The Surname Sulam or Sullam: Onomastic Analysis
By Mathilde Tagger1
I was recently asked about the 'real' meaning of the surname Sulam, or Sullam. The family was among the descendants of Spanish exiles who found refuge in Venice, Italy after 1492. Sulam means 'ladder' in Hebrew, but how could the name of an object become a surname? It has been suggested that there may be a connection between the name of a village near Venice--Sulam-- and the origin of the family name. Though Italian Jewish names often do refer to places, e.g. 'Modiano' or 'Modigliani' from the city of Modena, such a hypothesis does not make sense in this case, given that family lore says the surname's origins lie in Spain. Moreover, the aforementioned village has not been found.2 Offering further contextualization, a ladder engraving has been noted on the tombstone of one of the ancestors (see picture below). Such cursory information about Sulam provides the foundation for further interrogation of findings and discussion.
The Geographic Distribution
1. Medieval Spain
In a database on Jewish surnames in medieval Spain3 , the name Sullam is cited 60 times under 19 different spellings:4 Ben Setlem, Çellem, Çulam5, Çutlam, Cyulam, Solam, Sollam, Sotlam, Sotlama, Soylam, Sulami, Sullam, Sutlam, Syulam, Zellam6, Zellem, Zotlam, Zullam and Zotlam. The bearers of these names lived between 1257 and 1450 in various places in Catalonia.
- The Italy Jewish Surnames Database7 provides the following information: Sulam was found in Venice and Leghorn. No further details are given about the documentary origins, i.e. census or community registers, nor are the years given.
- During a Google search of "Sulam, Italy", I came across Sara Copia Sulam, an Italian Jewish poet and writer who was born in Venice in 1592 and died there in 1641. A detailed article about Sara's life has been published in "The Jewish Women's Archive."8
- A ketuba (marriage contract)9 from Verona 1685, in which the bride's name is Bella Sulam Colorni (spelling transliterated from Hebrew).
- A ketuba from Mantua 1800, in which the bride's name is Gentila Sulam (spelling transliterated from Hebrew).
- A ketuba from Rovigo 1829, in which the bride's surname is Bianchi Sulam10 (spelling transliterated from Hebrew).
- Five burials for Sullam11 were found in Mantua, Italy for the years 1868-1890 in the Jewish Online World Burial Register (JOWBR).12
- According to Yad Vashem Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names, a Page of Testimony13 was found for Gisella Morpurgo born Sullam.
- The JewishGen Family Finder14 shows three records for the family name Sullam. The three are from Italy, two of them from Venice and surroundings.
- The surname Sulam was found in the 16th century15 among the worshippers of the Catalan Hadash and Ets Haim synagogues in Salonica.
- The surname is not listed in any of the seven volumes of Joseph Nehama's book on the history of Jews in Salonica, but one burial dating from 1671 is recorded in the JOWBR Database16 for Menahem Soulam (transliterated from Greek).
- The same search in JOWBR shows five persons named Sullam who were buried in the Rhodes' Jewish cemetery.17 They died between 1849 and 1944.
- According to Yad Vashem Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names18, eleven victims born in Salonica were called Soulam and four from Rhodes.
4. Eretz Israel
- The book Helkat Mehokek19 contains nine tombstone inscriptions for Sulam (transliterated from Hebrew) for the years 1806-1824 on Mount of Olives Cemetery in Jerusalem. No details about their origins are added.The 1849 Montefiore census20 of the Holy Land Jewish population shows three widows named Sulam (transliterated from Hebrew).
- The 1855 Montefiore census of the Holy Land Jewish population lists one widow named Sulam (transliterated from Hebrew). She was born in Istanbul and arrived in the Holy Land in 1849.
- The 1866 Montefiore census has only one person named Sulam, a widow for whom no further information was found.
- The surnames Sulam and Sullam are included in a list of Istanbul weddings held at the Turkey Chief Rabbinate in Istanbul, but the database is no longer searchable.
