The name comes from Sepharad (; Turkish: Sefarad), a Biblical location. This was probably the "Saparda" mentioned in Persian inscriptions: the location of that is disputed, but may have been Sardis in Asia Minor. "Sepharad" was identified by later Jews as the Iberian Peninsula, and still means "Spain" in modern Hebrew.
For religious purposes, and in modern Israel, "Sephardim" is often used in a wider sense to include most Jews of Asian and African origin, who use a Sephardic style of liturgy. This article is mostly concerned with Sephardim in the narrower ethnic sense, rather than in this broader Modern Israeli Hebrew definition. See also: Jewish ethnic divisions.
The term Sephardi can also describe the nusach (Hebrew language, "liturgical tradition") used by Sephardi Jews in their Siddur (prayer book). A nusach is defined by a liturgical tradition's choice of prayers, order of prayers, text of prayers and melodies used in the singing of prayers. Sephardim traditionally pray using Minhag Sefarad, which is quite similar to Nusach Edot haMizrach (liturgy of the Eastern Congregations). For more details of the Sephardic liturgy see Sephardic Judaism.
Historically, Sephardim are those Jews associated with the Iberian peninsula.
From the perspective of the present day, these sub-groups look in retrospect like separate branches, each with its own traditions, though some degree of merger is taking place as Spanish and Portuguese congregations increasingly include Jews of other backgrounds. In earlier centuries, and as late as the editing of the Jewish Encyclopedia at the beginning of the twentieth century, they were usually regarded as together forming a continuum, with the Jewish community of Livorno acting as the clearing-house of personnel and traditions between the three sub-groups as well as the main publishing centre. In some ways the relationship was a symbiotic one, with the Western (Spanish and Portuguese) sub-group contributing the publishing facilities, the secular learning and the political protection and the other two sub-groups contributing the religious learning.
Accordingly, in the vernacular of modern-day Jews in Israel and worldwide, especially many Ashkenazi Jews, "Sephardi" has come to be used as an umbrella term for any Jewish person who is not Ashkenazi. This nomenclature is often perceived as unsatisfactory, and a variety of other terms have been coined. For example, Jews of Arabic-speaking backgrounds are sometimes referred to as Musta'arabim or "Arab Jews", though for political reasons this last description is disputed.
A term in common use for all Jewish communities historically associated with Africa and Asia and not of Spanish descent is Mizrahim, which in Hebrew means "Orientals". In current use, Mizrahi Jews is a convenient way to refer collectively to a wide range of Jewish communities, most of which are as unrelated to each other as they are to either the Sephardi (in the narrower sense) or Ashkenazi communities. They include in particular the communities living in, or coming from, Southern Arabia (Yemen), North Africa, Mesopotamia (Iraq), Syria, Persia (Iran) and India. The distinction between Sephardim and Mizrahim is not watertight as many communities (e.g. Syrian and Moroccan Jews) are ethnically speaking a mixture between native Arab Jews and later arrivals from Spain and Portugal. Moroccans in particular sometimes object to being called "Mizrahim", given that it makes no geographical sense to describe Morocco as "eastern". In Arabic the equivalent term (Mashriqiyyun) specifically denotes the inhabitants of the Near East as opposed to those of North Africa (Maghrabiyyun). Conversely Turkish Jews, who are mostly of Spanish descent and therefore ethnic Sephardim, are geographically "easterners" and could logically be called "Mizrahim".
Following the 1492 expulsion from Spain, and the subsequent expulsions in Portugal (1497), these Jews, the nascent Sephardim, settled mainly in Morocco, the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey, Greece, Southwest Asia, North Africa and Bosnia and Herzegovina), southern France, Italy, Spanish North America, (Southwest United States and Mexico), Spanish South America and the Philippines and Portuguese Brazil, as well as the Netherlands (whence a number of families continued on to the former Dutch possessions of Curaçao, Suriname and Aruba), England, Germany, Denmark, Austria and Hungary.
As a result of the Jewish exodus from Arab lands, many of the Sephardim from the Middle East relocated to either Israel or France, where they form a significant portion of the Jewish communities today. Other significant communities also exist in New York City, Argentina, and Montreal, Canada.
