chazzan, Hassan, Singer, Zinger, Schulzinger, Meshoyrer, Soloway or Soloveitchik
Teacher: Melamed, Lehrer, Mualem, Morenu, Mor, Mula; Darshan, Maggid, Belfer or Behelfer
Henna merchant: Ohanna
Baker: Becker or Habaaz
Builder: Bauman or Amar
Glazier: Glazer, Glassman or Sklarsky
Money changer: Halfan or Wexler
Miller: Milman or Melnik
Carpenter: Najaar, Tishcler, Zimmerman, Stoler, Plotnick or Nagar
Soap maker: Zeifer, Saban or Midler
Merchant: Tajjar, Hendler, Kremer, Wazaan, Kupietz or Kaufmann
Shoemaker: Schuster, Schumacher or Ciubotaru
Dyer: Sebag or Farbiarz
Painter: Dahan, Farber, Mahler or Sabag
Doctor: Rofe, Tabib, Hakim, Doctor or Arzt
Fisherman or fishmonger: Fiszman, Fishman or Fisch
Tent maker: Elkayam
Drum maker: Abutbul
Yuke maker: Buzaglo
Butcher: Szechter, Boucher or Shochet
Wheat dealer: Weitzman, Koren or Korn
Farmer: Bauer, Feld, Feldman or Hoffmann
Artificial or ornamental names indicate nothing except for the fact that their bearers are Ashkenazi Jews. The names were mostly given to Jews by government officials of the Austrian Empire in the late 18th and early 20th centuries. The officials used a small bank of German words, either alone or in pairs, sometimes with the suffix "-man."
In some cases, the names predate this forced naming, which usually indicates they are derived from medieval house signs. A prominent example is the Rothschild family, whose name, as we said, means “red sign.”
There are too many ornamental names to list. So, instead, here are their components.
Colors: Green, Grun, Grin, Gruen ("green"), Roth, Roit ("red"), Weiss ("white"), Schwarz ("black"), Gel, Gelb, Geller ("yellow"), Blau or Blaub ("blue").
Materials: Gold ("gold"), Zilber, Silver ("silver"), Kupfer, Copper ("copper"), Eisen ("iron"), Holtz ("wood"), Gluz, Glas ("Glass") or Stein ("stone")
Gems: Diamante ("diamond"), Rubin ("ruby"), Sapir or Saphir ("sapphire")
Plants: Boim, Bau ("tree"), Blatt ("leaf"), Blum, Bloom, Blit ("flower"), Boz, Roiz or Ros ("rose")
Places: Wald ("forest"), Thal ("valley"), Berg ("mountain") or Feld ("field")
Drinks: Wasser ("water") or Wein ("wine")
Animals: Löwe ("lion"), Baer, Ber ("bear"), Fouks ("fox"), Adler ("eagle") or Fisch ("fish")
Others: Stern ("star") or Perl ("pearl")
Toponymys come from geographic locations: towns, cities, districts, countries or regions. Often people can trace their ancestry to their namesakes, especially with Spanish toponyms. But sometimes the names only mean the people who received them were associated with places, say by having relatives there or trading with them on a regular basis.
Horovitz or Gorovitz: Horovice, Czech Republic
Ginsberg or Gunzburg: Günzburg, Germany
Ashkenazi: France or Germany
Goldberg: Goldberg, Germany or Silesia (Goldberg), Poland
Shapira, Sapir, Saphirson, Saphir, Shapiro or Shefer: Speyer, Germany
Kadis: Cádiz, Spain
Berenstain: Pełczyce (Berenstain), Poland
Pinto: Pinto, Spain
Ravinsky: Rawicz, Poland
Denino: Doñinos de Salamanca, Spain
Rosenthal: Rosenthal, Germany (there are many); Rožmitál pod Tremšínem, Czech Republic; Bartoszyce (Rosenthal), Poland, or Rožna Dolina (Rosenthal), Slovenia
Iloz or Illuz: Iloz, Spain
Lugassy: Lugas, Spain
Dreyfus: Trier, Germany
Libowitz, Lipman, Lifman, Lifszyc: Liben, Czech Republic; Lubomierz, Poland, or Liebenwalde, Germany
Deri or Edry: The Daraa Valley, Morocco
Eisen or Barzelay: Eisenstadt, Austria
Weinberg: The region of Mt. Weinberg in Westphalia, Germany; Weinberg, Germany; the Weinberg suburb of Gdansk, Poland, or Weinberg, Czech Republic
Epstein: Ebstein, Austria or Epstein, Germany
Alfasi: Fez, Morocco
Shushan, Sasson or Ben-Sasson: Susa, Iran
Dadon: Ouled Daoud, Morocco
Vaez or Baez: Baza, Spain
Spharadi or Spharad: Spain
Assouline: The Ait Tizguin Assouline tribe, Morocco; Derb Assoul in Marrakech, Morocco; or Azoulin in Coilo, Morocco
Greenberg: Grünberg, Germany or Zielona Góra (Grünberg), Poland
Maman or Ben-Maman: Miaman, Spain
Sharabi: Sharab, Yemen
Rosenberg: Rosenberg, Germany; Sosz (Rosenberg), Poland; Olesno (Rosenberg), Poland, or Rožmberk nad Vltavou, Czech Republic
Suisa: Sous, Morocco or Suesa, Spain
Becher: Becher Luxembourg
Ohanna: Kasba des Bo Hana, Morocco
Azulay: Asilah, Morocco
Elbaz: the Albisin neighborhood in Granada, Spain or the Jewish neighborhood of Albaz in Ghararah, Algeria
Ohana: Ifrane, Morocco
Mizrahi: “The East”
Malka or Melekh: Malaga, Spain
Sometimes called "eke-names," nicknames describe some personal characteristic of their bearers.
Dear man: Lieberman
Good: Gottman, Bueno, Gutman, Almalih or Almaleh
Devote: Heilig, Gottesman or Kadosh
Sweet: Matuka, Halu or Zuessman
Happy, lucky, relaxed or slow: Maymon
Tall: Lang, Gross or Tawil
Short: Klein, Kurtz, Katan or Malik
Redheaded or red bearded: Roth, Geller
Redheaded or blonde: Shukrun
Dark haired or dark complexioned: Schwarz, Negarin, Shakhor, Braun or Brown
Pretty or handsome: Shein, Shen or Yaffe
Pot-bellied or scarred: Buchbut
As part of the Zionist movement, many Jews who settled Palestine in the late 19th century and the early 20th century adopted Hebrew names. The names were either translations of former names, sounded like the old names but were Hebrew or were biblical toponyms.
For example, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew, was originally named Perlman. He could have translated his name to the Hebrew Pnina or Margalit, both of which mean "pearl." Or he could have taken a name that sounds sort of like his former name — say the very odd name Par Limon (lemon bull). Instead, he chose Ben-Yehuda ("son of Judea").
Kaspi: of silver
Zehavi: of gold
Even or Tzur: stone or flint
Vardi or Vered: rose
Shoshan: Lilly, but often used for rose
Avital: biblical name
Dvir: the Holy of Holies
Nir: plowed field
Dekel: palm tree