What Does Your Jewish Name Mean?

For most millennia, Jews had no surnames other than 'ben'. Now, thanks to Spanish inquisitors starting the trend, they do.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Many Jews stayed away from surnames until the late 18th century, when Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II forced German surnames on all his subjects.
Many Jews stayed away from surnames until the late 18th century, when Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II forced German surnames on all his subjects.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

There are a lot of myths and fairy tales out there about Jewish family names — where they came from and what they mean, to name but two issues that often get mangled. Here we set the record straight.

For millennia, Jews contented themselves with a given name and when needed, tacked on the names of their fathers, for example Shmuel Ben- (“son of”) Avraham. That’s how people were named in the Bible, the Mishnah, the Talmud and the rabbinic writings of the Middle Ages and the early modern period.

The process by which Jews took on surnames was gradual and varied from place to place. Some Jews continued to go just by given names well into the 20th century.

Spinoza of Espinosa

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.

Such names, derived from locations, are called "toponyms." Toponyms aren't always taken from people's places of residence, though, other associations with a places, say through trading, can be enough.

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.”

Most other Jews stayed away from surnames until the late 18th century, when, as part of a modernization process, Austrian Emperor Joseph II forced surnames on all his subjects to help account for them. He decreed the names had to be German.

At the time, much of Eastern Europe was under Austrian control, and many Jews who didn’t know a word of German acquired Germanic names.

The process of surnaming the Jews, often resented or ignored by its targets, continued into the 19th century and spread to other countries, such as France and Russia, where non-German names were given.

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.

Game of the name

Jewish names can be filed under seven categories: Lineal, patronymic, matronymic, toponymic, artificial, nicknames and Hebrew names. Here is a list explaining the categories and providing some of the most common names in each of them.

Note that many names appear in more than one category: The same name can originate in different ways. For example, in some cases, the name Goldberg is simply ornamental, meaning “gold mountain”; but in others, it's a toponym related to the town of Goldberg, Germany, or Silesia, Poland — called Goldberg in German.

Lineal names

The two most common Jewish names are Cohen and Levi.

Cohens descend from the priestly caste — Cohen is the Hebrew word for "priest." Levis descend from the priestly tribe of Levi. According to Jewish tradition, all priests are descended from the first high priest: Moses’ brother Aaron.

There are many variations on “Cohen”: Kogan, Kahane, Koren, Kahaneman, Kaplan — and the acronyms Katz ("kohen zedek," or "true priest") and Maze, ("mezera Aharon Hakohen, or "from the seed of Aaron the Priest).

The name Levi also has many variations, such as Levin, Levine, Levitt, Levinsky, Levinson and Lewinsohn.

Patronymic names

Basing family names on fathers' given names is very common among Jews and gentiles alike. Practically every Jewish given name has been used as a surname in this way — sometime as is and sometimes by adding the Hebrew word for son — "ben" — before it.

It is also common to add a suffix indicating “son of” or “of,” as in the Germanic: "-son," "-sohn"; the Slavic "-ich," "-off," "-ov," "-sky," and "-owitz," and the Persian "-zada." Patronyms use Hebrew names; their Yiddish, Arabic, Russian or other-language equivalents, or animal names that have become synonymous with Jacob's sons. In the Book of Genesis 49:1-27, the patriarch blesses his sons, in some cases mentioning animals. Hence, Juda is a lion (Löwe), Naphtal is a deer (Hirche), Benjamin is a wolf (Wolf) and Issachar was a donkey, but due to the low regard for donkeys in Europe, later became a bear (baer).

Here are some of the most common patronyms arranged by the Hebrew given name of the father:

Jacob: Jacobson, Yaacov, Yankel, Koppel, Yanko, Yankels, Yankelevich, Koppels, Koppelmann, Cooperman, Kopelovich, Kopf, Kauffman, Ya’akovi or Yakovitch

Abraham: Abramovich, Abramson, Avraham, Aknin, Vaknin, Abrahams, Abrams, Abramoff, Abramsky, Ben Avraham, Avrahami or Abramzada

Naphtali: Naphtali, Hirsch or Hershkovich

Isaac: Isaacson, Isaac, Isakovich or Itzhak

Meir: Meir, Meirson, Meirovich or Meiroff

Judah: (Leib, or "lion"): Yehudah, Leib, Leibovitch, Leibeles, Laybl or Liebenson

Issachar(Baer, or "bear"): Dov, Baermann, Baer or Berkovich

Benjamin(Wolf): Benjamin, Binyamin, Ze’ev or Woolf

Solomon(Frid, or "peace"): Freed, Freedman, Solomon, Shlomo, Frid, Friedman or Shalom

Moses: Moshe, Ben Moshe or Mosenson

Menachem: Mendel, Mendelson, Mendelevich or Mendeloff

Simon: Shimon, Simon, Bensimon or Shimoni

Mark: Markov or Markovich,

Haim: Haimov, Haimovich, Hemo, Yehiya, Ben Haim, Haim, Avidan,Biton, Ohayon, Fiszman, Fishman, Fisch or Fiser

Ephraim: Fiszman, Fishman, Fisch or Fiser

David: David, Davidov, Davidovitch, Davidson or Ben David

Reuben: Rubenstein, Robin or Roby

Hemo: Ben Hemo

Malka: Melekh or Malka

Frank: Frenkel

Other common patronyms include: Baruch, Asher, Harari, Menashe, Peretz, Mordechai, Becher, Hillel, Maor, Ovadia, Yifrah, Barzelay or Peri

Matronymic names

Some Jewish surnames derive from women’s given names, either a mother or a wife. In some cases when the wife’s name is used, the suffix "–man" is affixed to the end to the wife’s name.