The Eastern dialect is typified by its greater conservatism, its retention of numerous Old Spanish features in phonology, morphology, and lexicon, and its numerous borrowings from Turkish and, to a lesser extent, also from Greek and South Slavic. Both dialects have (or had) numerous borrowings from Hebrew, especially in reference to religious matters, but the number of Hebraisms in everyday speech or writing is in no way comparable to that found in Yiddish.
The North African dialect was, until the early 20th century, also highly conservative; its abundant Colloquial Arabic loan words retained most of the Arabic phonemes as functional components of a new, enriched Hispano-Semitic phonological system. During the Spanish colonial occupation of Northern Morocco (1912-1956), Ḥakitía was subjected to pervasive, massive influence from Modern Standard Spanish and most Moroccan Jews now speak a colloquial, Andalusian form of Spanish, with only an occasional use of the old language as a sign of in-group solidarity, somewhat as American Jews may now use an occasional Yiddishism in colloquial speech. Except for certain younger individuals, who continue to practice Ḥakitía as a matter of cultural pride, this splendid dialect—the most Arabized of the Romance languages—has essentially ceased to exist.
Eastern Judeo-Spanish has fared somewhat better, especially in Israel, where newspapers, radio broadcasts, and elementary school and university programs strive to keep the language alive. But the old regional variations (Bosnia, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Turkey, for instance) are already either extinct or doomed to extinction. The best we can perhaps hope for is that a Judeo-Spanish koiné, now evolving in Israel—similar to that which developed among Sephardic immigrants to the United States early in the 20th century—may somehow prevail and survive into the next generation.
Judeo-Portuguese (Lusitanic) has been conserved by the crypto-Jewish marranos of Portugal and Brazil and is still spoken by a few of them. It is also spoken by Sephardim still remaining in Turkey and amongst the Sephardi immigrants of Israel of Portuguese and Brazilian descent.
Judeo-Portuguese has also been used by Sephardim — especially among the Spanish and Portuguese Jews of Western Europe. The pidgin forms of Portuguese spoken among slaves and their Sephardic owners were an influence in the development of Papiamento and the Creole languages of Suriname.
Other languages associated with Sephardic Jews are mostly extinct, i.e., formerly spoken by some Sephardic communities in Italy. Low German (Low Saxon), formerly used as the vernacular by Sephardim around Hamburg and Altona in Northern Germany, is also no longer in use as a specifically Jewish vernacular.
Evidence which suggests Jewish connections with the Iberian Peninsula includes:
It is thought that substantial Jewish immigration probably occurred during the period of Roman occupation of Hispania. The province came under Roman control with the fall of Carthage after the Second Punic War (218-202 BCE). Exactly how soon after this time Jews made their way onto the scene in this context is a matter of speculation. It is within the realm of possibility that they went there under the Romans as free men to take advantage of its rich resources.
Although the spread of Jews into Europe is most commonly associated with the Diaspora which ensued from the Roman conquest of Judea, emigration from Judea into the greater Roman Mediterranean area antedated the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans under Titus. Any Jews already in Hispania at this time would have been joined by those who had been enslaved by the Romans under Vespasian and Titus, and dispersed to the extreme west during the period of the Jewish Wars, and especially after the defeat of Judea in 70 CE One account placed the number carried off to Hispania at 80,000. Subsequent immigrations came into the area along both the northern African and southern European sides of the Mediterranean.
Among the earliest records which may refer specifically to Jews in the Iberian peninsula during the Roman period is Paul's Epistle to the Romans. Many have taken Paul's intention to go to Hispania to preach the gospel (Romans 15:24, 28) to indicate the presence of Jewish communities there, as well as the fact that Herod Antipas's banishment by Caligula in 39 CE may have been to Hispania.
Perhaps the most direct and substantial of early references are the several decrees of the Council of Elvira, convened in the early fourth century, which address proper Christian behavior with regard to the Jews of Hispania.
