Friday, August 08, 2008

When husbands used their wives' maiden names

The Israeli Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Yona Metzger, recently called on women to take on their husband's surname.

As a married woman who (mostly) still uses her maiden name, I am grateful to blogger Lion of Zion for providing this fascinating reminder that the way we allocate surnames has changed greatly throughout the centuries - and that a woman taking on her husband's name was not, historically, the only Jewish practice.

As he explains:

If it is so deleterious to a marriage when the wife uses her maiden name, how much worse would it be for the husband to take on that name for himself (rachmana litzlan - G-d forbid)?

A famous example of a husband using a name from his wife's family is R. Shmuel Salant, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Jerusalem in the nineteenth century. His father's name was not Salant; rather, he adopted it from his second wife's father, R. Yosef Zundel of Salant.

Even before the adoption of surnames -- which, contrary to popular opinion, was already in limited use centuries before the Austrian edicts of the 1780s -- there may be evidence that some Jews chose to identify themselves by their fathers-in-law rather than the standard ploni ben ploni.

Records from the Jews of medieval England list some names as ploni the son-in-law of ploni or ploni the brother-in-law of ploni (click here. I don't know the information on this website is reliable)...

Likewise, some Jews in Galicia (and elsewhere?) used "names that indicated son-in-law of" (click here)...

This website (unverified) notes the following concerning R. (Yehuda) Leib Eskeles of Olkusz (Elkesh), near Krakow (17th c.?):

Rabbi Yehuda [Leib Eskeles] married the daughter of Rabbi Moshe Israel Hendels of Krakow. As it was often the case, R' Yehuda Leib, entering the family of his father-in-law was known under this surname and was known as "Rav Leib Hendels" (and not Leib Eskeles)...

Finally, not all newlyweds in Europe registered their marriages with the secular authorities (like today, although probably for different reasons). In such cases wives continued to use their maiden names by default and their children were even registered with their mothers' surnames as illegitimate children (click here).

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