The history and evolution of Jewish surnames


By Gideon

What does “Jewish” family name mean?  Does a family name can really trace back a family tree through history? Can we tell who is Jewish and who is not based on family names? Do our family names define who we are? Should our children keep their family names? The answers to these questions may surprise you.

The Diaspora and all that was linked to it is reflected in the diverse linguistic origins of Jewish last names. For Ashkenazi Jews, these names are primarily of German, Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish, Russian, and Byelorussian origin. Last names convey the professions and occupations of Jews, show the geography of Jewish migration, illustrate their relationships to the regions they resided in, and their interaction with neighbors and the surrounding world.

There are really only three surnames that are specifically Jewish in nature: variations on Cohen, Levy and Israel. These names are derived from tribal ancestry that were recorded by the Jewish people and recognized in synagogue with various distinctions. Cohen and Levy are the two most common surnames among Jews in the United States. Israel is much less common. Jewish thought often divides Jews into three groups: Cohen (priest), Levy (the tribe of the priests), and Israel (the rest of the Jewish people).

Historically, Jews did not have permanent family surnames at all. Within the Jewish community, Jewish people used patronymics, such as David ben (son of) Joseph or Miriam bat (daughter of) Aaron. Bar-, “son of” in Aramaic, is also seen). Names in that form are still used today in synagogue and in Jewish legal documents such as the ketubah (marriage contract), but are rare outside of the religious context. 

Prior to the adaption of surnames, Jewish last names generally changed with every generation. For example, if Moses son of Mendel (Moyshe ben Mendel) married Sarah daughter of Rebecca (Sora bas Rifke), and they had a boy and named it Samuel (Shmuel), the child would be called Shmuel ben Moyshe. If they had a girl and named her Feygele, she would be called Feygele bas Sora.

Family names began to gain popularity among Sephardic Jews in Spain, Portugal and Italy as early as the 10th or 11th century. 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. Among the Sephardim this practice was common long before the exile from Spain, and probably became still more common in conversos communities, who on adopting Christianity accepted in most cases the family names of their godfathers. Many conversos reverted back to Judaism when they had an opportunity, bringing with them into the Jewish community their adapted surnames. 

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. 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.”

Ashkenazic Jews were among the last Europeans to take family names. Some German-speaking Jews took last names as early as the 17th century, but the overwhelming majority of Jews lived in Eastern Europe and did not take last names until compelled to do so. The process began in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1787 and ended in Czarist Russia in 1844. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, which controlled a substantial part of Europe at the time, was the first country in Europe that required Jews to register a permanent family surname, and they required that this surname be German.

German and Austrian Jews were subject to many restrictions in Germany until the early 1800s. In January 1782 the Austrian Emperor Joseph II. enacted a new law, called the Edict of Tolerance. It’s main goal was integrate his Jewish subjects fully into the economic life of the nation, and he therefore granted them access to public education, including higher education, and to job training as apprentices and journeymen. At the same time he declared the “Jewish language and writing” as abolished: all trade books, official documents and official certificates were to be written in German from then on.

The adoption of German surnames by Ashkenazi Jews was imposed in exchange for Jewish emancipation. The authorities insisted that Jews take last names so that they could be taxed, drafted, and educated . For centuries, Jewish communal leaders were responsible for collecting taxes from the Jewish population on behalf of the government, and in some cases were responsible for filling draft quotas. Education was traditionally an internal Jewish matter.

On 23 July 1787, five years after the Edict of Tolerance, the Austrian emperor Joseph II issued a decree called Das Patent über die Judennamen which compelled the Jews to adopt German surnames. Prussia did so soon after, beginning with Silesia: the city of Breslau in 1790, the Breslau administrative region in 1791, the Liegnitz region in 1794. In 1812, when Napoleon had occupied much of Prussia, surname adoption was mandated for the unoccupied parts; and Jews in the rest of Prussia adopted surnames in 1845.

Napoleon also, in a decree of July 20, 1808, insisted upon the Jews adopting fixed names His decree covered all lands west of the Rhine; and many other parts of Germany required surname-adoption within a few years. Oldenburg was the last principality to complete the process, in 1852.

Jews distrusted the authorities and resisted the new requirement. Although they were forced to take last names, at first they were used only for official purposes. Among themselves, they kept their traditional names. Over time, Jews accepted the new last names, which were essential as Jews sought to advance within the broader society and as the shtetles were transformed or Jews left them for big cities.

At the end of the 18th century after the Partition of Poland and later after the Congress of Vienna the Russian Empire acquired a large number of Jews who did not use surnames. They, too, were required to adopt surnames during the 19th century.

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.

