Derevation of surnames

Interesting article on the surnames of our Jewish counterparts.

What’s in a name? by Estee Rieder 

Once, long ago, there were no family names at all. Most Jews lived in small close-knit communities and hardly had contact with any circles other than their own. In a community that consisted of several dozen families, everybody knew each other on a personal level. Different names and appellations were enough to identify someone.
At the end of the thirteenth century, only fifty-four Jewish families resided in the German city of Magentza; in 1380 Frankfurt’s Jews numbered 681. In some Eastern European villages at that time, there were not enough Jews to form a minyan; people would travel to a neighboring town in order to pray.
In settlements that contained so few community members, there was no need for family names, just like the Eskimos living near the North Pole do not have surnames even today. For bureaucratic convenience, the Canadian authorities issued a serial number to each Eskimo which is engraved on a wooden disc which he carries with him. The number, which essentially serves the same purpose as a surname, is used only by the government authorities and not by the Eskimos themselves. When there was only one Yosef the Smith in town, everyone knew who Yosef Schmidt was. But when the town grew to 30,000, and included hundreds of smiths called Yosef, it became nearly impossible to accurately identify one’s fellow townspeople.


Beginning in the eleventh century, following the Crusades, surnames began to be adopted, to avoid inheritance disputes among the wealthy, and to aid in identification. In the hundred years between 1150 and 1250 in Cologne, the number of families with surnames increased from eighteen to eighty percent.

By the sixteenth century all of English non-Jews had a family name, by the turn of the nineteenth century some European countries had passed a law requiring surnames. But until the end of the nineteenth century, especially in the smaller towns and villages, the use of surnames wasn’t universal.

In The Origin of Words, a literary trove of historical, sociological, and folkloristic treasures culled from throughout Jewish history, Avraham Stahl, who authored many books on the topic, writes that it was also among the Jews that the more prominent families of rabbis, wealthy merchants, or people holding senior positions were the first to take family names. There are some well-known Jewish families who were called by surnames as early as the Middle Ages, like the families of Rabbi Don Yitzchak Abarbanel (fifteenth-century Spain), Rabbi Yaakov Weil (fifteenth-century Germany), and Rabbi Shaul Wahl (sixteenth-century Poland). But most Jews did not have surnames until much later. Surnames were adopted by Jews in Spain, North Africa, and Italy long before other European countries.

In Italy, non-Jews began taking surnames towards the end of the fifteenth century. The Jews, starting to feel somewhat conspicuous — especially when they had to affix their name to a legal document — soon followed suit. A look at documents belonging to Italian Jews during the sixteenth century attests to the gradual change. A circular dated 1443, from a community in Rome, is signed by twenty-three people. Only two of them signed with a family name; the rest used only their first name. In later documents we find the number of family names increasing.

In the middle of the sixteenth century, there are many promissory notes, dowries, and divorce documents signed with Jewish last names.

In Germany though, surnames assumed popularity in the seventeenth century. The exponential growth within communities was one reason that necessitated the addition of surnames; there was also an external factor that contributed to this need. Central and Western Europe was becoming increasingly organized into neat districts and countries, and the fact that their Jewish citizens lacked surnames bothered the authorities.

CHOICE, COERCION, AND ERRORStahl cites an example of when confusion reigned in the court system over an individual named Yosef ben Moshe. The authorities were driven to exasperation when they could not seem to grasp the relationship between Moshe ben Yosef and his father, Yosef ben Moshe. They could not understand how the same person who signed “Yosef ben Moshe” on a contract could also be “Yosef the Shochet,” the one being accused in a violation claim, as well as the same “Yossel” whom the witnesses spoke of in the courthouse.
When the judges formulated the verdict, they tried to clarify exactly who the indicted man was, and what they found only confused them further. They came across documents belonging to this man bearing several more names: Yussif, Yossel, and Yoske.

Due to the lack of consistency in the usage of Jewish names and the Russian authorities’ unfamiliarity with Jewish names, the same person often appeared on different lists under various names. Moshe could have been Moyshe on the birth registry, Moishel on the recruitment list, and Moshke on the university’s student list.

After drafting Moishel into the army, they would later return to his family and demand the recruitment of Moyshe as well.

