Jewish Surnames Explained

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jewishAshkenazic Jews were among the last Europeans to take family names. Some German-speaking Jews took last names as early as the 17th century, but the overwhelming majority of Jews lived in Eastern Europe and did not take last names until compelled to do so. The process began in the  Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1787 and ended in Czarist Russia in 1844.

In attempting to build modern nation-states, the authorities insisted that Jews take last names so that they could be taxed, drafted, and educated (in that order of importance). For centuries, Jewish communal leaders were responsible for collecting taxes from the Jewish population on behalf of the government, and in some cases were responsible for filling draft quotas. Education was traditionally an internal Jewish affair.

Until this period, Jewish names generally changed with every generation. For example, if Moses son of Mendel (Moyshe ben Mendel) married Sarah daughter of Rebecca (Sora bas Rifke), and they had a boy and named it Samuel (Shmuel), the child would be called Shmuel ben Moyshe. If they had a girl and named her Feygele, she would be called Feygele bas Sora.

Jews distrusted the authorities and resisted the new requirement. Although they were forced to take last names, at first they were used only for official purposes. Among themselves, they kept their traditional names. Over time, Jews accepted the new last names, which were essential as Jews sought to advance within the broader society and as the shtetles were transformed or Jews left them for big cities.

The easiest way for Jews to assume an official last name was to adapt the name they already had, making it permanent. This explains the use of “patronymics” and “matronymics.”

Read the full article here.

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  1. The article has some good info, but mistakes as well.

    For example,

    “the son of Menashe became Manishewitz” – Manishewitz is son of Manis(h), which is a kinui for Menachem, as in the name Menachem Manis(h).

    “the son of Berl took the name Berliner” – that would be Berelowitz, not Berliner.

    “Prager — from Prague” – not from Prague in the Czech republic, but from Praga, a suburb of Warsaw, which later became part of the city.

    Books on Jewish names by Alexander Beider are highly recommended for the best and most accurate information on the subject.

  2. This article by a “Humanist Jew” lacking religious context is a mix of useful information as well as inaccurate information, so don’t take it all as fact. Examples:
    — I’m not aware of girls having gone by “bas their mother’s name” on a regular basis.
    — He contradicts himself about Glick/Gluck
    — Kagan is the Russian pronounciation of “Cohen”, it has nothing to do with the Khazars
    — Marcus is not from “Mars”; it’s from Mordechai

  3. When it comes to names,i remember an old cockney yid (from London) saying to me “you can call me what you like,but so long as you never ever call me late for dinner!”.

  4. This is really interesting. I always wondered about this. Thanks so much for including this interesting article! Very informative!


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