Many Ashkenazi Jews later migrated, largely eastward, forming communities in non German-speaking areas, including Hungary, Poland, Russia, Eastern Europe and elsewhere between the 10th and 19th centuries. With them, they took and diversified Yiddish, a Germanic Jewish language that had since medieval times been the lingua franca among Ashkenazi Jews. To a much lesser extent, the Judæo-French language Zarphatic and the Slavic-based Knaanic (Judæo-Czech) were also spoken. The Ashkenazi Jews developed a distinct culture and liturgy influenced, to varying degrees, by interaction with surrounding peoples, predominantly Germans, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Kashubians, Hungarians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Belarusians and Russians.
Although in the 11th century they comprised only 3% of the world's Jewish population, Ashkenazi Jews accounted for (at their highest) 92% of the world's Jews in 1931 and today make up approximately 80% of Jews worldwide. Most Jewish communities with extended histories in Europe are Ashkenazim, with the exception of those associated with the Mediterranean region. The majority of the Jews who migrated from Europe to other continents in the past two centuries are Ashkenazim, Eastern Ashkenazim in particular. This is especially true in the United States, where 6 out of the 7 million American Jewish population — the largest Jewish population in the world when consistent statistical parameters are employed — is Ashkenazi, representing the world's single largest concentration of Ashkenazim.
Religious Jews have Minhagim, customs, in addition to Halakha, or religious law, and different interpretations of law. Different groups of religious Jews in different geographic areas historically adopted different customs and interpretations. On certain issues, Orthodox Jews are required to follow the customs of their ancestors, and do not regard themselves as having the option of picking and choosing. Therefore, observant Jews at times find it important for religious reasons to ascertain who their household's religious ancestors are in order to know what customs their household should follow. These times include, for example, when two Jews of different ethnic background marry, when a non-Jew converts to Judaism and determines what customs to follow for the first time, or when a lapsed or less observant Jew returns to traditional Judaism and must determine what was done in his or her family's past. In this sense, "Ashkenazic" refers both to a family ancestry and to a body of customs binding on Jews of that ancestry.
In a religious sense, an Ashkenazi Jew is any Jew whose family tradition and ritual follows Ashkenazi practice. When the Ashkenazi community first began to develop in the Early Middle Ages and until the 9th century, the centers of Jewish religious authority were in the Islamic world, at Baghdad and in Islamic Spain. Ashkenaz (Germany) was so distant geographically that it developed a minhag of its own, and Ashkenazi Hebrew came to be pronounced in ways distinct from other forms of Hebrew.
In this respect, the counterpart of Ashkenazi is Sephardic, since most non-Ashkenazi Orthodox Jews follow Sephardic rabbinical authorities, whether or not they are ethnically Sephardic. By tradition, a Sephardic or Mizrahi woman who marries into an Orthodox or Haredi Ashkenazi Jewish family raises her children to be Ashkenazi Jews, and a gentile who converts to Judaism and takes on Ashkenazi religious practices becomes an Ashkenazi Jew.
Traditional Jewish law or Halacha considers a person who has undergone a formal religious conversion to be a Jew, but it also defines who is a Jew by ancestry, following the maternal lineage, irrespective of belief. According to Halacha, membership in a synagogue or participation in a local Jewish community does not alone make one a Jew. Likewise a person who disassociates themselves from the Jewish community is still considered to be Jewish by Halachic standards. Outside the State of Israel, no central authority or ruling body in Judaism determines who is a Jew. More religiously liberal and secular Jews have different approaches to accepting the Jewish heritage.
Since by tradition, Jewish status is inherited and follows the maternal lineage, someone who is maternally descended from a Jew, even if totally unaware of their Jewish heritage, or even if a practitioner of another religion, is from a traditional Jewish legal perspective still a Jew. Likewise, a person born of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother is not considered Jewish by traditional Orthodox Jewish law, even if they were raised Jewish, unless they convert.
