Names – Jewish

People’s names rate among their most precious assets. Take away all a person possesses and he will still cling to the unique sound construct that seemingly echoes his essence. The simplest name raises one from the abyss of obscurity and contributes an ephemeral sense of worth. Labels like Yerachmiel Dovid Cohen, Shmuel Shayah Hertz or Chayah Rochel Ginzburg  somehow  contribute to our sense of being.

The origin of  first  names  is  no mystery, of course. They began right at the start when Hashem granted Adam Harishon his name. What about family names? Did they begin in ancient times, or are they a recent upstart of modern times?


It  is  evident  from  the  Torah  and Tanach  that  people  realized  early  on that, except in the tiniest of social circles, it is difficult to get by with only a first name. This was especially applicable in days gone by when the relatively recent double- and triple-barreled appellations, such as Yerachmiel Eliyahu Yirmiyahu and Rochel Leah Miriam, were not yet in style.

The most common solution in both Jewish and non-Jewish societies was to   utilize   patronymics   that   identify a  person  through  his  father’s  name. Names  like  Yehoshua  Bin  Nun  and Kalev ben Yefuneh helped distinguish these   leaders   from   perhaps   dozens or  hundreds  of  other  Yehoshuas  and Kalevs of their time.

Besides patronymics, the Tanach mentions surnames   based   on   place of   origin,   such as  Doeg  HaEdomi, Uriah HaChitti, and Eliyahu HaTishbi. The Gemara adds occupation-based surnames, such as Chanina  Kara  (the one who studies Tanach), Chutzpis Hameturgaman (the translator), Rabi Yochanan Hasandlar  (the shoemaker), and  Rav Yitzchak        Nafcha  (the blacksmith). Other surnames distinguish a  person  by  his  physical  appearance, such as Abba Aricha (the tall one) and Shmuel Hakatan (the short one).

Although naming a person after his father  or  trade  may  be  useful  in  the short term, it does not say much about a person’s ancestral line. How did people

of  those  times  label  their  ancestral underpinnings?

The Torah writes, (Bereishis 10:20), “These are the sons of Cham by their families,  by  their  languages  in  their lands,”  indicating   that  people   were always  aware  of  their  ancestry  even if they did not always incorporate this information in their  names.  Later  on, we  find  the  twelve  shevatim  divided into batei av (families)  from the time they enterEgypt.

Similarly,  when thousands  of Jews returned to Eretz Yisroel in Ezra’s time, Sefer  Ezra  (2:3-5)  divides  them  into family groups: “The sons of Parosh, two thousand one hundred seventy and two. The sons  of Shefatiah,  three hundred and seventy  two.  The  sons  of Arach, seven hundred and seventy five.” Parosh, Shefatiah and Arach obviously did not have hundreds of children and the verse is utilizing their names to lump together generations of their descendants.

The  Gemara  in  Maseches   Gittin (88a) indicates a similar trend in later times:

“The   Rabbis   taught,   ‘Chanichas avos (using an ancestor’s name as identification) in gittin  [are valid]  for ten  generations.’  Rabbi  Shimon  ben Elazar  says,  ‘Three   generations   are kosher, and  from  there  onwards  it is invalid.’  …What   is  the  verse   [that proves this]? ‘When you bear sons and sons of sons and become  out of date (venoshantem)’” (Devorim 4:25).

Such family names might include the Bais Garmo and Bais Avtinas families that  baked  bread  or  prepared  ketores in    the   Bais   Hamikdash.    Josephus claims that the Chashmonaim clan was named after Chashmonai,  Matisyahu’s great-grandfather. It  should  be  noted, however,  that  although  these  family names  existed,  they  were  not  tacked onto people’s first names on a regular basis. Chazal are generally satisfied to identify a person no further than by his name and his father’s name.

The          Romans     brought    family names to new levels of sophistication, recording peoples’  names  with  a tria nomina  (three  names)  system.  These three names were the nomen personale (first  name),   nomen   gentile   (family name),  and  the  cognomen  (an  extra name, sometimes  based on a physical characteristic or achievement).

Take, for example, General Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus  who brought  Eretz Yisroel under Roman control in the time of the Second Bais Hamikdash. Gnaeus is his first name, Pompeius his family name, and his extra name, Magnus, was earned through his victorious exploits.


Recorded   family    names    among Jews make their first widespread appearance in the Sephardi and Italian communities of medieval times. These names include patronymic  types, such as Ibn Aknin and Ibn Ezra. Sometimes new names were created from old, such as Benveniste (welcome) from Shalom, Sassoon from Shoshan (rose), Karo (cherished) from Chaviv, and Maimon (fortunate) from Asher.

Occupations   supplied   a   plethora of  new  names,  such  as  the  Spanish names Atar (spice merchant), Abulafia (doctor) and Tibbon (straw merchant), and the southern French names, Chalfan

(money-changer)   and   Kimchi   (flour merchant).

