How the Fischer family might have evolved from Sephardim


Genetic genealogy can raise interesting questions about one's ancestors, particularly with regard to Y-DNA markers, which can be inherited from father to son through many generations.


By Martin Fischer


Although I don't know the town or shtetl of origin of my Fischer ancestors, I do know that in the 19th Century they were German-speaking Ashkenazic Jews. After having my Y-DNA analyzed by FamilyTreeDNA, I found, as expected, that nearly all of my 12-marker exact-match "cousins" (whose number exceeds 100) also were Ashkenazim, Jews who originated in Eastern or Central Europe.


But several of my genetic Y-DNA cousins are of known Sephardic background. Among the dozens of obviously Ashkenazic names in the list of my 12-marker exact matches are the Sephardic-sounding names Aguilar, Benveniste, Ciobotaro, Medina, Orellana, Palma, Sacerdote and Valadez. One of those "exact match" Sephardic cousins is a Mr. Benveniste who is part of the Shaltiel family, whose origins are reputed to have been traced as far back as King David. These few Sephardic genetic matches raise the question, could the Fischers have had Sephardic origins prior to their sojourn in German-speaking lands?


Our surname is obviously German, so, a further issue is whether the name was changed or transformed from an earlier non-German one. Fischer is usually characterized as being an occupational name given to or adopted by fishermen or fishmongers. But sometimes the name derives from Vives, which means "life."


I have found archived JewishGen mailing list messages that explained that Vives was the old Spanish and/or old French form of the Hebrew name Chaim (life) and described a name-changing pattern of Chaim to Vives to Fayvush to Phoebus. These messages did not include anything linking Vives to Fischer/Fisher, but one message did link it to the name Fishel/Fischel and another linked it to Fish.


This theory has been attributed to Rabbi Benzion Kaganoff, author of "A History of Jewish Names and Their History," who credited Y.F. Gumpertz of Jerusalem.


In the book "Shaltiel: One Family's Journey Through History" by Moshe Shaltiel-Gracian, one prominent member of that Sephardic family was known as Perfet-Vives. He was one of the first two bailiffs, or financial administrators, for the counts of Barcelona in 1179. So, if the name-changing pattern described by JewishGen subscribers holds, then the latter part of the Perfet-Vives name derived from Chaim, and the next step in the evolution of the name would be to Fayvush or Phoebus.


One example of the Phoebus name cited in the JewishGen messages was Eliezer ben Uri Shraga Phoebus, a leader of the Vienna Jewish community and a member of the Halfanus/Chalfan-Kalonymos family of Italy. The Kalonymos family was one major branch of the Shaltiel family that is described in the book mentioned above. His son was the leader of a Prague yeshivah, Rabbi Uri Shraga Phoebus (circa 1640-1707).


At the same time that I was first contemplating these issues, a totally unrelated JewishGen message was posted to mailing list subscribers that mentioned at the bottom that the sender was researching the names "FAIVESHEVITZ/FAJBISZEWICZ (later changed to FISHER)." So here was an unsolicited, but very timely, mention of a Phoebus/Fayvush-like surname having been transformed into Fisher.


Therefore, here is my speculative scenario for Sephardic origins of my Ashkenazic Fischer family: The Hebrew name Chaim is changed to Vives to adjust to secular life in Catalunian-speaking Spain until the expulsion of 1492. The family flees to Italy, where Vives is transformed to Feyvush, for which an alternative  non-Jewish form is Phoebus. Northward immigration follows into German- or Polish-speaking lands, and a patronymic (son of) name form is adopted, such as Faiveshevitz or Fajbiszewicz. Finally, with increasing secularization or assimilation, possibly including mid-19th Century immigration to America, the name is shortened to Fisher or Fischer. 


This scenario of a name progressing from the Hebrew Chaim to the German Fischer is of particular interest to me because my great-great-grandfather was identified as Chaim ha-Kohane on his son's gravestone. Chaim's grandson, Henry Fischer, who was my paternal grandfather, was probably named for Chaim. 




Home | Site map | About us |Contact us




Experienced amateur genealogist Martin Fischer is available to conduct freelance family history projects including searching online databases, creating family trees, editing memoirs and developing genealogical Web sites. For more information, go to, click on find a freelancer, and type Martin Fischer in the search box, or go to, click on search by name, and type Fischer and Martin in the search boxes.

  View Martin Fischer's profile on LinkedIn