Last updated: 2004-02-22
Star of David
In the strictest sense, Sephardic Jews, also called Sephardim are Jews who are descendants of Jews who were expelled from Spain and Portugal and who settled in southern France, Italy, North Africa, Turkey, Asia Minor, the Netherlands, England, North and South America, Germany, Denmark, Austria, and Hungary.
However, in modern times the name is also commonly used for Jews from many communities, notably those of Yemen and Iraq, not significantly derived from Spain or Portugal. Jews from those other communities are also sometimes called "Oriental (Eastern) Jews" or the Hebrew equivalent "Mizrakhim". In the past, Jews from old communities in Arab countries were often called "Arab Jews", but that phrase is rarely used today.
The dialect of many Sephardic Jews in Portugal, Brazil and Turkey is Judaeo-Spanish, also called Ladino (considered in some circles to be a pejorative term), Judezmo, Spanyol or Sefardites.
HistoryAmong 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.
The Sephardim rarely engaged in chaffering occupations nor in usury, and they did not often mingle with lower classes. With their social equals they associated freely, without regard to religion. 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 (financial councilor to the viceroy of Naples) to Benjamin Disraeli. Among other names mentioned are those of Belmonte, Nasi, Pacheco, Palache, Azevedo, Sasportas, Costa, Curiel, Cansino, Schonenberg, Toledo, Toledano, and Teixeira.
The Sephardim occupy the foremost place in the roll of Jewish physicians; great as is the number of those who have distinguished themselves as statesmen, it is not nearly as great as the number of those who have become celebrated as physicians 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 due to the fact that Spanish had become a world-language through the expansion of Spain.
For a long time the Sephardim took active part in Spanish literature; they wrote in prose and in rhyme, and were the authors of theological, philosophical, belletristic, pedagogic, and mathematical works. The rabbis, who, in common with all the Sephardim, laid great stress on 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.
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 Kings of the newlyborn 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.
In Amsterdam, where they 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.
MusicThe Sephardim have preserved the romances and the ancient melodies and songs of Spain, as well as a large number of old 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 Spain, 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.
NamesThey bear exclusively Portuguese and Spanish given names, as Aleqria, Angel, Angela, Amado, Amada, Bienvenida, Blanco, Cara, Cimfa, Comprado, Consuela, Dolza, Esperanza, Estimada, Estrella, Fermosa, Gracia, Luna, Niña, Palomba, Preciosa, Sol, Ventura, and Zafiro; and such Spanish or Portuguese surnames as Belmonte, Benveniste, Bueno, Calderon, Campos, Cardoso, Castro, Curiel, Delgado, Fonseca, Cordova, Leon, Lima, Mercado, Monzon, Rocamora, Pacheco, Pardo, Pereira, Pinto, Prado, Sousa, Suasso, Toledano, Tarragona, Valencia, and Zaporta.
CongregationsGreat authority was given to the president of each congregation. He and the rabbinate of his congregation formed the "ma'amad," without whose approbation (often worded in Spanish, Portuguese, or Italian) no book of religious content might be published. The president not only had the power to make authoritative resolutions with regard to congregational affairs and to decide communal questions, but he had also the right to observe the religious conduct of the individual and to punish anyone suspected of heresy or of trespassing against the laws.
Relationship to other JewsAlthough the Sephardim lived on peaceful terms with other Jews, they rarely intermarried with them; neither did they unite with them in forming congregations, but adhered to their own ritual, which differed widely from the Ashkenazic. Wherever the Sephardic Jews settled they grouped themselves according to the country or district from which they had come, and organized separate communities with legally enacted statutes. In Constantinople and Thessaloniki, for example, there were not only Castilian, Aragonian, Catalonian, and Portuguese congregations, but also Toledo, Cordova, Evora, and Lisbon congregations.
One interesting example is the "Belmonte Jews" in Portugal. A whole comunity survived in secrecy for hundreds of years by maintaining a tradition of intermarriage and by hiding all the external signs of their faith. The Jewish comunity in Belmonte goes back to the XII century and they were only discovered in the XX century. Their rich Sephardic tradition of Cryptowere-Judaism is unique. Only recently did they contact other Jews and they now profess Orthodox Judaism, although they still retain their centuries-old traditions.
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.
This phrase is frequently used in contrast with Ashkenazi Jews, also called Ashkenazim, who are descendants of Jews from Germany, Poland, Austria and Eastern-Europe.