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Genealogy Guide: Jewish Names


Jewish genealogy has a strong presence today. With several databases and online communities comprised of user-generated content as well as printed texts devoted to the study of Jewish family history, there is a wealth of options for the beginner. At the heart of this research is a historical understanding of names and places. This research guide consists of a historical background on given names and surnames together with a list of reference books and websites relevant to specific locations, time periods, and Jewish traditions.

Historical Background

Given Names

Given names are a large topic due to the number of factors associated with their history at the traditional and national level. In Jewish traditions, individuals often have two given names that are important to consider when using and understanding documentation: secular names and religious names.

The secular name, the kinnui in Hebrew, is often associated with the vernacular of the place in which the family is living. In this way, the secular name of an individual would depend on the language they speak apart from Hebrew. Knowledge of an individual’s secular name is crucial due to the fact that this is the name that one will find on most civil documents. Additionally, it was common for many to receive a new secular name when immigrating to a different country to match the vernacular of their new home.

The religious name is called the shem hakodesh in Hebrew. As it implies, these names are often used in religious observances and stages of life, such as a marriage or circumcision. If it is known at the time of burial, one will find both the Hebrew and secular names of an individual on their tombstone. A Hebrew name begins with a given name followed by either “ben” (“son of”), or “bat” (“daughter of”), and ends with the Hebrew name of the individual’s father. Apart from these differences, it is possible for the Hebrew name and the secular name to be connected in some way. For example, the secular name can be an anglicized version of the Hebrew name or sometimes will just start with the same sound.

Additionally, diminutives, or nicknames, can be another way in which an individual is known. We often seen this in many languages; for example, the name “Katherine” can be shortened to its diminutive, “Katie.” The same is true for Yiddish and Hebrew names, although this may not be recognizable if one is not familiar with Hebrew or Yiddish. Diminutives often employ the use of suffixes, such as adding “el,” or “la” to the end of a name and are often gender specific.

Given names can have biblical associations, but can also relate to others within the individual’s family. In Ashkenazic customs, there was a prevalent tradition of naming children after deceased relatives and one will find given names repeated in alternating generations within the same family. Generally, the rule of this tradition among the Ashkenazim was that children be named after the closest deceased relative, unless another person in their immediate family had already been named after that relative. It is important to note that a child was not customarily named after a deceased sibling, although this has happened in certain cases. In contrast, Sephardic Jewish customs include naming children after living grandparents as a form of respect.


Historically, the Jewish people did not have hereditary surnames prior to the 19th century, aside from some rabbinical families beginning in the 18th century. When surnames were taken by the Jewish community, their names were chosen according to various relationships:

Occupation - Families took a surname based upon their profession.

 Patronyms - A patronymic distinguishes a person by their relationship to their father; for example, Nataniel ben (“son of”) Emanuel.

Toponyms - Surnames could also be taken from the places in which the Jewish community lived.

 Life Event - Commemorate a time period in the history of a family or individual.

Personal Characteristics – Identification of a specific feature about the individual.


Jews were required to take surnames in different countries at different points in history. According to JewishGen, the timeline for Jewish surnames is as follows:

Austrian Empire (1787)

Russian Pale (1804, not enforced until 1835/1845)

Russian Poland (1821)

France (1808)

Various German states: Frankfurt (1807), Baden (1809), Westphalia (1812),

Prussia (1812), Bavaria (1813), Wuerttemberg (1828), Posen (1833), Saxony (1834).


Jewish surnames were not typically unique to one family. It is often more beneficial to make connections between two individuals with similar names if they lived in the same geographic region, rather than attempting to find a relation between two individuals who only share a surname.


One must also keep spelling in mind, as spelling was not standardized until the 20th century. As a result, the surname may be spelled differently on different records at different time periods for the same individual. Another factor to be considered is political boundaries. As boundaries shifted, the language was often impacted, which often caused persons to change the spelling of their names to match the location. As with given names, individuals also may have taken on new surnames as they immigrated to other countries. These may or may not relate to their original surname.