Protests or attempts to explain usually did not help much; the officials were adamant that there was some escapee here who was evading recruitment and the family was forced to pay a fine. This happened with the tax authorities and Jews paid double taxes more than once because their name appeared differently on different lists. Nor did the Russian officials, who were without a doubt ignorant, but primarily anti-Semitic, expend much effort in trying to uncover the truth.

Eventually the authorities decided to implement family names among the Jews, a custom that was by now widely accepted among the non-Jews. This happened gradually, at different times in different places

The new laws did not always take effect immediately, making it necessary to add accessory laws to enforce them. This was the case in Russia in 1835, after it became known that in certain districts many Jews still did not have family names.

A date was designated as the final day for the list of surnames to be completed. When one Jew failed to arrive in time to submit his surname, the official in charge gave him the name “Shpeter” (Yiddish for “later”) as a consequence for his tardiness.

The process of assuming surnames was liberally sprinkled with strange, even comical scenarios. There were many Jews who underrated the significance that this law held for them and their descendants, thinking it was only a temporary decree, a phase that would surely pass and fade into oblivion.

In the German city of Chassell, there was a father named Heim, the German version of Chaim. His four sons chose separate names for themselves, but they all shared a common theme, choosing the names Ustheim, Westheim, Zidheim, Nordheim, each choosing one of the four directions and attaching it to the suffix “heim.” Such instances create difficulties for researchers of Jewish genealogy, since they have to keep in mind that different offshoots of the same family may have been called by different family names.

Professor Heinrich Elyokim Lew was an assiduous pioneer in Jewish Genealogy research. In his book Stories about Jewish Names (published in 1929, Berlin) he recounts many stories about the committees that issued surnames to Jews.
What’s in a name?

In the rural areas of Germany at that time, ties between the Jews and their non- Jewish neighbors were considerably good. The Germans therefore did not impose offensive names on the Jews, as was the case in Austrian Galicia. Lew tells of one Jew from the city Hiaasen who, upon being asked by the naming committee what he would like to be called, answered “Widerbach.” The officer misunderstood this as three separate words “Wi der bach,” which means “like the river” in German. Since the closest river in the vicinity was called Rilf, the Jew’s surname was now Rilf. Another Jew in the same city could not come up with a name for himself and asked the committee head to “guess” a name for him. In German he said “Rutten Zus,” (“Guess please”) and the committee head promptly registered his name as “Ruttenzus.”

There were quite a number of Jews who asked the local official in charge to choose a name for them. The result was sometimes a name that alluded to their lowly professions. This was, however, a rare phenomenon in the Western countries as compared to the Eastern European countries, where the surname laws were used by the authorities as an opportunity to express their blatant anti-Semitism.


In 1787, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph the Second of Austria passed an edict which commanded “every Jew to take on a surname in the German language.” These names were generally chosen from special lists. Every Jew was required to make an appearance and choose a name from the list, for which he was charged a fee, of course. This fee went to the royal government who was so “graciously” helping them with the naming process.

“Expensive” names were words associated with flowers or metals such as Rosenthal (valley of roses) or Goldstein (gold stone). Names with more mean connotations were the cheapest: Holtz (wood), Stein (stone), Stahl (steel). Those who could not afford even the cheapest names received a name from the Emperor himself, a name with an absurd meaning that would make him the subject of mockery every time he came in contact with the authorities.

Such names were Azelkopf (donkey head), Auksenschvantz (ox tail), Shleicher (crawl), Unglick (misfortune), or Wanzenknicker (bug crusher). Most of these names became extinct during the course of years; bearers of such names got rid of their unrespectable- sounding identities either by bribing legal authorities or by changing their names when they emigrated to different countries. And yet, if you open an Israeli phonebook today, you can still come across names like Hazenfartz (rabbit face), Langnuz (long nose), or Hazenshprung (rabbit leap).

The onomastician (onomastics is the study of proper names) Alexander Bader stated that he was not able to track down even one legal document from the Austrian government that gives credence to the claim that differential prices were charged according to a name’s quality. His conclusion was that this phenomenon only occurred in certain small villages where the officers in charge succeeded in wheedling money out of the Jews under their rule.

The most derisive names were given in the Galician vicinity, located far from the central authorities and containing a large Jewish population.

