Articles > Names
Jewish Women's Names in an Arab Context: Names from the Geniza of Cairo
by Juliana de Luna (Julia Smith)
Information about Jewish women's names from the Middle Ages is often difficult to find. Published information about Jewish life tends to deal with aspects of public life and thus exclude women. One notable exception is the series of studies based on the documents found in the Geniza of Cairo (see the bibliography for complete references).
A "Geniza" is a collection of documents written in the Hebrew alphabet. It was considered desecration to destroy documents that had the name of God on them, so documents, including contracts (both marriage contracts and business contracts), letters, and a variety of random documents were preserved at the synagogue. In most communities, the documents were ritually disposed of every few years; however, in Cairo a large room was created and never emptied. Thus, the Geniza of Cairo was remarkably well preserved, allowing us a surprisingly complete picture of the lives of Jews in that city in the Middle Ages.
This article focuses on the names of over 200 women preserved in the Geniza documents. The majority are marriage contracts, but women are also mentioned in wills (both as testator and as heir) and even in business contracts. Given the relatively small sample size and the fact that women were selected for discussion by the author for unknown reasons, no attempts are made to evaluate the frequency of different names.
Only given names are found here. Most women in these documents are described as their father's daughter. However, the formulas for marriage contracts do not use the father's name as a byname, but rather as part of an elaborate description. The form bat 'daughter of' is found only occasionally here, although it (and its Arab equivalent bint) were generally used. In this data, the abbreviation b is often used, leaving the form it takes unclear. Several sources for masculine names can be found online; an article based on the masculine names from this source is forthcoming.
The names are mostly Arabic, even though most were rendered in Hebrew letters. This reflects the broader trend in the Middle Ages: Jewish women generally used names typical of the culture in which they lived, while men generally used biblical names or names that were vernacular equivalents of religious names. A few biblical names are found: Esther, Miriam, Rebekah/Rivka (both spellings are found), and Sara.
Many names are derived from everyday Arabic words, whose meanings were probably relatively transparent to the namers. Many refer to a desirable trait or to the preciousness of a child. Meanings are included where possible.
A few patterns of Arabic given names consisting of more than one word need an explanation.
- <Amat al-'Aziz> 'maidservant of the Omnipotent': Names like this one are typical Arabic devotional names. This are equivalent to the masculine <'Abd al-'Aziz> 'servant of the Omnipotent'. The second part of these names is invariably one of the descriptive phrases used to describe Allah, many of which are also used in the Old Testament. Three examples of this pattern are attested here.
- <Sitt al-Ahl> 'mistress of the family': Names like this one reflect another pattern, common in this data, but less common for Moslem women. The second part of the name may refer to a desired trait, a group of people, or even a city. Forty-four examples of this are found, and several other names may be shortened forms of this kind of name.
- <Umm al-Khayr> 'mother of goodness': Names like this one are patterned like Arabic kunya, honorific names based on the name of one's eldest child. However, these are not literally (at least for the most part) referring to a child, but rather to some desirable trait which the child will possess. There are six examples of this pattern here.
