Meet a man named Cohen and it is fair to assume that he is a descendant of the priestly tribe, going all the way back to Aharon the High Priest. We all know that there are distinctly Jewish last names,  but not everyone is aware that some names point specifically to either Priestly or Levite heritage.

Cohen, with spelling variants as different as Cowen, Kahn and Kagen (where the Russians turned the soft h into a guttural g), is the most obvious of the priestly surnames. However, Kaplan and Katz, and their many derivatives, are often indicative of priestly lineage. Kaplan, which is also the German word for chaplain, is also believed to be an abbreviation of kohain ploni (meaning an anonymous priest). Katz, on the other hand, is said to be an abbreviation of kohain tzedek (meaning righteous priest). Others believe that Katz derives from kohain tzadok, referring to the specific line descending from Zadok, a priest in the era of King David. Among Sephardim, the name Mazeh is an acronym for me zerah aharon hakohen (descended from the seed of Aaron the Priest) and Azoulay is believed to be an acronym of Leviticus 21:7, which deals with the rules of whom a kohain may marry.

The descendants of Levi have similarly distinctive names, such as Levine, Leventhal, Lewin and Lewinsky.

It is interesting to note that some family names are identified with being a kohain or a Levite simply because of the family dominance/history. Rappaports tend to be kohanim. Horowitzes are often Levites, but only because of the 16th century patriarch of the family, Aaron Meshullam Horowitz, who had eight sons.

It should be noted that not every Cohen is a kohain, nor every Lewin a Levite. Adoption, blended families and even changes made upon immigration, have redefined families, and therefore no assumptions should be regarded as fact.

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