As citizens of the Roman Empire, the Jews of Hispania engaged in a variety of occupations, including agriculture. Until the adoption of Christianity, Jews had close relations with non-Jewish populations, and played an active role in the social and economic life of the province. The edicts of the Synod of Elvira, provide evidence of Jews who were integrated enough into the greater community to cause alarm among some: of the Council's 80 canonic decisions, all which pertain to Jews served to maintain a separation between the two communities. It seems that by this time the presence of Jews was of greater concern to christian authorities than the presence of pagans; Canon 16, which prohibited marriage of christians with Jews, was worded more strongly than canon 15, which prohibited marriage with pagans. Canon 78 threatens Christians who commit adultery with Jews with ostracism. Canon 48 forbade the blessing of christian crops by Jews, and canon 50 forbade the sharing of meals by Christians and Jews.
Yet in comparison to Jewish life in Byzantium and Italy, life for the early Jews in Hispania and the rest of western Europe was relatively tolerable. This is due in large measure to the difficulty which the Church had in establishing itself in its western frontier. In the west, Germanic tribes such as the Suevi, the Vandals, and especially the Visigoths had more or less disrupted the political and ecclesiastical systems of the Roman empire, and for several centuries western Jews enjoyed a degree of peace which their brethren to the east did not.
Barbarian invasions brought most of the Iberian Peninsula under Visigothic rule by the early fifth century. Other than in their contempt for Orthodox Christians, who reminded them of the Romans and also because they were Arians, the Visigoths did not generally take much of an interest in the religious creeds within their kingdom. It was not until 506, when Alaric II (484-507) published his Brevarium Alaricianum (Breviary of Alaric) (wherein he adopted the laws of the ousted Romans), that a Visigothic king concerned himself with the Jews.
The situation of the Jews changed after the conversion of the Visigothic royal family under Recared from Arianism to Christianism in 587. In their desire to consolidate the realm under the new religion, the Visigoths adopted an aggressive policy towards Jews. As the king and the church acted in a single interest, the Jews' situation deteriorated. Under successive Visigothic kings and under ecclesiastical authority, many orders of expulsion, forced conversion, isolation, enslavement, execution, and other punitive measures were made. By 612 - 621 CE, the situation for Jews became intolerable and many left Spain for nearby northern Africa. In 711 CE, thousands of Jews from North Africa accompanied the Moslems who invaded Spain, subsuming Catholic Spain and turning much of it into an Arab state, Al-Andalus. (N.H.Finkelstein, p. 13, 14)
The Jews of Hispania had been utterly embittered and alienated by Catholic rule by the time of the Muslim invasion. To them, the Moors were perceived as, and indeed were, a liberating force. Wherever they went, the Muslims were greeted by Jews eager to aid them in administering the country. In many conquered towns the garrison was left in the hands of the Jews before the Muslims proceeded further north. Thus were initiated the two centuries of Muslim rule in the Iberian peninsula which became known as the "Golden Age" of Sephardi Jewry.
With the victory of Tariq ibn Ziyad in 711, the lives of the Sephardim changed dramatically. In spite of the stigma attached to being dhimmis (non-Muslim members of monotheistic faiths), the coming of the Moors was by-and-large welcomed by the Jews of Iberia.
Both Muslim and Christian sources tell us that Jews provided valuable aid to the invaders. Once captured, the defense of Cordoba was left in the hands of Jews, and Granada, Malaga, Seville, and Toledo were left to a mixed army of Jews and Moors. Although in some towns Jews may have been helpful to Muslim success, they were of limited impact overall. However it was frequently claimed by Christians in later centuries that the fall of Iberia was due in large part to Jewish perfidy.
In spite of the restrictions placed upon the Jews as dhimmis, life under Muslim rule was one of great opportunity and Jews flourished as they did not under prior Christian Visigoths. Many Jews came to Iberia, seen as a land of tolerance and opportunity, from the Christian and Muslim worlds. Following initial Arab victories, and especially with the establishment of Umayyad rule by Abd al-Rahman I in 755, the native Jewish community was joined by Jews from the rest of Europe, as well as from Arab lands, from Morocco to Babylon. Thus the Sephardim found themselves enriched culturally, intellectually, and religiously by the commingling of diverse Jewish traditions.
