The Memi De-Shalit Database of Jewish Family Names at Beit Hatfutsot

An Introduction by Prof. Aaron Demsky

There are over many tens of thousands of hereditary family names in the Meni De-Shalit Database of Jewish Family Names at Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People. The entries have been reviewed by our academic committee noting, wherever possible, its type, etymology and variant spellings as well as its distribution and celebrated members. Occasionally, oral family traditions have been added. Very often there is more than one plausible explanation for a family name. We have tried to reduce or avoid speculation and far fetched explanation in this matter, which appeared in the earlier editions of this file. If the committee was not certain of an etymology, it hedged the explanation by noting that it was “probable” or “possible”.

Taking a family or surname was a means of identifying a person and family unit within a societal framework. With few exceptions, hereditary Jewish family names are a relatively late historic phenomenon. Most Sephardic surnames were chosen after the Expulsion of 1492 as a means of maintaining community identity, while most Ashkenazic (East European and Germany) surnames were taken between the years 1787-1830s as part of governmental policies to register their Jewish subjects. Another factor for the need to have family names was increased urbanization and increased number of people with the same given name.

In the nineteenth century, with the rise of nationalism in European countries and with the mass migration of Eastern European Jewry, there were changes in the choice of family names. In Hungary of the mid-19th century, Jews could change their name to Hungarian forms common among the gentile population. With the flow of Jews to Western Europe and particular to North America we see the development of corresponding English and French forms. Some immigrants to Israel from places in Kurdistan, Yemen and India did not have hereditary family names until they came on `aliyah. During the 20th century, there was a tendency in Israel to create Hebrew forms of traditional family names as an expression of identification with the Zionist renaissance of the Jewish people. In particular, in the 1950s this tendency was officially encouraged for those in government and military service as well as for athletes and others representing the newly established State of Israel.

Surnames can be analyzed into different groups (sometimes there might even be more than one explanation for the same name). We can classify them into the following types:

A patronymic (derived from a male personal name of an ancestor). The male personal names are for the most part Hebrew names, either biblical or post biblical Hebrew. There are also some names of a Greek and Aramaic origin. The next group of patronyms is made up of vernacular or secular names, called in Hebrew kinnuim and in Yiddish rufnemen. These names could be Yiddish equivalents or nicknames of the Hebrew name or one derived from a European language. In any case, they too are patronyms that became the source of family names. A patronym is basically the use of a father’s or grandfather’s given name as the hereditary family surname. There are such forms found in many languages, for instance, the name Johnson (John’s son) or MacArthur or Ibn Saud. Taking the given biblical name Abraham as an example (Stahl, Origin, p. 179ff), the family name may be the basic form of the given name Abraham or it may be the name plus a prefix or suffix that indicates “son” or “belonging to”, e.g. Abrahams, Abrams, Abramov, Abramoff, Abramsky, Abramovitch, Abramesku, Abrahms/zon, Abrampur, Abramzada, Barhumi, Barami, Ben Avraham, Avrahami. Alternately, a patronym can be based on a shortened nickname or kinnui, e.g. Jacob>Yankel or >Koppel, which in turn produces the respective surnames Yanko, Yankels, Yankelevitch or Koppels, Koppelmann, Cooperman, Koppelovitch, Kopf, Kauffman. In Eastern Europe, many Hebrew given names had corresponding Yiddish vernacular forms or kinnuim which became the basis of patronymic family names, e.g. Yehudah whom Jacob compared to a lion (Gen 49:9) produced the Yiddish name Leib (“lion”), engendering surnames like Leibovitch, Leibeles, Laybl, Leibinson. Sometimes the original Hebrew name was translated and then became the family name: Zemah became Cerescas in Spain; Yom Tov became Bondi in Italy.

A metronymic (derived from a female personal name of an ancestress) – A matronym, metronym is the use of a mother’s or grandmother’s given name as the hereditary family surname. Generally it is the basic given name plus an additional suffix indicating relationship or “belonging to”: Soros, Edels, Richles, Zipres, or the ending kin as Sorotskin, Rivkin, Laikin, Haikin, Mirkin, Zipkin; the diminutive in as in Rivlin, Beilin; other forms are Shprinzak (Shprinze), those ending in man(n) (indicating husband of X) Esterman, Perlman.

