Ashkenazim and Sephardim – Jewish History

Posted By on August 8, 2018

For the last 1,000 years the Jewish people have, for themost part, been grouped into two categories: Ashkenaz and Sepharad.Contemporary Ashkenazim are Yiddish-speaking Jews and descendants ofYiddish-speaking Jews. Sephardim originate in the Iberian Peninsula andthe Arabic lands.

While there are differences in culture, language, genetics,and nuances of ritual observance, the commonalities between the two groups aremuch stronger than what divides them. Thus, a Sepharadi from Morocco and anAshkenazi from Moscow would immediately find common ground in a prayer servicethat is 95% identical, in mitzvah observance, and of course, the Hebrew language.

The Cordoba synagogue was built by Sepharadic Jews in 1315. After Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, it was converted to a hospital.

Sepharad is the Hebrew name for Spain. Thus, the Jewishpeople living in Spain and the Iberian Peninsula becameknown as Sephardim. The earliest recorded Jewish settlements in Spain dateback to the 3rd century, and Jews may have been living in Spain since the FirstTemple period. King Solomons taxcollector was said to have lived the end of his life there. Having grown inprominence under Muslim rule, they were arguably the most illustrious Jewishcommunity in the world. Spharad produced Torah scholars, scientists, financiers,and thought-leaders whose works are still being studied today, including IsaacAbravanel, Nachmanides, Maimonides and others. The Jews in Sepharad developedtheir own language, Ladino (Judeo-Spanish).

Ferdinand and Isabella expelled practicing Jews from Spain, forcing those who remained to worship in secret. The Spanish exiles formed a Sephardic diaspora that stretched from London to Aleppo.

In 1492, the Catholic king and queen of Spain, Ferdinand andIsabella, expelled all Jews from their lands (this was not the firsttime Jews had been expelled from Spain). Only those who converted toCatholicism were permitted to stay. Spanish Jews poured into Portugal (fromwhence they were soon expelled as well), North Africa and anywhere else theycould find a safe haven.

In many placesfrom Amsterdam to Aleppothey became thedominant Jewish culture in their new host communities. This explains why Jewsfrom lands far from Spain are known as Sepharadim. Since the big-tent Sepharadincludes many more Jews than just the Spanish refugees and their descendants, amore accurate term for Jews of eastern provenance that has gained popularity inrecent years is Eidot Hamizrach (Communities of the East).

A large and lively Sepharadic community once lived in Salonica, Greece.

While legends abound, it is not entirely clear when Jewsbegan populating the Rhine Valley, or where they had come from. Details inliturgy and other clues point to the Holy Land as a possible point of origin.Beginning around the 10th Century, the Jewish communities straddling France andsouthern Germany rose to prominence as a learned and vital center of Jewishlife.

The ancient staircase leading down to the mikvah in Cologne, site of early Ashkenazi settlement.

Ashkenaz is the Biblical name of a grandson of Japhet, theancestor of the Romans. Perhaps because the area had been part of the RomanEmpire, the region, its language, and its (non-Jewish) inhabitants wereassociated with that name. In time, the Jews living there became known asAshkenazim as well.

As Jews in Ashkenaz suffered successive waves of murderouscrusades, Talmud burnings, massacres and severe repression, they made their wayto the more welcoming lands to the east. There, Ashkenazi life flourished, and Yiddish(a Jewish concoction of German, Yiddish, Aramaic and more) became the dominantlanguage of the Jews of Eastern Europe until the double scourges of Nazism andcommunism conspired to kill millions of Jews and squelch the Jewish identity ofmillions of others.

Jewish merchants in 19th century Warsaw.

While the essentials of Judaism are the same for all Jewishpeople, there are some differences in Ashkenazi and Sephardic observance. Hereare some of the more pronounced differences (in no particular order):

Top: a Ashkenazi synagogue with the seating facing east. Below: A Sephardi synagogue with the seating facing the center.

There have been thousands of great Sepharadic and Ashkenazicrabbis, sages and teachers. Here we will list some of the most prominent rabbis, focusing on those who directlyinfluenced the development of halachic tradition for their respectivecommunities.

Rabbeinu Gershom Meor Hagolah (Ashkenaz,960-1040): Known as the light ofthe exile, the first prominent rabbi in Ashkenaz, he is well known for hisenactments, including bans on reading other peoples mail and polygamy.

Rif (Sepharad, 1013-1103): A native of Fez, Morocco, Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasisummarized the entire Talmud, highlighting salient points and resolvingundecided issues.

Rashi(Ashkenaz, 1040-1105): Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki was the foremost commentator on theTorah and Talmud and the leader of the Jewish community in Alsace-Lorraine.

Rabbenu Tam (Ashkenaz, 1100-1171): A grandson of Rashi, RabbiYaakov Tam was the most prominent of a group of scholars who wrote the Tosafot(Additions), commentaries to the Talmud. Rabbeinu Tam narrowly escaped deathat the hands of the crusaders. Many of his peers were sadly not so lucky.

Rambam (Sepharad, 1135-1204)Born in Spain and perhaps the most influential teacher of Torah in the pastthousand years, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (also known as Rambam or Maimonides) ofEgypt wrote extensively on Jewish law, medicine, philosophy and Jewish beliefs,mostly in Arabic.

