Jewish Names Personal

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Understanding Jewish surnames and given names can help you find and identify your ancestors. This section discusses the origin and development of Jewish names and naming patterns.


Until mandated by laws enacted in the late 18th and 19th centuries (the date varies by country), most Jews did not use fixed surnames. Jews with a common given name were often distinguished by a patronym, meaning that a father’s name was used in addition to a given name. For example, Jacob the son of Abram was called Jacob Abram or Jacob ben [son of] Abram. If this was not enough to distinctly identify a person, a nickname was used. Such nicknames described a person in some way, such as a physical characteristic, occupation, or place of origin. A Jew named Abram ben Maimon might also be called Abram the copper merchant or Abram red-beard. These nicknames were not permanent or inherited. They changed from one generation to the next. Fixed surnames often developed from these patronyms and nicknames.

Naming customs for two groups of Jews were established at different times and are therefore discussed separately in this section:

Sephardic Surnames—hereditary surnames date back to the 1500s

Ashkenazic Surnames—in many areas did not take hereditary surnames until the early 1800s

Surnames often were formed four ways, examples of which are given in the following sections:

  • Patronymic
  • Occupational
  • Places
  • Descriptions

Sephardic Surnames

Sephardic Jews, those who originated in Spain, first began using hereditary surnames in the 1500s. The Arab and Spanish cultures were the two major influences on Sephardic surnames. Spain was under Moorish Muslim rule from the 700s to the 1200s, and Jewish family names developed under the influence of Arab custom.

Surnames of patronymic origin commonly used the Arabic term ibn for "son of." Ibn was placed in front of the father’s name, such as in Ibn Baruch. Arabs sometimes reversed the patronym, using the term abu for "father of," such as Isaac abu Jacob.

After the Arabs were driven out of Spain, Jews made their Arabic-sounding names sound more like Spanish. Among Spanish Jews we find the family name Avinbruch which corresponds to Abu Baruch. The Hebrew word for son, ben, was also used; the son of Elisha became Benelisha or Belish. Some-times Jewish given names were translated into their Spanish form and used as a surname. For example, Mendel, a common Jewish given name, became Mendez and Chaim, a Hebrew given name meaning "life," became the Spanish surname Vital or Vidal.

Surnames of occupational origin include Chazan [Cantor], Gabbai [synagogue official], Dayan [rabbinic judge], Coffen [Cohen], and Tibbon [flax merchant].

Surnames of place origin are Toledano, Cordoza, Espinoza, and de Castro.

After the Inquisition Sephardic Jews emigrated to other countries, and their surnames came to fit the language and culture of their new homelands: Greece, Italy, Holland, France, England, and North Africa. In areas where they were in the majority, they were able to impose their Spanish-Arabic language and naming customs on the existing Jewish community, as they did in the Greece and the Balkan states. Where they were in the minority, as in North Africa, they assimilated the language, culture, and naming customs of the Jewish communities they joined.

Ashkenazic Surnames

Some Ashkenazic Jews, those who originated in the central and eastern part of Europe, used hereditary surnames as early as the Middle Ages, although the custom was uncommon. The practice was limited to German Jews who had business dealings with the gentile world. These early Jewish surnames were often the same as Christian family names.

By the 17th and 18th centuries Ashkenazic Jews, especially those in Western Europe, moved increasingly into mainstream life. The adoption of fixed surnames became more and more important.

Most Ashkenazic surnames were patronymic, many having the German ending -sohn or the Slavic -wicz and -vitch, which mean "son of." These yielded names like Abramsohn, Berkovitz, or Szmulowicz. Other surnames were derived from localities (Frank for someone from France), occupations (Schneider, the German for tailor), or descriptions (Klein, meaning small). Some Germanic Jewish names came from house signs, which served in place of house numbers in many cities during the 16th and 17th centuries. For example, Strauss [ostrich] comes from the house with an ostrich plume sign.

Most Eastern European Jews were isolated from their gentile neighbors and rarely used surnames. Until the end of the 18th century the use of a family name was left to the discretion of the individual Jew. The bulk of the Ashkenazic Jews in Germany and especially in Eastern Europe still followed the custom of using only a given name and the patronymic (Joseph, son of Isaac).