Lineage (priestly, Levitical, convert) – Primary among lineage names are those associated with the traditional Israelite priesthood the kohanim, descended from Aaron the first High Priest and the older brother of Moses. While their ritual functions ceased with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE, many priestly families retained their lineage ties and were given ceremonial functions in the synagogue like being called up first to the Torah, or redeeming the first born – pidyon habben. Recent DNA studies indicate that there are traceable lines of male descent for over 3000 years. Family names were one way to identify this group: Cohen, Kogan, Kahane, Kahaneman; Polish Caplan and the acronym Katz for kohen zedeq, ie. authentic priest; compare also Maze, explained as the acronym: Mezera Aharon Hakohen -“from the seed of Aaron the Priest”.

Similarly, the Levites who assisted the priests in the ancient Temples in Jerusalem either with song and instrumental accompaniment or serving as gatekeepers, are represented with a variety of names based on the more common Levy: Levine, Levitt, Levitas. The surname Segal born by many Levites is explained as an acronym for segan lekehunah “second to the priest”. There are certain famous Levitical families like Horowitz, (Hurwitz, Gurowitz), the descendants of the 16th-17th centuries Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz otherwise known by his nom de plume Shelah (Shenei Luhot Habrit). A word of caution, especially for Ashkenazic Jews who bear these auspicious names, unless there is documentary evidence or especially family tradition, there are many people named Cohen or Levy and their derivatives that are not of this patrolineage. In certain countries, weddings were not always registered at the government office, subsequently children born of this union were given the maternal family name.

A geographic name or toponymic (town, city, region or country), sometimes called a habitational name – A high percentage of Jewish surnames are based on place names (toponyms). They reflect the wanderings of our people. The names can be localities like towns (Galinsky <Kalin; Kanevsky< Kanev) from where the family came before it migrated to urban centers where they took their family name. The names may reflect migrational patterns (some due to persecutions, expulsions) across the Jewish world from cities (Yerushalmi, Hamburger, Braunschweiger, Toledano, Sanani, Sharabi, Yazdi), provinces (Walach, Bloch) or countries (Deutsch, Nemetz, Hollander, Pollack, Portugali, Sarfati and Franco) or larger cultural regions (`Ajami, Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, Shami, Turkel). Compare Stahl, Origins: 185 for a detailed list of Sephardic family names derived from towns and cities in Iberia. Laredo finds 350 family names in Morocco that recall places in Spain and Portugal. A cautionary note: Surnames that are based on place names do not always testify to direct origin from that place, but may indicate all kinds of indirect relations between the name bearer and the place, such as the remote origin of the family, transient residence, trade, family-relatives.

An occupation (also raw material, finished product or implements associated with that trade) – Many surnames are based on the occupation of the first name bearer in the family. These names reflect the economic endeavors of the Jews in their respective communities. Interestingly many of these professions were the same in different diaspora, e.g. baker (Becker , Habaaz), builder (Bauman, `Amar), glazer (Glazer, Glassman, Sklarsky), tailor (Hayyat, Schneider, Schneidman, Kravitz), money changer (Halfan, Wexler), miller (Milman, Melnik), carpenter (Najaar, Tishcler, Zimmerman, Stoler, Plotnick), smith (Haddad, Shloser, Blechman, Koval), soap maker (Zeifer, Tsaban, Midler), merchant (Tajjar, Hendler), storekeeper (Kremer Wazaan, Kupiyetz), shoemaker (Shuster, Shumacher, Ciubotaru), dyer (Sebag, Farbiarz), painter (Dahan, Farber, Mahler), gold/silver smith (Sayag, Goldschmidt, Zlotnick, Argentero), doctor (Rofe, Tabib, Hakim, Doctor, Arzt). The names may be in Hebrew, Yiddish or any of the other languages spoken by the Jews and understood by their gentile neighbors. Not only the profession or trade is noted but also the material used by the craftsman and possibly the implements employed as well as the distribution of the finished product. For example, the production and trade in textiles was common providing many surnames: Chayat, Schneider, Portnoy, Kravitz, the implements of the trade: Nudel, Needleman, Fudem (thread), Fingerhut (thimble), Scherman (cutter), the specialties: Hefter (someone who fastens, attaches items to the clothes), Perlsticker and Goldsticker (those who embroidered using pearl and gold appliqué), Talisman (who makes talitot), and Damsky/Demsky (woman’s tailor or merchant).

