Cohen (surname)

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Cohen (Hebrew: כֹּהֵן, kōhēn, "priest") is a Jewish surname[1] of biblical origins (see: Kohen). It is a very common Jewish surname, and the following information discusses only that origin.

The Suleiman ben Pinhas Cohen family of Sana'a, circa 1944

Bearing the surname often (although not always) indicates that one's patrilineal ancestors were priests in the Temple of Jerusalem. A single such priest was known as a Kohen, and the hereditary caste descending from these priests is collectively known as the Kohanim.[2] As multiple languages were acquired through the Jewish diaspora, the surname acquired dozens of variants. Not all persons with related surnames are kohanim, and not all kohanim have related surnames. In the Russian Empire, where Jewish males were required to undertake extended compulsory military service, there was an exemption for priests and some men are said to have claimed to be Kohanim to avoid being drafted.[3]

Some Kohanim have added a secondary appellation to their surname, so as to distinguish themselves from other Kohanim—such as Cohen-Scali of Morocco, who trace their lineage to Zadok,[4] and Cohen-Maghari (Meguri) of Yemen, who trace their lineage to the first ward, Jehoiariv, in the division of twenty-four priestly wards.

Being a Kohen imposes some limitations: by Jewish law a Kohen may not marry a divorced woman, and may not marry a proselyte (someone who converted to Judaism).[5] Nor should an observant Kohen come into contact with the dead[6] or enter a cemetery.

An effort to trace whether people named 'Cohen' actually have a common genetic origin has been undertaken, using a genealogical DNA test associated with the Cohen Modal Haplotype.[7]


The Katz surname is a possible indicator of being a Kohen/Cohen: it may stem from "Kohen Tzedek". The latter word means "righteous or authentic priest."[8]

Other last names with similar indication are Kohentov and Kohenteb; the suffix literally means good, meaning that one could rely on them as being a Kohen when needing one for redeeming a firstborn male child.

See also[edit]

Variants of Cohen

Variant surnames


  1. ^ Schreiber, Mordecai (2011). The Shengold Jewish Encyclopedia. Taylor Trade Publications.
  2. ^ Donin, Rabbi Haim Halevy (1972). To Be A Jew. A Guide to Jewish Observance in Contemporary Life. Basic Books. p. 198.
  3. ^ "Last name: Cohen".
  4. ^ Shlomo bar Yosef ha-Cohen Atzvan, Ma'alot Shlomo, Jerusalem 1985, p. 56 in PDF (Hebrew)
  5. ^ Donin p.291
  6. ^ Donin p.304
  7. ^ Sources for the genetic studies are given in the article Y-chromosomal Aaron.
  8. ^ Charles W. Bell (October 4, 1997). "Counting the Cohens, and some of them could be named Katz". The NY Daily News.
  9. ^ "Rav Elazar Kahanow, ZT"L, on this tenth Yarhrtzeit". March 25, 2012.
  10. ^ Hanks, Patrick, ed. (2006-01-01), "Kaner", Dictionary of American Family Names, Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780195081374

See also[edit]

External links[edit]