The Surname Sasportas: An Onomastical Analysis
By Mathilde A. Tagger1
The aim of this paper is to trace the origin and the meaning of the surname Sasportas (ששפורטש) .
Variants and Derivatives of the Name Sasportas
The author's survey of surnames of Spanish Jews for the period 1252 to 1492, prior to the expulsion,2 generated the following variants of Sasportas, all of which are located in the Catalonia region in the north-east of Spain: Partal, Porta, Portal, Portell, De Portella, Portella, Sasportas and Saporta.3
Saporta or Sasportas is found almost exclusively among Sephardim. There have been instances where the variants Portal or Del Porta have been noted among Christians. The case of the Christian family and descendants bearing the name Portal from 1492 during three centuries illustrates the latter point. One of the successor Portal families lived in Gerona's Jewish quarter in the house of Isaac, Nahmanides' youngest brother.
Prior to the end of World War II, one encountered the names Sasportas, Saporta together with other close variants such as Sasportes as well as Chicheportiche, Partouche,4 Saporta, Sasportas, Sasportes, Sforta, Spartouche, Sportes, Sportiche, Zaporta, Zasporta.
The names Sasportas, Saporta, and their variants identified above, prior to the end of World War II were recorded in Italy, Greece, Turkey, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia as well as in Amsterdam, Hamburg and London. This geographically vast distribution in four countries in Europe, three in North Africa and two in the Eastern Mediterranean, reflects only part of the true scope of the Sephardic Diaspora. These names were subsequently recorded in Israel, France and in the Americas as they travelled along with the massive post-war waves of emigration to Israel, France and to the Americas.
The five following variants, Chicheportiche,5 Partouche, Sforta, Spartouche and Sportiche, were recorded exclusively in Algeria from the beginning of the French occupation in 1830, by French civil servants who wrote down what they thought they understood or heard.
One has to emphasize that Rabbi Eliahou Marciano (2002) recorded the biographies of 10 rabbis named Sasportas who lived in Algeria between 1340 and 1860 and none of the above-listed variants was mentioned.
These variants must be considered 'artificial' names and therefore have no bearing on the issues raised by the subject-matter.
Language Origin: Review and Analysis of the Literature
The authors of books on Jewish onomastics6 in the above-mentioned countries are of the opinion that the name derives from the phrase 'seis portas' meaning 'six doors',7 but do not mention the language. Laredo (1978), Sebag (2002) and Taïeb (2004) assert that the surname is in Catalan and means 'the doors'.
Eisenbeth (1936), for his part, sends the reader on with a "see reference" from the name Sasportas to the name Chiche. Eisenbeth further speculates that Chiche in turn, derives from the Hebrew word 'shayish' (שיש) (meaning marble) or from Sasportas meaning 'the doors' in Catalan.
Eisenbeth's speculation is not sustainable. More specifically, "Chiche" is not a derivative or an alteration of 'shaish' (שיש)This is so, because the letter 'yod', despite being often used as a vowel, in the case of 'shaish' is read as a full consonant. Consequently, the words 'shish' and 'shayish' are not interchangeable and cannot be used in the manner suggested by the author.
In terms of language origin, what is the connection between the names Chiche and Sasportas? Sebag defines Chiche as deriving from Chicheportiche that itself derives from Sasportas while Taïeb agrees with Eisenbeth but adds that Chiche may have a link with the Arabic name Bouchicha (the man with the hookah). Toledano (1999) also agrees with Eisenbeth (Chiche derives from the Hebrew 'shayish') and adds that Chiche may also derive from the Arabic word8 'has the shape of a dagger'.
Two references indicate that the surname Chiche existed in Algeria in the 18th century, before the French conquest of the country. One, given by Marciano, is about Rabbi Shmuel son of Eliezer Chiche from Tlemcen, Algeria, who lived until about 1760. The second reference brought by Bloch (1888) is Samuel son of Moses Chiche who died in Algiers in 1787.
It is reasonable to conclude that:
- The surname Chiche that existed as such in Algeria prior to the French conquest of the country is not linked to Chicheportiche, except by the fortuitous fact that both names contain identical syllables.
- Based on the evidence available to date, on the subject of the language origin of the name, the best that can be said is that the word Sasportas appears to be a phonetic derivation from the variants of the core Catalan word 'porta'.
