Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Or Sameach's last name? A reflection on surnames.

A little discussion about the surname of Rabbi Meir Simcha ha-Kohen of Dvinsk (1843-1926) has ensued on an email discussion list. Someone said it was Kalonymos; others pointed out that was just his father's name, and that person seems to have misunderstood his Wikipedia entry: "Meir Simcha was born in Butrimonys (Yiddish: Baltrimantz), Lithuania, to Samson Kalonymus, a local wealthy merchant. ."

It's possible that had some kind of legal surname, and it even might have been Kalonymos (although evidence is lacking), but a cursory glances at several sources from the 1920s and 1930s refer to him as "Rabbi Meir Simcha Kahan." I have a hunch that some may have a bit of a desire, even unconsciously, to see surnames like our surnames on great rabbis. Thus, there have been attempts to supply the Vilna Gaon with the surname Kremer, or the Chafetz Chaim with Poupko. In the case of the Vilna Gaon, there are Polish census documents that list him as "Eliasz Zelmanowicz," but surely he had as much sense of himself as "Zelmanowicz" as he did "Eliasz." It was simply a translation of "ben Shlomo Zalman," even though it looks like (and is) a modern Jewish surname, and today's Zelmanowitz surely think of themselves as Zelmanowitzes.

Perhaps some of us forget just how recent and fluid surnames in the sense which we use them were in the history of European Ashkenazic Jews (hereafter just "Jews"). Broadly speaking, they begin around 1800. As recently as before the Holocaust we see that in parts of Europe the surname used by families just weren't so important, and people were regularly referred to by their friends and acquaintances by other markers, such as town of origin, job, or even the street one lived on. By and large surnames were originally foreign to Ashkenazim, and eventually compelled by law and then custom.

I don't know about everyone else, but my last name has been a part of my identity ever since I could remember. I think of my name as being my legal surname as much as I do my first name. But this cannot be the way Jews felt about their surname when it was new, and probably not how my first ancestor with my surname felt about it. The only probable exceptions were people from famous families, eg, Rapoports, "Ish" Horowitzes, Ginzbergs or Rothschilds. Presumably some descendants of the Maharsha who used the name Eidels did not consider such a name disposable, but a gem to cherish. But that wasn't the case in general.

In my recent post on curly peyos the subject was a man called Wolfsohn or Halle. At one time he signed his name Aharon ben Wolf Halle. He was from Halle. Later he wasn't in Halle, so he began signing his name Wolfsohn. It's hard to see how he had any strong identity as either a Halle or a Wolfsohn; both choices were decisions he made as an adult and was in need of a way of identifying himself beyond a vague "Aharon ben Wolf." If he had grandchildren who continued to use Wolfsohn, as begun to happen, then the name became a part of their identity. If he had moved to England he probably would have changed his name to Wolfs, which is generally what Jews did when they moved there. They took their fathers first name, Anglicized it if necessary, and added an "s" suffix.

In Dr. J. J. Schacter's excellent dissertation on R. Jacob Emden, he discusses that surname (pg. 130), and points out that the rabbi himself never considered his surname to be Emden. Writing in 1765 he explicitly referred to himself as "The beleaguered Jacob Israel, called Yavez. I was never called Jacob Emden . . . It is known that I am not from Emden, I was not born there nor do I yearn to see it." הטרוד יעקב ישראל מכונה יעב"ץ ס"ט לא נקרא מעולם יעקב עמדין Indeed, he only lived in Emden from the time he was 16 or 17, and he signed his responsa יעב"ץ. On the other hand, he obviously had some cognizance of himself as being called "יעקב עמדין," being that he is complaining about it. However, whenever he referred to Emden in relation to himself (on title pages, for example), it was in his former role as the ראב"ד of Emden (not that he ever indicated it was a former role). In German literature he was called Jacob Hirschel, after his father. (Or "dem Emdener Rabbiner Jacob Hirschel," although this example from 1789 is from 13 years after he died:


As for R. Meir Simcha, when he was born in 1843 surnames were not yet deeply entrenched, and certainly one was not part of his identity. With a name like "Meir Simcha" (not a common combination until after he was gone) what further identification marker was needed? For that matter, I highly doubt the Chafetz Chaim thought of himself as "a" Kagan, as opposed to a kohen.