Only a handful of examples of women's complete names are found. A variety of forms are found, including a given name followed by one or more generations of patronymic bynames, a given name followed by a descriptive byname, or some combination. Some include:
- Sitt al-Banat ha-nigret Sa'ida (Mistress over the girls, named propitious)
- Nazar al-sabiyya (Nazar the servant)
- Sara b. Israel b. Shal
- Sittuna bint Sulayman b. Hiba known as Siraj
The Names (translations follow in parentheses, where known):
'Alam (flag, banner)
Ama'im (turbans = men, may be short for Sitt al-Ama'im)
Amat al-'Aziz (servant of the Omnipotent)
Amat al-Qadir (servant of the Almighty)
Amat al-Wahid (servant of the Unique)
Bagdad (may be short for Sitt Bagdad)
Baqa (long life)
Bushr (good tidings)
Diya (light, brightness)
Geveret 'Alanot (queen of the girls, Hebrew rendering of Sitt al-Banat)
Ghaliya (dear, precious)
Hayfa' (slender wisp)
Hilala (new moon)
Jayyida (first rate)
Kassah (upper class, may be Sitt al-Kassah)
Khazariyya (the Turkish woman)
Khiba' (hidden treasure)
Mahfuza (guarded, perhaps by God)
Maymuna (good auspice)
Mu'ammala (hoped for)
Mu'azzaza (highly esteemed)
Mubaraka (blessed one)
Mudallila (coquette, bold)
Muffadat (one for whom one is prepared to give one's life)
Muluk (king, may be short for Sitt al-Muluk)
Muna (wish fulfilled)
Mu'nisa (intimate friend)
Naba' (excellence, supremacy)
Nazar (control, competence)
Qurra (delight of the eyes)
Sadah (lords, may be Sitt al-Sadah)
Salama (well being)
Samra (dark brown)
Sitt A'daha (mistress of her enemies)
Sitt al-Agran (mistress of her peers)
Sitt al-Ahl (mistress of the family)
Sitt al-'Ashir (mistress of the clan)
Sitt al-Banat (Mistress of the girls)
Sitt al-Bayt (mistress of the house)
Sitt al-Dalal (mistress of the bold)
Sitt al-Dar (mistress of the house)
Sitt al-Fadl (mistress of the nobles)
Sitt al-Fakhr (mistress of glory)
Sitt al-Furs (mistress of the Persians)
Sitt al-Ghalb (lady of overcoming)
Sitt al-Gharb (mistress of the West)
Sitt al-Husn (mistress of beauty)
Sitt al-Iraq (mistress of Iraq)
Sitt al-'Izz (mistress of fame)
Sitt al-Jami' (mistress of everyone)
Sitt al-Khassa (mistress of the elite)
Sitt al-Khawat (mistress of the sisters)
Sitt al-Kull (mistress over all)
Sitt al-Kuttab (mistress of the scribes)
Sitt al-Ma'ali (lady of excellence)
Sitt al-Milah (mistress of the fair)
Sitt al-Nas (mistress of mankind)
Sitt al-Nasab (mistress of the nobles)
Sitt al-Nazzar (lady of control)
Sitt al-Qa'ida (lady of the general)
Sitt al-Ri'asa (lady of leadership)
Sitt al-Sada (mistress of the lords)
Sitt al-Sirr (lady of the secret)
Sitt al-Su'ada (mistress of the happy ones)
Sitt al-Thana' (mistress of praise)
Sitt al-Tujjar (mistress of the merchants)
Sitt al-Turaf (mistress of the gifts)
Sitt al-Yumm (mistress of good luck)
Sitt al-Zaman (mistress of her kind)
Sitt Bagdad (mistress of Bagdad)
Sitt Ghalb (mistress overcoming)
Sitt Ghazal (lady gazelle)
Sitt Hidhq (mistress of efficiency)
Sitt Ikhtiyar (lady of preference)
Sitt Naba' (lady excellence)
Sitthum (their mistress)
Sumr (dark brown)
Sutayt (little lady)
Turayk (little Turk)
Turfa (precious gift)
Turkiyya (the Turk)
Umm al-Khayr (mother of goodness)
Umm Bayda' (mother of the fair girl)
Umm Sa'id (mother of propitiousness)
Umm Sitt al-Nass (mother of the mistress of mankind)
Umm Thana (mother of praise)
Yumm (good luck)
Bynames used in place of given Names
- Al-Mua'llima (the schoolmistress)
- Al-Wuhsha (object of yearning)
- Al-Jawziyya (nougat)
Goitien, Solomon D.
1978 A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza. Volume III: The Family. Berkeley: University of California Press.
For a more complete picture of the life of the Jewish community in Cairo, one might also care to consult:
- Volume I. Economic Foundations
- Volume II. The Community
- Volume IV. Daily life and the Individual
In addition, the following sources were consulted:
- Da'ud ibn Auda, "Arabic Naming Practices and Names List," Compleat Anachronist #51, "The Islamic World" (Milpitas: SCA, Inc, Autumn 1990)
- Eleazar ha-Levi, "Jewish Naming Convention in Angevin England" (WWW: SCA, Inc., 1997)
- Friedemann, Sara L. (aka Aryanhwy merch Catmaeil), "Jewish Given Names found in _Les Noms des Israe/lites en France_" (WWW: Self-published, 2000) [URL:http://www.ellipsis.cx/~liana/names/jewish/levy].
- Hamid, Azieza, The Book of Muslim Names (London: MELS, 1985).
- Schimmel, Annemarie, Islamic Names (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1989).