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Peculiar and Unusual Naming Customs Among Medieval Ashkenazic Jews

Why did these given names from Medieval Ashkenaz and Anglia (England) fall out of favor among later Ashkenazim?



Yosi (as in the Galilean diminutive of the Hebrew name Yosef)

Peter (yes, a quite common name among medieval Jews of Central Europe)

According to a passage from “Vienna” by Max Grunwald (JPS, 1936), the oldest document of the Jewish community of Vienna dates to 1338 and bears the signatures of two local Jewish notables:

“In the year 1388…the Jews of Vienna felt grateful to the Vienna burghers that no harm befell them… They expressed their gratitude by means of a declaration that constitutes the oldest document of the Jewish community of Vienna known to us today. It is dated June 19, 1338. The document is in Hebrew and bears the signature ‘The Kahal of Vienna’ (Kehal Vina). On the right are the names Saadia Hayyim son of Senior, and Moses son of Gamaliel; on the left Hayyim son of Eliezer.”

The name Gamaliel is somewhat rare among Ashkenazim, but you’ll find even latter-day Ashkenazim with this name (the charedi Rabbi Gamaliel Rabinowitz of Jerusalem comes to mind), but then again with the advent of chasidut, Haskalah, Zionism and the (resultant) proximity of Ashkenazic communities to virtually all other Jewish diasporas, mutual influences cannot be ruled out.

Saadia Hayyim ben Senior may have been a Sefardi who had traveled east. Senior is an oft-used name component in family names of Spanish/Portuguese Jews (see, for instance, my articles in previous issues of The Jewish Link on the Senior family of Sepharad that migrated to Eastern Europe and the Near East post-Expulsion).

Senior may also indicate a Loez (Proto-Yiddish) origin (much like Shprintza=Esperenza).

The name Saadiah is also unusual, although there was a Rabbi Saadiah Ashkenazi who was a disciple of the Vilna Gaon. He immigrated to the Land of Israel, together with other students of the Vilna Gaon, at the behest of his teacher in 1809. His gravestone was recently discovered on the Mt. of Olives in Jerusalem.

Remnants of the old tombstone of R’ Saadiah Ashkenazi combined with the newly constructed marker.

פסח ב»ר פטר

The earliest Jewish gravestone of Buda, Hungary, dates to 1278 and bears the name of Rabbi Pesach, son of Rabbi Peter.

This is not the first instance of the name. It was also the name of a Tosafist:

(Gittin 8a) «…תוס› ד»ה רבי יהודה אומר: שאל רבינו פטר לר»ת»

“Rabbenu Peter (?) asked Rabbenu Tam…”

It should be noted that both “Pesach” (or “Paseach” if you insist) and “Shabbetai” are biblical personal names.

שַׁבְּתַי הַלֵּוִי, עֲזָרֻם


also in Nehem. 8

וְאֶשְׁתּוֹן, הוֹלִיד אֶת-בֵּית רָפָא וְאֶת-פָּסֵחַ

I Chron. 4

יוֹיָדָע בֶּן-פָּסֵחַ

Nehemiah 3

בְּנֵי פָסֵחַ

The name Yosi seems to have been popular in Medieval England. It is interesting to note that the bulk of pre-Expulsion English Jewry had migrated from France and most of the rabbis were disciples of the famed French Tosafist Rabbenu Tam who was a grandson of the great Rashi. The name Yosi was a common shortened version or diminutive of Yosef (these diminutives seem to have been a peculiar Eretz Yisrael tradition; other examples include Yehuda-Yudan; Eliezer-Lazer et al). It is found numerous times in the literature of the Jews of Eretz Yisrael, beginning with the Mishna, The Jerusalem Talmud and throughout various Eretz Yisrael midrashim. Franco-German Jewry or Ashkenaz are believed to have stemmed from Italian Jewry; that diaspora in turn once maintained close links with the Jews of Eretz Yisrael (in contradistinction to the Jews of Spain and the Near East who were tied to Babylonia). While the Ashkenazim eventually adopted most of the standard normative Babylonian tradition (preference of the Talmud Bavli over the Yerushalmi), it is important to remember that the first Jews of northern and western Europe were certainly influenced by the old traditions of Eretz Yisrael as refracted through the Italian and Romaniote Jewish tradition. To this day Ashkenaz maintains customs and rituals that have its roots in Eretz Yisrael (chiefly the pronunciation of Hebrew and the use of various liturgical formula in prayer). I would like to discuss this more in depth in the future. V’ein kan m’komo l’ha’arich.

There are also documented cases of 14th-century Polish Jews with highly “curious” names like Canaan(!) and Jordan.

From: “Trial and Achievement: Currents in Jewish History (from 313)” [by] H. H. Ben-Sasson:

“Even more remarkable are the names of Lewko’s father, Jordan, and Lewko’s son, Canaan, or Chanaan, which indicate a special devotion to Erez [sic] Israel.”

By Joel S Davidi Weisberger

Joel S. David Weisberger runs Channeling Jewish History. You can find it on various social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter. He can be reached at [email protected].

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