Ashkenazi versus Sephardic Jews
Can you explain to me something about the difference between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewry? What exactly do those terms mean and what are the general differences between the two groups?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
The difference between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews (or Sephardic Jews, Sephardim) is primarily based on their historical origins. Ashkenaz is the Hebrew word for Germany. Thus, the term Ashkenazi Jews initially referred to Jews residing in Germany, where Ashkenazi Jewry began.
(The name Ashkenaz appears in the Torah (Genesis 10:3) as one of the grandchildren of Japheth, son of Noah, and the progenitor of one of the nations which formed after the Flood. It is also the name of a nation in Jeremiah 51:27. However, most commentators understand the references to be to a Middle Eastern people, possibly in Turkey or northern Syria. The Talmud (Yoma 10a) identifies Gomer, Ashkenaz’s father, as “Germamia” (or Germania, Germanikia), which in itself is not clear if it means the Germany of today, but that might be the basis for the land’s later association with the Biblical name Ashkenaz.)
For the most part, northern Europe was settled fairly recently by Jews. A small number of Jews are believed to have settled in western Germany and northern France in the 9th-10th century, especially along the Rhine River. Their population grew and they generally migrated towards the east, especially to Poland, till by the 12th century Jewish communities were established as far as Russia. (Often the migrations were forced upon them by oppression and pogroms – this was the era of the Crusades and blood libels – and by rulers who expelled them or deprived them of economic opportunities. This forced the Jews to continually search for more hospitable lands. By the mid-14th century, due to repeated massacres and expulsions, Jewish life in Germany had temporarily all but ceased.) Later, in the 18th century and after, Jews migrated back westward (as well as to America), in response to the much harsher conditions in eastern Europe. Thus, eventually, most European Jews became known as “Ashkenazi” Jews, regardless of their country of residence.
Today about 80% of Jews are Ashkenazi. (The percentage was much higher before the Holocaust.)
Since Ashkenazi Jews descend from a relatively small original population, not only do many Ashkenazi Jews share genetic features, but they are more prone to certain genetic diseases such as Tay Sachs, Gaucher disease and cystic fibrosis. Today it is very typical (and in Israel it is mandatory) for engaged couples to undergo genetic testing before a marriage is approved.
Sephardic Jews literally mean Spanish Jews as Sepharad means Spain (a term also appearing in the Torah, in Obadiah 1:20 – although here too the original meaning is disputed). But this term is even less accurate as today it is loosely applied (especially by non-Sephardim) to all non-Ashkenazi Jews.
The main lands associated with Sephardic Jewry are Spain, North Africa, the Middle East, and parts of south-east Europe. Jews lived in many of these lands since antiquity. Spain became an especially prosperous and tolerant land from the 8th century under Muslim rule, and Jewish communities flourished there, both economically and religiously. These were the original Sephardi Jews.
In later centuries, roughly from the 12th century and on, conditions in Spain became much more oppressive both under later Muslim dynasties and later under the Christians. The Jews were eventually expelled (or forced to convert) – from Spain in 1492 and from neighboring Portugal in 1497. They spread from there to many existing areas of Jewish habitation, especially North Africa and the Ottoman Empire. Often, they superimposed their religious rulings and customs on the local populace. Thus, many such lands became much more closely aligned with Sephardic tradition, in spite of vast differences in custom and culture.
Since Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities developed primarily independently, there are many minor differences between them in Jewish law and custom. Two of the greatest medieval rabbis were R. Yitzchak Alfasi of Fez, Morroco (the “Rif”), and Maimonides, who eventually settled in Egypt. They became some of the main authorities for Jewish law among Sephardim. Centuries later, when Rabbi Yosef Caro authored his basic work on Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch (“the set table”, first published in 1564), he primarily followed their rulings, and thus his work became the basis for Sephardic Jewish law.
In northern Europe at the time there were different great rabbinic authorities, located primarily in Germany and France. Some were Rabbeinu Gershom, R. Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi), the school of Tosafot, and R. Asher ben Yechiel (the “Rosh”), and their rulings formed the basis for Ashkenazi law. Shortly after R. Caro wrote his Shulchan Aruch, a great Ashkenazi rabbi, R. Moshe Isserlis (of Kracow, Poland, known as “the Rema” based on his acronym) wrote a collection glosses on the Shulchan Aruch, reflecting Jewish law according to Ashkenazi practice.
As a result, although both Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jewry actually represent a quite varied collection of cultures and nationalities, there is a fair degree of homogeneity among them in religious practice. And in fact, both universally follow the guidelines of the Shulchan Aruch.
Below I list a few of the most well-known differences in religious practice and custom between Ashkenazim and Sephardim.
(a) Ashkenazic pronunciation of Hebrew is somewhat distinct from Sephardic (with a great many further differences among different groups of each).
(b) There are many distinctions in the prayer liturgy, as well as the tunes used in chanting both the Torah and Prophets (the Haftorah). Non-Hassidic Ashkenazim generally pray what is known as Nusach Ashkenaz (Ashkenaz version) while Hassidim pray (ironically) Nusach Sefard or Nusach Ari. Most Sephardim pray Eidot HaMizrach (“the congregations of the east”), with again many variations.
(c) Ashkenazim have the custom not to eat rice, legumes and the like on Passover while Sephardim do.
(d) Ashkenazim do not name children after living relatives, while Sephardim will name children after their living grandparents.
(e) Most Ashkenazi men do not wear a Tallit (prayer shawl) until after marriage or after Bar Mitzvah, while Sephardim do so at young ages.
(f) Many Sephardim have the custom not to eat fish and milk together.
(g) Many Sephardic married women will not wear wigs to cover their hair, while Ashkenazim generally do.
Beyond these few examples, there are a myriad of differences in practice and custom between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews worldwide, as well as many cultural ones, such as in areas of dress, language, music, and cuisine.