May 23, 2024
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May 23, 2024
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I. What’s in a Surname?

Last names serve to identify an individual with greater specificity. There may be many men named Yosef ben Ya’akov in the marketplace, but Yosef ben Ya’akov Schwartz is much less common. Should we use last names in Jewish ritual and particularly in Jewish legal documents like a ketubah and get?

Initially, last names were utilized largely by nobility. Often, the last names changed each generation, but over time they became more constant. We know that “Ibn Shlomo” means the son of Shlomo and probably originated with someone whose father was named Shlomo. But at some point, a family decided to continue the last name into future generations. For example, The Ri Migash’s full name is Rav Yosef ben Meir Ibn Migash (12th century, Spain). Apparently his family was called “Ibn Migash” after an ancestor and the last name continued even with someone whose father was named Meir. Similar examples continue throughout the ages.

As administrative states grew, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, governments began requiring that all people adopt last names to enable record keeping. Should this change be reflected in halacha, as well? The long history of last names creates a history of halachic discussion, the development of which ultimately impacts contemporary practice.

II. All the Names

The Mishna and Gemara (Gittin 34b) discuss Rabban Gamliel’s first century enactment to include all names in a get. Sometimes a person is called by his middle name in his hometown and by his first name in his adult home, or by different nicknames by different people. To avoid confusion, Rabban Gamliel enacted that you write a person’s primary name in the locale where the get is given and add other names that are used. Secular names add another layer of complexity. Over time, this developed into versions of roughly: “Reuven who is called Ronald and any other name or nickname he has, the son of Shimon who is called Samuel and is nicknamed Sammy and any other name or nickname he has.” Now that last names are standard, should we also include them?

In the 15th century, we find a number of publications called Seder Ha-Get, which detail the process of Jewish divorce. Perhaps the most important was written by Rav Ya’akov Margolis, a student of Rav Ya’akov Moellin (Maharil, 15th century, Germany). Other important similar publications include those of another student of Maharil, Rav Ya’akov Weil (15th century, Germany; Responsa Mahari Weil, no. 190), and Rav Yehudah Mintz (16th cen., Italy; appended to Responsa Mahari Mintz).

Rav Yehudah Mintz (Seder Ha-Get, para. 45) says that he saw gittin arranged by Maharil that do not list different nicknames beyond what the man is normally called. Those documents do not include a last name either. However, Rav Mintz adds, if the town has two men with the same name and you do not want to include a grandfather’s name then you can include a nickname (chinuch or chanicha) of the last name.

In contrast, Rav Ya’akov Margolis (Seder Ha-Get, para. 99) quotes Rav Menachem Bacharach (16th century, Germany) as saying that you should refrain from mentioning a last name in a get. Instead, in the case of ambiguous names, you should go up a generation to the grandfather’s name. Significantly, Rema rules like this in his gloss to Shulchan Aruch (Even Ha-Ezer 129:16). The question is why not include the last name in a get and whether this applies to other legal documents as well.

III. Solving the Problem

Rema (Darkei Moshe, Even Ha-Ezer 129:19) says that the problem is that a kinuy nickname refers to an individual while a chanicha nickname refers to a family. If you call someone with just the last name (Shmuel ben Ya’akov Goldman) it might seem like the last name is part of the individual’s name or his father’s name. If you call it a kinuy, then you imply that it is his own nickname and not the family’s. Rav Mordechai Yaffe (17th century, Poland; Levush, Even Ha-Ezer 129:17) adds that using a family name does not identify the individual but rather the entire family. Therefore, it is an invalid kinuy.

Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, Even Ha-Ezer, vol. 1 no. 178) suggests that using language that explicitly identifies a last name as belonging to the family resolves all problems. For example, if you write Chaim ben Ya’akov be-chinuch Goldman, you are identifying Goldman as a family name. Even better is the term le-mishpachat, which explicitly says that the term is a family name. Rav Feinstein says that this would be appropriate even for a get according to all opinions. However, we should not do it for a get because of the severity of a mistake and the difficulty in correctly spelling last names. For any other document, we would be allowed to use a last name and doing so would be an enhancement of the document.

Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik used last names in ketubot (see Rav Aharon Ziegler, “Halachic Positions of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik,” vol. 5, p. 66), as do many of his students. Rav Hanan Balk told me the following story that Rav Manfred Fulda told him. Rav Fulda was once officiating at a wedding and Rav Moshe Feinstein entered the room. Rav Fulda asked Rav Feinstein to officiate, but Rav Feinstein declined and instructed Rav Fulda to proceed with filling in the ketubah. Rav Fulda asked Rav Feinstein how to spell the last names and Rav Feinstein quickly interrupted him and asked what he was doing. Rav Fulda looked at him with utter dismay and replied that he was following what Rav Moshe said to do in Iggerot Moshe and using last names! Rav Moshe responded: “It is true that I ruled that way, but my view has not been accepted and the minhag is not to use last names.”

It seems that times have changed, and the ruling from five hundred years ago does not necessarily still apply. Even if it does, we have found a solution to the problem it poses. But despite that, many are hesitant to change a common practice both due to conservatism and to additional complications that arise in modern settings. Some are open to change in less important documents but all agree that we cannot risk changing the practice of name conventions in gittin.

Rabbi Gil Student is editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

Rabbi Gil Student is editor of

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