Towns like Cordovero, Toledano, Medina, and Najara supplied family names,   often   made   unrecognizable through Hebrew  translation that produced   the   names.   Examples   of these include Perach from the town of Florenza in  Spain  and  Kochabi  from the town ofEstella inFrance.

In Ashkenazi lands, surnames caught on slower. Ashkenazi  names based on trades include  examples  like Metzger (butcher), Rokeach (apothecary) and Lehrer (teacher). Many Jewish families of  the  Frankfurt  Ghetto  were  named after their houses. Since no one had yet thought of numbering  houses in those days,  houses  had  signs  (or  shields) hanging in front illustrated with animals or other  items.  This  was  the origin of names like Elephant, Drachen (dragon), Kessel  (kettle),  Fisch (fish), Grunes   Schild   (green   shield),   and Karpfen (carp). Most famous of all is the Rothschild family, named after the red shield in front of its residence.

Patronymics were transposed to diminutive form, creating  totally  new names. The Rema’s surname, Isserles, is a diminutive form of his father’s name, Yisroel or Isserl. Mothers’ names, too, underwent this process, giving us names like Rav Shmuel Eidels (the Maharsha, after his mother Eidel), Rav Yoel Sirkes (the Bach, after his mother Sarah), and Rav Moshe  Rivkes  (after  his mother, Rivkah).

Place-based surnames include Rav Meir of Rothenberg, and Rav Yechiel ofParis. Katzenellenbogen, claimed to be the longest Jewish family name, is not a Germanic variation of “cat’s elbow” but derives from the old German region of   Cattemelibochi.   Many possessors of  this unwieldy  name shortened  it to less  tongue-twisting  versions,  such as Ellbogen, Bogen, or Katzin.

This  is  only  one  example  of  one name proliferating  into many. Another is the name Avrohom, which has been transformed into a league of names including Aberman, Haberman, Abusch,   Drihem   and   Abrahamoff. Abudraham, by the  way,  derives  not from Avrohom but from the words “Av drachma,” father of the drachme coin. In other words, the first possessor of this Spanish name was probably a minter of coins.


For thousands of years, the adoption of family names was subject to individual whim. People tacked on family names for convenience and could just as easily remove them to escape  the eagle  eye of taxman or creditor. This convenient state of affairs came to a halt on July 23,

5547/1787, when Emperor Joseph II of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire decreed that as of January 1, every Jew in his realm must select a German first name and a family name.

This was part of the process of Jewish emancipation  and  equal  rights.  Until then, most Jews had lived in separate kehillos, administering their own affairs. Now that they were becoming part of the general community, governments deemed it necessary to label them with convenient surnames.  Painfully  aware that the imposition of these new names posed   an   assimilatory   threat,   many Jews resisted and had to be forced to


Similar laws were promulgated  all overEurope: Frankfurt in 5567/1807, where most Jews already had family names, Posen in 5693/1833, andRussia,Polandand parts of the Prussian Empire during 5605/1845.

Many  Jews  simply  changed  their first  names  into  family  names;  Ber into  Bernays,   Chanoch   into   Honig, or Markus into Marx. Government officials sometimes foisted unwieldy names onto people including tongue- twisting peculiarities like Wohlgeruch, Geldschrank, Pulverbestandtei, Taschengreifer,           Wanzenknicker, Finkelscherer, and Beutelschneider. Better names were generally available upon payment of a bribe.

Pleasant names such as Rosenthal, Lilienthal, Diamant and Saphir were available   for   a   price.   Those   who could or would not pay might end up with   deliberately   demeaning   names like Borgenicht (do not borrow) and Temparaturwechsel (temperature gauge). It has been claimed that this sort of official  extortion  only  occurred  inWestern Galiciaand even there, merely to a minor extent.

Family  names originating  from this   time   do   not   always   indicate whether  people  were  related  or  not as   some   Hungarian   kehillos   simply divided their populations into four and handed each sector one of four names: Weiss,   Schwartz,   Gross,   or   Klein, (White, Black,  Large or Small)  while in  5605/1845,  six  brothers  living  in Siegburg, Germany chose six different family names: Bock, Frohlich, Leven, Levison, Stern, and Wolf.

What happened to Jews’ names after they arrived  in the United  States and had the chance to alter them or do away with them altogether  is another  story. According  to  a  probably  apocryphal report, when an Ellis Islandofficial once asked a Jew for his name, the flustered individual replied, “Shon vergessen!” (“I have forgotten”). The official scribbled what he heard on the official form and out walked the Jew, proud possessor of the name Shawn Ferguson.

(Sources: [1] Guggenheimer, Heinrich   W.   and   Eva   H.,  “Jewish Family   Names  and   their   Origins.” Ktav Publishing House: USA, 1992. [2] Kaganoff,  Benzion  C.,  “A  Dictionary of  Jewish Names and their History.” Schocken Books: New York, 1977.)

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.