What’s in a Jewish Name?


Explaining Jewish surnames has been a hot topic for quite some time; the last few years alone have seen a bevy of new articles, blogs, and databases where anyone can find all sorts of info on his or her family’s name. However, the history of Jewish last names actually is quite short for a people with such a long history. For thousands of years, Jews just had a given or first name – and even these were not that original. Many of them were theophoric, meaning they were derived from or incorporated the name of God, such as Yehoshua (Joshua), Yermiyahu (Jeremiah), Yoshiahu (Josiah), and so on. The only ones who had a surname tacked on were Cohens and Levis, and then only those of them who were high-ranking religious officials. In order to differentiate one Joshua from the other, it was common to refer to them by adding the Hebrew word for son, ben, and their father’s names after their names, so Moses became Moshe ben Amram and rabbi Akiva is Akiva ben Yosef. This practice continues to this day to some degree, with bar, the Aramaic word for son, occasionally appearing instead of ben, as in Simeon bar Giora, one of the leaders of the first rebellion against Rome, who should not be confused with Simeon bar Kokhba, the leader of the second rebellion against Rome that occurred in the following century. Arabs still use a similar system but in reverse – people are known by their firstborn son – such as Mahmoud Abbas, whom everyone calls Abu Mazen. Mazen is his firstborn son, who ran a building company in Doha and died of a heart attack in 2001.

This system of patronymic surnames (based on the father) was not the norm in the ancient world. In ancient Egypt, for example, people were given descriptive names that usually were nouns or adjectives, such as Nefert (as in Nefertiti), which means “beautiful women,” or Tutankhamun, which can be translated as “the living image of Amun.” In order to distinguish between similar names, especially when certain names ran in the family, it was common to apply an epithet, such as Aa (“the eldest”), Hery-ib (“the one in the middle”), and Nedjes (“the smallest”). Some people also included their father’s name and Mes-en, which means born of.

On the other hand, the ancient Greeks did not have surnames. Since Socrates, Platos, and Homers were found in abundance, a place of origin was added to distinguish one Greek from the other. As Hellenistic culture spread throughout the Mediterranean in the wake of Alexander the Great, Jews adopted this practice. That is why there are talmudic sages with names like Yosi Haglili (Joseph the Galilean), who authored a famous passage in the Passover Haggadah. The Greek also used patronymic names, but they did not necessarily refer to the actual father. For example, Heracleides, which means the son of Hercules, was the early name of Alexander the Great.

When the Romans succeeded the Greeks, they made naming more complicated and more orderly and bureaucratic, as they did in many other spheres of life. Men had a praenomen (a first name), a nomen (a clan name), a cognomen (a family name), and in some cases also an agnomen (a nickname). Men also could include the names of their father, grandfather, and tribe in their full name. In the early Roman Republic, there were praenomina for women, but they were soon dropped and women were known by the feminine form of their father’s nomen. In order to tell one daughter from the other, the words major or minor or just a number were added to their names.

All this produced very long and complex names, such as Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, who is best known for defeating Hannibal, hence the Africanus. Hannibal of Carthage’s full name was Hannibal Barca. His given name means the grace of ba’al (similar to the Hebrew names Hanan, Hananiya) and Barca was the name of his clan (it means lighting, which is barak in Hebrew).

The Romans understood more than anyone else in the ancient world that in order to run an empire, where people could move freely around, they needed to be able to count populations accurately. They were not the first to come up with this idea – Egyptians, Hebrews, and Greeks already counted their populations – but the Romans invented the word (census), and refined the system so that people could be identified and counted at their place of residence, as described in the New Testament.

With the fall of the Roman Empire, the naming system fell apart. The Christian societies of Europe abandoned the old pagan names and newborns were now baptized with a Christian name that would protect them from the evils of the world. Family names were common only for the kings, lords, and knights in the medieval world.

As nations began to form towards the end of the ninth century, regimes again realized the need for a system to tell people apart in order to regulate taxation, property ownership, and military service. Surnames thus appeared again. This time they were simpler, referring to the village or region, profession (miller, smith), or distinguishing personal traits (black, white) of the patriarch of a family. When William of Normandy (later known as William the Conqueror) conquered Saxon Britain in 1066, he ran the first surviving census in history, called the Doomsday Book. For the census, everyone had to take on a family name that would belong to that person’s family from then on. Once a miller, always a miller. Women were required to take on their husband’s name when they got married to avoid further confusion. (Different societies use different naming conventions, in the western world, the surname (family name) comes after the given name, while in the east, the surname comes before the given name. In Portuguese and Spanish societies, people carry the name of their father and their mother. However, the basic principle is the same in all societies.)