Meanings: Review and Analysis of the Literature
The surname Sasportas is an exception among Sephardic names that derive from Spanish, Catalan and Portuguese languages in that these names generally relate to a place, a title, an occupation, or a physical or moral characteristic. In a number of instances they are based on nicknames of the above.
Hence, its original or derivative meaning must be construed by reference to extrinsic evidence and by resorting to the imaginative use of analytical techniques such as inference, analogy, similarity, patterning, among others.
As noted under the previous heading, it has been suggested that the name Sasportas is a distortion of the hybrid phrase 'seis portas'. This suggestion is not tenable because the first syllable 'sas' has been misinterpreted and translated as 'seis' meaning 'six' in Spanish.
Laredo, Sebag and Taïeb, among others, assert that the surname means 'the doors' in Catalan. On his part, Toledano reports that Joseph Messas, Chief Rabbi of Meknes, Morocco then of Jerusalem, told him that, according to the Sasportas family tradition,9 'six doors' are a sign of wealth. How, why and in which language or idiom is the phrase 'six doors' said to be a sign of wealth? These questions cannot be answered on the strength of the bald assertion of the chief rabbi, and in the absence of a document or some corroborating circumstantial evidence susceptible of validating the assertion.
In onomastic terms, the number "six" is found only in Sheshet, the name of an Amora, a Talmudic sage. Sheshet was born in the 3rd or 4th century in Babylon. In Spain we only find Barsheshet – son of Sheshet, which Taïeb defines as: "linked to the six days of the Creation or the six orders10 of the Mishnah" (Oral tradition). Toledano concurs with Taïeb's definition and adds that it may be the nickname of a person who is very knowledgeable of the Mishnah.
Are then, the 'six doors' linked to the divisions of the Mishnah? Could the Sasportas family members be really the descendants of these Talmudic sages who, upon their arrival in Spain, modified their name in Catalan? This is a rare name and documentation in Spain for the first centuries of the Christian era doesn't exist.
Are these doors a symbolic expression for 'the Door of Heaven' through which prayers go on their way to the Seat of Glory as discussed in the Talmud (Berakhot 32b)? Did an ancestor pray so passionately that he got this nickname? But Genesis tells about 'the Door of Heaven' – singular – not 'doors' in the plural.
This line of investigation leads to a dead end as the first two chapters of Genesis which speak of the "six days" of Creation fail to provide any insight into the meaning of 'six doors'.
Are these 'doors' related to those in the walls of the holy Jerusalem? The city already had walls when King David first entered it around 1,000 BCE. After him, almost every governor rebuilt the walls with new gates while other gates were blocked. The present walls of the city were built by the Ottomans between the years 1536 and 1541.
Therefore, there appears to be no connection between Sasportas and the 'Door of Heaven' nor the 'doors of Jerusalem'.
A document dating from 139111 reveals that Gerona Jews were called Porta, Da Porta, Sa Porta or Ça Porta, all these comprising the word 'porta'. Their houses were attached to the special door in the wall encircling the Jewish quarter of the city. This wall had been built some 100 years earlier upon the King's order and with the Jews' agreement for their own protection, which was especially needed on Christian feastdays.
The Catalan historian Alberch i Figueras may be right when he observed that the name is linked to the unique gate in the wall of Gerona Jewish quarter. Eighty-three persons named with one of the Sasportas variants are listed in the survey on the surnames of Spanish Jews who lived in Catalonia between the end of the 13th century and 1492.12
We can now conclude that:
The original name is Ça Porta that means 'the door' in Catalan. This spelling is found in medieval Catalan documents13 (Madrurell Marimon, 1958). In Spanish and Latin medieval documents14 the name is written: Saporta (Marcó i Dachs, 1985). It is to be emphasized here that medieval scribes, mainly not Jewish, in the service of the King or of notaries, wrote names as they thought they heard or understood them. In 1392 this same name is spelled Sas Portas in a Catalan document.15 So, it is very probable that this last spelling engendered the variant Sasportas. It is possible that the false meaning 'six doors' derives from the variants Ses Portes or Sesportes respectively encountered in 1327 and 1385, both in Mallorca.16
The following table shows all the Saporta, Sasportas variants encountered by the author in her survey of the surnames of the Spanish Jews prior to the 1492 expulsion.17 It illustrates the variants more than any wording.