As a result of both difficulties caused applying of the traditional rules in the face of wide-spread intermarriage in less traditional Jewish circles and ideological perspectives (egalitarianism), Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism adopted an approach of single-parent descent irrespective of gender. Under this definition, someone born to one Jewish parent who is given a Jewish upbringing is considered Jewish, and conversely, someone born to one Jewish parent who is not given a Jewish upbringing is considered a non-Jew (regardless of whether it is the father or mother who is Jewish).
The following examples illustrate Jewish identity issues from the perspective of Halakha:
With the reintegration of Jews from around the world in Israel, North America, and other places, the religious definition of an Ashkenazi Jew is blurring, especially outside of Orthodox Judaism. Many Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews have joined liberal movements that originally developed within Ashkenazi Judaism. At least in recent decades, the congregations they have joined have often embraced them, and absorbed new traditions into their minhag. Rabbis and Cantors in all non-Orthodox movements study Hebrew in Israel, learning Sephardic rather than Ashkenazi Hebrew pronunciation. Ashkenazi congregations are adopting Sephardic or modern Israeli melodies for many prayers and traditional songs. Since the middle of the 20th century there has been a gradual syncretism and fusion of traditions, and this is affecting the minhag of all but the most traditional congregations.
New developments in Judaism often transcend differences in religious practice between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. In North American cities, social trends such as the chavurah movement, and the emergence of post-denominational Judaism often bring together younger Jews of diverse ethnic backgrounds. In recent years, there has been increased interest in Kabbalah, which many Ashkenazi Jews study outside of the Yeshiva framework. Another trend is the new popularity of ecstatic worship in the Jewish Renewal movement and the Carlebach style minyan, both of which are nominally of Ashkenazi origin.
Before the Haskalah and the emancipation of Jews in Europe, this meant the study of Torah and Talmud for men, and a family and communal life governed by the observance of Jewish Law for men and women. From the Rhineland to Riga to Romania, most Jews prayed in liturgical Ashkenazi Hebrew, and spoke Yiddish in their secular lives.
But with modernization, Yiddishkeit now encompasses not just Orthodoxy and Hasidism, but a broad range of movements, ideologies, practices, and traditions in which Ashkenazi Jews have participated and somehow retained a sense of Jewishness. Although a far smaller number of Jews still speak Yiddish, Yiddishkeit can be identified in manners of speech, in styles of humor, in patterns of association. Broadly speaking, a Jew is one who associates culturally with Jews, supports Jewish institutions, reads Jewish books and periodicals, attends Jewish movies and theater, travels to Israel, visits ancient synagogues in Prague, and so forth. It is a definition that applies to Jewish culture in general, and to Ashkenazi Yiddishkeit in particular.
Contemporary population migrations have contributed to a reconfigured Jewishness among Jews of Ashkenazi descent that transcends Yiddishkeit and other traditional articulations of Ashkenazi Jewishness. As Ashkenazi Jews moved away from Eastern Europe, settling mostly in Israel, North America, and other English-speaking areas, the geographic isolation which gave rise to Ashkenazim has given way to mixing with other cultures, and with non-Ashkenazi Jews who, similarly, are no longer isolated in distinct geographic locales. For Ashkenazi Jews living in Eastern Europe, chopped liver and gefiltefish were archetypal Jewish foods. To contemporary Ashkenazi Jews living both in Israel and in the diaspora, Middle Eastern foods such as hummus and falafel, neither traditional to the historic Ashkenazi experience, have become central to their lives as Ashkenazi Jews in the current era. Hebrew has replaced Yiddish as the primary Jewish language for some Ashkenazi Jews, except for many Hasidic and Hareidi sects which continue to use Yiddish. For example, in Borough Park, Williamsburg, and other cities where large ultra-Orthodox populations reside Yiddish still remains the language spoken by Jews. Also, in many religious areas of Israel, including Bnai Brak and Meah Shearim, some conservative Hasidic groups continue using Yiddish, often refusing to use Hebrew entirely. Given the phenomenal growth of Hasidic Jews all over the world, and in the United States in particular, the number of Yiddish speakers, many sociologists predict, will boom. The number of Yiddish speakers today may be stagnant, or growing slowly, because of so many elderly Jews dying, but when this older cohort of Yiddish speakers dies the language will experience tremendous growth. In many yeshivas all over the world, Yiddish is the primary language of instruction.
