For the meaning and orgins of some specific Sephardic names, go to the page on meaning and orgins. However it helps to read this page before going there.
The origins of ancient Jewish names go back to the original structure of Jewish society. Ancient Jewish society was structured into three societal groups. The top level was that of the tribe (mateh or shebet) ruled by a patriarchal ancestor, (later a judge and later still an elected king) and the priesthood in matters that were in their pervue. Below that came the extended family or clan (Mishpacha or aloof) governed by the elders (zekenim) or leaders aloofim. This was made up of related families within the tribe. The third level was the group living within the same tent ohel) or house (bayit) - what we would call today the family unit.
In those early days the only proof of belonging to a tribe and thus sharing in its assets lay in the carefully maintained lists of generations. These official lists were called the Sepher Toledot (book of generations) and later in history, after the exile, the Sepher Yohasin (from yachas, to enroll) and were considered of the utmost importance.
When some of these lists of generations were lost in the turmoil after the Babylonian exile it was a cause for great anguish and fervent efforts to reconstruct them. Shortly thereafter knowledge of law and science became of greater importance than descent from royalty and this was repeatedly stated in the Talmud as in "a bastard (mamzer) educated in the law is nobler than an ignorant high priest"". Certain families then began to take surnames based on notable ancestors (see below).
As we see the individual's identity was closely tied to individual's name and his genealogy (sephirim toledot or yohasin). The family name denoted the individual's belonging to one or the other families, clans or tribes. Thus members of the nation of Israel were bene Israel; those of the Gad tribe bene Gad (or ha Gadi); those of the Sasson or Zakai families were ben Sasson or ben Zakai, or just Sasson or Zakai, and so on.
Taking it to the next level down surnames could specify the individual's father as in Shlomo ben Maimon ben Hasdai. Sometimes, especially if the ancester was a notable person that became the new family name as in Ben David (ibn Daoud) a Sephardic family claiming descent from King David.
Jewish first names were inextricably linked to the individual's spiritual identity not only through life but also after death and was considered an alter ego of the individual. In Ashkenazi tradition naming a child after a living relative was avoided for fear the angel of death might mistakenly take the child instead of the older namesake. Sephardim imbued by mysticism and Kabbalah were careful to choose names that would not portend bad destinies. Both traditions saw the name as linked to the individual's destiny. Name changes were infrequent and undertaken in cases of grave illness and similar and followed specific rituals. An error in spelling a name in a religious divorce document (get) would render the divorce religiously invalid.
It should be noted that changes in the individual colloquial name or nickname did not alter the Jewish name which represented the spiritual identity. The importance of the individual Jewish name in Jewish tradition is also repeatedly illustrated in the bible, by admonishments to voice the name of G-d, terms such as the "Holy Name", the implications seen in the change of names of Abram to Abraham, of Jacob to Israel, etc.
Common Sephardic Naming conventions
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.
Evolution of names
In Biblical days, patronymic names revealing genealogic ancestry only start appearing after Abraham. Prior to Abraham the bible does not mention the individual's ancestral line. From Abraham on these lineages were carefully maintained until Talmudic times and after which they became disrupted by the dispersal of Jews in to the diaspora.
Biblical individual names were given with an express purpose to describe an individual's hoped destiny or characteristics. King David named his son Shlomo (from shalom, peace) because he hoped he would transmit to him a kingdom in peace. Adam named his wife Hava (life) because she was to be the mother of all living people. Other names during the biblical era incorporated the name of G_d as in Eliahu or Adoniram or were based on animal names as in Deborah (bee), Yonah (pigeon), Yael (mountain goat).
In the Babylonian period it became customary, especially for the leadership of the exiled Jews, to acquire Aramaic names - the language of the Babylonians. This could be done by adding the suffixes
In the Roman era, Romans carried three names. Based on the Aryan cult of the ancestor and maintenance of family hearth fires, these names consisted of the agnomen (the individuals's own name), the cognomen (usually the father's name) and the ancestral nomen (common ancester or guild name).
This system was demolished with the devellopment of Christianity which placed the emphasis on the individual as a member of a new universal family. From then on the babtismal or "christian name" became the only name of importance and the only names used. Around the XII century patronymic names started to return in Europe but they were now related to land (de Valois), descriptive (Carpenter, Butler) or similar. So now the individual's name became the "name" and the other the "surname". In Spain, where arab-jewish influence was significant, these new name structures retained their old original designations and were called apellido (name meaning family name) and nombre (first name).
Among Jews, the dispersal into the Diaspora and loss of continuity in the carefully maintained genealogies left gaps that precluded for most the ability to identify with one of the twelve tribes of Israel except for the Levites and Cohens. It became the habit to take on the name of a notable ancestor as the family name. this occured even when the genealogy was known. An example is the Ben Maimon family named after Rabbi Mosheh ben Maimon whose genealogy could be traced back to Obadiah.
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Spelling and other Variations
As most genealogists know, spelling is an invention and pre-occupation of the 20th century. Prior to that numerous spellings could and were used for the same name.
Among Sephardic names, these are some common variations of the same name from which you can deduce others:
(The spanish "ç" with a cedilla under it has a sound similar to "s")
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