Jewish surname

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Jews have historically used Hebrew patronymic names. In the Jewish patronymic system the first name is followed by either ben- or bat- ("son of" and "daughter of," respectively), and then the father's name. (Bar-, "son of" in Aramaic, is also seen). Permanent family surnames exist today but only gained popularity among Sephardic Jews in Iberia and elsewhere as early as the 10th or 11th century and did not spread widely to the Ashkenazic Jews of Germany or Eastern Europe until much later. While Jews now have permanent surnames for everyday life, the patronymic form is still used in religious life. It is used in synagogue and in documents in Jewish law such as the ketubah (marriage contract). Many Sephardic Jews used the Arabic ibn instead of bat or ben when it was the norm. The Spanish family Ibn Ezra is one example.

Many immigrants to modern Israel change their names to Hebrew names, to erase remnants of galuti (exiled) life still surviving in family names from other languages. This phenomenon was especially common among Ashkenazic Jewish immigrants to Israel, because most of their names were taken later and some were imposed by the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires.

A popular form to create a new family name using Jewish patronymics sometimes related to poetic Zionist themes, such as ben Ami ("son of my people"), or ben Artzi ("son of my country"), and sometimes related to the Israeli landscape, such as bar Ilan ("son of the trees"). Others have created Hebrew names based on phonetic similarity with their original family name: Golda Meyersohn became Golda Meir. Another famous person who used a false patronymic was the first Israeli Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, whose original family name was Grün but adopted the name "Ben-Gurion" ("son of the lion cub"), not "Ben-Avigdor" (his father's name).


As has been seen, surnames were not unknown among the Jews of the Middle Ages, and as Jews began to mingle more with their fellow citizens, the practice of using or adopting civic surnames in addition to the "sacred" name, used only in religious connections, grew commensurately. Of course, among the Sephardim this practice was common almost from the time of the exile from Spain, and probably became still more common as a result of the example of the Marranos, who on adopting Christianity accepted in most cases the family names of their godfathers. Among the Ashkenazim, whose isolation from their fellow citizens was more complete, the use of surnames only started to become common in the eighteenth century.

In the Austrian Empire an order was issued in 1787 which compelled the Jews to adopt surnames, though their choice of given names was restricted mainly to Biblical ones.[1] Commissions of officers were appointed to register all the Jewish inhabitants under such names. If a Jew refused to select a name, the commission was empowered to force one upon him. This led to a wholesale creation of artificial surnames, of which Jewish nomenclature bears the traces to the present day. Among these artificial surnames are the following, mentioned by Karl Emil Franzos: Bettelarm (destitute), Diamant (diamond), Drachenblut (dragon's blood), Durst (thirst), Edelstein (gemstone), Elephant, Eselskopf (donkey's head), Fresser (glutton), Galgenstrick (sl. for rogue), Galgenvogel (gallows bird), Geldschrank (safe, as in: for money), Goldader (gold vein), Gottlos (godless), Groberklotz (clumsy clod), Hinterkopf or Hinterkop (back of the head), Hunger (hunger), Karfunkel (carbuncle), Küssemich (kiss me), Ladstockschwinger (ramrod swinger), Lumpe (crook, rag), Maizel, Maulthier (mule), Maulwurf (mole), Nachtkäfer (night beetle), Nashorn (rhinoceros), Nothleider (being needy), Ochsenschwanz (ox tail), Pferd (horse), Pulverbestandtheil (powder component), Rindskopf (cow's head), Säuger (infant; lit. suckler), Saumagen (stomach of a sow), Schmetterling (butterfly), Schnapser, Singmirwas (sing me something), Smaragd (emerald), Stinker (bad smelling), Taschengreifer (pickpocketer), Temperaturwechsel (change of temperature), Todtschläger (cudgel / manslayer), Trinker (drinker), Veilchenduft (violet's fragrance), Wanzenknicker (bug killer), Weinglas (wineglass), Wohlgeruch (good smelling).

