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The Meaning of Some Common Jewish Last Names

The Meaning of Some Common Jewish Last Names

Some of these will surprise you.

by

Last names are a relatively new phenomenon.  In ancient times, many people were known by their first name only.  Jews often added the names of their fathers or their mothers to their names, and still do today in religious situations, being called by their name “ben” (son of) or “bat” (daughter of) their parent’s name.  Jews descended from the priestly groups of Cohens and Levis sometimes note this status in their name; indeed, variations of “Cohen” and “Levi” are the most common Jewish last names today.

Within the Jewish community, widespread adoption of last names was first seen after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, when many Jewish families adopted the names of their family’s hometowns as a surname.  Baruch Spinoza evoked the name of Espinosa, a town in Spain from where his ancestors hailed.  Many other Jews gained place-based surnames two hundred years later, when the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Joseph II decreed that his subjects adopt last names; the custom was seen at the time as modern.  

Here is a list of some common Jewish last names and their meanings. Some of these might surprise you!

Abrams: from the Biblical patriarch Abraham, who moved from what is today Iraq to Israel

Abramson: a patronymic name (from one’s father) meaning son of Abraham

Becker: Germanic name for baker, refers to an ancestor who was a Jewish baker

Blau: meaning blue, this name reflects the popularity of colors as surnames among German-speaking Jews

Blum: from the Jewish woman’s name Bluma, meaning “flower” in Yiddish

Cantor: one who sings in a synagogue (Chazzan in Hebrew)

Cohen: from the priestly caste who served in the Jewish Temple in ancient times

Cooperman: Cooper is a form of the Yiddish nickname Yankel, meaning Jacob

Diamond: this name reflects the popularity of using beautiful gems as surnames among German-speaking Jews

Ehrlich: a name bestowed in the Austro-Hungarian Empire meaning “honest”

Eisen: meaning “iron”, it was a popular choice for Austrian Jews

Elkayim: this Middle Eastern Jewish name refers to a family profession and means tentmaker

Fingerhut: from the Yiddish word for “thimble”, this name refers to an ancestor who was a tailor

Fishman: this name means fish-seller, and refers to a family’s profession

Gelb: Like Geller, this name means yellow in Yiddish, and was often given to people with light hair

Geller: Yiddish for yellow, this name was often given to people with lighter or reddish hair

Gold: many German-speaking Jews adopted the names of precious metals, like gold, as names

Goldberg: this name refers to the towns of Goldberg in Germany and/or in Poland, both once home to Jewish communities.  The name means “golden town”.

Goldman: a popular choice among Austrian Jews for its beautiful connotation “gold” and “man”

Goldschmidt: this Germanic name refers to an ancestor who worked as a goldsmith

Green: adopting colors as surnames was popular among Austro-Hungarian Jews

Greenberg: referring to the towns of Grunberg in Germany and Poland, both once home to Jewish communities

Hakimi: this Persian surname is derived from the Arabic “Hakim” meaning wise

Horowitz: referring to the town of Horovice in the Czech Republic, once home to a Jewish community

Kaplan: a Germanic form of Cohen, the priestly workers who served in the Temple in Jerusalem

Katz: acronym of “Kohen Tzedek”, or “righteous Cohen”, one who served in the Temple in Jerusalem

Kauffman: a form of the Yiddish nickname Yankel (meaning Jacob) plus the German for man

Koppelman: derived from Koppel, a Yiddish nickname for Jacob, plus the German suffix “man”

Koval: this Slavic name refers to an ancestor who was a blacksmith

Kravitz: this name recalls an ancestor’s occupation, and is a Slavic version of the word tailor

Leib: meaning lion, this name refers to the Jewish name Yehuda, who was compared to a lion (Gen. 49:9)

Levi/Levy: of the Tribe of Levi, descendants of Moses’ brother Aaron; members worked in the Temple

Levin: derived from Levi – members of the Tribe of Levi who served in the Temple in Jerusalem

Lieberman: a nickname adopted by some Jewish families, meaning “dear man”

Maggid: from the Hebrew for teaching, refers to an ancestor who was a scholar and teacher

Margolis: meaning “pearl” in Hebrew, it often reflects a mother’s first name

Maze: an acronym – “M’zera Aharon Hakohen” – from the seed of Aaron the High Priest

Melamed: from the Hebrew for teacher, referring to an ancestor who was a teacher

Mizrahi: meaning “Easterner” in Hebrew, this name refers to families from the Middle East

Nudel: meaning needle, this name reflects an ancestor’s occupation as tailor

Perlman: husband of Perl (a common Jewish woman’s name in Eastern Europe)

