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Differences in
Sephardic and Ashkenazic Genealogy

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Naming Conventions

The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron saying "The Israelites shall camp each with his standard under the banners of their ancestral homes". - Numbers 2:2

C onventions in the naming of children differ greatly between Sephardim and Ashkenazim and these have significance to the genealogist. The first that comes to mind is that Sephardim name children after persons who may be living or dead whereas Ashkenazim name their children after relatives that have died. Among Sephardim, the convention is to name the eldest son after the paternal grandfather and the eldest daughter frequently after the paternal grandmother.

Therefore, whereas in Ashkenazi research the date of birth of a child can sometimes be used to guess at the approximate year of death of the namesake, in Sephardic genealogy the name of the eldest son gives clues to the name of the paternal grandfather. This fact can sometimes be of great help in differentiating family trees.

Common Sephardic naming conventions (also see Jewish Names):

Firstborn son named after the paternal grandfather,
second male child after the maternal grandfather,
first daughter named after the paternal grandmother,
second female child after the maternal grandmother,
next child after the paternal uncle or aunt,
next after maternal uncle/aunt,

If a grandparent (paternal or maternal) or sibling was deceased, his/her name would often take precedence over the living relative. Some Spanish exiles named children after their own parents.

Family Names
F amily names have great importance in Judaism and particularly among Sephardim where mysticism and Kabbalah enforce the need for accuracy. The religious importance of the name is demonstrated in the avoidance of mentioning the name of the Lord by observant Jews and avoiding destroying documents that contain the Name - hence the Geniza which is a repository where correspondence and documents that happen to contain the name of G_d are buried instead of being destroyed. Among Sephardim, great care is taken in writing names in kettubot and other religious records to ensure that the accurate name spelling is utilized according to accepted rabbinical sources and it is believed that the name follows the individual into the afterlife and thus care is taken to ensure the correct usage in the hashkabah (Sephardic memorial) service for the dead. Adding to this is the mysticism of the Kabbalah where certain letter combinations are to be avoided, etc.

An example is the name Malka. Malka (spelt with a "heh" is a common first name among Ashkenazim and means queen in Hebrew. The Sephardic Malka family name however is spelt with an "aleph" at the end and is not Hebrew but Aramaic in origin and means king. (Some say Malka means from Malaga, a town originally named Malaka by Phonecians). Until recently Malka was rarely used as a first name among Sephardim, though it has become more common today.

Names are not changed casually. Changes usually occur for significant reasons (sickness or death) and follow specific rituals and traditions. In this respect the significance of change of names of Abram to Abraham and Jacob to Israel in the Bible are clear examples of the importance given to names and name change implications. Among Spanish Jews, a major cause for name changes occurred when converting to Catholicism. In these cases the names chosen were often purposefully "super Catholic", such de la Cruz, de la Santa Maria, de la Santa Fe or, especially in Portugal, the names of plants such as Perera/Pereira, etc. Often the conversos took on the names of their Catholic "godfathers" and sometimes their coats of arms as well.

Whereas among Ashkenazim, many family names were adopted relatively recently, Sephardic names typically go back to the 11-12th centuries and maybe even earlier. Many Ashkenazi family names were acquired as a result of 19th century laws promulgated to facilitate government census and taxation. As a result, common Ashkenazi names are shared by many unrelated families that just happen to have adopted them. Examples are names such as Goldenberg, Goldberg, Goldstein, Rothstein, etc. On the other hand in Sephardic tradition the family name usually identifies the person as a descendant of a specific recognized family. For these reasons, whereas in Ashkenazi research the exact name of the Shtetl is often of equal if not greater importance than the family name, in Sephardic research the family name is of much greater importance than locality, particularly since Sephardic families often travelled and moved extensively, while faithfully and scrupulously retaining their family names and often their genealogies as well.

