Sunday, April 11, 2010

Origin of Sephardic Jewry


Are Ashkenazi Jews able to define the expression "Sephardic Judaism" at all ?
Not too many Sephardic Jews actually live in Europe nowadays but rather in the United States; some remained in Arab countries and most Sephardic Jewry lives in Israel. Entire towns were built after the Sepharadim made Aliyah in the 50ies and 60ies such as Beit Shean. ARTSCROLL has even published a Sephardic Sidur (prayer book).

Sephardic Jews are from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia or Kurds. They come from Iran or Iraq whereas Ethiopia and Syria have a special (separate) status.

Furthermore, Sephardic Jews have many different customs differentiating them from their Ashkenazi counterpart. And it is the Sepharadim claiming that THEY live authentic Judaism whereas Ashkenazim have assimilated a lot into Western culture. Avraham Avinu was not an American or German but an Iraqi. Nevertheless, Sephardic Jews also took over many customs and mentalities from their Arab "home countries".

What was the reason for the separation of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews ?

After the Second Temple destruction by the Romans in 70 (common era), Jews were dispersed throughout many different countries. Many of them had been living in Babylon even before the destruction, as they had never gone back to Eretz Israel after the first Galut (Diaspora) hundreds of years before. Now, after the Second Temple was destroyed, thousands of Jews from Israel went back to Babylon. In the course of time, the Jews in Babylon became more and more important. Yeshivot already existed and many halachic decisions actually came from Babylon.

After hundreds of years, however, Babylon lost its leading position and many Jews moved to Spain. Despite the sometimes hostile Muslims (see the invasion of the ALMOHAD in the days of the Rambam, 1135 – 1214), Jews had not such a bad life among the Spanish educated Muslims. The Kabbalah began to spread and in 1290, Rabbi Moshe DeLeon published the "Zohar".

The great change to the worse took place as soon as Christianity conquered over Spain. The anti – Semitic couple, King Ferdinand of Aragon and his wife Isabella of Castile were the founders of the Spanish Inquisition. In March 1492 they made a decree that that Spanish Jewry either has to convert to Christianity or leave the country. The new law started a few months later, in July 1492.

The Expulsion of the Spanish Jews was an idea of the Spanish Inquisition. Its head was the Dominican priest Thomas de Torquemada who was afraid that Christians may talk to Jews and thus find out the true meaning of the Torah. Or in other words, the priest was afraid of loosing his sheep.

Most Spanish Jews, however, refused to convert and left Spain. Either to Portugal (where the expulsion took place a few years later), to France, Italy, Turkey or to northern Africa.

Jews who did convert to Christianity were called "Conversos". Most of them did that because they wanted to stay in Spain. Secretly they were practicing Judaism and were hunted by the Inquisition. Those conversos sticking secretly to their Jewish heritage were called "Marranos".


  1. Hi Miriam,

    I thought that Jews from Arabian countries were called mizrahim.
    That sefardim would only be Jews who fled from Spain and are now living still lagely in Turkey.
    Perhaps you could help me to brighten up my view?
    I have the feeling that I could have misunderstood something.



  2. B"H

    You are right. In Israel, however, we may be too lazy to make the correct difference and call everyone either Ashkenazi or Sephardi. Accept for the Yemenites (Temanim) and the Ethiopians (Ethiopim).

  3. Thank you, Miriam

    I'm glad that I didn't make a mistake