In Hungary, which under Austrian rule spoke German, the name-giving procedure was very simple. The officer in charge divided the local Jews into groups. Those with black hair were called Schwartz (black), the blondes were named Weiss (white), and everyone else, either redheaded or bald were named according to height, either Gross (big) or Klein (small).

A British tourist who visited Hungary between the two world wars noticed that store signs bore their Jewish owners’ names as Kish, Nugh, Faher, and Fekete which mean big, small, white, and black in Hungarian.

Some Jews wore the names that were issued to them with pride, adding some spiritual connotation to their new name. Take, for example, one Jew who complied with the authorities’ commands to take on a German name and chose the name Becker for himself. Although the German meaning of Becker is baker, this righteous Jew chose to interpret it differently than his community peers and children. The acronym for Becker is “bnei kedoshim v’rabbanim, children of holy ones and rabbis.” Or how about the Russian Jew who chose the name Bick? The Russian translation of Bick is a fir tree, but for this Jew the secret code in his name was its acronym “bnei Yisrael kedoshim, the children of Israel are holy.”

One Jew who was not permitted to keep his name “ben-Moshe,” because it wasn’t a German name, ingeniously asked for the name Wassertzug which means “drawn from water” (the transliterated equivalent of Moshe).


The amount of surnames in all of Diaspora today exceeds 20,000, but as a matter of fact many of these names share a common meaning and origin.

There is one common denominator between the names Metzger, Katzav, Resnick, Resnickovitz, Schechter, Shechtman, Shochet, Fleisher, Fleishman, Fleishocker, Schlachter, Miasnick, and Miaskovski; the origin for these is one and the same — these were all names in various languages assigned to butchers and ritual slaughterers.

Following the “noble” and “less-than-noble” names came a phase during which Jews were named according to their professions: Bader (bath attendant); Druckman (printer); Gewirtzhandler (spice merchant); Gartner (gardener); Lederer (tanner); Lehrer (teacher); Peltzman (furrier); Russhandler (horse merchant); Schnitzer and Schnitzler (wood carver); Schuster (shoemaker); Teitelman (date merchant); Wagner (wagon builder); Wexler and Chalfon (exchanger); Wohlshlanger (wool manufacturer), Tischler and Nager (carpenter); Blecher and Koznitz (tinsmith); Schmidt, Kovel, and Kovitz, (blacksmith); Sabag, Muller, and Malerosky (painter); Zaltzman (salt merchant); and many more.

Names that connote professions can be found not only among people of European descent; there are Yemenite families as well whose names are rooted in trades: Elendaf (mattress weavers); Greidi (locust gatherers); Meborat (explosives manufacturer); Madar (potter); Manjam (stargazer); Chadad (smith); and Mashat (wool comber).

Some names allude to professions that are exclusive to Jews. One such name appears in various forms: Kister, Klausner, Templer, Schuldiner, and Shamash, all of them meaning shamash, a synagogue sexton. Likewise, we have names such as Kantor, Singer, Schulsinger (which may have morphed into Schlesinger), Chazanov, Chazantzik, Chazanovski, Chazanian, Chazanski, all of them meaning chazan, a cantor.

Sometimes you can tell the geographical origin of a name by its ending. Names that end with “yan” (Chakakyan) usually stem from Persia, “ski” (Abramski) originates from Russia and Poland, “er” (Posner) and “son” (Jacobson) usually suffix German names, and “itzki” (Koshitzki) and “sko” (Hirsko) come from Romania.

But there are exceptions to every rule. Avraham Stahl once asked a Jew of Moroccan descent if his name, Lavski, with its Eastern European suffix, might testify to Ashkenazic roots. But what Stahl learned was that the name Lavski was formed from the words “al Vaski,” referring to the city Vaska in Northern Spain.

The name Aptaker, which means pharmacist in German, is of Eastern Europe origin but has a very similar counterpart, Aptakar, in India where it is a “geographical” surname.

In many Jewish names one could find the name of the person’s hometown (Frankfurter, Toledano, Posner, Heilpern, Alfasi), names that were given based on the father’s first names (Abramowitz, Davidson) and sometimes the mother’s (Sirkis, Rivkin, Eideles). There are names that hint at their original bearer’s personality: Abulafia (big man), Gutman (good man), Altman (old man). There are some that are even an anagram of an earlier family name; the name Weil in Hebrew (vov-yud-lamed)is an anagram of Levi (lamed-vav-yud).

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