1. Sepharad is the Ancient Hebrew Word for Spain
Since Biblical times, the Jewish people have referred to Spain as Sepharad. We see this in the Book of Obadiah, where we are told that “the exile of Jerusalem which is in Sepharad shall inherit the cities of the southland.” Where is Sepharad? The Targum Jonathan identifies it as “Espamia,” Spain. Thus, the Jewish people living in Spain and the Iberian Peninsula (as well as their descendants) became known as Sephardim.
2. Sephardic Culture and Scholarship Rose in the 10th Century
After the decline of the Jewish communities in the Holy Land and Babylon, Jews found new life in Europe, where they blossomed into Ashkenaz and Sepharad.
Even though Jews had been living there for centuries, in the 10th century the Jews of Spain took a leading role in guiding the spiritual and cultural development of the Jewish people as a whole, in large part due to the influence of Rabbi Chasdai ibn Shaprut, a wealthy scholar, physician and statesman. Under his stewardship, Cordoba became a thriving center of Jewish life and learning. At that time, Spain was an Arabic-speaking Muslim land, and Jews took part in the explosion of scientific and linguistic scholarship that abounded.
Read: Chasdai ibn Shaprut
3. Sepharad Soon Spread All Over
In the mid 12th century, much of Spain was overrun by the Almohads, a sect of fanatical Muslims. Many Sephardic Jews fled to avoid forced conversion to Islam, planting the seeds for the Sephardic diaspora that would flourish around the world.
Among the best-known Jews forced to leave Spain at that time was Maimonides, who was born in Cordoba and later gained acclaim as one of the greatest Jewish scholars and philosophers of all time in his adopted homeland of Egypt.
4. Jewish Life in Spain Effectively Ended in 1492
Isabella and Ferdinand are known for completing the Reconquista, ordering conversion of the Jews and Muslims in Spain.
Despite the oppression of successive Muslim and Catholic rulers, Jews continued to form an integral part of Spanish life. In 1492, however, Ferdinand and Isabella expelled all Jews who refused to convert to Christianity. Hundreds of thousands set sail for Morocco, Portugal, Turkey and beyond, and those who remained were forced to hide their Jewish identity.
The Spanish exiles became prominent in their new homes, and often greatly influenced (and sometimes overshadowed) the communities that had existed there prior to their arrival. As a result, Jews from lands far from Spain are known as Sephardim. Since the big-tent Sepharad includes many more Jews than just the Spanish refugees and their descendants, a more accurate term for Jews of eastern provenance that has gained popularity in recent years is Eidot Hamizrach (“Communities of the East”).
Read: The Spanish Expulsion
5. Ladino Is the Lingua Franca of Sephardic Jewry
The first page of Me’am Lo’ez, a classic commentary on the Tanakh written in Ladino.
Many of the Sephardic exiles and their descendants proudly clung to the beautiful culture they had developed in Spain. Thus, even 500 years later, there are still Sephardim who speak Ladino, the Jewish version of Spanish, which contains many Hebrew words (and has since incorporated many others picked up from Arabic, Turkish and Slavic speaking neighbors). Like Yiddish, Ladino is written in Hebrew characters with its own system of spelling.
6. The Safed Kabbalists Were Sephardim
Following the composition (and publication) of the Zohar, the most significant advancement of the Kabbalah was due to the prolific and Divinely inspired teachings of the cadre of Kabbalists who lived in 16th-century Safed (Tzefat).
These men were all Sephardim. Even the Arizal, who was sometimes called the Ashkenazi Rabbi Isaac, was the son of a Sephardic mother and was raised by his Sephardic uncle, Mordechai Frances of Cairo.
7. Sephardic Communities Were Decimated by the Holocaust
A large and lively Sephardic community once lived in Thessaloniki, Greece.
Most contemporary Sephardic Jews hail from Turkey, North Africa and the Middle East, places that were largely unscathed by the Holocaust. However, there were once thriving Sephardic communities in Greece, Italy, the Balkans, and Romania, which were almost completely decimated by the Nazis and their local collaborators.
Cities like Thessaloniki (once referred to in Ladino as La Madre de Israel, “Mother of Israel), were bereft of their Jewish denizens, with few survivors left to carry on their rich traditions.
Read: Jewish Salonica Today
8. Persians, Yemenites, and Others Are Not Sephardim
A Yemenite Jew blows shofar (circa 1930s).
People rarely fit neatly inside the boxes we try to squeeze them into, and many cultures that are mistakenly (and conveniently) placed under the rubric of Sepharad are actually not Sephardic at all. Some examples are the Yemenite Jews, whose unique Jewish tradition is even more ancient and did not come by way of Spain; Persian Jews, who speak Judeo-Farsi and trace their lineage to the Babylonian exiles; indigenous Italian and Greek Jewish communities, whose culture lies somewhere between Ashkenaz and Sephard with plenty of unique elements; as well as the Mustarabim, Jews native to Arabic lands, who were were overshadowed by and merged into the Sephardic majority.
9. Rabbi Yosef Caro Is the Final Sephardic Arbiter of Jewish Law
The first page of the Shulchan Aruch, printed in Venice during the lifetime of the author.
In the 16th century, Rabbi Yosef Caro, who was born in Toledo shortly before the expulsion, composed the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch), in which he summarized and drew conclusions from the teachings of Maimonides, Rabbi Isaac Alfasi (Rif), and Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel (Rosh) in one highly-readable work.
