Rabbi’s Letter Not Needed to Change Name to Cohen or Levy, AG Says

While a rabbi's letter isn't usually necessary for name changes, names that may claim some biblical heredity could 'undermine and deceive' public opinion, thus requiring more attention

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The Ministry of the Interior.
The Ministry of the Interior.Credit: Pavel Solchinski

The Interior Ministry cannot require anyone who seeks change his or her last name to Cohen or Levy to submit a letter from a rabbi, even though the ministry’s guidelines call for this, Attorney-General Avichai Mendelblit has stated.

Instead, said Omri Ben-Zvi of the Justice Ministry’s Office of Legal Counsel and Legislative Affairs, the ministry must examine each case on its merits. He explained the matter in a letter to Meretz Chairwoman Tamar Zandberg, who said that she had received numerous complaints on the issue.

The Names Law does not require the submission of documents from a religious authority in order to effect a name change.

But the Interior Ministry’s procedure regarding Cohen, Levy and variations such as Kahana and Levine — which imply that the person is a kohen, a descendant of the priestly caste; or a Levite, a descendant of the tribe of Levy, the priests’ assistants — is different. In those cases the person is asked to obtain a letter from a community religious leader or his or her rabbi.

This procedure is derived from a clause in the Names Law that allows the interior minister to refuse a name-change request if he believes “that the new name is likely to deceive or undermine public policy or offend the public.”

In his response to Zandberg, Ben-Zvi wrote that the minister in fact has this authority, but added, “Indeed, the procedure may create difficulties in certain cases, such as a when a person does not maintain contact with a community or synagogue and therefore cannot produce the said authorization. However, the Supreme Court has ruled that when executing that authority it is necessary to evaluate each individual case. ... The authority is obligated to consider whether it is necessary to deviate from the guidelines whenever it is claimed that this is an exceptional case.”

Zandberg has written to Mendelblit saying she had fielded numerous complaints from people seeking to change their names to Cohen, Levy and the like but were refused. These include secular people who do not belong to a synagogue and thus have no rabbi to vouch for them, and common-law couples or same-sex couples with one partner who wants to take on the name of the other.

More unusual cases that have come to her attention included a teenager whose father murdered his mother and who wanted to take on the name of the maternal grandparents who were raising him. He, too, was refused.

Zandberg said that in 2013 she had contacted then Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar about the matter and he promised to change the procedure, but nothing was done before he resigned his post. She then raised the issue with former Interior Minister Silvan Shalom and Interior Minister Arye Dery, but both refused to change the procedure.

The Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority denied Zandberg’s claim of an incontrovertible policy, saying that it indeed examines each case on its merits and sometimes deviates from the procedure.

The authority added that it does not know of anyone who sought to change their family name to Cohen, Kahane, Katz, Levy, Levine or Halevy who had been refused in recent years.