Where and when did typical Jewish last names come from?

I hope this question is not offensive or stereotyping in any way. It is not meant to be.

Goldberg, Steinberg, Silverstein etc. are some common Jewish last names. I have heard that the common gold and silver references in these names comes from a traditional Jewish involvement in the jewelry trade. Is that correct? Where and when did these last names originate? “Stein”, “Berg”, and “Burg” are very common suffixes to Jewish last names. Where do those come from and what do they signify? What about other common jewish names like Cohen?

A related question: Does the world jewelry have to do with jews?

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Austria and most German states made laws mandating that people take last names, and in a lot of cases, laws saying that Jews, specifically, be given last names. So, government officials went around assigning last names. So, a lot of central European Jews got their names that way. Berg means mountain, Burg means castle, and Stein means stone. A lot of times these names were just given out randomly, according to the namer’s whim.

Cohen is a different case, as is Levi or Levy. One of the 12 tribes of Israel was the tribe of Levi, and a subtribe of the tribe of Levi was the subtribe of Kohen. Back when the temple still existed, the tribe of Levi made up the temple workers, and the subtribe of Kohen made up the temple priesthood. Even though the temple isn’t around anymore, Levis and Kohens still have a special place in Judaism. So, somebody with the last name Levi, Levy, Levine, etc., is probably, although not neccesarily, a Levi, and somebody with the last name Kohen, Cohen, Kahane, Katz, etc. is probably, although not necesarily, a Kohen.

The word “Jewelry” doesn’t have anything to do with Jews. It comes from the French, and probably ultimately from the Latin “iocus”, which is also where we get the word “joke” from.

Lots of Askenazi Jews (Northern/Eastern European, as opposed to Sephardim, from the Middle East, North Africa and Spain) lived in Germany and adopted German names towards the end of the Middle Ages, when most Europan families began using surnames. These are fairly common (singly or in combination) names in Germany, even among gentiles, and often refer to a place or profession associated with the family back in the days:
Stein=Mug or Cup

I’ve known lots of Russian-Jewish folks named “Gordon.” There was a Scottish adventurer who saved a Jewish village from Cossacks and in gratitude, many of the families there adopted his surname as their own.

Two more common last names that come from the 12 tribes are “Asher” and “Reuben”, 2 of the tribes. I have seen other tribes used as first names, but not last.

Just to add another common jewish name, where does “Roth” come from and what does it mean? As in David Lee Roth or Hyman Roth from the Godfather Part II.

Roth is probably a variant of the German word “Rot”, meaning Red.

Just to add about names such as Goldberg and Silverstein: I’ve read (IIRC, in Dictionary of Jewish Names by Benzion Kaganoff) that often, in eastern Europe, the officials would assign family names to Jews based on how much cash they could cough up. So people who could afford it ended up with rich- or nice-sounding names (involving precious metals, flowers, etc.), while those who couldn’t afford to pay might end up with names such as Ochsenschwanz (“oxtail”) or Gornisht (“nothing”).

BTW, Krokodil: The word “stein” primarily means “stone” (the meaning of “mug” is secondary, based on the fact that such vessels were often made of stone). So a name like Goldstein means “gold stone.”

Also, IIRC, Kaganoff derives the name Gordon from the Russian gorod, meaning “village,” so Gordon = a villager. (The spelling was probably influenced by the Scottish name, though, since most other Russian-Jewish surnames with this suffix spell it “in,” as in Sorkin, Rivkin, etc.)

So Jews named Roth are somehow related to Native Americans (American Indians)?

Is this something to do with that whole ‘lost tribe’ thing?


Do you have a cite for the “Scottish adventurer
saves Jewish town” story? It sounds like a great

Here is a list of years in which Jews in various areas of Europe were required to adopt surnames. Also included is a brief list of surname sources.

This page discusses several hypotheses concerning the origin(s) of the Kott/Kot/Cott/Chott family name.

Meanings of many different surnames (Jewish and non-Jewish) can be found by searching this site.

That sticks out as very funny. :slight_smile:

No online cite, sorry. I heard the story independently from three different Jewish Gordons (including my 8th grade history teacher, now dead, and my girlfriend in college). Oral family history is notoriously full of self-serving bullshit, but I don’t see how that would be the case here.

I ran my own last name–Kennedy–through this one, and it’s pretty dubious. They say it means “shopkeeper,” whereas every other source I’ve ever checked says it means “ugly face.” Thre’s a principle (similar to Occam’s Razor) that favors the less-glamorous of two explanations.

An earlier thread on this subject:


Uri Dan - Israeli columnist
Oded Menashe - Israeli TV kiddie-star
There was a football player (goalie, I think) called Avi Binyamin a while back…
Certainly plenty of Yosephs around (although this is not technically a tribename)

I think that If I open a phone directory I’ll probably find instances of nearly all tribe names…

As for jewlery and Jews - the word Jew comes from Yehudi - of the tribe of Yehuda, via German Jude - so I don’t see how these can be related.

Dan Abarbanel (from Av Raban El - Father, leader, god. Not common, though)

My Ashkenazi family has lots of color surnames in a variety of languages–black, green, red, and white.

Some surnames were forbidden at various times. I’ve read that names like Eisenstein were intended as “code” to stand in for forbidden names like “Isaac” (sorry, no cite–I read this when I was a young thing teaching in a yeshiva high school).

I have heard (possible Urban Legend alert) that one of the reasons that there are so many Cohens (and varients) around when the Kohen’s were a rather select sub-group of the tribe of Levi was that immigration official in the New World, faced with recording unintelligible Eastern european names, wrote down “Cohen” because they knew how to spell that…


I never knew this is about the mandatory assignment of names to German and Austrian Jews. Interesting. You can learn something new here all the time!

For surnames in the “Sofer” (as in Rena Sofer, that incredibly beautiful brunette in that incredibly bad new sitcom, the US version of Coupling), “Safer” (as in Morley Safer, the news correspondant on 60 Minutes) and “Soifer”, “Seifer/t” and a few other variations:

It means “book” or “scribe” and was given during the assignment of surnames to Jews who could read and write…

More sources than a person could ever possibly absorb on Jewish names:



The main page, www.jewishgen.org, is a veritable fount of information on Jewish genealogy and related historical/religious/sociological topics. Check it out!

My last name is Feinsmith… I assume my ancestors made one hell of a sword