France's blended Jewish community is typical of the cultural recombination that is going on among Jews throughout the world. Although France expelled its original Jewish population in the Middle Ages, by the time of the French Revolution, there were two distinct Jewish populations. One consisted of Sephardic Jews, originally refugees from the Inquisition and concentrated in the southwest, while the other community was Ashkenazi, concentrated in Alsace, and speaking mainly Yiddish. The two communities were so separate and different that the National Assembly emancipated them separately in 1791. But after emancipation, a sense of a unified French Jewry emerged, especially when France was wracked by the Dreyfuss affair in the 1890s. In the 1920s and 1930s, Ashkenazi Jews arrived in large numbers as refugees from antisemitism, the Russian revolution, and the economic turmoil of the Great Depression. By the 1930s, Paris had a vibrant Yiddish culture, and many Jews were involved in radical political movements. After the Vichy years and the Holocaust, the French Jewish population was augmented once again, first by refugees from Eastern Europe, and later by immigrants and refugees from North Africa, many of them francophone. Then, in the 1990s, yet another Ashkenazi Jewish wave began to arrive from countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The result is a pluralistic Jewish community that still has some distinct elements of both Ashkenazi and Sephardic culture. But in France, it is becoming much more difficult to sort out the two, and a distinctly French Jewishness has emerged.
Since the middle of the 20th century, many Ashkenazi Jews have intermarried, both with members of other Jewish communities and with people of other nations and faiths, while some Jews have also adopted children from other ethnic groups or parts of the world and raised them as Jews. Conversion to Judaism, rare for nearly 2,000 years, has become more common. Jewish women and families who choose artificial insemination often choose a biological father who is not Jewish, to avoid common autosomal recessive genetic diseases. Orthodox religious authorities actually encourage this, because of the danger that a Jewish donor could be a mamzer. Thus, the concept of Ashkenazi Jews as a distinct ethnic people, especially in ways that can be defined ancestrally and therefore traced genetically, has also blurred considerably.
A study by Michael Seldin, a geneticist at the University of California Davis School of Medicine, found Ashkenazi Jews to be a clear, relatively homogenous genetic subgroup. Strikingly, regardless of the place of origin, Ashkenazi Jews can be grouped in the same genetic cohort — that is, regardless of whether an Ashkenazi Jew's ancestors came from Poland, Russia, Hungary, Lithuania, or any other place with a historical Jewish population, they belong to the same ethnic group. The research demonstrates the endogamy of the Jewish population in Europe and lends further credence to the idea of Ashkenazi Jews as an ethnic group. Moreover, though intermarriage among Jews of Ashkenazi descent has become increasingly more common, many Ultra-Orthodox Jews, particularly members Hasidic or Hareidi sects, continue to marry exclusively fellow Ashkenazi Jews. This trend keeps Ashkenazi genes prevalent and will also help researchers further study the genes of Ashkenazi Jews with relative ease. It is also noteworthy that these Ultra-Orthodox Jews often have extremely large families too.
Religious Ashkenazi Jews living in Israel are obliged to follow the authority of the chief Ashkenazi rabbi in halakhic matters. In this respect, a religiously Ashkenazi Jew is an Israeli who is more likely to support certain religious interests in Israel, including certain political parties. These political parties result from the fact that a portion of the Israeli electorate votes for Jewish religious parties: although the electoral map changes from one election to another, there are generally several small parties associated with the interests of religious Ashkenazi Jews. The role of religious parties, including small religious parties which play important roles as coalition members, results in turn from Israel's composition as a complex society in which competing social, economic, and religious interests stand for election to the Knesset, a unicameral legislature with 120 seats.
European Jews came to be called "Ashkenaz" because the main centers of Jewish learning were located in Germany. Ashkenaz is a Medieval Hebrew name for Germany. (See Usage of the name for the term's etymology.)