Napoleon also, in a decree of July 20, 1808, insisted upon the Jews adopting fixed names[2] While various governments thus forced the Jews to adopt surnames, they were at the same time inclined to limit their freedom in the selection of given names. In Bohemia the provisions of the law which was passed in 1787 restricting them to Biblical names were not rescinded until August 11, 1836. The Prussian government in the same year attempted to introduce a similar restriction in that state, which led to Leopold Zunz producing his classical monograph, "Die Namen der Juden",[3] in which he showed, from examples taken from all periods, that the Jews had freely adopted the current and popular names of their neighbors in all parts of the globe. Owing mainly to this tour de force the enactment was not pressed. Similar rules have been passed by the Russian government from time to time, but without producing much effect.

A recent investigation into Berlin prænomens shows that modern Jews of that city adopt the ordinary given names of their neighbors, but that they tend to keep a certain number of names, though not of Biblical origin, popular among themselves. Thus Harry is mainly Jewish, and the same may be said of Isidore, Jacques, James, and Sigbert. Almost all the Moritzes are Jewish, as well as the majority of Ludwigs, and Julius is almost equally popular among the Berlin Jews. The following popular names in most places represent the accompanying Biblical names: Isidore, Isaac; Jacques and James, Jacob; Ludwig, Levi; Moritz, Moses. Benno is used for Benjamin, and in one case Dagobert for David. Among Jewish girls Regina and Rosa are popular names.[4] Notwithstanding this permission to adopt arbitrary surnames, there was still a tendency, at any rate among German-speaking Jews, to adapt these from Biblical names in one or other of their variant forms.

In Spain and Portugal

The use of surnames thus became common among the Arabic-speaking Jews, who naturally carried the custom into the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal). Among Sephardi Jews are found such names as Abeldano, corresponding to Ibn el-Danan; Abencabre, corresponding to Ibn Zabara; Avinbruch, corresponding to Ibn Baruch, Hacen corresponding to Hassan or Hazan; and the like. Biblical names often take curious forms in the Iberian records, Isaac appearing as Acaz, Cohen as Coffen or Coffe, Yom-Ṭob as Bondia, Ẓemaḥ as Crescas or Cresquez.

The Ḥen family appears to have adopted a translation of the name of their home-village, Gracia, near Barcelona (Loeb, in "R. E. J." iv. 73). Indeed, among the Sephardi the tendency to adopt family names from localities is largely developed; hence were derived such names as Espinosa, Gerondi, Cavalleria, De La Torre, del Monte, Lousada, and Villa Real. The name Sasportas deserves special attention, as it is really the Balearic dialectal form of La Porta.

Many families, especially among New Christians (Jewish converts to Catholicism) Marranos (Crypto-Jews), but no restricted to them, took Spanish and Portuguese family names: sometimes using translations (i.e. Vidal/de Vidas for Hayyim, Lobos for Zev, de Paz for Shalom, de la Cruz, Espírito Santo for Ruah, and so on); phonetic similarities according to a kinnui-like system, sometimes choosing between already existing ones (i.e. Pizarro/Pissarro, Mendes, Fonseca, Rodrígues and so on); even given names (i.e. de Jesus, de Miguel and so on).

In France, Great Britain and Germany

In France the use of Biblical names appears to have been more extended, judging by the elaborate lists at the end of Gross's "Gallia Judaica." True surnames occurred, especially in the south, like Abigdor, Farissol, Bonet, Barron, Lafitte; but as a rule local distinctions were popular, as Samson of Sens, etc.

The early Jews of England, who spoke French throughout their stay, also used Biblical names; the most popular name, in the twelfth century at least, being Isaac, next to which came Joseph. On both sides of the British Channel there was a tendency to translate Biblical names into French, as Deulesalt for Isaiah, Serfdeu for Obadiah, Deudone for Elhanan, but the ordinary popular names were adopted also, as Beleasez, Fleurdelis, and Muriel for Jewish women, or Amiot, Bonevie, Bonenfaund, Bonfil, among men. Deulacres and Crescas both occur (probably corresponding to Solomon or Gedaliah).