Many immigrants to modern Israel changed their names to Hebrew names, to erase remnants of galuti (exiled, diaspora-like) life still surviving in family names from other languages. This phenomenon was especially common among Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants to Israel. The Hebraization of surnames is a unique phenomenon to the Hebrew language. This process began as early as the days of the First and Second Aliyot and continued after the establishment of the State of Israel. The widespread trend towards hebraization of surnames in the days of the Yishuv and immediately after the establishment of the State of Israel was based on the claim that a Hebrew name provided a feeling of belonging to the new state. There was also the wish to distance from the lost and dead past, and from the forced imposition of foreign (e.g. German) names in the previous centuries.

After the Establishment of the State of Israel, there was still the attitude that the hebraization of family names should continue, in order to get rid of names with a Diaspora sound. Hebraization of names became a typical part of the integration process for new immigrants, both among Ashkenazi Jews, but also among Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewish immigrants from Arab and Muslim lands; Sephardi and Mizrahi children were typically given new Hebrew names in school, often without permission from their parents.

David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel was very committed to the use of the Hebrew language. In an order to the IDF soldiers he wrote, “It is desirable that every commanding officer (from Squadron Commander to Chief of Staff) should change his surname, whether German, English, Slavic, French or foreign in general, to a Hebrew surname, in order to be a role model for his soldiers. The Israel Defense Forces must be Hebrew in spirit, vision, and in all internal and external expressions.”

A binding order of the same issue was issued to the officials of the state in 1950, and particularly to those who represented the State abroad. A “Committee for Hebrew Names” was established to supervise the implementation of the order, whose task was to assist and advise the choice of a Hebrew name.

In addition to pressure from the state, tensions between Jewish ethnic groups caused some people to Hebraize their names to dissidentify with a “stigmatized” ethnic group or to merge into a “collective Israeli identity” and therefore created a desire to Hebraize.

This trend moderated with time. By the time of the wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, the practice was waning. The Soviet immigration wave clearly had the effect of weakening the practice of Hebraizing names – as part of the marked general tendency of these immigrants to cling to their specific Russian linguistic and cultural identity. However, even today, people continue to Hebraize their surname, especially those serving in the IDF and Israel’s diplomatic missions, representing the State of Israel. The number of those who do is small but significant; about 15% of American and British immigrants to Israel who come on Nefesh B’Nefesh flights Hebraize their names on arrival.


Jewish families were required change their names everywhere in Europe. Subsequently many families who were not related at all chose the exact same surnames. Therefore, it does not necessarily mean that Jewish people with the same last name are from the same family.

Contrary to popular belief, a person cannot tell whether people are Jewish from their surnames. While some of the newly chosen surnames are the same as the surnames of their Christian neighbors, others reflect the sensitivities of Romanticism, leading many to think of such names as “typical Jewish names”. Plant names such as Mandelbaum, Rosenbusch, Rosenbaum, Rosenstihl, Rosenstock, Rosenberg, Weinstock, or professional names such as Goldschmidt, Krämer, Mahler, Eisenhändler, may come to mind. There were however numerous German Christian families, especially so in East and West Prussia, who had carried the surnames of Rosenberg, Rosenbaum, Rosenkranz, Goldschmidt, Goldberg, etc. already for many centuries.

The use of surnames became common very early among the Arabic-speaking Jews, who carried the custom into the Iberian Peninsula . 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. Among the Sephardi was the tendency to adopt family names from the town or region where they lived as Espinosa, Gerondi, Cavalleria, De La Torre, del Monte, Lousada, and Villa Real.

Many families, especially among New Christians (Jewish converts to Catholicism) and Crypto-Jews took Spanish and Portuguese family names, sometimes using translations (such as Vidal/de Vidas for Hayyim, Lobos for Zev, de Paz for Shalom, and de la Cruz or Espírito Santo for Ruah).

In medieval 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 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).

When Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire were required to assume last names, some chose the nicest ones they could think of and may have been charged a registration fee by the authorities. According to the YIVO Encyclopedia, “The resulting names often are associated with nature and beauty. It is very plausible that the choices were influenced by the general romantic tendencies of German culture at that time.” These names include: Applebaum — apple tree; Birnbaum — pear tree; Buchsbaum — box tree; Kestenbaum — chestnut tree; Kirschenbaum — cherry tree; Mandelbaum — almond tree; Nussbaum — nut tree; Tannenbaum — fir tree; Teitelbaum — palm tree. Blumen (flower), Fein (fine), Gold, Green, Lowen (lion), Rosen (rose), Schoen/Schein (pretty) — combined with berg (hill or mountain), thal (valley), bloom (flower), zweig (wreath), blatt (leaf), vald or wald (woods), feld (field). Other names included Diamond; Glick/Gluck — luck; Hoffman — hopeful; Fried/Friedman — happiness; Lieber/Lieberman — lover.