The political status of European Jews changed dramatically at the end of the 18th century. Many countries freed Jews from restrictive laws and gave them limited or sometimes full civil rights. At the same time laws required Jews to adopt permanent family surnames for taxation and conscription purposes. Jewish surnames were to be registered by a government commission. If a Jew refused to select a surname, the commission could impose one. Records of the registration of Jewish surnames were kept in France, Netherlands, and other countries. Following is an example of these records:

Registres des déclarations faites par les Israelites (Registers of Name Declarations Made by the Jews). Strasbourg: Archives départementales à Strasbourg, 1973. (FHL films 1070259– 1070263, 1070123.)

Laws requiring Jews to take surnames were passed at different times by different countries. The following dates are when these changes took place in different parts of Central and Eastern Europe:

  • Baden, Germany (1790).
  • French Empire, including Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Italy, Westphalia, the Confederation of the Rhine, Duchy of Warsaw (1808).
  • Prussia (1812), now Germany and parts of Poland. As Prussia acquired additional territory, it was necessary to restate this requirement. The family name requirement was extended to Posen in 1833 and to all other parts of the Prussian state in 1845.
  • Bavaria, Germany (1813).
  • Mecklenburg, Germany (1813).
  • Kingdom of Poland under Russian administra- tion (1821). A decree requiring family names was issued in 1821, but it was not enforced. Polish law again required surnames in 1833, but it was only in accordance with the Imperial Russian statutes of 1835 and 1844 that all Polish Jews adopted permanent family names.
  • Württemberg, Germany (1828).
  • Saxony, Germany (1834).
  • Russia (1844). Statutes of 1804 and 1835 decreed that Jews were not permitted to alter their family names, but these statutes did not require them to adopt fixed names.
  • Oldenburg, Germany (1852).
  • Switzerland (1863).

By the 1820s most of the small states in western Germany had extended civil rights to Jews, usually requiring them to adopt surnames at the same time. Often the Jews resisted the imposition of last names, and the edicts had to be enforced over and over again. In many areas, patronyms continued to be used in addition to surnames.

Ashkenazic Jews continued to choose surnames from localities and vocations. In many cases restrictions were placed on the choice of names. Some governments forbade the adoption of Christian-sounding names or names of famous families. French laws forbade Jews taking names based on localities or to adopt Old Testament names. Hebrew names were generally not allowed. Since Jews considered Hebrew names sacred, a Yiddish, German, or Polish version that often had a symbolic association was generally used.

Many Hebrew given names have a symbolic connection with animals. For example, the German word for deer is Hirsch or, in some dialects, Herz or Hart. Hence we find surnames such as Hirsch, Hirschsohn, Herz, Hirschberg, Hartwig, and Herschel. The Slavic version of deer [hind] is Jellinek and in French is Cerf.

Jews also used given names as part of a surname. From Aaron, for example, comes the surnames Arnstein, Arndt, Ahrens, Ehrens, Ehrenstamm, Ehrlich, and Ohrenstein. A man with a wife named Perla could have taken the surname Perlmann.

But the most common names were ones that were cleverly disguised. Often the German name chosen had a different meaning to the Jew than it did to the German official who recorded it. For example, the acronym of the Hebrew words kohen ha-tzedek [righteous priest] produced Katz (German for cat), a name acceptable to German officials. This same abbreviation of form is found in Bach [German for brook] from ben Chaim [son of Chaim].

Family names were often derived from place-names. Place-names chosen by Ashkenazic Jews may represent a recent place of origin or may go back to some ancestral home (real or supposed) the family was expelled from in the Middle Ages. Thus we find such names as Amsterdam, Lemberger (from Lemberg, L'vov), Halpern (from Heilbronn), Dreyfus (from Trèves), and Shapiro (from Speier). Some names are less specific like Westermann (from the West), Unger (from the Hungarian county of Ung), Schlesinger (from Schlesien [Silesia]), and Hess (from Hessen [Bavaria]).

Occupations were also a source for family names, including Schneider, Kravitz, or Portnoy [tailor], Kaufmann [shopkeeper], Schuler, Schulmann or Szkolnik [sexton, beadle], Singer [cantor], Metzger, Reznick, Schlachter, or Schochet [ritual slaughterer], and Klopman [one who knocks on the shutters to wake people for morning worship]. Many surnames reflect priestly or levitical heritage. One of the most common of all Jewish surnames is Kohen [priest] and its variations, Cohen, Kahn, Kogan, and Katz. Surnames showing Levitic or priestly heritage include Levy, Levinsky, Levin, Lewek, Lewenberg, and Segal (an abbreviation for segan leviah [member of the Levites]).

