Jewish Family Names *
by Dr. Chanan Rapaport
I was delighted when the bi-monthly historical journal Et-Mol, published by the Ben Zvi Institute (established by and named after the second President of the state of Israel) invited me to edit a new regular feature dealing with both historic sources and folkloristic aspects of Jewish family names.
I believe that the topics discussed could extend the historical sources of Jewish immigration and contribute not only to the research of the Jewish family, but also to the study of political science, sociology and anthropology of the world’s Jewish communities.
Anyone of our readers who has researched the meaning or history of their family name is already aware of some of what follows. Even so, we intend to collect and concentrate in one place what is known about the history of Jewish family names and explain their etymology.
In contrast to what many assume, family names appear among Jews in various European countries as well as in North Africa at a relatively early period.
The late Dr. Paul Jacobi, the noted genealogist who researched more than four hundred Ashkenazi Jewish families, divided the first thousand years of the appearance of Jewish family names, 700-1620 CE, into four main and eight
In order to simplify the description we have focused on four main groups.
The Founding Families: The first grouping consists of families whose names appear between the years 700 and 1000. The names that follow are some of them: Kalonymides, Schimonides, Saltiel, Alfasi, Berdugo and others.
The Ancient Families: These family names first appear between 1000 and 1450 and following are some of the names in this grouping: Rashi, Luria, Abulafia, Abarbanel, Rapaport, Livai-Loew, Spira, Sasson, Sarfati, Treves, Amar, Hakohen and more.
The Old Families: The third grouping consists of names that first come into use between the years 1450 and 1515. A sample of these names follows: Bacharach, Weil, Eger, Cordoba, Algranati, Oettingen, Guenzburg, Meisels, Catalan, Rothschild, Teomim and others.
The Early Families: These names first appear between 1515 and 1620 and include the following: Chayuth, Isserles, Barutdji, Benaroya, Klausner, Broda, Pardo, Oppenheimer, Schor, Trepero, Rivlin and others.
The family names mentioned above involved only a small portion of the Jewish people. The vast majority used personal names along with the father’s name to refer to a specific person. When an individual was called to the Torah Reading as ‘Ya’akov ben Moshe’, he knew that it meant to a specific person in that community - called upon to receive the honor of fulfilling a religious obligation. This pattern continued until various countries resolved for a variety of reasons such as record keeping, organization, taxation, military service and many others to require family names for all inhabitants and especially for the Jews who dwelled among them.
Emperor Joseph II of Austria passed a law in 1787 requiring all Jews to adopt a German sounding family name. Jews in Silesia were required to do so in 1791. The Russian Empire passed a similar law only on December 9th 1804.
Some thirty years later, on May 31st 1835, an additional law was enacted requiring all the Jews in the Pale of Settlement to adopt family names.
Napoleon on July 20iest 1808 ruled that all Jews were to adopt clear and permanent family names. The law in Poland requiring Jews to adopt family names dates from 1822.
Between 1807 and 1852, the German city-states, which were independent at that time, required the adoption of family names. The first to do so was Frankfurt-am-Main in 1807, followed by Prussia in 1812, Saxony in 1834 and the last was Oldenburg in 1852.
It should be emphasized that the names that were in use prior to the above dates were recognized and legally recorded without any change.
The influence of both environment and culture in the pattern of determining the name is more evident in those names that pre-date the laws requiring their adoption but can also be seen in names adopted after the passage of these laws. Following are examples of each category:
1. Name determined by the name of the place where one was born, where he worked as an adult or the place he came from:
The following indicate plains, districts or cities: Reis or Reiser from the Reis Plain; Grunwald – green forest; Halpern, Heilbronn – from the city of Heilbronn in Wurttemberg; Oettingen from the city of Oettingen located in the Reis Plain; Treves or Dreyfus from the city of Treves. There is no need to analyze obvious names such as Berliner, Warshavsky, San’ani, Hamburger, Alfasi, Frankfurter, Posner, Toledano, etc.
2. Names determined by the name of the family’s founder:
Abramsohn – son of Abraham; Markus – son of Mordecai; Nahmias – son of Nehemiah; Heimann or Bibas in Ladino – son of Hayim.
3. Name determined by the mother, the central figure in the early family:
We find a mother whose name is Sarah and the family name becomes ‘the son of Sarah’ or in Yiddish - Surkis; the son of Rivke, becomes Rivkes or Rivkin; the son of Channah becomes Chinitz and the son of Batt-Sheva (Bas-Sheva) becomes Bashevis.
4. Name determined by the profession or occupation of the family’s ancestor:
The Hebrew name Katzav is in German Metzger (meaning Butcher), Doktorovitz – doctor; Hakim – doctor in Arabic; Rabbiner – rabbi in German; Haham – the term used for rabbi in Sefardic communities; Amar – builder in Arabic; Bauman – builder in German; Alfandari – tax-collector in Arabic; Kaufmann – merchant in German; Barutdji – manufacturer of explosives in Turkish; Trepero – collector of old-unused items in Arabic; Cohen and the variant Kaplan – clergyman in German, Attar – spice and flavorings merchant in Arabic and the list does not end here.
