Jewish Language Research Website

Jewish Onomastics

Edwin D. Lawson

Onomastics is the science of names. It covers personal names, place names, brand names, and several other categories such as pet names, yacht names, and team names. Jewish onomastics has concentrated on personal names, both given and family names.

Jewish names are the relics of the historical experiences of the Jews in many lands and many eras. Those diverse experiences have led to a vast body of scholarly work on Jewish onomastics. Bibliographies (Lawson 1997, 2003, Singerman & Gold 2001) have identified thousands of books and articles on the subject of Jewish names, probably more research than on the names of any other cultural group.

Given (First) Names

While there are several classifications possible of the derivation of Jewish given names, here is a simple one, with examples in parentheses:

  1. Hebrew: Bible (including the Apocrypha)
    1. Well-known personalities (Noah, Avraham, Rachel)
    2. Less-known personalities (Baruch, Yigal, Shulamit)
  2. Hebrew: Non-Bible
    1. Traditional (Dov, Malka, Mazal, Rachamim)
    2. Modern (Dror, Ahuva)
  3. Non-Hebrew
    1. Historically used (Alexander, Kalman)
    2. Modern:
      1. Ashkenazic (including Russian, German, Yiddish, and English): older Yiddish names, like Bluma, Yenta, and Hersh, and more modern European names like Albert, Boris, Rosa
      2. Sephardic from North Africa: Yahya; French names like Armand, Charles, Maurice, Stella
      3. Iranian: Fairuz, Sabikha, Samila
      4. Judeo-Tat (Mountain Jews, Azerbaijan): Grigory, Nazim, Nazila
  4. Other types (some of these categories overlap with those above):
    1. Theophoric: names that have a reference to God within the name (Eliezer 'my God is help', Emanuel 'God is with us', Amalya 'work of God', Batya 'daughter of God')
    2. Expletive: names that describe an attribute or characteristic of the individual (David 'beloved', Naim 'pleasant', Simcha 'happiness', Bina 'understanding', Shira 'song')
    3. Apotropaic: names given to children or adults to in the hope of avoiding death (Haim [Hebrew] 'life', Vita [Italian] 'life', Alter [Yiddish] 'old', Mercado [Spanish] 'merchant', from a custom of 'selling' a sick child to new parents to avert the Angel of Death)
    4. Kinnui (link-name, a name in the local vernacular linked to a Hebrew name, for example, Leo ('lion') is linked to Yehuda whom Jacob compared to a lion, sometimes used in combination, as Yehuda-Leyb, Tzvi-Hirsh
    5. Nature names (a name derived from an animal or flower): Dov 'bear', Shoshana 'rose'

Comparisons and Similarities of Naming Patterns of Different Groups

There are some similarities among Ashkenazic, Sephardic, and Mizrahi Jews: all groups appear to use names from the Bible like Abraham and Jacob (in various forms), and Hebrew names such as Simcha (both male and female) are common. In addition, women's names in several groups are less likely to be biblical and more likely to relate to nature or beauty. But there are also differences. Ashkenazim tend to name children after deceased relatives, while Sephardim and Mizrahim tend to name after living relatives. Lawson and Glushkovskaya (1994) reported that Jews from European Russia had a high intermarriage rate and virtually no religious observance. Despite this, they maintained their traditional naming pattern, i.e., naming a child after a deceased relative. On the other hand, the Jews from the Central Asian republics who had no intermarriage, lower occupational status, and more religious observance, showed a decrease in the traditional naming pattern (memorial naming) with an accompanying increase in non-Jewish names.

Among Georgian Jews, the general pattern of naming children after deceased relatives is still the dominant pattern, and that parental liking of the name is an emerging factor, although at a substantially lower frequency (Lawson & Glushkovskaya, 1999). Other patterns found among Georgian Jews were naming children after living grandparents, Torah, and Jewish holidays. In the Georgian sample, more girls than boys were named after a living relative. The males were all named after grandfathers. The females were named after grandmothers, mothers, friends, and, in one case, a grandfather.

The Oriental Jewish community of Mountain Jews in Azerbaijan showed a significant portion of children named after relatives (Lawson & Sheil submitted). For men, it was mostly male relatives on both the paternal and maternal side (27%); for women, it was mostly female relatives on both the paternal and maternal side (18%).

Data from a sample of Jews from India does not show the memorial naming pattern but does show traditional Jewish names for both males and females.

Surnames

Hereditary surnames are relatively recent for Jews. While hereditary surnames were known for rabbinical families as early as the 10th and 11th centuries they were not common until the early 19th century (Kaganoff 1977). Different groups of Jews took on surnames for different reasons.

Surnames have several types of sources:

  1. Bible (Abraham 'father of multitude', Binyamin [anglicized form Benjamin] 'son of my right hand')
  2. Patronym (Aaronsohn, Ibn Ezra, Bar-Hillel)
  3. Occupation (Sofer 'writer', Melamed 'teacher, educator')
  4. Place name (Sharon, valley in Israel, Sharabi from Shar'ab, a district in southwest Yemen, name used only by Jews)
  5. Acronyms (Segal, acronym for SEGAn Leviyyah 'administrative officer of the Temple Levites', Katz, acronym for CO(KA)hen Tzedek 'authentic priest')
  6. Imposed or Decreed by civil authority (Auerbach, Fingerhut, Rosenberg, Steinberg)
  7. Other categories of lesser frequency including: symbolic, theophoric, matronymic, and miscellaneous

Ashkenazic Jews

Among Ashkenazim, the process began when Emperor Joseph II of Austria decreed that the Jews of Galicia and Bucovina have permanent family names. The practice spread to parts of Germany. Then, in 1808, Napoleon decreed that all Jews (and others) in his empire have family names. Russia did not require family names until later. For descriptions of how Ashkenazic Jews adopted their surnames, see Beider (1993, 1996, 2003).

Sephardic Jews

Surnames were common among Spanish and Portuguese Jews before the Inquisition. The practice was taken from the Arabs. Many Sephardic names are derived from places in Spain. Many surnames are not identifiable as Jewish. In France, Sephardic Jews formed family names from patronyms (Kaganoff 1977).

Other Groups

There are also investigations of Jewish names in other cultures. In India, for example, the Bene Israel and the Cochin Jews seem to have largely maintained identifiably Jewish surnames. The Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan show recognizably Jewish names in over two-thirds of the families surveyed (Lawson & Sheil submitted).

In summary, one can conclude that the surname picture is somewhat mixed. In Europe and North America there are a great many what Beider would call "ornamental" names. These are the names like Greenberg and Silverstein, names that were created at the time surnames became required in the 19th century. In Spain and North Africa, there already was an established surname tradition. Jews tended to keep their surnames. In India and Azerbaijan, they also kept their identifiably Jewish surnames.

Place Names

Proportionately, there has not been quite as much work done on place names in Jewish onomastics as on personal names. Nevertheless, there is a good deal of research on the names of geographical sites in Ancient Israel and Modern Israel, as well as the Jewish catacombs in Rome and tombstones in Athens.

Selected Bibliography (* = Basic References)