Jews were denied full Roman citizenship until 212 AD, when Emperor Caracalla granted all free peoples this privilege. However as a penalty for the first Jewish Revolt, Jews were still required to pay a poll tax until the reign of Emperor Julian in 363 AD. In the late Roman Empire, Jews were still free to form networks of cultural and religious ties and enter into various local occupations. But after Christianity became the official religion of Rome and Constantinople, Jews were increasingly marginalized, and brutally persecuted.
In Palestine and Mesopotamia, where Jewish religious scholarship was centered, the majority of Jews were still engaged in farming, as demonstrated by the preoccupation of early Talmudic writings with agriculture. In diaspora communities, trade was a common occupation, facilitated by the easy mobility of traders through the dispersed Jewish communities.
Throughout this period and into the early Middle Ages, some Jews assimilated into the dominant Greek and Latin cultures, mostly through conversion to Christianity. In Palestine and Mesopotamia, the spoken language of Jews continued to be Aramaic, but elsewhere in the diaspora, most Jews spoke Greek. Conversion and assimilation were especially common within the Hellenized or Greek-speaking Jewish communities, amongst whom the Septuagint and Aquila of Sinope (Greek translations and adaptations of the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible) were the source of scripture. A remnant of this Greek-speaking Jewish population (the Romaniotes) survives to this day.
The Germanic invasions of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century by tribes such as the Visigoths, Franks, Lombards, and Vandals caused massive economic and social instability within the western Empire, contributing to its decline. In the late Roman Empire, Jews are known to have lived in Cologne and Trier, as well as in what is now France. However, it is unclear whether there is any continuity between these late Roman communities and the distinct Ashkenazi Jewish culture that began to emerge about 500 years later. King Dagobert of the Franks expelled the Jews from his Merovingian kingdom in 629. Jews in former Roman territories now faced new challenges as harsher anti-Jewish Church rulings were enforced.
After the Islamic conquest of the Middle East and North Africa, new opportunities for trade and commerce opened between the Middle East and Western Europe. The vast majority of Jews in the world now lived in Islamic lands. Urbanization, trade, and commerce within the Islamic world allowed Jews, as a highly literate people, to abandon farming and live in cities, engaging in occupations where they could use their skills. The influential, sophisticated, and well organized Jewish community of Mesopotamia, now centered in Baghdad, became the center of the Jewish world. In the Caliphate of Baghdad, Jews took on many of the financial occupations that they would later hold in the cities of Ashkenaz. Jewish traders from Baghdad began to travel to the west, renewing Jewish life in the western Mediterranean region. They brought with them Rabbinic Judaism and Babylonian Talmudic scholarship.
After 800 AD, Charlemagne's unification of former Frankish lands with northern Italy and Rome brought on a brief period of stability and unity in Western Europe. This created opportunities for Jewish merchants to settle once again north of the Alps. Charlemagne granted the Jews in his lands freedoms similar to those once enjoyed under the Roman Empire. Returning once again to Frankish lands, many Jewish merchants took on occupations in finance and commerce, including moneylending or usury. (Church legislation banned Christians from lending money in exchange for interest.) From Charlemagne's time on to the present, there is a well documented record of Jewish life in northern Europe, and by the 11th century, when Rashi of Troyes wrote his commentaries, Ashkenazi Jews had emerged also as interpreters and commentators on the Torah and Talmud.
Efforts to identify the origins of Ashkenazi Jews through DNA analysis began in the 1990s. Like most DNA studies of human migration patterns, these studies have focused on two segments of the human genome, the Y chromosome (inherited only by males), and the mitochondrial genome (mtDNA, DNA which passes from mother to child). Both segments are unaffected by recombination. Thus, they provide an indicator of paternal and maternal origins, respectively.