Arabic culture, of course, also made a lasting impact on Sephardic cultural development. General re-evaluation of scripture was prompted by Muslim anti-Jewish polemics and the spread of rationalism, as well as the anti-Rabbanite polemics of Karaite sectarianism (which was inspired by various Muslim schismatic movements). The cultural and intellectual achievements of the Arabs, and much of the scientific and philosophical speculation of Ancient Greek culture, which had been best preserved by Arab scholars, was made available to the educated Jew. The meticulous regard which the Arabs had for grammar and style also had the effect of stimulating an interest in philological matters in general among Jews. Arabic came to be the main language of Sephardic science, philosophy, and everyday business, as had been the case with Babylonian geonim. This thorough adoption of the Arabic language also greatly facilitated the assimilation of Jews into Moorish culture, and Jewish activity in a variety of professions, including medicine, commerce, finance, and agriculture increased.
By the ninth century, some members of the Sephardic community felt confident enough to take part in proselytizing amongst Christians. Most famous were the heated correspondences sent between Bodo Eleazar, a former Christian deacon who had converted to Judaism in 838, and the Bishop of Córdoba Paulus Albarus, who had converted from Judaism to Christianity. Each man, using such epithets as "wretched compiler", tried to convince the other to return to his former faith, to no avail.
The Golden Age is most closely identified with the reign of Abd al-Rahman III (882-942), the first independent Caliph of Cordoba, and in particular with the career of his Jewish councilor, Hasdai ibn Shaprut (882-942). Within this context of cultural patronage, studies in Hebrew, literature, and linguistics flourished.
Hasdai benefitted world Jewry not only indirectly by creating a favorable environment for scholarly pursuits within Iberia, but also by using his influence to intervene on behalf of foreign Jews: in his letter to Byzantine Princess Helena, he requested protection for the Jews under Byzantine rule, attesting to the fair treatment of the Christians of al-Andalus, and perhaps indicating that such was contingent on the treatment of Jews abroad.
One notable contribution to Christian intellectualism is Ibn Gabirol's neo-Platonic Fons Vitae ("The Source of Life;" "Mekor Hayyim"). Thought by many to have been written by a Christian, this work was admired by Christians and studied in monasteries throughout the Middle Ages, though the work of Solomon Munk in the 19th century proved that the author of Fons Vitae was the Jewish ibn Gabirol.
In addition to contributions of original work, the Sephardim were active as translators. Texts were translated between Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin. In translating the great works of Arabic, Hebrew, and Greek into Latin, Iberian Jews were instrumental in bringing the fields of science and philosophy, which formed much of the basis of Renaissance learning, into the rest of Europe.
In the early 11th century centralized authority based at Cordoba broke down following the Berber invasion and the ousting of the Umayyads. In its stead arose the independent taifa principalities under the rule of local Arab, Berber, or Slavonic leaders. Rather than having a stifling effect, the disintegration of the caliphate expanded the opportunities to Jewish and other professionals. The services of Jewish scientists, doctors, traders, poets, and scholars were generally valued by Christian and Muslim rulers of regional centers, especially as order was restored in recently conquered towns. Rabbi Samuel ha-Nagid (ibn Naghrela) was the Vizier of Granada. He was succeeded by his son Joseph ibn Naghrela who was slain by an incited mob along with most of the Jewish community. The remnant fled to Lucena.
The decline of the Golden Age began before the completion of the Christian Reconquista, with the penetration and influence of the Almoravides, and then the Almohads, from North Africa. These fundamentalist sects abhorred the liberality of the Islamic culture of al-Andalus, including the position of authority which some dhimmis held over Muslims. When the Almohads gave the Jews a choice of either death or conversion to Islam, many Jews emigrated. Some, such the family of Maimonides, fled south and east to the more tolerant Muslim lands, while others went northward to settle in the growing Christian kingdoms.
Meanwhile the Reconquista continued in the north throughout the 12th century. As various Arab lands fell to the Christians, conditions for some Jews in the emerging Christian kingdoms became increasingly favorable. As had happened during the reconstruction of towns following the breakdown of authority under the Umayyads, the services of Jews were employed by the victorious Christian leaders. Sephardic knowledge of the language and culture of the enemy, their skills as diplomats and professionals, as well as their desire for relief from intolerable conditions - the very same reasons that they had proved useful to the Arabs in the early stages of the Muslim invasion - made their services very valuable.
