The name Cohen is common among both Sephardim and Ashkenazim, making it one of the most widespread Jewish names of all time. In fact, it is the most common family name in Israel today, followed by Levi, Mizrahi, Peretz, Bitton, and Dahan.

Its meaning is fairly straightforward, as the Hebrew word kohen means “priest,” indicating that the bearers of this name are (usually) members of the priestly clan, descendants of Aaron the High Priest.


Depending on where one’s ancestors lived, spellings can include Cohn, Kogan, Kagan, Kahan, Kahn, and Cohan.

Among Ashkenazi Jews, this name is often accompanied by patronymic suffixes, stretching into Kahana, Kahane, Kahanov (or Kaganoff), Kahanowitz, and Kahanaman, each of which can be splintered into several alternative spellings.

The native English-speaker can sometimes wonder how Cohen becomes Kagan, which are pronounced so differently, but the mystery is cleared up when one realizes that the names of many of our ancestors were recorded in Russian.

Russian has no /h/ sound, so the /g/ is used instead. Also, in Russian, the difference between the “o” and the “a” is often blurred. Thus, Kohen can easily become Kagan, which we English speakers further mangle by pronouncing Kay-gan instead of Kah-gan.

Among Persian Jews, Cohen sometimes appears as Cohen-Zada, as the suffix “zada” means “son of” or “part of,” denoting that the bearers are part of the priestly Kohen clan.

Is Every Cohen a Kohen?

Is the fact that one bears the last name Cohen (or one of its variants) proof of priestly ancestry?

No! Due to the reasons outlined here, it is not uncommon for someone bearing any of the above names to have no tradition in their family that they are of priestly stock. Indeed, only those who have reliable reason to believe that they come from a direct male priestly line are to be considered Kohanim, last names notwithstanding.

In traditional Hebrew, used when one is called to the Torah and other instances (including headstones), a bona fide Kohen has the appellation “ha-Kohen” affixed to his name. Thus, Yosef Cohen, the son of Yaakov and Rachel, would be referred to as Yosef ben Yaakov Ha-Kohen.