The Jewish patronymic system in which the surname is based on the father’s name obviously does not help identify a family over the generations since the surname changes from generation to generation. However, Jews ran their own affairs, including collecting taxes to turn over to the authorities as a group, so the new nation-states did not really care what went on inside the Jewish communities.


The first time Jews took surnames was during the Jewish Golden Age in Spain, and more so, following the expulsion from Spain. The Jewish exiles wanted to remember their origins and often added their hometowns to their names. In some cases, if they had held special status in the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal, they added names indicating that. The Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza probably came from the town of Espinosa de los Monteros or Espinosa de Cerrato, while the Rothschilds took their name from the red shingle which marked their business.


The practice of taking on family names became more common as the Jews that had been expelled from Spain arrived in Morocco, Egypt, and other parts of North Africa. They adopted names such as Castro or Decastro (a fortress in the kingdom of Leon), Lugasi (Lugas and Oviedo), Malka (Malaga), de Medina (several places had that name), Nahon (Naon in Oveido), Alfassi (from Fez), Depinto, Rosales, and Soriano, among others. Others selected names that referred to their status or profession: Abitbol is a drummer (taboula); Albaz is a falconer; Danon and Dayan both mean judge; Ferreres  is a blacksmith; Hakim and Rofe  refer to a sage or a physician; Elbag dyes clothes; and a Sofer is a scribe. Some names were less specific, such as Ashkenazi, which refers to anyone from Ashkenaz or Germany, and Zarfati, which refers to those hailing from France.


That said, most Jews, especially those that would become European Jews, continued to be identified by their father’s name.


On November 12, 1787, Holy Roman emperor Joseph II ordered all Jews in the Habsburg empire to adopt family names. The decree came five years after the Edict of Tolerance, which permitted Jews to attend schools and universities, eliminated vocational restrictions on Jewish adults, abolished stigmatizing rules of dress and conduct, and restricted the use of Yiddish and Hebrew to the private sphere.

Joseph II’s decree was part of his policy of enlightened despotism, reflective of the European Enlightenment, which included the introduction of compulsory education and the abolition of serfdom, the death penalty, and judicial brutality. Most of his reforms were overturned following his death at 49 in 1790, and these rights would not be fully restored to Jews until 1867.

The majority of the world’s Jewish population lived within the borders of Joseph II’s Austrian-Hungarian empire at that time. Jewish families were free to choose any name of their liking, subject to approval by an imperial official. Jews who did not take on a family name were assigned one. The gamut of names was far ranging – especially the randomly assigned names, which were probably the majority.


The names were, of course, in German and referred to everything from personal traits (Redlich – honest, Freundlich – friendly, Klein – small, and Gross – big) to metals (Eisen and Kupfer), colors (Braun, Roth, and Weiss), flora (Baum and Wald), the surrounding world (Himmel – sky, Licht – light, Stern – star, Berg – mountain, Feld – field, Stein – stone), and habitations (Dorf – village and Heim – home).

“The resulting names,”Alexander Beider writes in the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, “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.”

The new last names were only used for official purposes. Within the community, Jews continued using their traditional patronymic names. But as Jews moved out of the shtetls and into the towns and cities, a surname was necessary in order to fit into the general society.

The easiest way was to turn the patronymic name into a surname by adding son, sohn, or er in German-speaking lands and wich or witz in places where Polish or Russian prevailed. This is when names such as Mendelsohn (son of Mendel), Abramson and Avromovitch (son of Abraham), and Manishewitz (son of Menashe) appeared. Other people took on names of places, occupations, animals, and just fancy invented names – all in the effort to fit in to the new enlightened society. With the mass exodus of Jews from Europe to the United States, in the second half of the eighteenth century, many Americanized or anglicized their names.


As the Zionist waves of immigration to the Land of Israel began in the 1880s, Jews began to change their last names to Hebrew names. From the very beginning of the Zionist idea, this was considered part of recreating the Hebrew culture and the rejuvenation of the Jews in the land of their forefathers. One of the first to change his name was Eliezer Yitzhak Perlman, who became  Eliezer Ben-Yehudah in 1881 when he made aliyah. He is considered to be the driving spirit behind the revival of the Hebrew language.