The disadvantage of Sephardic names that go back centuries, is that the resulting generations create a geometric increase in the number of individuals holding that name and thus a nightmare for the genealogist researching a specific branch of the family. Toledano in La Saga des Familles reports a statistical study of 83,000 Sephardic Moroccan Jews immgrating to Israel (out of a total immigrant Moroccan Jewish population at the time of 160,000) in which he showed that a mere 38 family names comprised 58.3% (the majority) of all the immigrants. (The remaining 41% of the immigrant population was spread over 484 surnames).

Name Origins
S ephardic names have numerous origins and these origins can often be gleaned from the name itself. Origins of names such Toledano (from Toledo), Alfasi (from Fez), Ashkenazi (from Germany), Mizrahi (from the east), de Levanti (from the east or Levant) are easy to understand. Others denote an illustrious past. An example is the Ibn Daud family. This wealthy Spanish family, claiming descent from King David (hence their name), negotiated and paid the King of Portugal a gold ransom in 1492 to permit Jews expelled from Spain to gain temporary refuge in his domains. Incidentally, because of the complex history of the area, names of Arabic origin do not preclude Spanish backgrounds. Ibn Daoud is a good example, as is the Ben Oliel (from son of Allah or Abdullah), as in Salamo Benabrahim Benallel who was given special privileges by King Pedro IV of Aragon in 381 CE. and was Chief Rabbi of Majorca, etc.

Prefixes and suffixes are interesting in this respect. Patronimic names implying "son of" are common through out the world. Ashkenazi examples are -ovich or -sky as in Abrahamovich or Abramsky. Among the Sephardim the common forms of "son of" are the Hebrew ben, Arabic ibn or Aramaic bar or the Berber U or Wa. Actual real examples are Ben Malka, Ben Shaltiel, Ibn Malka, Ibn Shaprut, Malka Bar Aha (Gaon of Pumbadita in 771-775), Shimon Bar Kokhba (135 C.E.), and Uhayun (Ohayon). Mar is an Aramaic honorific title as in Mar Rab Malka (Gaon of Sura around 885).

Prefixes meaning "father of" also exist as Abi in Hebrew and Abu in Arabic as in Abihsera and Abudarham.

Sephardim travelled and moved a lot over the centuries, especially after the Expulsion from Spain. Just like Shlomo becomes Solomon in the New York, Salomon in France, Suleiman in Istambul, Shleimi in Poland, Sephardic last names also sometimes changed to suit the local custom of the land. For example known variants of the Malka lastname are Ben Malka, Ibn Malka, Aben Rey, and possibly even Shahin and Ben Shahin in Persia among others. Similar examples exist with many other names.

See also article on the meaning of some Sephardic surnames.

Nusach Sepharad vs. Minhag Sepharad
by Sylvia Williamson
Does "Nusach Sepharad" refer to Sephardic custom as practiced by Sephardim?
Nusach Sepharad/Sephardi (Sephardic version/formula) --to be distinguished from Minhag Sepharad (Sephardic ritual/custom)-- refers to the Ashkenazic form of prayer that includes certain elements from the Sephardic liturgy, along with other borrowings. Nusach Sepharad is also known as Nusach Ari, because the first to integrate Sephardic features in the Ashkenazic prayer was the Ashkenazi Kabbalist Rabbi Itzhak Luria (the Ari, 1534-1572). In the formative years of Hassidism in Eastern Europe, disciples and followers of the Baal Shem Tov and of his successor, the Maggid of Mezhirech, formally adopted Nusach Ari as their style of prayer. Today, many non-Hassidic Ashkenazis who seek to emphasize the spiritual aspect of prayer and Kavannah (principally among the Kabbalists) have also come to adopt Nusach Sepharad.
Can one distinguish between the two when purchasing a prayer book? It is indicated in the title page. The Sephardic prayer books specify Minhag Sepharad/Sephardi [According to Sephardic Custom]. The Ashkenazic prayerbooks may specify the Nusach: "Nusach Ashkenaz," or "Nusach Sepharad/Nusach Arizal").
Are the "Anshei Sphard" (or Sephard, or "Sfard") synagogues representative of Sephardic prayer service?

They are representative of the Ashkenazic, "Nusach Sepharad" Orthodox service.

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