Historically, Jews did not have permanent family surnames at all. Within the Jewish community, we used patronymics, such as David ben (son of) Joseph or Miriam bat (daughter of) Aaron. Names in that form are still used in synagogue and in Jewish legal documents such as the ketubah (marriage contract), but are rare outside of the religious context. See the discussion of Hebrew Names below.
Family names began to gain popularity among Sephardic Jews in Spain, Portugal and Italy as early as the 10th or 11th century, but did not catch on among the Ashkenazic Jews of Germany or Eastern Europe until much later.
Contrary to popular belief, you cannot tell whether people are Jewish from their surnames. According to the Jewish genealogy site Avotaynu, the third most common surname among Jews in the United States is Miller, which is also one of the most common names among gentiles. In college, I knew a McGuire who was Jewish and a Kline who was not. The Jewish people can take pride in the accomplishments of artist Camille Pissarro, boxer Daniel Mendoza, actor Hank Azaria and pop idol Paula Abdul, all of whom are Jewish but whose names don't sound Jewish to most Americans. We cannot, however, take credit for people with such Jewish-sounding names as rocker Bruce Springsteen, pop singer Avril Lavigne, songwriter George M. Cohan, former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger or basketball player Julius Irving (he's even a doctor! "Dr. J").
A lot of the surnames that sound Jewish to Americans are simply German names such as Klein, Gross or Grossman, Weiss or Weisman, Rosen, Schwartz or Schwartzman, Segal, Siegal or Sagal, and anything that contains berg, stein, man, thal or bluth. German surnames are very common among American Jews, and many people seem to have inferred the converse: if most Jews have German surnames, then most people with German surnames must be Jews. The reasoning is appealing on a gut-level but logically flawed. Consider this absurd but logically identical argument: most Jews have ten fingers, therefore most people with ten fingers must be Jews.
One reason for the frequency of German names among Jews is a 1787 Austro-Hungarian law. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, which controlled a substantial part of Europe at the time, was the first country in Europe that required Jews to register a permanent family surname, and they required that this surname be German. A copy of the decree can be found on a former Polish-Jewish genealogy website. This explains the frequency of German surnames in Central Europe, but it doesn't explain the frequency of German surnames for Jews in the Russian Empire, where German surnames for Jews are also common. The frequency of German family names among Russian Jews may be due to migration from Western Europe, or even boundary changes (parts of Ukraine were once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, for example).
Russian and Polish surnames are also often assumed to be Jewish surnames, for example names ending in -vitz, -witz, or -sky. It is commonly believed that "-sky" is a Jewish surname while "-ski" is not. This spelling difference, however, seems to have more to do with the source of the surname: Russia or Poland. The correct spelling of this common surname suffix in Polish is "-ski", and Poles usually kept that spelling after immigration to America. In Russia, this suffix is spelled in the Cyrillic alphabet, , and may have been transliterated into English as either -ski or -sky. However, a Jewish friend of mine who comes from Moscow tells me that in Russia, names ending in were usually Jewish.
There are really only three surnames that are specifically Jewish in nature: variations on Cohen, Levy and Israel. These names are derived from tribal ancestry that were recorded by the Jewish people and recognized in synagogue with various distinctions.
The surname Cohen comes from kohein, the Hebrew word for priest, and refers to patrilineal descendants of Aaron. Variations on this surname include Cohn, Cahn, Cone, Kohn, Kahn and possibly Katz. Why Katz? I have been told that it is an acronym of Kohein Tzaddik, which means Righteous Priest, but is close enough to the German word for "cat" that it could be slipped past registrars who required German surnames!
The surname Levy comes from the biblical tribe of Levi, whose descendants the Levites had distinctive duties in the Temple period. Variations on this surname include Levin, Levine, Levitt and many others.
Cohen and Levy are the two most common surnames among Jews in the United States (Miller is third, as mentioned above). Another specifically Jewish surname is Israel, which is much less common. Jewish thought often divides Jews into three groups: Kohein, Levy and Israel. Israel basically means the rest of us. Variations on this surname include Israeli, Yisrael, Yisroel and most notably Disraeli (the surname of a Jewish-born British Prime Minister and Earl who was baptized as a child but apparently retained some sense of Jewish identity).
Even these common specifically-Jewish surnames can be misleading, though. The surname Cohan (as in songwriter George M.) is usually Irish rather than Jewish. The surname Lavigne (as in singer Avril) is pronounced much like Levine, but it is a common gentile name among French Canadians.
Among Ashkenazic Jews (Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe), it is customary to name children after a recently deceased relative. This is a way of honoring the dead and of keeping the dead person's memory alive. The name given to the child is not always identical to that of the deceased; it is often changed to reflect the popular names of the time, but usually retains the sound or at least the first initial. For example, a grandmother named Elsie might be remembered through a granddaughter named Elizabeth or Kelsey. A grandfather named Leopold might be remembered through a grandson named Leonard or Lawrence. Sometimes the change reflects the change in language from the country where the ancestor was born to the country where the child was born: a Hungarian-born grandfather named Antal might be remembered through an American grandson named Anthony. These kinds of changes occur only in secular names; Hebrew names are usually passed along intact. Many consider it to be disrespectful to change the Hebrew name. See the discussion of Hebrew Names below.
It is not unusual for multiple relatives to be named after the same recently-deceased person. My grandfather Samuel had a first cousin named Samuel who was born about three years before him. They were probably named for their uncle, also named Samuel, who was close to the family. Similarly, my great-uncle Donald had a first cousin named Donald born about two years before him. Presumably, they were also named for a shared relative that I have not yet identified. In fact, Jewish genealogists often infer a relationship when they find two people with the same name (first and last) born within a few years of each other.