An artificial (or ornamental) name, that is a made-up name often in compound with two roots – These surnames are basically an Ashkenazic phenomenon, created artificially by local authorities and individuals in an effort to provide family names. Stahl (Origin: 175-176) has identified over thirty basic words in Yiddish that were used either individually (Grin) or in combination (Grinberg) to create most of these Jewish sounding names: The terms can be divided into the following groups: colors: roit, roth (red), grin, gruen (green), weiss (white), schwartz (black), gelb, gel (yellow), blau, blaub (blue); nature: bach (stream), berg (mountain), stein (stone), stern (star), thal, tal (valley, dale), wasser (water); metals and precious gems: gold (gold), zilber (silver), kupfer, cooper (copper), eisen (iron), diamante (diamond), rubin (ruby), perl (pearl); plants: boim, baum (tree), wald (forest), blatt (leaf), blum, bloom, blit (flower), roiz, ros, roz (rose); material: holtz (wood), gluz, glas (glass), wein (wine); physical traits: shein, shen (beautiful), lang (tall, long), grois, gross (large, great); klein (short) + mann (man).

A Jewish value or religious concepts – This is a relatively small group whose names are in Hebrew and reflect value concepts that Jews hold dearly. Some of these names began as given names and may have developed as patronyms or matronyms: Rahamim, Nissim, Teshuvah, Nehamah, Zion.

Jewish communal functionaries – This category introduces us to the Jewish communal leadership and functionaries represented by a rich collections of family names: rabbi (Rabin, Rabinowitz, Rabiner, Rabi, Hacham, Lamdan), honorific titles usually in form of an acronym (Bachar –Ben Chvod Rav, Behrab i.e. Ben HaRav, Shalita –She-yihyeh Leorekh Yamin Tovim Amen); cantor (Chazan, Zinger, Schulzinger, Cantor, Meshoyrer, Soloway, Soloveitchik); teacher (Melamed, Lehrer, Mualem, Morenu, Mor, Mula; Darshan, Maggid, Be{he}lfer); ritual slaughterers (Shohet , Schecter, Shub Treiber, Menaker); scholar (Zehnwirt, Talmud, Mishnayos); Scribes (Sofer, Schreiber, Sass- acronym for sofer stam- scribe of religious texts- sefer torah, tefilin and mezuzot); and frequenters of the communal prayer (Shulman, Tsenter – tenth person to the minyan, Tillimzoger -a Psalms sayer, Schatz – Sheliah tsibor, Kaddishman); administrator (Nagid, Gabbai, Shames, Shkolnik, Parnas); others: (Dayyan, Tokayer – who blows the shofar, Somech.who helps the cantor, Wekker who wakes people to prayer, Shulklopper who bangs on the door of the synagogue or on its bench).

A personal characteristic – This form of surnames like the following physical characteristics tells us about the individual first name bearer. For example names indicating a good person: Gutman, Almalih, Almaleh;, Bueno; polite: Feinerman, Galanti; honorable: Yaqar, Toeier, Karido, Caro; sweet: Matuka, Halu, Zuessman; holy: Heilig, Gottesman.

A physical characteristic – These names reflect physical characteristics: color of hair or complexion (Negrin, Amarillo and see artificial color names above); height: Lang, Gross, Tawil, Klein, Kurtz, Katan, Malik; beauty: Jaffe, Naeh, Hassan, Jamili, Shein, Ermosa; body or facial traits or deficiencies: Atrash (deaf), Blinder, Krumbein.

Nature (plants and animals) – Surnames of plants are very often Ornamental names e.g. tree names: Birenbaum, Kestenbaum, Kirchenbaum, Tannenbaum. Animal surnames are very often those that were derived from vernacular patronymics, i.e. given names that are linked or associated with biblical figures particularly those blessed by Jacob (Gen 49): (Yehudah)-Leib, (Binyomin)-Wolff, (Yissochor)-Ber; (Naftali)- Hirsch, (Efrayim)–Fishel or Fisher: compare also Yaacov –Wurms, a translation of tola`at Ya`acov (Isa. 41:14).

Time (day, month, season, or Jewish holy day) – There is a small number of names that that are related to different periods of time like days of the week Sontag, Montag, Mitttwoch, Freitag and Ben Sheshet, Ben Shabbat; Hebrew month names: Kislev, Nisan , Sivan, Tammuz; seasons of the year: Spring, Sommer, Herbst, Winter or Jewish holiday: Yomtov, Bondi.