5. The family name is determined by the first letters of the father’s name (acronym) or by a position occupied by the founding father of the family:
Rashi – Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki; Rambam – Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon; Hagra – the Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna; the names Schatz – designated a person who leads the congregation in prayer; Katz – righteous Kohen; Babad – son of the head of the rabbinic court; Shub – one who slaughters and inspects the meat, and Schor – one who slaughters meat and is a rabbi, etc.
6. A name chosen because of the beauty of the area in which the family lived, a nice sounding name or the name of an animal or object:
Apfelbaum – apple tree; Himmelfarb – the color of the sky; Rosenberg – rose covered mountain; Berdugo – bud; Livai/Loew/Lowe – lion; Morgenthau – morning dew; Hammer – hammer; Gold – gold. Most of these names have a Germanic source.
7. A name derived from an anagram – reversal of the letters of the original name: Weil consists of the letters spelling the name of Levi. However, we know of some Weil families whose name originates from a town located in Southern Germany near Stuttgart.
8. Names determined by the shield on the facade of the house of the founder of the family:
Rothschild – because of the red shield that was over the door of the family house in Frankfurt-am-Main and Gans – because of the goose [in German Gans] on the shield of the family house. The shield served as a means of identifying a particular house parallel to today’s use of numbers.
9. A name decided by a nickname of the family’s founder:
Altmann – old man in German; Kurz – a short person in German or its variant, Kutchuk – a short man in Turkish; Grossmann – a large man; Abulafia – a healthy man in Arabic; Klein – small in German; Zairi – small in Arabic and Gutmann – a good person in German.
10. Names set by the day of the week, month or season that had special significance for the family:
Sonntag – Sunday; Montag – Monday; Mai – the month of May; Sommer – German for summer; Winter etc.
11. The name chosen because of a book written by an ancestor:
Halevush – Levushim, ten volumes written by Rabbi Mordecai Jaffe and published between 1590 and 1620;
Taz – Turei Zahav written by Rabbi David Halevi and published in Lublin in 1646;
Shach – Siftei Kohen, written by Rabbi Shabtai Hakohen published in Krakow 1646/7;
Hashelah – Shnei Luchot Habrit by Rabbi Isaiah Halevi Horowitz, published in Amsterdam in 1757;
Bach – Bayit Chadash written by Rabbi Joel Sirkis and published in Krakow between 1831 and 1840.
The actual names of the above rabbis are unfamiliar to many and they are mostly known by the names of the books they authored.
12. Name chosen by adopting the name of a different family:
this generally occurred when people adopted the name of a prominent family with which they wanted to be identified. Many incidents of this type are known where the name Rapaport was chosen since a number of people wished to be connected with this famous family of Kohanim. This usually took place when a man married a woman who bore the name Rapaport and it was adopted at the urging of the father-in-law. However, there are other instances where a name was chosen without the existence of any marital connection between the two families. This is only one example of many.
13. The name was chosen for the cultural or nationalistic significance that the family wanted to emphasize:
The Zionist movement that unfurled the banner of the return to the ancestral homeland and the revival of the ancient Hebrew language had a negative attitude to family names that had any connection with the years in exile.
We find, even before the state was established in 1948, a large-scale movement to change to Hebrew sounding family names. The most common change was to choose the Hebrew name of the father. Another approach was to match the sound of the two names. Thus the family name became Reuveni if the father's name was Reuven; Pinhasi for Pinhas; Shimoni for Shimon, etc.
It is important to point out that the leaders of the pre-state Jewish community and subsequently its’ government set the example for those who came after them and initiated this trend.
All of the ‘Who’s Who’ followed. David Green became David Ben Gurion, Moshe Shertok became Moshe Sharett, Golda Mayerson became Golda Meir, Ben Zion Dinaburg – Ben Zion Dinur, Ziama Aaronowitz – Zalman Aran, Zalman Rubashov – Zalman Shazar, Yitzhak Shimshelevitz – Yitzhak ben Zvi, Rachel Lishansky – Rachel Yana’it, Levi Shkolnik – Levi Eshkol and many more.
This is a brief summary of a much wider field covering the sociology, history and folklore of Jewish family names of the various communities. In future issues, we will go into more detail learning about the origin of each family name on its own.
* 1) My deepest thanks to Mrs. Mathilde Tagger for her help on the subject of Sefardic and Oriental family names and to Mrs. Harriet Kasow for her help in locating the sources for this article.
* 2) This article first appeared in the bi-monthly Et-Mol, Volume 31:1 (183), September 2005, and is reprinted with the expressed permission of the publisher to whom we are grateful.