- In his List of 7,500 brides and grooms married in Izmir in the years 1883-1901 and 1918-1933, Dov Cohen21 lists the names of four brides and four grooms called Sulam with no further information.
- In Yad Vashem Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names22, three victims named Sulam or Soulam were born in Istanbul.
- The JewishGen Family Finder23 presents one record: Sulam family from Izmir, Turkey is being researched.
The NLI Ketubot (Ketuba pl.) Collection24 includes one Ketuba from Ghardaia, Algeria dated 1931, in which the name of the groom is Israel Sulam (spelling transliterated from Hebrew).
The Surname's Origin
In the Bible Sulam (ladder) is mentioned only once, when the Patriarch Jacob had a dream (Genesis 28:12-15):25
10: Jacob left Beer-Sheba and set out for Haran. 11: He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down on that place. 12: He had a dream; a ladder was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. 13: And the LORD was standing beside him and He said "I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac; the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring. 14: Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. 15: Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and bring you back to the land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."
Several commentaries26 are given for this dream:
- According to Jastrow's dictionary,27 Sulma28 means a ladder or a high place.
- According to the Midrash the ladder signified the exiles which the Jewish people would suffer before the coming of the Messiah. .
- Another interpretation of the ladder taps into the fact that the angels first "ascended" and then "descended." The Midrash explains that Jacob, as a holy man, was always accompanied by angels. When he reached the border of the land of Canaan (the future land of Israel), the angels who were assigned to the Holy Land went back up to Heaven and the angels assigned to other lands came down to meet Jacob. When Jacob returned to Canaan he was greeted by the angels who were assigned to the Holy Land.
- The place at which Jacob stopped for the night was in reality Mount Moriah, the future home of the Temple in Jerusalem. The ladder therefore signifies the "bridge" between Heaven and earth, as prayers and sacrifices offered in the Holy Temple solidified a connection between God and the Jewish people. Moreover, the ladder alludes to the giving of the Torah as another connection between heaven and earth.
Sulam is a ladder but can also signify a high place, the exiles of the Jews or the angels who always accompanied Jacob. It is also interpreted as a bridge.
Before treating the various suggested meanings of Sulam, it is appropriate to underline that the general classification of Sephardic surnames is: toponyms (such as Toledano, Valensi), patronymic names (such as Ben Haim, Ben Sasson), occupational surnames (such as Amar: colonist/farmer, Tapiero: mason), personal characteristics (Arukh: long), biblical names (Assa, Gabriel), artificial29 names for plants, animals, colors (such as Berdugo: bud, Perera: pear tree, Falcon: hawk, Gatenho: kitten, Albo: white, Amarillo: yellow) and abstract concepts linked to human feelings (such as Ankawa: purity or cleanliness, Esperanza: hope). This division more or less follows Faigenboim's classification.30
1. Sulam, a ladder in its basic sense
In this case, the surname SULAM can be based on the occupation of someone who builds and or makes ladders. Let us learn a little bit about ladder builders or makers in the Middle Ages, the time the surname Sulam was recorded.
In medieval times, a ladder was made of rope and rungs—pieces of wood or even just branches roughly polished—that were tied to it at their ends. These rope ladders were mainly used on boats. Looking for rope, the ancient occupation of rope maker is mentioned in Newman's book as well as the occupation of carpenter.
It makes sense to think that ladders were built by rope makers rather than by carpenters because ropes needed to be prepared first. This is why it is very probable that the occupation 'ladder maker' never existed as such, so our surname Sulam/Sullam cannot be based on an occupation that did not exist.
2. Bible Commentaries
- According to the first commentary, sulam means 'exiles of the Jews.' This is a prophecy concerning the destiny of the Jewish people that cannot be the root of a surname as it does not define a concept.
- The celestial picture of "the angels accompanying the Patriarch Jacob" does not fit any of the categories of the surname classification.
- The third suggested meaning of sulam is 'a high place.' Surnames are often toponyms of specific places, but do not express a place in general such as 'high place.'