During the Second Aliyah, a Hebrew name became not only the norm, but a necessity for those who wanted to fit into the incipient Hebrew society. David Grun was one of the Russian Zionists who made aliyah in 1906. In 1910, as the editor of the newspaper of the Zion Workers Party, he signed his first article with his new name, David Ben-Gurion, naming himself after one of the leaders of the Great Rebellion against Rome. Ben-Gurion’s friend, Yitzhak Shimshelvich, changed his name to Yitzhak Ben Zvi (his father was Zvi Shimshelvich). Levi Shkolnik became Levi Eshkol, Shneur Zalman Rubashov became Zalman Shazar, and Aubrey Solomon Meir Eban became Abba Eban. Before Golda Mabovitch married Morris Meyerson in 1917, he agreed to  make aliyah with her. After she, her husband, and her sister arrived in the land of Israel in 1921, she changed her name to Golda Meir. In 1932, Yizhak Perski immigrated to Palestine from Poland. His wife Sara and their two children, Szymon and Gershon, followed two years later. Szymon changed his name to Shimon Peres. (Some of their relatives instead immigrated to the US, where Betty Joan Persky changed her name to Lauren Bacall.)

In 1944, the Jewish National Committee in Palestine launched a major campaign to encourage the public to Hebraize their names. Three years later, the newly formed Israel Defense Force established a Hebrew Names Committee to encourage soldiers to do the same. After the creation of the State of Israel, the new prime minister, Ben-Gurion, wrote a memorandum recommending that all ambassadors, government officials, and high-ranking officers take a Hebrew name. In 1955, Ben-Gurion went even further and decided that only officials and officers with a Hebrew name could represent Israel abroad. This applied to beauty queens as well: Chavatzelet Drilmann became Chavatzelet Dror and Aviva Perlman became Aviva Peer.


The new immigrants pouring into Israel in the 1950s also received Hebrew name, usually from the immigration clerks. Ferenc Hoffmann, who while still in Hungary had changed his name to Ferenc Kishont, was assigned the name Ephraim Kishon.

Many people just changed their names by translating them directly into Hebrew, so Berg became Har, Gold became Zahav, and Goldberg became Har Zahav. Names that were translations of the original patronymic names into German, Russian, or Polish were now reversed: Avramson returned to being Ben-Avraham and Aharonson became Ben-Aharon. The names of animals were also translated, sometimes with the addition of a ben or bar. Wolf or Wolff became Ze’ev and Wolfsohn became Ben-Ze’ev. Hertz became Zvi (as in Ben Zvi) and Leon became Ari or Aryeh.

As Jewish family names did not exist in ancient Hebrew, Israelis looking for a new name would choose a Hebrew word that sounded similar or had a nice ring or connotation. They picked words such as Aviv (spring), Ophir (as in the land of Ophir), Bahat (alabaster), Dekel (palm), Gil (joy), and Gal (wave). Other names were just invented, but they sounded Hebrew: Ofaz, Boran, Batz, and Almoz

Another option, which was very popular, was choosing a geographical region or feature in the land of Israel. This gave rise to names such as Golan, Gilead, Dotan, Carmel, Galil, and Shomron. Many times people added an ending indicating that they were from that place, such as Carmeli, Galili, and Shomroni. Nature, a very limited source of original Jewish names, now played a major role in naming, mainly in first names, but also in family names like Alon, Erez, and Hadas. Another source of names  in a culture that admired working the land was various agricultural implements and tasks: Morag – threshing machine, Dagan – grain, Granot – granary, Goren – threshing floor, Asif –bringing of the fruit, Carmi – vineyard, Be’eri – well, and so on.

Since the 1980s, Hebrew names, private and family, have come full circle. Perlmans and Rabinovitzs are back, popular and with no stigma of being anti-Zionist. Recent immigrants from around the world retain their own names, adding more diversity to the mix, especially the wave of immigration from Ethiopia and their children.


In the 1950s, Israelis looked to the Bible to name their children. In the 1960s and 1970s, names of flowers and names with military connotations (Oz, strength, for example) became popular. In the 1980s, Israelis sought names that sounded good in both Hebrew and English, such as Shawn, Tom, Sharon, Ben and Adam. The new millennium brought unisex names and a wave of retro names. Traditional boys names such as Bar, Daniel, Noam, Amit, Ariel, and Or were popular again – for both boys and girls. The names Jonathan, David, Ido, and Moshe, also are popular, but just among boys.

In  2014-2015, the most popular names for Israeli boys were Noam,Ori, David, Joseph, Eitan, Itai, Ariel, Daniel, Yehonatan, and Moshe. The most popular names for Israeli girls were Noa, Tamar, Shira, Maya, Yael, Adel, Talia, Avigail, Ayala, and Sara.

About Author

Comments are closed.