The easiest way for Jews to assume an official last name was to adapt the name they already had, making it permanent. In Yiddish or German, “son” would be denoted by “son” or “sohn” or “er.” In most Slavic languages, like Polish or Russian, it would be “wich” or “witz.” For example: The son of Mendel took the last name Mendelsohn; the son of Abraham became Abramson or Avromovitch; the son of Menashe became Manishewitz; the son of Itzhak became Itskowitz; the son of Berl took the name Berliner; the son of Kesl took the name Kessler, etc. Some families made last names out of women’s first names: Chaiken — son of Chaikeh; Edelman — husband of Edel; Gittelman — husband of Gitl; Glick or Gluck. Gold/Goldman/Gulden may derived from Golda; Malkov from Malke; Perlman — husband of Perl; Rivken — may derive from Rivke; Soronsohn—son of Sarah.

Jews used the town or region where they lived, or where their families came from, as their last name. As a result, the Germanic origins of most East European Jews is reflected in their names. For example, Asch is an acronym for the towns of Aisenshtadt or Altshul orAmshterdam. Other place-based Jewish names include: Auerbach/Orbach; Bacharach; Berger (generic for townsman); Berg(man), meaning from a hilly place; Bayer — from Bavaria; Bamberger; Berliner, Berlinsky — from Berlin; Bloch (foreigner); Brandeis; Breslau; Brodsky; Brody; Danziger; Deutch/Deutscher — German; Dorf(man), meaning villager; Eisenberg; Epstein; Florsheim; Frankel — from the Franconia region of Germany; Frankfurter; Ginsberg; Gordon — from Grodno, Lithuania or from the Russian word gorodin, for townsman; Greenberg; Halperin—from Helbronn, Germany; Hammerstein; Heller — from Halle, Germany; Hollander — not from Holland, but from a town in Lithuania settled by the Dutch; Horowitz, Hurwich, Gurevitch — from Horovice in Bohemia; Koenigsberg; Krakauer — from Cracow, Poland; Landau; Lipsky — from Leipzig, Germany; Litwak — from Lithuania; Minsky — from Minsk, Belarus; Mintz—from Mainz, Germany; Oppenheimer; Ostreicher — from Austria; Pinsky — from Pinsk, Belarus; Posner — from Posen, Germany; Prager — from Prague; Rappoport — from Porto, Italy; Rothenberg — from the town of the red fortress in Germany; Shapiro — from Speyer, Germany; Schlesinger — from Silesia, Germany; Steinberg; Unger — from Hungary; Vilner — from Vilna, Poland/Lithuania; Wallach—from Bloch, derived from the Polish word for foreigner; Warshauer/Warshavsky — from Warsaw; Wiener — from Vienna; Weinberg.

Some Jews either held on to or adopted traditional Jewish names from the Bible and Talmud. The big two are Cohen (Cohn, Kohn, Kahan, Kahn, Kaplan) and Levi (Levy, Levine, Levinsky, Levitan, Levenson, Levitt, Lewin, Lewinsky, Lewinson). Others include: Aaron — Aronson, Aronoff; Asher; Benjamin; David — Davis, Davies; Ephraim — Fishl; Emanuel — Mendel; Isaac — Isaacs, Isaacson/Eisner; Jacob — Jacobs, Jacobson, Jacoby; Judah — Idelsohn, Udell,Yudelson; Mayer/Meyer; Menachem — Mann, Mendel; Reuben — Rubin; Samuel — Samuels, Zangwill; Simon — Schimmel; Solomon — Zalman.

Names based on Hebrew acronyms include: Baron — bar aron (son of Aaron); Beck —bene kedoshim (descendant of martyrs); Getz — gabbai tsedek (righteous synagogue official); Katz — kohen tsedek (righteous priest); Metz — moreh tsedek (teacher of righteousness); Sachs, Saks — zera kodesh shemo (his name descends from martyrs); Segal — se gan levia (second-rank Levite).]

First names: Ashkenazi Jews living in the Diaspora have historically taken local first names to use when interacting with their gentile neighbors. The practice of taking local first names became so common that by the 12th century, the rabbis found it necessary to make a takkanah (rabbinical ruling) requiring Jews to have a Hebrew name. Among Ashkenazic Jews (Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe), Sphardi Jews name children after living relatives, while Ashkenazi Jews name children after a recently deceased relative. The name given to the child is not always identical to that of the deceased; it is often changed to reflect the popular names of the time, but usually retains the sound or at least the first initial. It is not unusual for multiple relatives to be named after the same recently-deceased person. Hebrew names are used in prayer in and out of synagogue and for other religious rituals.