Just like the families they belong to, Jewish last names have roots all across the globe. And while Biblical and Hebrew names are mostly limited to a region, the same is not true of Jewish last names. Judaism’s extensive history is obviously not limited to the Middle East, but it’s useful to have a little more context as to why some Jewish surnames sound so different to others. Many common Jewish last names overlap with German or Slavic languages, while others sound straight up biblical. But why?
It’s all down to early migration, which brought about two groups of Jews separate to those who lived in the Middle East and North Africa since biblical times (known as Mizrahi Jews, from the Hebrew for ‘Sons of the East’). These Jews lived (and their descendants now live) in parts of Turkey, Syria, Morocco, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Algeria, Tunisia, Afghanistan, Armenia and Israel. ‘Ashkenazi‘ (from the Hebrew word for Germany) refers to the Jews who settled in Germany and Eastern Europe between the 13th and 17th centuries, while ‘Sephardi‘ (from the Hebrew word for Spain) refers to Jews who lived in Spain and Italy from the end of the Roman Empire until the 15th century.
Persecution of both groups led to further migration. Descendants of Sephardi Jews now live in parts of Northern Africa, Spain, France, England, Italy, and Holland, while Ashkenazi Jews are still largely based in Germany, Poland, Russia, and other areas of Eastern Europe. Modern Israel is also home to a roughly even number of both, and the Middle East is still home to many Mizrahi Jews.
Ashkenazi Jewish last names therefore refer to names bore by Jewish families that are spelled in either German, a Slavic language or Yiddish (a Hebrew-Germanic language used solely by Ashkenazi Jews). Sephardi Jewish surnames can be a little harder to recognize because of their mostly Italian and Spanish spellings. And since 80 percent of the world’s Jews are Ashkenazi, there are considerably less Sephardi Jewish names. Mizrahi Jewish surnames can have Hebrew, Arabic or Aramaic roots.
All that said, Hebrew names are still common within all groups, and even non-Jewish families today bear last names with biblical, Hebrew origins. Oh, and you’re not the only one searching for them and their meaning, either. According to the latest search data available, Jewish last names are searched for nearly 15,000 times per month. Now you know the rich history behind them, get to reading our list of popular Jewish last names and their meanings!
If you’re interested in the last names and meanings of other countries, check out our package on last names from around the world. See how many you recognize: Irish, French, Russian, Spanish, Mexican, Brazilian, Portuguese, Italian, Japanese, Hawaiian, British, and Korean last names, among others.
Meaning: Steward or farm laborer.
Meaning: Pear tree.
Meaning: High father, referring to the prophet Abraham.
Meaning: Descendant of Levi, the third son of Jacob and Leah.
Meaning: ‘Blue’ in German.
Meaning: Follower or servant of peace.
Meaning: A person from Horovice in Bohemia (now known as the Czech Republic).
Meaning: Father of wellbeing.
Meaning: A synagogue singer.
Meaning: Stemming from the Yiddish word for ‘thimble’, this is an occupational name for a tailor.
Meaning: Dear or beloved.
Meaning: From a place with an abundance of cardoon plants.
Meaning: Son or descendant of Said.
Meaning: A biblical place name referring to a mountain and a city.
Meaning: Father of tambourines.
Meaning: Ritual slaughterer or butcher.
Meaning: Father of Cassis, referring to those who occupied the Cassis valley in the bible.
Meaning: Yellow, usually to refer to people with lighter hair.
Meaning: Son of Nazar.
Meaning: Lily flower.
Meaning: ‘Vineyard’ in German.
Meaning: Servant of God.
Meaning: Baker (of bread or tiles).
Meaning: From the name Reuven. Often the French occupation of jeweler from ruby (rubi).
Meaning: Old man.
Origin: Polish, Romanian, Russian, Ukrainian, and Yiddish