  1. Great post. There are areas of the literate world, like Indonesia, where family names are still not an established concept, and even in the West there are certain families (i.e. the Royals) that don't have family names in the "modern" sense.

  2. "I highly doubt the Chafetz Chaim thought of himself as "a" Kagan, as opposed to a kohen."

    I don't. There are many at that time, after WWI, that probably did make use of last names, since European Jewry started condensing into major metro areas, as an effect of the war.
    It probably became a necessity then.

  3. No, I'm not saying he didn't use it. It was on his stationary! But I'm saying that it probably was meaningless to his personal identity, that is to say, the Russian version of "kohen." It wasn't to him what Greenberg probably is to you.

    Thanks, Jordan.

  4. I mean, after WWI? He was in his mid 70s when WWI broke out. How attached would you be to a legal name which became used by you out of necessity when you are in your 70s?

  5. You're right. I guess I meant the general populace in the time when he the "Gadol".

  6. Jacob "Emden" using ס"ט is a further indication that it hasn't nothing to do with "sefardi tahor".

  7. is there any relationship between kramer and the gra?

  8. The Gra was descended from Rabbi Moshe Kremer (d. 1688), but that wasn't a surname, it was just what he was called on account of his having a shop.

    According to this the name was adopted by descendents of one of the Gra's brothers, and one of the Gra's great-granddaughters married a rabbi named Kramer, so there are descendents from that family with that last name. But the Gra never used it, and I doubt anyone ever dreamed it was his surname until it was discovered that not only are there descendants with that name, but one of his ancestor's was called by it. But that is entirely coincidental.

  9. Where does your last name (McDowell) come from?


  10. Good Post Fred,

    About the Emdin being reffered to as Yaavetz, that is the way it was inscribed on his tumbstone in Hamburg, see link for photo.

  11. DF:

    "The McDowell family name comes from the personal name Dougal. The Gaelic form of the name is Mac Dhughaill and literally means "son of Dougal." The personal name Dougal, meaning "dark stranger."

    Anon, thanks for that link. Some really good pictures.

  12. S.,

    iVelt has many such threads. If you know Yiddish, they make for great reading.

    I could spend hours there.

  13. A rebbe in my city said that when was a student in yeshiva, his rebbe would sometimes give a dvar Torah including many different rabbis' opinions:

    "The Ohr Someach taught... and the Dvinker Rebbe said... and the Meshech Chochma added ... and Reb Meir Simcha countered with..."

    I'm not sure how many of the students caught on.

    - Phil

  14. When I was a young boy I was sure R. Meyer Simcha's last name was Ovdvinsk. Life gets more complex as you learn more. :)

    Mike S.

  15. Why the "Ish" in Pinchas Ish Horowitz?


  16. "Ish Anything" means "a resident of Anything." For example, Wolf Heidenheim signed his name "ish Heidenheim." In this case, Horowitz refers to the place today called (or spelled) Horovice.

    I'm not sure why davka "Ish Horowitz" spread as a name, but perhaps it has to do with the most famous Horowitz of them all, the Shelah, who was known as "ish Horowitz." Most of the "Ish Horowitzs" we think of, such as R. Pinchas, were not from Horowitz. Rather, it was their surname.

  17. The Torah Temimah in his eulegy for his father in law "nachal dimah" claims that the descendants of the Shla"h refer to themselves by the name "Ish" Horowitz because it is an acronym for Avraham (Shla"h's father), Yeshaya, and Sheftel (Shla"h's son).
    Is Dr. JJ Schacter's dissertation available online?

  18. If you're interested in the Emden dissertation, please email me.

  19. Also, see R Meir Simcha's entry in Ohalei Shem where his last name Kahan is spelled in english and russian characters for mailing purposes

  20. Many of the Ish Horowitz's weren't descendants of the Shla"h, but of his brothers or cousins, so I guess that theory has not much basis.



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