However, the Jews from the Muslim south were not entirely secure in their northward migrations. Old prejudices were compounded by newer ones. Suspicions of complicity with the Muslims were alive and well as Jews immigrated, speaking Arabic. However, many of the newly-arrived Jews of the north prospered during the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. The majority of Latin documentation regarding Jews during this period refers to their landed property, fields, and vineyards.
In many ways life had come full circle for the Sephardim of al-Andalus. As conditions became more oppressive during the 12th and 13th centuries, Jews again looked to an outside culture for relief. Christian leaders of reconquered cities granted them extensive autonomy, and Jewish scholarship recovered somewhat and developed as communities grew in size and importance. However, the Reconquista Jews never reached the same heights as had those of the Golden Age.
Among the Sephardim were many who were the descendants, or heads, of wealthy families and who, as Marranos, had occupied prominent positions in the countries they had left. Some had been state officials, others had held positions of dignity within the Church; many had been the heads of large banking-houses and mercantile establishments, and some were physicians or scholars who had officiated as teachers in high schools. Their Spanish or Portuguese was a lingua franca that enabled Sephardim from different countries to engage in commerce and diplomacy.
With their social equals they associated freely, without regard to religion and more likely with regard to equivalent or comparative education, for they were generally well read which became a tradition and expectation. They were received at the courts of sultans, kings, and princes, and often were employed as ambassadors, envoys, or agents. The number of Sephardim who have rendered important services to different countries is considerable, from Samuel Abravanel (or "Abrabanel" — financial councilor to the viceroy of Naples) to Benjamin Disraeli. Among other names mentioned are those of Belmonte, Nasi, Francisco Pacheco, Pedro de Herrera, Palache, Pimentel, Azevedo, Sasportas, Salvador, Costa, Curiel, Cansino, Schonenberg, Toledo, Toledano, Pereira and Teixeira.
The Sephardim have distinguished themselves as physicians and statesmen, and have won the favor of rulers and princes, in both the Christian and the Islamic world. That the Sephardim were selected for prominent positions in every country in which they settled was only in part due to the fact that Spanish had become a world-language through the expansion of Spain into the world spanning Spanish Empire—the cosmopolitan cultural background after long associations with Islamic scholars of the Sephardic families also made them extremely well educated for the times, even well into the European Enlightenment.
For a long time the Sephardim took an active part in Spanish literature; they wrote in prose and in rhyme, and were the authors of theological, philosophical, belletristic (aesthetic rather than content based writing), pedagogic (teaching), and mathematical works. The rabbis, who, in common with all the Sephardim, emphasized a pure and euphonious pronunciation of Hebrew, delivered their sermons in Spanish or in Portuguese. Several of these sermons have appeared in print. Their thirst for knowledge, together with the fact that they associated freely with the outer world, led the Sephardim to establish new educational systems wherever they settled; they founded schools in which the Spanish language was the medium of instruction. Theatre in Istanbul was in Judæo-Spanish since it was forbidden to Muslims.
In Portugal the Sephardim were given important roles in the sociopolitical sphere and enjoyed a certain amount of protection from the Crown (e.g. Yahia Ben Yahia, first "Rabino Maior" of Portugal and supervisor of the public revenue of the first King of Portugal, D. Afonso Henriques). Even with the increasing pressure from the Catholic Church this state of affairs remained more or less constant and the number of Jews in Portugal grew with those running from Spain. This changed with the marriage of D. Manuel I of Portugal with the daughter of the Catholic Monarchs of the newly born Spain. In 1497 the Decree ordering the expulsion or forced conversion of all the Jews was passed, and the Sephardim either fled or went into secrecy under the guise of "Cristãos Novos", i.e. New Christians (this Decree was symbolically revoked in 1996 by the Portuguese Parliament). Those who fled to Genoa were only allowed to land provided they received baptism. Those who were fortunate enough to reach the Ottoman Empire had a better fate: the Sultan Bayezid II sarcastically sent his thanks to Ferdinand for sending him some of his best subjects, thus "impoverising his own lands while enriching his (Bayezid's)". Jews arriving in the Ottoman Empire were mostly resettled in and around Selanik (Thessaloniki in Greek) and to some extent in Istanbul and İzmir. This was followed by a great massacre of Jews in the city of Lisbon in 1506 and the establishment of the Portuguese Inquisition in 1536. This caused the flight of the Portuguese Jewish community, which continued until the extinction of the Courts of Inquisition in 1821; by then there were very few Jews in Portugal.