A study of haplotypes of the Y chromosome, published in 2000, addressed the paternal origins of Ashkenazi Jews. Hammer et al found that the Y chromosome of some Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews contained mutations that are also common among Middle Eastern peoples, but uncommon in the general European population. This suggested that the male ancestors of the Ashkenazi Jews could be traced mostly to the Middle East. The proportion of male genetic admixture in Ashkenazi Jews amounts to less than 0.5% per generation over an estimated 80 generations, with "relatively minor contribution of European Y chromosomes to the Ashkenazim," and a total admixture estimate "very similar to Motulsky's average estimate of 12.5%." This supported the finding that "Diaspora Jews from Europe, Northwest Africa, and the Near East resemble each other more closely than they resemble their non-Jewish neighbors."
Until recently, geneticists had largely attributed the genesis of most of the world's Jewish populations, including the Ashkenazim of Northern and Central Europe, to a founding act by the males who migrated from the Middle East and "by the women from each local population whom they took as wives and converted to Judaism". But new studies suggest that in addition to the male founders, significant female founder ancestry may also derive from the Middle East.
Recent research indicates that a significant portion of Ashkenazi maternal ancestry is also likely of Middle Eastern origin. A 2006 study by Behar et al, based on haplotype analysis of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), suggested that about 40% of the current Ashkenazi population is descended matrilineally from just four women, or "founder lineages", that were "likely from a Hebrew/Levantine mtDNA pool" originating in the Near East in the first and second centuries CE. According to the authors, "the observed global pattern of distribution renders very unlikely the possibility that the four aforementioned founder lineages entered the Ashkenazi mtDNA pool via gene flow from a European host population."
Both the extent and location of the maternal ancestral deme from which the Ashkenazi Jewry arose remain obscure. Here, using complete sequences of the maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), we show that close to one-half of Ashkenazi Jews, estimated at 8,000,000 people, can be traced back to only four women carrying distinct mtDNAs that are virtually absent in other populations, with the important exception of low frequencies among non-Ashkenazi Jews. We conclude that four founding mtDNAs, likely of Near Eastern ancestry, underwent major expansion(s) in Europe within the past millennium.
By the 1400s, the Ashkenazi Jewish communities in Poland were the largest Jewish communities of the Diaspora. Poland in this time was a decentralized medieval monarchy, incorporating lands from Latvia to Romania, including much of modern Lithuania and Ukraine. This area, which eventually fell under the domination of Russia, Austria, and Prussia (Germany), would remain the main center of Ashkenazi Jewry until the Holocaust.
The answer to why there was so little assimilation of Jews in Eastern Europe for so long would seem to lie in part in the probability that the alien surroundings in Eastern Europe were not seductive, though contempt did not prevent some assimilation. Furthermore, Jews lived almost exclusively in Shtetls, maintaining a strong system of education for males, heeded rabbinic leadership, and scorned the life-style of their neighbors; and all of these tendencies increased with every outbreak of antisemitism.
The word Ashkenaz first appears in the genealogy in the Tanakh (Genesis 10) as a son of Gomer and grandson of Japheth. It is thought that the name originally applied to the Scythians (Ishkuz), who were called Ashkuza in Assyrian inscriptions, and lake Ascanius and the region Ascania in Anatolia derive their names from this group.
Ashkenaz in later Hebrew tradition became identified with the peoples of Germany, and in particular to the area along the Rhine where the Alamanni tribe once lived (compare the French and Spanish words Allemagne and Alemania, respectively, for Germany).
Ashkhenaz is also recorded as being an ancient Armenian kingdom, and Armenians speak of themselves in their literature as “the Ashkenazi nation” as putative descendants of Noah’s grandson Ashkenaz. Jewish literature, too, sometimes equates the geographic place Ashkenaz with Armenia. The "Ashkuza" have also been linked to the Oghuz branch of Turks including nearly all Turkic peoples today from Turkey to Turkmenistan.
In the literature of the 13th century references to the land and the language of Ashkenaz often occur. See especially Solomon ben Aderet's Responsa (vol. i., No. 395); the Responsa of Asher ben Jehiel (pp. 4, 6); his Halakot (Berakot i. 12, ed. Wilna, p. 10); the work of his son Jacob ben Asher, Tur Orach Chayim (chapter 59); the Responsa of Isaac ben Sheshet (numbers 193, 268, 270).
