Jewish surnames traditionally began as being patronymic; that is, the person’s surname was the father’s name. Abraham, son of Isaac, would be known as Abraham ben Isaac, and Miriam, daughter of Isaac would be called Miriam bat Isaac. The surname changed with each generation based on the person’s father’s name.
The adoption of permanent surnames for Jews depends upon where the person lived. Sephardic Jews (those who lived in Spain, Portugal, Italy) adopted surnames first. In the 10th and 11th centuries there were already some Jews in Italy who were using fixed, inherited surnames. These early Italian Jewish surnames could be the place of origin for the family or a translation of their Hebrew name. Those who were still using patronymic surnames at this time would also take on the town of residence as part of their name in instances where two individuals shared the same name – such as Jacob ben Samuel of Pisa and Jacob ben Samuel of Turin. By the late 19th century it was required that all Jews in Italy had to have permanent, hereditary surnames.
The Ashkenazic Jews (those who lived in Germany, Poland, Russia and eastern Europe) adopted permanent surnames much later than the Sephardic Jews, and actually by coercion. Many were citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time taking a permanent surname was compelled in 1787. Others, living in czarist Russia, were forced to choose permanent surnames by an 1844 decree.
In adopting a surname in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, families could choose their own name or have one assigned to them by authorities. Some simply chose the patronymic surname they carried; thus Aaron ben Mendel became Aaron Mendelsohn and his descendants carried this name. In some cases a matronymic surname was adopted permanently.
Choosing a place name was common, such as Bayer (from Baveria) and Warshavsky (from Warsaw). Also common were occupational names, examples of which are Schnitzer (a carver), Futterman (a furrier), Weiner (winemaker), and Zuckerman (a sugar merchant). Names based on personal traits include Geller (blond), Gottleib (God lover), Stark (strong), Freundlich (friendly), and Rothbard (red beard). Animal names were also chosen, such as Loeb (lion), Alder (eagle), Ochs (ox), and Fuchs (fox). Animal names translated from Yiddish were often associated with a particular Hebrew tribe: Hirsch (stag) is the Yiddish root of Hirschfeld, Hirschbein, Hershkowitz, Hertz, Herzl, Cerf, Hart and Hartman. A stag is associated with the tribe of Naphtali. A number of surnames, probably assigned by a German official, were “made up” combinations of words, often reflecting nature’s beauty. Examples are Applebaum (apple tree), Eisenberg (iron mountain), Goldblatt (golden leaf), and Blumenfeld (field of flowers).
There are three surnames that are specifically Jewish. These are (1) the name Cohen and its derivatives (Cohn, Cahn, Cone, Kohn, Kahan, Kahn, Kaplan), which originates from the word kohein (Hebrew for “priest”) and refers to the descendants of the priestly tribe of Aaron. (2) The name Levi and its derivatives (Levy, Levin, Levine, Levinsky, Levitan, Levenson, Levitt, Lewin, Lewinsky, Lewinson) refers to the descendants of the tribe of Levi, called Levites, who performed specific duties in the Hebrew Temple. (3) Israel, with variations of Israeli, Yisrael, Yisroel, and Disraeli, refers in general to a Jew who is neither Cohen or Levi.
In the U.S., Cohen and Levy are two most common Jewish surnames. Visit genealogy.familyeducation
.com/browse/origin/jewish for an extensive list of names. Click on a name to get its meaning and origin.
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