In Amsterdam, where Jews were especially prominent in the seventeenth century on account of their number, wealth, education, and influence, they established poetical academies after Spanish models; two of these were the Academia de los Sitibundos and the Academia de los Floridos. In the same city they also organized the first Jewish educational institution, with graduate classes in which, in addition to Talmudic studies, instruction was given in the Hebrew language. The most important synagogue, or Esnoga, as it is usually called amongst Spanish and Portuguese Jews, is the Amsterdam Esnoga — usually considered the "mother synagogue", and the historical centre of the Amsterdam minhag.
A sizable Sephardic community had settled in Morocco and other Northern African countries, which were colonized by France in the 19th century. Jews in Algeria were given French citizenship in 1870 by the décret Crémieux (previously Jews and Muslims could apply for French citizenship, but had to renounce the use of traditional religious courts and laws, which many did not want to do). When France withdrew from Algeria in 1962, the local Jewish communities largely relocated to France. There are some tensions between some of those communities and the earlier French Jewish population (who were mostly Ashkenazi Jews), and with Arabic-Muslim communities.
Today, the Sephardim have preserved the romances and the ancient melodies and songs of Spain and Portugal, as well as a large number of old Portuguese and Spanish proverbs. A number of children's plays, like, for example, El Castillo, are still popular among them, and they still manifest a fondness for the dishes peculiar to Iberia, such as the pastel, or pastelico, a sort of meat-pie, and the pan de España, or pan de León. At their festivals they follow the Spanish custom of distributing dulces, or dolces, a confection wrapped in paper bearing a picture of the magen David (six pointed star). Amada.
In Mexico, the Sephardim community numbers approximately 5,500 and they originated mainly from Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria. In 1942 the Cologio Hebreo Tarbut was founded in collaboration with the Ashkenazi family and instruction was in Yiddish. In 1944 the Sephardim community established a separate "Colegio Hebreo Sefaradí Tarbut" with 90 students where instruction was in Hebrew and complemented with classes on Jewish customs. By 1950 there were 500 students. In 1968 a group of young Sephardim created the group Tnuat Noar Jinujit Dor Jadash in support for the creation of the state of Israel. In 1972 the Majazike Tora institute is created aiming to prepare young male Jews for their Bar Mitzva (History of the Sephardim Community in Mexico).
While the majority of American Jews today are Ashkenazim, in Colonial times Sephardim made up the majority of the Jewish population. For example, the 1654 Jews who arrived in New Amsterdam fled from the colony of Recife, Brazil after the Portuguese seized it from the Dutch. Through most of the 18th Century, American synagogues conducted and recorded their business in Portuguese, even if their daily language was English. It was not until widespread German immigration to the United States in the 19th Century that the tables turned and Ashkenazim (initially from Germany but by the 20th Century from Eastern Europe) began to dominate the American Jewish landscape.
In contrast to Ashkenazic Jews, who do not name newborn children after living relatives, Sephardic Jews often name their children after the children's grandparents, even if they are still alive. The first son and daughter are traditionally named after the paternal grandparents, and then the maternal parent's names are next up in line for the remaining children. After that, additional children's names are "free", so to speak, meaning that one can choose whatever name, without any more "naming obligations." The only instance in which Sephardic Jews will not name after their own parents when one of the spouses shares a common first name with a mother/father-in-law (since Jews will not name their children after themselves.) There are times though when the "free" names are used to honor the memory of a deceased relative who died young or childless. These conflicting naming conventions can be troublesome when children are born into mixed Ashkenazic-Sephardic households.
A notable exception to the distinct Ashkenazi and Sephardi naming traditions is found among Dutch Jews, where Ashkenazim have for centuries followed the tradition otherwise attributed to Sephardim. See Chuts.
See also Jewish Genetics Center about testing.