A Brief History Of Jewish Names

A Brief History Of Jewish Names

Posted by Yevgeni Kuritski on 31st Mar 2014

In the beginning Jewish people did not have surnames. Surnames for Sephardic Jewish people were introduced around the time of the 10 th century in Italy, Spain and Portugal. The popularity of this in Eastern Europe and Germany did not come till much later with the Ashkenazi Jewish people.

Israeli Flag with Star of David

When delving into the Avotaynu site of Jewish genealogy, a person of Jewish origin cannot be identified by their surname. The high incidence of German surnames in the Jewish people is due to an Austro-Hungarian law which came about in 1787 when a large proportion of Europe controlled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire required the registering of a permanent surname for Jewish families and that this should be a German surname. On the Shoreshim website of the Polish-Jewish genealogy, there is a copy of this law. It is believed that the migration of Jewish people into Russia, Europe and other parts of the world may explain the frequency of the German surname among many Jewish people of these areas.

Names have been acquired from ancestors such as Kohein, being the word for priest in Hebrew, Levi a biblical tribe, and Israel. These have variations such as Cohn, Kohn, Cahn, Kahn, Cone and Cohen for Kohein, Levine, Levin, Levitt and Levy for Levi, and Israeli, Disraeli, Yisrael, Yisroel for Israel, though not all people with these surnames are Jewish. These three surnames and their variations are recognized in the synagogues with the main three being distinct Jewish names that were recorded from tribal ancestry by people of the Jewish nation. Where the portion of a name is Hebrew it is generally passed on without being changed as it is considered disrespectful to alter this type of name.


The Ashkenazic Jews of Eastern Europe and Germany have a custom of naming a child with a similar name to a recently deceased family member. It is believed to be an honour for a child to have a name of this kind as being a way to keep the memory of the deceased person alive. A child may be named Lionel after a deceased family member with the name of Leonard, or the child may be given the same name as the deceased.

In a situation where there are many relatives of the deceased, there may be a number of children who will have the same as the deceased family member. It is often presumed sometimes by Jewish genealogists that children with the same name born close together have been named for another deceased relative. Naming a child after a living member of the family is sometimes considered bad luck, as it is presumed that the Angel of Death may become bewildered by the two same names and take the younger instead of the older relative when their time comes. This is however an old superstition and may not be as relevant in this period of time.

Jewish Names

When the time comes to formally name a child there is a practice of explaining why and who the child was named after, and the qualities the parents would like to see passed on to their child. This is generally done at a girl’s synagogue naming ceremony, at the time when a boy child is circumcised on the eighth day of his life, or during the conversion of a male to Judaism under the commandment of Judaism.

The Hebrew in Jewish names are often used during religious ceremonies, prayers, during marriage and divorce contracts, honouring a reading and blessing over the reciting of a Torah commandment or such like. They are also used in a prayer for someone who is ill or for the deceased on certain Jewish holidays and on gravestones.