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.
BY PAIN OF LAW
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:  Guggenheimer, Heinrich W. and Eva H., “Jewish Family Names and their Origins.” Ktav Publishing House: USA, 1992.  Kaganoff, Benzion C., “A Dictionary of Jewish Names and their History.” Schocken Books: New York, 1977.)