An acrostic name – Some family names are a Hebrew acronym that is a name created from the initial letters of a Hebrew phrase. They could refer to a person’s relatives: Berag (Ben Rabbi Gershon); Harlap (Hatan Rabbi Levi Pinhas): lineage- Katz (cohen zedeq- of authentic priestly lineage), Segel (segan lleviyah – second to levities/alternately segan lekehunah- second to the priest), Zacks (zera` qedoshim – descendants of martyrs); occupation- Shub (shochet ubodeq – ritual slaughterer and inspector); Sass (sofer stam- scribe of religious texts- sefer torah, tefilin and mezuzot)). Sometimes these names when written in Hebrew will add two apostrophes (gershayim) before the last letter indicating that it is an abbreviation. There is also the phenomenon of foreign names given Jewish meaning by explaining them as acronyms: Byk (Polish: “bull”) explained as bnai Yisrael qedoshim, i.e. “The children of Israel are holy”; Walach (someone from Walachia a Rumanian province) explained as an acronym for va’ahavta lere`ekha kamokha, i.e. “And you shall love they neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18); Azulai (a Berber name) explained as referring to priestly lineage and marital restrictions ‘ishah zonah vahalalah lo yiqahu, i.e. “They shall not marry a women degraded by harlotry” (Lev 23:7). These latter names contrived to give a Hebrew meaning to originally foreign names indicate a degree of literacy in the Jewish world in recognizing the biblical passage.

Hebraicized names (sometimes with Aramaic elements) – Many traditional surnames are in Hebrew; however the 20th century renaissance of the Jewish people returning to the Land of Israel and speaking a reborn Hebrew language has its counterpart in the creations of family names. The early leaders of the Zionist movement changed their names: from Eliezer Perlman to Ben-Yehudah, David Gruen to Ben-Gurion. Moshe Shertok to Sharett, Levi Shkolnik to Eshkol, Yitzhak Shimshelevich to Ben Zvi and Meir Berlin to Bar-Ilan. After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, there was an increase of Jews choosing Hebraicized family names.

Selected Bibliography:
• Ariel, Avraham, The Book of Names- 200 Most Popular Surnames in Israel
• (1997) in Hebrew.
• Beider, Alexander, A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from Galicia (Bergenfield, 2004)
• Beider, Alexander, A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Kingdom of Poland, (Teaneck 1996)
• Beider, Alexander, A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Russian Empire (2nd edition) (Bergenfield ,2008)
• Beider, A. “Names and Naming”, The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe (New York, 2008), pp 1248-1251
• Eshel, Moshe Haninah, Family Names in Israel שמות משפחה בישראל (Haifa 1967)
• Hanks, Patrick (ed.) Dictionary of American Family Names (Oxford,2003)
• Kaganoff, Benzion C., A Dictionary of Jewish Names and their History (New York 1977)
• Laredo, Abraham I., Les Noms Des Juifs Du Maroc, (Madrid 1978)
• Menk, Lars, A Dictionary of German-Jewish Surnames (Bergenfield, 2005)
• Stahl, Abraham, The Origin of Names – Origins and Evolution of Jewish Names (Or Yehudah, 2005), esp. pp. 155-290 [Hebrew].


Prof. Aaron Demsky, Professor (Emeritus) of Biblical History at Bar-Ilan University, is the academic advisor of the Memi De-Shalit Database of Jewish Family Names. He is an expert on Biblical History and is well known for his research and publications on literacy and historical geography of ancient Israel. In 1991, he founded and now directs the Project for the Study of Jewish Names at Bar-Ilan University, where he has organized several international conferences on names. He edited five volumes on the subject – These Are the Names – Studies in Jewish Onomastics (Ramat-Gan, 1997, 1999, 2002, 2003, 2010) as well as Pleasant Are Their Names: Jewish Names In The Sephardi Diaspora (Studies And Texts In Jewish History And Culture: The Joseph And Rebecca Meyerhoff Center For Jewish Studies, University Of Maryland, 2011). Professor Demsky counts as one of his major achievements – at Bar-Ilan University – the making of the study of Jewish names (onomastics) into a recognized academic discipline in Jewish Studies.