In Germany the tendency to adopt Christian names was perhaps most marked, such names as Bernhard, Bero, Eberhard, Falk, Gumprecht, Knoblauch, Liebreich, Manz and Mans which both constitute the Alemannic/Swabian short form of the personal name Manzgold, and Mangold, Süsskind, Weiss, and Wolf being among those noticed in the early Middle Ages. Especially popular were compounds with -mann or -man, as Feldmann, Kaufmann, Lieberman, Lipman, and Seligman.

In Israel

In Russian Empire

In the end of the 18th century after the Partition of Poland the Russian Empire acquired a large number of Jews, which historically did not use surnames. During censuses Jews were en masse assigned arbitrary surnames, derived from place of residence, occupation, or even arbitrarily.[5]

Local names

Local names form, perhaps, the larger number of surnames among modern Jews, though no one locally derived name occurs so frequently as the least common Biblical one. Besides general names like Hollander, Deutsch, Frank, Franco, Frankel, almost every European country has contributed its quota.

The Netherlands has contributed Leuwarden, Neumegen, Limburg, van Thal, and various other vans, as van Ryn, (Rhine), etc.

Germany, of course, has contributed the largest number. Besides such well-known cities as Posen (hence Posner), Berlin (hence Berliner and Berlinsky), Bingen, Cassel (cf.David Cassel), Treves (whence, according to some authorities, originated the very popular Alsatian name of Dreyfus), Dresden, Fulda (hence Foulde), and Oppenheim, less familiar towns, like Auerbach, Behrendt, Bischoffsheim, Flatow (hence Flathow, and Flath), Hildesheim (Hildesheimer), Landshuth, Sulzberg, have contributed their share.

A certain number of names which might at first sight seem to be derived artificially are merely names of towns after which they were taken, like Birnbaum (translated into "Peartree"), Rosenberg, Sommerfeld, Grünberg (hence Greenberg (surname)), Goldberg, and Rubenstein.

The English Crawcour (cf. Siegfried Kracauer) comes from Cracow, while Van Praagah is the name of a Prague family that settled in the Netherlands before going over to England. The name Meitner (or Maitner, Majtner) has origin in the village of Majetín (in German Majetein) near the city of Olomouc. The name Gordon may in some cases be derived be from the Russian Grodno[citation needed]. From Poland have come names such as Polano, Pollock, Polack, Polak, Pollak, Poole, Pool, and Polk. Sephardic surnames, as already mentioned, are almost invariably local, as Almanzi, Castro, Carvajal, Leon, Navarro, Somogyi, Robles, Sevilla (Spanish), and Almeida, Carvallo, Miranda, Paiva, Porto, and Pieba (Portuguese). Many Italian names are also of this class, as Alatino, Genovese (from Genoa), Meldola, Montefiore, Mortara, Pisa, Rizzolo, Romanelli (with its variants Romanin, Romain, Romayne, and Romanel), Vitalis (from Jaim or Chaim and its variants Vidal, Vidale and Vidas); Paradiso an anagram for the word Diaspora (dispersion). Even in the East there are names of these last two classes, Behar (from Bejar), Barron (from BarOn), Galante, Veneziani, though there are a few Arabic names like Alfandari and Ḥaggis; Greek, as Galipapa and Pappo; and a few Turkish, as Jamila, Gungur, Bilbil, and Sabad.[6]

Going still farther east, the curious custom which prevails among the Bene Israel may be mentioned of changing Biblical names to similar Hindu names with the addition of -jee, thus Benjamin into Benmajee, Abraham into Abrajee, David into Dawoodjee, Jacob into Akkoobjee. Before dismissing the local names, the names Altschul or Altschuler, derived from the Altschul ("old school/synagogue") of Prague, should be mentioned. To the signs of the Frankfurter Judengasse are due the names of some of the best known of Jewish families: Rothschild ("red shield"), Schwarzschild ("black shield"), Adler ("eagle"), Ganz or Gans ("goose"), Schiff ("ship"), Strauss ("ostrich"), and Ochs ("ox"). Schudt gives a list of these signs.[7]