In the Midrash compilation Genesis Rabbah, Rabbi Berechiah mentions Ashkenaz, Riphath, and Togarmah as German tribes or as German lands. It may correspond to a Greek word that may have existed in the Greek dialect of the Palestinian Jews, or the text is corrupted from "Germanica." This view of Berechiah is based on the Talmud (Yoma 10a; Jerusalem Talmud Megillah 71b), where Gomer, the father of Ashkenaz, is translated by Germamia, which evidently stands for Germany, and which was suggested by the similarity of the sound.
In later times the word Ashkenaz is used to designate southern and Western Germany, the ritual of which sections differs somewhat from that of Eastern Germany and Poland. Thus the prayer-book of Isaiah Horowitz, and many others, give the piyyutim according to the Minhag of Ashkenaz and Poland.
According to 16th century mystic Rabbi Elijah of Chelm, Ashkenazi Jews lived in Jerusalem during the 11th century. The story is told that a German-speaking Palestinian Jew saved the life of a young German man surnamed Dolberger. So when the knights of the First Crusade came to siege Jerusalem, one of Dolberger’s family members who was among them rescued Jews in Palestine and carried them back to Worms to repay the favor. Further evidence of German communities in the holy city comes in the form of halakic questions sent from Germany to Jerusalem during the second half of the eleventh century.
This phrase is often used in contrast with Sephardi Jews, also called Sephardim, who are descendants of Jews from Spain and Portugal. There are some differences in how the two groups pronounce certain Hebrew letters and in points of ritual.
Several famous people have Ashkenazi as a surname, such as Vladimir Ashkenazi. Coincidentally, most people with this surname hail from within Sephardic communities, particularly from the Syrian Jewish community. The Sephardic carriers of the surname would have some Ashkenazi ancestors since the surname was adopted by families who were initially of Ashkenazic origins who move to Sephardi countries and joined those communities. Ashkenazi would be formally adopted as the family surname having started off as a nickname imposed by their adopted communities. Some have shortened the name to Ash. Other spellings exist, such as Eskenazi or Esquenazi by the Syrian Jews who relocated to Panama and other South-American Jewish communities.
Literature about the alleged Turkic origin of the Ashkenazi population, as descendants of the Jewish population, converts or otherwise, appeared mainly after 1950. Although it has been speculated that the peaceful life lived by the Jews of Khazaria was contrived or exaggerated, and publicized primarily in an effort to shame European leaders into treating their Jewish populations better, the Jewish-Khazar thesis is used today primarily as a whipping horse for antisemites claiming that the Ashkenazim are actually not semites. This dubious theory holds that Ashkenazim should be hated for pretending to be "real" Jews, instead of because they are actually Jewish. In any case, most scholarship on the subject dismisses the Khazar-Ashkenazi relationship, if not rejecting the portrayed Jewish golden age of Khazaria altogether.
There are many references to Ashkenazi Jews in the literature of medical and population genetics. Indeed, much awareness of "Ashkenazi Jews" as an ethnic group or category stems from the large number of genetic studies of disease, including many that are well reported in the media, that have been conducted among Jews. According to Daphna Birenbaum Carmeli at the University of Haifa, Jewish populations have been studied more thoroughly than most other human populations, for a variety of reasons:
The result is a form of ascertainment bias. This has sometimes created an impression that Jews are more susceptible to genetic disease than other populations. Carmeli writes, "Jews are over-represented in human genetic literature, particularly in mutation-related contexts."
Genetic counseling and genetic testing are recommended for couples where both partners are of Ashkenazi ancestry. Some organizations, most notably Dor Yeshorim, organize screening programs to prevent homozygosity for the genes that cause these diseases. See Jewish Genetics Center for more information on testing programmes.
Ashkenazi Jews developed the Hasidic movement as well as major Jewish academic centers across Poland, Russia, and Lithuania in the generations after emigration from the west. After two centuries of comparative tolerance in the new nations, massive westward emigration occurred in the 1800s and 1900s in response to pogroms and the economic opportunities offered in other parts of the world. Ashkenazi Jews have made up the majority of the American Jewish community since 1750.