Portnoy: this name refers to an occupation – it means “tailor” in Russian

Rabin: from the Hebrew word Rabbi, this name could refer to a rabbinic ancestor

Rabinowitz: a Slavic name meaning “son of Rabbi”

Rivkin: a matronymic (deriving from one’s mother) name, from Rebecca

Rivlin: derived from the name Rebecca, the Jewish matriarch who married Isaac

Roth: meaning red, this name reflects the popularity of colors as surnames among German-speaking Jews

Rothschild: this prominent family’s name pre-dates the forced adoption of surnames, and refers to the “red sign” (the meaning of the name) that graced the family’s home

Sas: an acronym of “sofer stam,” a writer of religious texts

Sasson: a matronymic name (derived from one’s mother) meaning Shoshana, “rose” in Hebrew

Sebag: this name refers to the profession of a long-ago ancestor, it means dyer

Schechter: from the Hebrew for butcher, one who slaughters animals according to Jewish law

Schneider: a Germanic name meaning tailor, reflecting one’s ancestor’s profession as tailor

Schreiber - from the Hebrew “sofer”, a writer of religious texts

Schwartz: this means black – many German speaking Jews adopted colors as surnames

Segal: a common name for members of the tribe of Levi, Segal is an acronym – “Segan Lekehunah”, or “second to the Cohen”, referring to working in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem

Shapiro: referring to the town of Speyer, in Germany, once home to a Jewish community

Singer: referring to an ancestor who sang in a synagogue as a cantor

Shamash: reflecting an ancestor’s occupation, this means one who worked in a synagogue

Shulman: “shul” means synagogue in Yiddish – this name was adopted by some caretakers of synagogues as a surname

Soros: from the Hebrew name Sarah, meaning “princess”

Stern: meaning “star”, many Austrian Jews thought this a beautiful name to choose

Weiss: meaning white, this name reflects the practice of adopting colors as surnames among German-speaking Jews

Weinberg: referring to any of various places in Europe which once were home to thriving Jewish communities, including the region of Mt. Weinberg in Westphalia, Germany, or towns named Weinberg in Germany, the Czech Republic or Poland

Wexler: Germanic form of moneychanger, one of the occupations to which Jews were restricted.

July 15, 2017

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Visitor Comments: 50

(33) Henry Wiltschek, August 8, 2017 6:41 PM

Excellent References

You hardly missed a Name ! - Please include the name of the famous Rabbi B. BLECH - meaning Sheet Metal, perhaps his father was a sheet metal worker ? - If not a Rabbi.
Keep up the good work,
Sincerely,
Henry Wiltschek - Canada

(32) Anonymous, August 8, 2017 4:13 AM

Levi/Levin Correction

The article mentions Levi/Levin as surnames from Aaron's side. His side became known as Cohen/Kohen/probably Cohn/Kohn/perhaps Kahn too. Moses' side were the Levites...Levi/Levin. Also, technically, since Moses and Aaron were brothers from the same dad, they were both Levites originally (for DNA info.) But thanks for this great list; it's more useful than you know when doing family tree research.

(31) BOTVINIK, July 27, 2017 6:14 AM

what about my russian family name BOTVINNIK

I have been told it is a Borscht in Belorussia (Minsk)

(30) Anonymous, July 24, 2017 2:07 PM

Horowitz=Ben Hur Levim


The family name Horowitz derives from Ben Hur, which means that it is a family of Levites (Levim)

(29) Giuseppe, July 24, 2017 8:23 AM

Anusim & marrans

My father last name is Ciccarella that was derivative from Cicurel, an sephardic name of marrano's, as well as others people name arising of escaped from Spain by the persecutions of Isabella the Catholic, 1492. The Jews who fled to southern Italy, emigrated north because in the south Italy reigned the Bourbons; the Spanish monarchs who, like Isabella, had the same inclinations towards the Jews. Many of them, including the family from which my father came from, settled in Ancona, where a thriving community developed. Others settled in Livorno, benefiting from the friendly and favorable policies of the Medici family, who ruled the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and who did not impose any restriction on the Jews, who were regarded as all other citizens. In the papal state, however, the Jews were restricted to ghettos, as in Rome, and laws and sanctions applied to them that forced them to obey an obscurantist regime. My mother's grandmother's name was La Rocca, which, like Rocca and Della Rocca, are Sephardic Jewish surnames. Please publish this story, because it may affect many people who have names derived from past events in which the Jews suffered, and despite all the sufferings they managed to keep alive and fertile the bond with the Jewish people and with the faith.

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