COHEN, the name ():
The most usual surnames of European Jews. It indicates a family claiming. descent from Aaron, the high priest. "Cohen" is the usual transliteration and orthography in English-speaking countries; but "Cowen" and "Cowan" also occur in England, while America has developed the forms "Cohan," "Cohane," "Cohne," "Cone," "Coon," "Kan," and "Koon." In Germany and Austria the forms "Cohn," "Conn" "Kahn," "Kohn," and others are met with; while it is probable that "Köhne" and "Kohner" also represent the recurring surname, which also occurs as a part of the names "Cohnheim" and "Cohnfeld." The French forms are represented by "Cahn," "Cahen," "Cahun," "Caen," and "Cain," or "Kahn," while Italy uses "Coen," and Holland "Cohen." The curious form "Coffen," in which the "ff" represents the aspirate, occurs in old Spanish records; and "Kahin" is the usual Arabic representation. The most numerous variants occur in Russia, which supplies "Cahan," "Cahana," "Kahan," "Kahana," and "Kahane," "Kagan," "Kogan," "Kogen," "Kohan" (the last two being Aramaic forms), besides the extended forms "Kohnowski" and "Koganowitch." The name also occurs in duplicated forms, only one of which need be mentioned here; namely, "Kohn-Ẓedeḳ." This form is often abbreviated to Kaz, "Katz," () which is thus a variant of "Cohen."
Though claiming to be descended from a single person, the Cohens of to-day form rather a clan than a family. In Jewish religious life they have certain privileges and responsibilities: these are dealt with under Priest and Priesthood. Not all of those who are, in the religious sense, Kohanim bear the name "Cohen." In a way, the name is not strictly a surname, but an indication or hereditary office.
The number of those who bear the name "Cohen" in its various forms is a considerable proportion of all Jews. Among the English Jews they form about 3 percent; whereas on the continent of Europe, according to Lippe's "Bibliographisches Lexikon," they are only 2.3 per cent. In the 12,000 names contained in the lists of subscribers to the five chief Jewish charities of New York and Brooklyn, the Cohens, with the variant names, make up about 220, or less than 2 per cent. This relation of the number bearing the name "Cohen" to the total number of Jews in a list may be utilized to ascertain roughly the number in a much greater list. Thus, in the Brooklyn directory for 1900 there were 428 Cohens, which would indicate about 20,000 Jewish names in that directory.
How far this large proportion of Jews can claim a direct descent from Aaron is a matter of dispute. According to Jewish law, a Cohen may not marry a proselyte; accordingly, it would seem impossible that any admixture should occur among the Cohens. But they are allowed to marry the daughters of proselytes; and this would affect the purity of the Cohen descent. On the other hand, it is unlikely that any person would have assumed the name "Cohen" without cause, as several disabilities go with the descent. Thus, Cohens may not approach a dead body; and for this reason persons of that name are not welcomed as ministers in small congregations, and more rarely adopt the medical profession. Isaac ben Sheshet, of the fourteenth century, distinguished between the ancient and modern Cohens, declaring that it was only usage and not law which maintained the rights and responsibilities of the modern Cohens (Responsa, No. 94). Samuel de Medina, of the sixteenth century, agrees with this view, and assumes the impurity of the Cohen descent in discussing the validity of a marriage (Responsa, No. 235). Solomon Luria thinks it impossible for the Cohens to have preserved their purity of descent throughout the wanderings of the Jews. Jacob Emden recommends a Cohen to refund the five shekels given him for the redemption of the first-born, because he can not be sure of his origin and of his claim to the money. It has even been declared that some Cohens must not say the priestly blessing ("Magen Abraham," 201, 4; "Kerethi u-Pelethi," 61, 6).
- Jacobs, Studies in Jewish Statistics, pp.4, xxvii.;
- Löw, Die Lebensalter, pp. 114-115 and notes.