Rosh (1250-1327) Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel was born in Germany and flourished inSpain. He drew from both the Ashkenazic and Sepharadic traditions in hishalachic commentary on Talmud.

Tur (1275-1349): The son of the Rosh, Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher used theteachings of his father, Rambam, and Rif to determine the rulings in his magnumopus, Arba Turim (Four Towers), which established the template upon which theCode of Jewish Law is based.

Mahril (Ashkenaz, 1360-1427): Longtime rabbi in his hometown of Mainz,Germany, Rabbi Yaakov Moelin wrote many responsa, which establish the customsof Ashkenazic Jewry, especially in matters relating to prayer and synagogueprocedure.

Beit Yosef (Sepharad, 1488-1575): Rabbi Joseph Caro is the author of the Code of Jewish Law. Born inToledo just before the Spanish expulsion, he settled in Safed, Israel. Anaccomplished Kabbalist, he was considered by Sephardic Jewry to be the ultimateauthority in halachah.

Rama (Ashkenaz, 1525-1573): The rabbi of Cracow, Rabbi Moshe Isserles wrote glosses on the Code ofJewish Law, adding in rulings of the great Ashkenazic teachers, allowing thesingle, amalgamated text to be used in the entire Jewish community.

Baal Shem Tov (Ashkenaz,1698-1760) Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer founded the Chasidic movement, whichtaught that Gd is to be accessed through sincerity, joy and love. Histeachings, and those of his successors, have spread to both Ashkenazic andSepharadic communities, breathing vitality into Jewish life everywhere.

Of course, people rarely fit into the boxes we try to fitthem into, and many cultures that are mistakenly (and conveniently) placedunder the rubric of Sepharad are actually not Sepharadic at all.

A Yemenite Jew blows shofar (circa 1930s).

A case in point would be the Yemenite Jews, whose uniqueJewish tradition is even more ancient and did not come by way of Spain. Asimilar argument could be made for Persian Jews, who speak Judeo-Farsi andtrace their lineage to the Babylonian exiles.

The Jews of Italy and Greece once had thriving cultures oftheir own, with customs and languages that were uniquely theirs. Today, otherthan some small pockets, their traditions have almost disappeared (mostpractitioners were killed by the Nazis), having been supplanted by Ashkenaziand Sepharadi Jews who now live in these Mediterranean countries.

There were also once large numbers of Mustarabim, Jewsnative to Arabic lands. In time, they were overshadowed by and merged into theSephardic majority.

From the very start, our people were divided into 12 tribes.After the death of King Solomon, this was divided into Judea inthe south and Israel in the north. The northern kingdom (which comprised of 10tribes) waseventuallyexiled and lost to history.

During the Second Temple era, the rabbis were grouped intothe Houses of Hilleland Shamai. Where the students of Hillel were lenient, the studentsof Shamai were stringent. The law was almost always decided in accordance withthe teachings of the House of Hillel.

Following the destruction of the Holy Temple, two distinctacademies developed: one in the Land of Israel and the other in Babylon. Thetraditions of each were preserved in two Talmuds, the Jerusalem Talmud and theBabylonian Talmud.

In those days, there were some communities that werefaithful to the directives of the scholars in the Holy Land and others who wereinfluenced by the sages of Babylon.

Not unlike the Sephardim and Ashkenazim, these groups didhave differences in rite and custom, but the fundamentals of Judaism were thesame.

As the Jews in the Holy Land suffered under Christianrulership and their communal structure crumbled while the Babylonian academiescontinued to flourish, almost all Jewish communities gradually adapted theBabylonian traditions, which are now universally accepted.

The two major centers of Ashkenaz and Sepharad developedprimarily after the center of Jewish life crossed over the continental dividedfrom Asia to Europe around the turn of the second millennium. This happened onthe heels of the diminishment of the Geonic leadership in Babylon, which hadlong been the primary center of Jewish learning.

A boy wearing Sephardi tefillin reading from an Ashkenazi Torah.

Here is a fascinating (and somewhat confusing) aspect of theAshkenaz-Sepharad cross-pollination. The traditional liturgy of AshkenazicJewry is known as Nusach Ashkenaz (Ashkenazic Rite). With the rise of theChasidic movement, many began to incorporate various elements of the Sephardicrite into their prayers, since the Sephardic tradition was favored by theKabbalists and more in tune with the Kabbalistic meditations behind theprayers. This new Chasidic hybrid came to be known as Nusach Sepharad (orNusach Arizal, since it conformed to the meditations of the Arizal).

Thus, a Nusach Sepharad synagogue is most likely populatedby Ashkenazi Chassidim, and Sepharadim prefer to refer to their rites as EidotHamizrach or Sepharadi (with the added i) just to keep things clear.

This is just one example of how Ashkenaz and Sepharad arenot two distinct streams but two pillars upon which Judaism is firmlyensconced, rooted in tradition and anchored in dedication.

The distinctive garb of the Jerusalmite Chasidim includes elements of both Ashkenazi and Sepharadic traditions, which existed side by side in the Holy Land for centuries.

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Ashkenazim and Sephardim - Jewish History

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