When a child is formally named, either at a bris (circumcision) for boys or in a synagogue naming ceremony for girls (see Naming a Child), it is common practice to explain who the child was named for, why the child was named for that person, and what qualities of that person the parents would like to see perpetuated in the child.
An old superstition maintains that naming a child after a living relative is bad luck: the Angel of Death, an easily confused spirit, might take the baby by mistake when coming for the older relative. It reminds me oddly of the Showtime series "Dead Like Me" (featuring Jewish actor Mandy Patinkin), where grim reapers take souls based on a name written on a Post-It note. Although most of us don't believe that superstition any more, many Jews still view it as strange and somewhat arrogant for a father to name a child after himself. In fact, it is so rare for Jews to name a child after a living relative that a colleague of mine once declared it "impossible" for there to be a Jewish "Jr." Nevertheless, this custom has broken down somewhat in recent years. My father is a Jewish "Jr." and would have made my brother a Jewish "III" if my mother hadn't objected. My childhood dentist was a Jewish "III" with a son who was a Jewish "IV"!
There do not seem to be many given names in English that are distinctively Jewish, other than Israel and variations on it. Certainly, biblical names like David, Joseph and Michael are popular among Jews, but those names were also among the top-10 first names overall in the 1990 United States census. For obvious reasons, names like Christopher, Christine and Jesus are almost unheard of among Jews and Mary is unusual, but names like Peter and Paul that you would think of as very Christian are surprisingly common among Jews. Names that were once thought of as stereotypically Jewish, such as Ira, Irving and Isadore, were actually attempts to Americanize Hebrew names like Isaac and Israel, and in any case are quite rare in America today.
Jews living in gentile lands have historically taken local names to use when interacting with their gentile neighbors. Anyone with a name that is hard to pronounce or to spell will immediately understand the usefulness of this! The practice of taking local names became so common, in fact, that by the 12th century, the rabbis found it necessary to make a takkanah (rabbinical ruling) requiring Jews to have a Hebrew name!
Hebrew names are used in prayer in and out of synagogue and for other religious rituals. When a person is called up in synagogue for an aliyah (the honor of reciting a blessing over a Torah reading), he is called up by his Hebrew name. The names that appear on a ketubah (marriage contract) or on a get (writ of divorce) are Hebrew names. When a people are ill and mi shebeirakh prayers are recited for their well-being, they are identified by Hebrew names. When a deceased person is remembered through the Yizkor prayers recited on certain holidays, the Hebrew name is used. Jewish tombstones sometimes carry the Hebrew name instead of or side-by-side with the secular name.
A Hebrew name begins with a given name, followed by ben (son of) or bat (daughter of), followed by the person's father's Hebrew name. If the person is a kohein (descendant of Aaron), the name is followed by "ha-Kohein." If the person is a Levite (descendant of the tribe of Levi), the name is followed by "ha-Levi." If the person or his father is a rabbi, some follow the name with "ha-Rav." This format of naming is seen as early as the Torah where, for example, Moses' successor Joshua is repeatedly referred to as Yehoshua ben Nun (Joshua, son of Nun). Note that the surname is not the same from generation to generation: Abraham's son Isaac is Yitzchak ben Avraham; Isaac's son Jacob is Ya'akov ben Yitzchak, and so forth. Moses' Hebrew name would be Moshe ben Amram ha-Levi (because he is a member of the tribe of Levi but not a descendant of Aaron), while his brother Aaron would be Aharon ben Amram ha-Kohein (because Aaron was a priest).
The secular name usually corresponds in some way to the Hebrew name. Sometimes, the name is exactly the same or an Anglicized version of the same name: David, Michael or Sarah are as good in Hebrew as they are in English, though they are pronounced differently. A person with the Hebrew name Yosef would probably have the English name Joseph and Rivka might be in English Rebecca. Sometimes, the English name retains only part of the Hebrew name, for example, Aharon might become Aaron in English, but it might also become Harry or Ronald. Sometimes, the English name retains only the first letter of the Hebrew name: Pinchas becomes Philip or Nechama becomes Natalie.
There are no hard-and-fast rules about how to translate Hebrew names into English, and indeed, there is no real reason why a person's secular name has to correspond to the Hebrew name at all.
Below are ten Hebrew names for each gender that are among the 100 most popular names in the United States according to the 1990 census (the most recent one that has first names posted on the census website). Note that some of these names are not used as names for people in the Tanakh: Sharon is a place name; Shoshanah is a flower. Some of these names were more significant in post-biblical literature or Christian scriptures than in the Tanakh: Elizabeth, Judith and Susanna (Shoshanah).
|Sharon (a place name in the Bible)|
Genealogy: it's not just a hobby; it's an obsession. One of the reasons people want to know about Jewish names is to help with their research into their Jewish roots. If you're as obsessed with Jewish genealogy as I am, then you need to run, don't walk, to JewishGen. It is a sprawling site and not as well organized as I might like, but it has a wealth of valuable information about how to research your Jewish roots and many freely available databases.
And while we're on the subject of genealogy, check out Avotaynu (the name means "our fathers"), a journal of Jewish genealogy that has been in business for more than 20 years. They publish a wealth of useful books to help you with your research. Their site includes the Consolidated Jewish Surname Index, which lets you search for your family names in several dozen different databases simultaneously.
For more information about genealogy, see the Jewish Genealogy page on this site.