Note: The spellings of the place names are in Catalan or in Spanish and sometimes in French, according to the language in which the publications or the archival sources were written.
|Ça Porta||1385||Barcelona||De Portal||1492||Zaragoza|
|Ça Porta||1194||Girona||de Portell||1301||Girona|
|Ça Porta||1385||Barcelona||De Portella||1252||Mallorca|
|Ça Porta||1329||Mora de Rubielos||De Portella||1213-1284||Tarazona|
|Ça Porta||1386||Girona||De Portella||1276||Valencia|
|Çaporta||1482||Morvedre||De Portella||1300||Villafranca del Panades|
|Çaporta||1437||Tortosa||Partal||1492||Buitrago del Loyoza|
|Çaporta||1345||Vilanova de Cubelles||Partal||1294||Toledo|
|De Porta||1278||Lerida||Saporta||1297||Santa Coloma de Queralt|
|De Porta||1257||Barcelona||Saporta||1342-1344||Villanova de Cubelles|
|De Porta||1225||Vilafranca del Penedes||Saportella||1363||Tarragona|
|De Porta||1276||Perpignan||Sas Portas||1391||Mallorca|
1. Mathilde A. Tagger holds an MA degree in Library and Information Sciences from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She has been deeply involved in Jewish genealogy both in Israel and abroad for the last twenty years, especially in the field of Sephardic genealogy. She has published numerous articles in various Jewish genealogical journals, including Sharsheret HaDorot (Israel); Revue du Cercle de Genealogie Juive (France); Etsi - Sephardi Genealogical and Historical Review (France); and AVOTAYNU (United States) and was co-author of Guidebook for Sephardic and Oriental Genealogical Sources in Israel, Avotaynu, 2006. She has built and published many databases, all available on www.sephardiccouncil.org/Research.hml. Very active for many years in the Israel Genealogical Society, she serves as their Sephardic SIG Coordinator. She was the Project Coordinator and member of the Jerusalem 2004 Jewish International Conference Board. See more at: http://www.sephardichorizons.org/Volume2/Issue3/aseo.html#sthash.6aDwyEdr.dpuf She has recently completed a major new database of Medieval Spanish Jewish Surnames.
2. The full results of this survey will be published sometime during the current year. For details see the Annex.
3. Often spelled Ça Porta or Çaporta or Saporta in documents dating from 1294 to 1386. For example, Catalan documents refer to Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman as"Bonastruc Ça Porta" (Bonastruc means 'good fortune') .
4. Taïeb gives as a variant of Chicheportiche, while Feiguenboim (2002) and Toledano (1999) list it as a separate name.
5. All these names are written in French. Phonetically the 'ch' in French needs to be read as 'sh' in English.
6. See bibliography.
7. The phrase 'seis portas' means 'six doors' in Portuguese, but the name existed already in 1252 in Catalonia, so this possibility has to be rejected.
8. The Arabic exact word is not given.
9. Family traditions are not always reliable sources of information and therefore must be handled cautiously. By way of illustration, the Toledano family whose members mainly settled in Meknes, Morocco, after a short stay in Salonica following the expulsion from Spain claims that the name is a combination of the words "Toledo" and "no" meaning "Toledo, not anymore, we will never return there" (Family tradition reported by Toledano, p.306). No one knows when or where this "oath" took place for the first time. It seems that here Toledo was used as a symbol for Spain. Yet the author located 23 Jews named Toledano who lived in various locations in Spain between 1282 and 1492. (see: supra no.1)
10. Order is for Division or Chapter.
11. Alberch I Figueras, 2003.
12. Supra no1.
13. Juceff Ça Porta lived in Barcelona in 1385 (Madurell Marimon, 1956).
14. Isaac Saporta lived in Lérida in 1326 (Marcó i Dachs, 1985).
15. Abraham Sas Portas lived in Majorca in 1391.(Kayserling, 1964).
16. Moses Ses Portes lived in Mallorca in 1327 (Lacave, 2002) and Isaac Sesportes lived in 1385 in Mallorca (Perez i Pons, 2006).
17. Those interested in a specific name can contact the author for more precise references.
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