While Ashkanazim often follow the rulings and insights inserted into the text by the Polish Rabbi Moshe Isserles, Sephardim are more inclined to act according to the rulings of Rabbi Yosef Caro.
10. Sephardim Have a Unique Form of Hebrew Cursive
Modern Hebrew generally appears in two forms: block and cursive. While contemporary cursive is similar to the script used for generations among Ashkanazim, it would have been illegible to Sephardim who favored an older form of Hebrew cursive that looks much more like what is now known as Rashi Script.
11. Approximately Half of Israel’s Jews Are Sephardim
In the first years after the declaration of the State of Israel, Jews poured in from the Muslim lands where they had lived for generations, having suddenly found themselves unwelcomed by their erstwhile neighbors.
In those years, they often faced discrimination and had a hard time integrating into a society where many of the bureaucratic and political leaders were filled by Ashkanazim. In recent decades, many of those old rifts have faded, and Israel’s Sephardim have risen in prominence.
12. Sephardic Family Names Are Often Hundreds of Years Old
With notable exceptions, most Ashkenazi family names are only about 200 years old. Many Sephardim, on the other hand, have held onto their surnames for much longer than that. Thus, it is not uncommon for Sephardim to have names such as Toledano (“from Toledo”), Cardozo, and others that can be traced back to Spain.
13. Sephardim Call Their Rabbis Chacham
Rabbi Jacob Saul Dwek, Chacham Bashi of Aleppo, Syria, 1908.
Many Sephardic communities use the word chacham to refer to a rabbi. At its zenith, the Ottoman Empire encompassed large segments of the Sephardic world. As such, the chief rabbis of various major Sephardic population centers were known as chacham bashi (bashi is the Turkish word for “head”). In addition to providing spiritual and social guidance, the Chacham Bashi had legal standing as the representative of his community in governmental affairs.
14. Sephardic Pronunciation Is More Nuanced Than Modern Hebrew
There is a common misconception that Modern Hebrew, spoken in contemporary Israel, is the Sephardic Hebrew. This, however, is a gross simplification. While Modern Hebrew does have certain elements of Sephardic pronunciation (such as not differentiating between a kamats and a patach, or between a tav with a dagesh [dot] and one without), it also misses some important nuances of Sephardic pronunciation, such as the difference between be the chaf and the chet (which is pronounced gutturally) and between the aleph and ayin, which is pronounced as a velar nasal.
Read: The Hebrew Alphabet
15. The Majority of English Jews Were Once Sephardic
Sir Moses Haim Montefiore was a British financier and banker who worked tirelessly on behalf of Jews everywhere.
For centuries Amsterdam had a prosperous Sephardic community, made up primarily of Spanish Jews who came there by way of Portugal (until this very day, they still use Portuguese as part of their synagogue service). In 1655 Sephardic Dutch Rabbi Manasseh ben Israel of Amsterdam advocated successfully that Britain allow Jews back into its borders, almost 400 years after they had expelled their (Ashkenazi) Jews back in 1290. Jews began to trickle into England, and for a long time the majority of Anglo Jewry was of Sephardic stock. A prime example is Sir Moses Montefiore, the British knight who traveled the world to assist Jews everywhere.
Read: Sir Moses Montefiore
16. The First Jews in America Were Sephardim
2009 photo of Touro Synagogue in Newport,Rhode Island, the oldest synagogue in North America
It was no accident, some say, that Columbus set sail on the very same day that the Jews were expelled from Spain. Indeed, while there is much unresolved speculation regarding the provenance of Columbus himself, it is clear that his trip was financed by Jews, desperate to find a place they could live and worship in peace.
Over the next centuries, the Caribbean, Latin America, and even North America were settled by Sephardim. Thus, the first Jews in what would become the US and Canada were of Sephardic origin.
17. Nusach Sepharad Is Actually Ashkenazic
The traditional liturgy of Ashkenazi Jewry is known as Nusach Ashkenaz (Ashkenazi Rite). With the rise of the Chasidic movement, many began to incorporate various elements of the Sephardic rite into their prayers, since the Sephardic tradition was favored by the Kabbalists and more in tune with the meditations behind the prayers. This new Chassidic hybrid came to be known as Nusach Sepharad (or Nusach Arizal, since it conformed to the meditations of the Arizal).
Thus, a Nusach Sepharad synagogue is most likely populated by Ashkenazi Chassidim, and Sephardim prefer to refer to their rites as Eidot Hamizrach or Sephardi (with the added ‘i’) just to keep things clear.
18. Sephardic Jews Have Unique Cuisine
What Americans commonly refer to as Jewish food (chicken soup with kneidlach, kishke, potato latkes, sweet tzimmes etc.) is actually Ashkenazi food, which is not terribly dissimilar to the foods eaten by the gentiles in the lands where Ashkanazim originate.
Not surprisingly, these foods are unfamiliar to Sephardim, who enjoy an entirely different cuisine, reflective of the Mediterranean climate where they lived and prospered for generations.
19. Reform and Conservative Are Virtually Unheard Of
As social reforms swept through Western Europe, many Jews felt the pressure to “update” Judaism to conform with their newly acquired “enlightened” views. This led to the creation of Reform congregations, and by extension, Conservative ones, where the changes were not as drastic.
Sephardic Jews were largely untouched by those changes, and virtually all Sephardic Jews worship in the traditional Orthodox manner of their ancestors. By and large, even those Sephardim who have drifted from observance tend to be closer to tradition, with a warm place in their hearts for Torah, Torah scholars, and Jewish tradition.