Official names and nicknames

Turning to the next great source from which have been derived the surnames used in ordinary nomenclature—trades and occupations—such names as Kaufmann and Marchant ("merchant") become prominent. Others of the same kind are: Banks (Surname) Spielmann ("player"); Steinschneider ("engraver"); Schuster, Schneider, Schneiders, and Snyders ("tailor"; in Hebrew Ḥayyat; hence Chayet); Wechsler ("money-changer"). But there are others that are more distinctively Jewish: Parnass and Gabbay, from the synagogue officials who were so called; Singer, Cantor, Voorsanger, Chazan, Cantarini, from the singers of Israel; Shochet, Schaechter, Schechter, from the ritual slaughterer; Ballin, a bath-keeper; Shadkun, a marriage-broker; Moreno [citation needed], Rabe, Rabinowitz, Rabinovich, Rabinowicz, and Rabbinovitz, rabbis; Benmohel, son of one who performed circumcision, the sacred rite of Abraham.[8] A number of Arabic names are of similar origin: Al-Fakhkhar, a potter; Mocatta, a mason or possibly a soldier (Al-Muḳatil).[9]

Descriptive titles, again, are mainly derived from modern languages, and are sometimes translated into Hebrew: thus, Azariah dei Rossi is known as Azariah Min ha-Adummim; or sometimes the Hebrew name is translated into the current languages: thus Jafeh/Yaffe/Yoffe ("beautiful") is translated into Schön, Schöndel, Schandel, Bonfet. In Aramaic, "beautiful" is shapir, which, perhaps merged with the town-name Speyer, yielded Shapiro.

Nicknames seem not to be so frequently adopted as surnames among Jews, though so usual among them in the ordinary life of the ghetto. Yom-Tob and Purim are possibly to be included in this class, and it is said that the various forms of Kaiser and King are derived from players of that part in the Purim plays (purimshpil). Instead of nicknames, modern Jews use contractions of Hebrew descriptive names; thus, Shön represents Sheliaḥ Ne'eman, and Schatz, Sheliach tzibbur; Katz ("cat") represents Kohn Ẓedeḳ; Goetz (in English, Yates) equals Ger Ẓedeḳ; Sack is used for a member of the Zera' Qodesh, or "holy posterity", and it is said that when an -s is attached this reference is to the fraternity of that name at Speyer. Bran, Braun, or Brown is said to represent Ben Rabbi Nachman; while Bril, Brill represents Ben Rabbi Judah Löb.

A few miscellaneous names may be referred to: Speranza, which is used as a woman's name, occurs in the form of Sprinzer in Russia; Margolis and Margolioth are variations of Margaret; and Marguerite ("pearl") finds equivalents in Perel and Perles. The Wahls claim to descend from Saul Wahl, who was king of Poland for one day. Schöntheil is supposed to be a translation of Bonaparte, and Stiebel is derived from the little room kept for the "bachur" in rich Jews' houses.

See also


  1. A list of permitted first names is given in Kropatschat's Gesetzsammlung (xiv. 539-567), the names marked in black letters being those reserved for Jews.
  2. "L'Univers Israélite", lvii. 472
  3. Leopold Zuns: Namen der Juden. Eine geschichtliche Untersuchung. Leipzig 1837. Reprint, Hildesheim: Gerstenberg, 1971
  4. Nathan Pulvermacher: Berliner Vornamen. Eine statistische Untersuchung. Berlin: Programm Berlin Lessing-Gymnasium, 1902/1903
  5. "What Does Surname Maidannik Mean?"
  6. Franco, "Histoire des Israélites de l'Empire Ottoman"',' pp. 284-285.
  7. "Schudt1"Jüdische Merkwürdigkeiten. Vorstellende, was sich Curieuses ... mit denen ... Juden zugetragen. Franckfurt und Leipzig 1714-18. Reprint Berlin: Lamm, 1922; p. 151-154.
  8. see a more extensive list of name meanings
  9. For the various forms of Cohen see Jew. Encyc. iv. 144.

External links