Bluma: Blum or Blumstein

Sarah: Soros or Sorotskin

Rachel: Richles

Shifra: Sprinzak

Rebecca: Rivlin or Rivkin

Goldie: Goldman

Bella: Beilin

Pearl: Perlman or Margolis

Lea: Laikin

Haya: Haikin

Mira: Mirkin

Esther: Esterman

Zipora: Zipkin or Zipres

Edel: Edels

Hana: Ohanna

Shoshana or Rosa: Shushan, Sasson, Ben Sasson or Rosenberg

Occupational names

Another common naming pattern among Jews and gentiles alike is based on occupation. Sometimes, the name of a tool or material is used instead.

Tailor: Hayat, Schneider, Portnoy, Kravitz, Nudel, Needleman, Fudem, Fingerhut, Scherman, Schneidman, Hefter, Demsky, Talisman or Bouskila.

Smith: Schmidt, Haddad, Schlosser, Blechman, Koval, Sayag, Goldschmidt, Zlotnick or Argentero

Scribe: Sofer, Schreiber, Schreiberman or Sas (an acronym of "sofer stam," or "a writer of religious texts")

Synagogue attendant: Shamash

Rabbi: Rabin, Rabinowitz, Rabiner, Rabi, Hacham or Lamdan

Ritual slaughterer: Shohet , Schecter, Shub Treiber or Menaker

Scholar: Zehnwirt, Talmud or Mishnayos

Synagogue administrator: Shames, Gabbai, Shkolnik, Parnas or Nagid

Cantor: Cantor, Chazzan, Hassan, Singer, Zinger, Schulzinger, Meshoyrer, Soloway or Soloveitchik

Teacher: Melamed, Lehrer, Mualem, Morenu, Mor, Mula; Darshan, Maggid, Belfer or Behelfer

Henna merchant: Ohanna

Baker: Becker or Habaaz

Builder: Bauman or Amar

Glazier: Glazer, Glassman or Sklarsky

Money changer: Halfan or Wexler

Miller: Milman or Melnik

Carpenter: Najaar, Tishcler, Zimmerman, Stoler, Plotnick or Nagar

Soap maker: Zeifer, Saban or Midler

Merchant: Tajjar, Hendler, Kremer, Wazaan, Kupietz or Kaufmann

Shoemaker: Schuster, Schumacher or Ciubotaru

Dyer: Sebag or Farbiarz

Painter: Dahan, Farber, Mahler or Sabag

Doctor: Rofe, Tabib, Hakim, Doctor or Arzt

Shepherd: Schaeffer

Fisherman or fishmonger: Fiszman, Fishman or Fisch

Tent maker: Elkayam

Drum maker: Abutbul

Yuke maker: Buzaglo

Translator: Tujeman

Butcher: Szechter, Boucher or Shochet

Wheat dealer: Weitzman, Koren or Korn

Farmer: Bauer, Feld, Feldman or Hoffmann

Artificial names

Artificial or ornamental names indicate nothing except for the fact that their bearers are Ashkenazi Jews. The names were mostly given to Jews by government officials of the Austrian Empire in the late 18th and early 20th centuries. The officials used a small bank of German words, either alone or in pairs, sometimes with the suffix "-man."

In some cases, the names predate this forced naming, which usually indicates they are derived from medieval house signs. A prominent example is the Rothschild family, whose name, as we said, means “red sign.”

There are too many ornamental names to list. So, instead, here are their components.

Colors: Green, Grun, Grin, Gruen ("green"), Roth, Roit ("red"), Weiss ("white"), Schwarz ("black"), Gel, Gelb, Geller ("yellow"), Blau or Blaub ("blue").

Materials: Gold ("gold"), Zilber, Silver ("silver"), Kupfer, Copper ("copper"), Eisen ("iron"), Holtz ("wood"), Gluz, Glas ("Glass") or Stein ("stone")

Gems: Diamante ("diamond"), Rubin ("ruby"), Sapir or Saphir ("sapphire")

Plants: Boim, Bau ("tree"), Blatt ("leaf"), Blum, Bloom, Blit ("flower"), Boz, Roiz or Ros ("rose")

Places: Wald ("forest"), Thal ("valley"), Berg ("mountain") or Feld ("field")

Drinks: Wasser ("water") or Wein ("wine")

Animals: Löwe ("lion"), Baer, Ber ("bear"), Fouks ("fox"), Adler ("eagle") or Fisch ("fish")

Others: Stern ("star") or Perl ("pearl")


Toponymys come from geographic locations: towns, cities, districts, countries or regions. Often people can trace their ancestry to their namesakes, especially with Spanish toponyms. But sometimes the names only mean the people who received them were associated with places, say by having relatives there or trading with them on a regular basis.