Many Jewish names are based on personal traits, including Gross [big], Kurz [short], Krummbein [cripple], Rothbart [red-beard], Weiss [white], and Lustig [merry].

Jews often combined elements of languages, such as Hebrew with Yiddish and German or Slavic roots with Yiddish or Slavic endings. Thus, Jewish names are often found with various spellings depending on the languages that influence them. In Russian, for example, the h sound is substituted with g. This factor creates such diverse spellings as:

  • Rothstein and Rotstejn
  • Glückman and Glikman
  • Warschauer and Varsaver
  • Aschermann and Ojzerman
  • Himmel and Gimmel
  • Kohen and Kogan

The process of surname development continued with the emigration of Jews from Europe. In the United States many changes in surnames can be attributed to an ignorance of European languages on the part of American officials and registrars. The immigrants’ ignorance of English also contributed to the creation of numerous new surnames and variations. Changes may have been minor, such as a slight adjustment in spelling to make the name easier to pronounce, such as Wallace from Wallisch or Harris from Hirsch. Or the name may have been shortened to make it sound less Jewish or foreign, such as Rosenzweig changed to Rose or Ross. A surname may have been translated into English, such as Schneider to Taylor, or it may have been discarded and replaced with a new name altogether.

Given Names

Jews often took their given names from the languages of the countries they lived in and kept Hebrew names for "sacred" purposes (Bar Mitzvah, marriage, and blessings associated with reading from the Torah). The spelling of their names varied considerably depending on the spelling rules of the language and culture they lived in.

Ashkenazic Jews often adapted Hebrew given names to fit the country they were living in. In America, for example, the name Avraham (Hebrew) or Avrum (Yiddish) could be anglicized to Allen, Allan, Albert, Alvin, or Arnold; Chaim could become Hyman, Herman, Herbert, or Charles; and Feigla could be Fanny, Faye, Fran, or Victoria.

Naming Patterns

Sephardic Jews usually named their children in honor of living grandparents. There was a specific order in which this was done. The first son was generally named after the father’s father, the second son after the mother’s father, the first daughter after the father’s mother, the second daughter after the mother’s mother. Successive children might be named after living siblings or other relatives of the father and mother.

In the Ashkenazic tradition children were named after deceased rather than living relatives. Usually a child was named after the closest deceased relative for whom no one else in the immediate family was already named. For example, if a mother died in childbirth and the baby was a female, she was almost always named after the mother.

Relatives were not the only source of names. A child born during passover might be named Pesach. One born on the Purim holiday could be named Mordechai or Ester. If it was feared that a child might die in infancy, they might receive the name Chaim or Chaia, which means "life."

Several books can help you understand Jewish names and naming customs, including:

  • Beider, Alexander. A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Russian Empire. Teaneck, N.J.: Avotaynu, Inc., 1993. (FHL book 947.2 D46b.)
  • Beider, Alexander. A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Kingdom of Poland. Teaneck, N.J.: Avotaynu, Inc., 1998. (FHL book 943.8 D46b.)
  • Feldblyum, Boris. Russian–Jewish Given Names: Their Origins and Variants. Teaneck, N.J.: Avotaynu, Inc., 1998. (FHL book 947 D4f.)
  • Gorr, Shmuel. Jewish Personal Names: Their Origin, Derivation, and Diminutive Forms, ed. Chaim Freedman. Teaneck, N.J.: Avotaynu, Inc., 1992. (FHL book 929.4924 G683j.)
  • Guggenheimer, Heinrich W., and Eva H. Guggenheimer. Jewish Family Names and Their Origins: An Etymological Dictionary. Hoboken, N.J.: Ktav Pub. House, 1992. (FHL book 296 D46g.)
  • Lévy, Paul. Les Noms des Israélites en France, Histoire et Dictionnaire (=The Names of Jews in France, History and Dictionary). Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1960. (FHL book 944 D46l.)

The Family History Library has some books about names. Check for these in the FamilySearch Catalog.