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Genealogy Guide: Sephardic and Mizrahi Research

Brief History


Jews, who had lived on the Iberian Peninsula since 6 B.C.E, began to call themselves Sephardim ("Spanish") during the early Middle Ages. After the expulsions from Spain (1492) and Portugal (1497), Jews fled to numerous places within Europe, the Ottoman Empire, and the New World. The word Sephardim came to refer to the Jews of these countries whose origins still remained in Spain or Portugal and who spoke Ladino and other Spanish regional dialects.


“Eastern” Jews, who had remained in the Near East since the Babylonian or Roman Exiles, among them the Musta’arabi (Arabic-speaking) Jews and Maghrebi (North African) Jews, often maintained a separate linguistic and liturgical identity from the Sephardic Jews who arrived after 1492. Many of these populations, however, did assimilate into a common “Sephardic” identity, on the basis of the Sephardic liturgical standard, although not always the linguistic standard of the Ladino language. Therefore, researchers may encounter a diverse range of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish communities which identify in various ways as Sephardic or Mizrachi.   

Sephardic & Mizrachi Genealogy

Since the Sephardic world is so diverse and widespread, it is difficult to make generalizations about Sephardic genealogy. The sources, methods, and results of genealogical research on a family in Amsterdam, for example, differ greatly from research on a family in Aleppo or Salonika. However, there are several common characteristics:

  • Sephardic family names are older than most Ashkenazi names. With Hebraic, Aramaic, Spanish, or Arabic etymology, Sephardic surnames are often traceable to the 11th century and even earlier.
  • In Sephardic naming customs, children can be named for both the living and the dead. Often, the firstborn son is named after the paternal grandfather, and the firstborn daughter is named after the paternal grandmother, so that given names may appear in every other generation.