- The fourth and last suggested meaning of sulam is 'bridge.' In the Middle Ages many bridges were built similarly to ladders—of rope and rungs. While a ladder is vertical, a bridge is horizontal and generally wider and longer. But the commentary explains that the bridge is between heaven and earth. This is the visualization of a religious belief, a category not found in the context of a surname origin or root.
3. Sulam vs. Messullam
Back to the Database of the Medieval Jewish Surnames in Spain,34 Sulam was not only used as a surname, but also as a given name with the variants: Sollam, Sutlam, Sutllam, Suytlam. As a given name, Sullam (all variants included) appears in 19 records.
This is neither a Spanish name nor an Arabic one and Sulam is not a biblical name. All along the Database column of the given names, only two double letters were used: the S and the L. This is how the name Meshullam came up. It appears four times as a surname and one time as a given name. Meshullam (transliterated from Hebrew) or Messollam (as spelled in the Database) is a masculine biblical name meaning 'befriended'. Meshullam (Kg 2 22:3), was the grandfather of Shafan 'the scribe', in the reign of Josiah. This finding intuitively prompted the thought that Sulam may be a corruption or a diminutive form of Meshullam, mainly for the following reasons.
- In Spanish the sound 'sh' doesn't exist but its counterpart the letter 's' is pronounced as a lisped 's'. This explains the spelling.
- The first syllable 'me' of Meshullam disappeared as a result of the following possibilities:
- The name was too long and the first syllable was dropped, i.e. the way diminutives are created. This is what happened to the surname Mitrani, also recorded as Trani.
- The scribe misunderstood the name. He probably asked Messullam what was his name and heard "Mi-Sullam" which would mean in Spanish "[You are asking] me? [I am] Sulam"—a kind of "conversation of the deaf."
- However, only by checking Hebrew documents can we partially solve the question, because the first letter of sulam, the ladder, is written with a samekh ( סולם ) while sulam when derived from Meshullam is written with a sin (שולם ).
Hebrew documents for which scans are available are: Ketubot which are part of the National Library Ketubot Collection, tombstone inscriptions, scans of pages of the five Montefiore censuses35 of the Jewish population in the Holy Land during the 19th century as well as Yad Vashem Pages of Testimony.36 We have to take into account that the names were properly spelled in the Ketubot37 yet family traditions can be wrong about the spelling of the names. See below in the Annex several documents that include the name Sulam.
- For 11 documents, four different Hebrew spellings have been found: שולם, סלם, סולם, סולאם . Six names are written with the letter sin while five begin with a samekh. But in fact, there is little importance to the way the surname was spelled in Hebrew because it is a very old name already used in 1257 in Spain and many forgot its correct spelling. We also have to take into account that the letter samekh is much more widely used than the letter sin and this may be the reason for spelling the name with a samekh rather than with a sin.
- Used as a given name Sulam, Sullam, Soulam or Soullam cannot be a ladder because, according to the Covenant between G-d and Abra(h)am, any Jewish male newborn has to be circumcised on the eigth day of his life (Genesis 17:9-12). This is why, at the circumcision ceremony, the newborn boy is named when it is said: "Veyikare shemo beyisrael…" meaning "and he shall be called in Israel…." So, obviously it makes sense to name a boy after a biblical character.
Like many other names, the first name Meshullam and its diminutive Sullam became surnames and are used till our day among the Sephardim. It is interesting to note the reaction of the father of the person who asked about the meaning of Sullam, when he heard that Sullam derives from Meshullam. He vehemently rejected the idea saying: "My ancestors couldn't be wrong. This is impossible," and closed the conversation. Might this behavior depict the deep Sephardic sensibility about the good reputation symbolized by the family name?
Several Hebrew documents for which a scan was available and in which the surname Sulam is written:
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 here. She has recently completed a major new database of Medieval Spanish Jewish Surnames. - See more here.