Horovitz or Gorovitz: Horovice, Czech Republic

Ginsberg or Gunzburg: Günzburg, Germany

Deutsch: Germany

Ashkenazi: France or Germany

Polak: Poland

Goldberg: Goldberg, Germany or Silesia (Goldberg), Poland

Shapira, Sapir, Saphirson, Saphir, Shapiro or Shefer: Speyer, Germany

Kadis: Cádiz, Spain

Berenstain: Pełczyce (Berenstain), Poland

Pinto: Pinto, Spain

Ravinsky: Rawicz, Poland

Denino: Doñinos de Salamanca, Spain

Rosenthal: Rosenthal, Germany (there are many); Rožmitál pod Tremšínem, Czech Republic; Bartoszyce (Rosenthal), Poland, or Rožna Dolina (Rosenthal), Slovenia

Iloz or Illuz: Iloz, Spain

Lugassy: Lugas, Spain

Dreyfus: Trier, Germany

Libowitz, Lipman, Lifman, Lifszyc: Liben, Czech Republic; Lubomierz, Poland, or Liebenwalde, Germany

Deri or Edry: The Daraa Valley, Morocco

Eisen or Barzelay: Eisenstadt, Austria

Weinberg: The region of Mt. Weinberg in Westphalia, Germany; Weinberg, Germany; the Weinberg suburb of Gdansk, Poland, or Weinberg, Czech Republic

Epstein: Ebstein, Austria or Epstein, Germany

Alfasi: Fez, Morocco

Zarfaty: France

Shushan, Sasson or Ben-Sasson: Susa, Iran

Dadon: Ouled Daoud, Morocco

Vaez or Baez: Baza, Spain

Spharadi or Spharad: Spain

Assouline: The Ait Tizguin Assouline tribe, Morocco; Derb Assoul in Marrakech, Morocco; or Azoulin in Coilo, Morocco

Greenberg: Grünberg, Germany or Zielona Góra (Grünberg), Poland

Maman or Ben-Maman: Miaman, Spain

Sharabi: Sharab, Yemen

Rosenberg: Rosenberg, Germany; Sosz (Rosenberg), Poland; Olesno (Rosenberg), Poland, or Rožmberk nad Vltavou, Czech Republic

Suisa: Sous, Morocco or Suesa, Spain

Becher: Becher Luxembourg

Ohanna: Kasba des Bo Hana, Morocco

Azulay: Asilah, Morocco

Elbaz: the Albisin neighborhood in Granada, Spain or the Jewish neighborhood of Albaz in Ghararah, Algeria

Ohana: Ifrane, Morocco

Mizrahi: “The East”

Malka or Melekh: Malaga, Spain


Sometimes called "eke-names," nicknames describe some personal characteristic of their bearers.

Brave: Shitrit

Dear man: Lieberman

Nice: Harosh

Good: Gottman, Bueno, Gutman, Almalih or Almaleh

Devote: Heilig, Gottesman or Kadosh

Sweet: Matuka, Halu or Zuessman

Happy, lucky, relaxed or slow: Maymon

Tall: Lang, Gross or Tawil

Short: Klein, Kurtz, Katan or Malik

Redheaded or red bearded: Roth, Geller

Redheaded or blonde: Shukrun

Dark haired or dark complexioned: Schwarz, Negarin, Shakhor, Braun or Brown

Pretty or handsome: Shein, Shen or Yaffe

Pot-bellied or scarred: Buchbut

Hebrew names

As part of the Zionist movement, many Jews who settled Palestine in the late 19th century and the early 20th century adopted Hebrew names. The names were either translations of former names, sounded like the old names but were Hebrew or were biblical toponyms.

For example, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew, was originally named Perlman. He could have translated his name to the Hebrew Pnina or Margalit, both of which mean "pearl." Or he could have taken a name that sounds sort of like his former name — say the very odd name Par Limon (lemon bull). Instead, he chose Ben-Yehuda ("son of Judea").

Kaspi: of silver

Zehavi: of gold

Paz: gold

Even or Tzur: stone or flint

Kokhavi: star

Vardi or Vered: rose

Shoshan: Lilly, but often used for rose

Dagan: wheat

Shani: red

Golan: toponym

Gilad: toponym

Zion: toponym

Hen: beauty

Tal: dew

Shalom: peace

Shachar: dawn

Israel: toponym

Lev: heart

Gal: wave

Keren: horn

Avital: biblical name

Dvir: the Holy of Holies

Shamir: dill

Ron: song

Raz: secret

Nir: plowed field

Dekel: palm tree

Gil: joy

Haaretz would like to thank Beit Hatfutsot - The Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, and especially Haim F. Ghiuzeli, the director of the museum’s database department for their help.

If you’d like to receive more information on any particular last name or check a name that isn’t mentioned in this article, you may contact the museum, which will gladly send you any information on file. The museum's database of surnames will be online and available to the public this summer.

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