History of family names

Grandma’s name was Rosenberg. Am I Jewish? We hear questions like that rather often. Someone encounters a name with a Germanic sound to it and jumps to the conclusion that the name is Yiddish. Other “non-standard” Polish names are taken, due to their “exotic” nature, to be Hebrew — by individuals with no knowledge of Hebrew.

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Grandma’s name was Rosenberg. Am I Jewish?

We hear questions like that rather often. Someone encounters a name with a Germanic sound to it and jumps to the conclusion that the name is Yiddish. Other “non-standard” Polish names are ta­ken, due to their “exotic” nature, to be Hebrew - — by individuals with no knowledge of Hebrew. In fact, any name can potentially be a “Jewish name,” i.e. a name used by a Jew. Two people bearing the very same name can be, respectively, a Jew and a non-Jew, descending from completely separate lineages. So, if a Jew can have any name that a non-Jew can have, is there really such a thing as a uniquely Jewish name, one that can point with reasonable certainty to Jewish ancestry? The answer to that is YES and it applies to a relatively small segment of the Jewish population.

Uniquely Jewish surnames fall into a number of categories which we briefly survey here

1. In many (probably most) languages, people were known for the trade they plied or the profession they practiced, e.g., Eng.: Taylor / Germ. + Yidd.: Schneider / Polish: Krawiec / Russ.: Portnoy. That was just as true of the Jewish population which, alongside the Yiddish Schneider, retained the Hebrew name Chayat or Chait, also meaning tailor. Everyone had tailors and everyone knew who they were. The same was true of other occupations. But the Jews had something their non-Jewish neighbors did not: Uniquely Jewish surnames derived fromuniquely Jewish occupations. What were some of these special occupations?

  • Cohen (also Kon, Kagan, Kahane, Kohanim) – a priest in the Temple of Jerusalem (and descendants)
  • Levi (also Leviyim/Banilevi/Segal) – aide to the Temple priests (and descendants)
  • Israel (also Srulewicz) – a non-priestly Israelite. This name, however, came to be used in the Protestant churches. A completely unique (if rare) surname is Majmudes, a Hebrew name referring to the prayer services of the non-priests at the Temple.

Moving from the Temple of Jerusalem to the synagogue of later centuries, we come to roles played in the latter institution:

  • Rabi or Rabin – a rabbi.  The simplicity of the word structure makes it possible that it appears in other languages with entirely unrelated meanings;
  • Magid – a travelling preacher;
  • Dayan – a rabbinic judge;
  • Hazzan – a cantor who leads the prayers;
  • Parnas – (not to be mistaken for Parnassus) a sponsor and leader of the synagogue;
  • Other synagogue-associated roles include:  Melamed – a teacher; Belfer – a teacher's assistant; Tylemzoger – one who recites psalms; Shulklapper – one who wakes people for morning prayers; Sofer – scribe who writes sacred scrolls
  • Finally, the original category of more common professions. All that makes these names uniquely Jewish is that they are the Hebrew terms for the professions: Balagula – wagondriver; Tabach – cook; Chayat – tailor; Rokeach – pharmacist:  Rofe – physician; Katzav/Shochet/Bodek/Menaker/Shub, all trades involved in butchery, and others.
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