3. A survey and research about the Jewish surnames that were used in medieval Spain and have survived has recently been conducted (2013). For details about the 20,530 records see: http://www.sephardicgen.com/databases/MedievalSurnames.html
4. Because: 1. In medieval times, name spellings were not yet fixed, 2. The documents in which the names are found are written in Catalan, Latin or Spanish, 3. Not familiar with Jewish names, the scribes of the Royal Court and of the notaries wrote what they thought they heard or what they understood.
5. In Spanish Ç is pronounced as an S.
6. In Spanish Z is pronounced almost like an S.
8. The article can be read at: http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/sullam-sara-coppia.
9. From the Sephardic Indexed Ketubot Collection of the National Library of Israel at: http://www.sephardicgen.com/databases/KetubotItalySrchFrm.html
10. From the Sephardic Indexed Ketubot Collection of the National Library of Israel at: http://www.sephardicgen.com/databases/KetubotItalySrchFrm.html
11. This is the spelling in Latin letters in this database.
14. The JewishGen Family Finder is a database of ancestral towns and surnames currently being researched by Jewish genealogists worldwide.
15. Michael Molho, "Synagogues de Salonique," in Les Juifs de Salonique 1492-1943, ed. Elie Carasso (Tarascon: Cousins de Salonique, 2000).
17. See previous note about Sara Coppia Sullam.
19. Index of a book by Brisk, A. (1906-1913) including 8,092 tombstone inscriptions found on Mount of Olives Cemetery in Jerusalem.
20. The Montefiore Censuses of Eretz Israel Jewish population are online at: http://www.montefiorecensuses.org/search/Default.aspx
21. Cohen, Dov (1997) .
22. See previous note about Yad VaShem Archives.
23. See previous note about Italian family names.
24. See previous note about letter pronunciation in Spanish.
25. Translation according to Tanakh: See bibliography.
27. Marcus Jastrow, Dictionary of Targumim, Talmud and Midrashic Literature (New York: Choreb, 1926).
28. Sulma is the Aramaic word for sulam.
29. "These names have no connection with the origin or characteristics of the people who use them," Feiguenboin, G. et al. (2003).
30. See previous note about sulma and sulam.
31. Paul Newman, Daily Life in the Middle Ages (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co, 2001).
32. Occupations such as: miller, stone mason, blacksmith, falconer, tailor, carpenter, plowman, butcher, silversmith, grocer, draper, furrier, baker, weaver, barrel maker, cart maker etc.
33. According to Wilson (2004), 10,000 year old drawings on cave walls were excavated in Valencia, Spain. One of them shows two men climbing on long vacillating stems, i.e. the ladder's ancestor.
34. See previous note about Andree's Handatlas.
35. See previous note about tombstones on the Mount of Olives.
36. See previous note about Yad VaShem archives.
37. Rabbis pay careful attention to the spelling of names because this is the only tool for identifying someone in case of divorce.
Andree, Richard, Andrees Allgemeiner Handatlas. Bielefeld: Velhagen & Klasing, 1928.
Brisk, Asher Leib. Helkat Mehokek [The Burial Place of the Lawgiver]. Jerusalem: H. mo. I., 1969.
Carasso, Elie, ed., Les Juifs de Salonique 1492-1943 [The Jews of Salonika]. Tarascon: Cousins de Salonique, 2000.
Cohen, Dov. List of 7,500 Brides and Grooms Married in Izmir in the Years 1883-1901 and 1918-1933. Shimshon, Israel: D. Cohen, 5757,1997.
Feiguenboim, Guilherme, Paulo Valadares, Anna Rosa Campagnano. Dictionary of Sephardic Surnames. Rio de Janeiro, RJ: Fraiha, 2003.
Jastrow, Marcus. Dictionary of of Targumim, Talmud and Midrashic Literature. New York: Choreb, 1926.
Newman, Paul B. Daily Life in the Middle Ages. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2001.
Jewish Publication Society. Tanakh: A New Translation of the Holy Scriptures According to the Traditional Hebrew Text. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1985.
Wilson, Bee. The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2004.