Just like the families they belong to, Jewish last names have roots all across the globe. And while Hebrew and Biblical names are mostly limited to a region, the same is not true of Jewish last names. In many cultures, it’s common for last names to come from the paternal side, but many surnames come from the mother’s as well. In fact, many Jewish people who lived in the Russian Empire during the 19th had last names that derived from women’s first names. In Jewish culture, last names also originate from places, like the town or region the family lived. For example, Asch is an acronym for the Aisenshtadt, Altshul, or Amsterdam and Bergman is also a common last name that means “from a hilly place.”
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 from others. Many common Jewish last names overlap with Slavic or German languages, while others sound straight-up Biblical. But why?
It’s all down to early migration, which brought about two groups of Jews separate from 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.
The 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 fewer 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, read 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, Russian, Spanish, Mexican, Brazilian, Portuguese, Italian, Hawaiian, British, French, African, Japanese, and Korean last names, among others.
Popular Jewish Last Names
Meaning: Steward or farm laborer.
Meaning: Pear tree.
Meaning: High father or reference to the prophet Abraham.
Meaning: Descendant of Levi, the third son of Jacob and Leah.
Meaning: Follower or servant of peace.
Meaning: A person from Horovice in Bohemia, which is now known as the Czech Republic.
Meaning: Father of wellbeing.
Meaning: A synagogue singer.
Meaning: Thimble or 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: Singing bird.
Meaning: Father of tambourines.
Meaning: Ritual slaughterer or butcher.
Meaning: Father of Cassis or those who occupied the Cassis valley in the Bible.
Meaning: Yellow, or reference to people with lighter hair.
Meaning: Son of Nazar.
Meaning: Lily flower.
Meaning: Servant of God.
Meaning: Baker of bread or tiles.
Meaning: Behold a son.
Meaning: Old man.
Meaning: Comforter or consoler.
Meaning: Someone from the Navarro region in Spain.
Meaning: Wrestling, struggle, or strife.
Meaning: Shining light.
Meaning: High priest.
Meaning: Stream or creek.
Meaning: Servant or serving maid.
Meaning: Alter, Alt, or head of a craft building.
Meaning: Immortal, undying, or eternal.
Meaning: The white popular.
Origin: Eastern Ashkenazi/Hebrew
Meaning: Binyamin or son of the south or son of the right hand.
Meaning: Bear or son.
Origin: Old English/German
Meaning: A dweller of the hollow.
Meaning: Brodsky or a common family name for people from Brody, an area in Ukraine.
Meaning: Copper or an occupational name for coppersmiths.
Meaning: Diamond or invincible.
Meaning: Cottage, shanty, or cabin.
Meaning: Ram or forceful.
Meaning: Birch or a name for someone who lives near a birch tree.
Meaning: White or pale.
Meaning: A seller of books.
Meaning: Clothing or garment.
Meaning: Small or little.
Meaning: An occupational name for someone who uses or makes hatchets.
Meaning: Land or valley.
Meaning: Golden town.
Meaning: Dear man.
Common Hebrew Phrases
No matter where you are in the world, certain phrases have a way of making you feel you’re right at home with the fam. So, if you’re looking to expand your knowledge of Hebrew sayings, see below:
Shalom — Hello, goodbye, or peace
Slicha — Sorry or excuse me
Ma Nishma — How are you doing or what’s up?