up to 16% of world Jewish population
|Regions with significant populations|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||2,000|
|Historical: Hebrew, Ladino, Haketia, Judeo-Portuguese, Catalanic, Arabic, Shuadit, local languages
Modern: Local languages, primarily Hebrew, French, English, Spanish, Turkish, Portuguese, Italian, Ladino, Arabic.
|Related ethnic groups|
|Ashkenazi Jews, Mizrahi Jews, other Jewish ethnic divisions, Samaritans, other Levantines, Spaniards, Portuguese and Hispanics/Latinos|
Sephardi Jews, better known in English as Sephardic Jews, or simply Sephardim (Hebrew: סְפָרַדִּי, Modern Sfaraddi Tiberian Səp̄āraddî, lit. "The Jews of Spain"), are a Jewish ethnic division whose ethnogenesis and emergence as a distinct community of Jews coalesced in the Iberian Peninsula around the start of the 2nd millennium. They established communities throughout Spain and Portugal, where they traditionally resided, evolving what would become their distinctive characteristics and diasporic identity. Their millennial residence as an open and organised Jewish community in Iberia was brought to an end starting with the issuance of the Alhambra Decree by Spain's Catholic Monarchs in the late 15th century, which resulted in a combination of internal and external migrations, mass conversions, and executions.
Historically, the vernacular language of Sephardi Jews was Ladino, a Romance language derived from Old Spanish, incorporating elements from all the old Romance languages of the Iberian Peninsula, Hebrew, Aramaic, and in the lands receiving those who were exiled, Ottoman Turkish, Arabic, Greek, Bulgarian, and Serbo-Croatian vocabulary.
More broadly, the term Sephardim has today also come to refer to traditionally Eastern Jewish communities of West Asia and beyond who, although not having genealogical roots in the Jewish communities of Iberia, have adopted a Sephardic style of liturgy and Sephardic law and customs imparted to them by the Iberian Jewish exiles over the course of the last few centuries. This article deals with Sephardim within the narrower ethnic definition.
The name Sephardi essentially means "Spanish" or "Hispanic". It comes from Sepharad (Hebrew: סְפָרַד, Modern Sfarád Tiberian Səp̄āráḏ ), a Biblical location. The location of the biblical Sepharad is disputed, but Sepharad was identified by later Jews as Hispania, that is, the Iberian Peninsula, what in modern times is Spain and Portugal. Sepharad (ספרד) still means "Spain" in modern Hebrew.
In other languages and scripts, "Sephardi" may be translated as plural Hebrew: סְפָרַדִּים, Modern Sfaraddim Tiberian Səp̄āraddîm; sefardí or Spanish: Sefardíes; Portuguese: Sefarditas; sefardita or Catalan: Sefardites; Aragonese: Safardís; Basque: Sefardiak; French: Séfarades; Galician: Sefardís; Italian: Sefarditi; Greek: Σεφαρδίτες Sephardites; Bulgarian: Сефаради Sefaradi; Bosnian: Sefardi; Serbian: Сефарди Sefardi; Turkish: Sefarad, Judaeo-Spanish: Sefaradies/Sefaradim; and Arabic: سفارديون Safārdiyyūn.
In the narrower ethnic definition, a Sephardi Jew is a Jew descended from the Jews who lived in the Iberian Peninsula in the late 15th century, immediately prior to the issuance of the Alhambra Decree of 1492 by order of the Catholic Monarchs in Spain, and the decree of 1496 in Portugal by order of King Manuel I.
In Hebrew, the term "Sephardim Tehorim" (ספרדים טהורים, literally "Pure Sephardim") is used to distinguish Sephardim proper "who trace their lineage back to the Iberian/Spanish population" from Sephardim in the broader religious sense. This distinction has also been made in reference to genetic findings in research on Sephardim proper in contrast to other communities of Jews today termed Sephardi more broadly
The modern Israeli Hebrew definition of Sephardi is a much broader, religious based, definition that generally excludes ethnic considerations. In its most basic form, this broad religious definition of a Sephardi refers to any Jew, of any ethnic background, who follows the customs and traditions of Sepharad. For religious purposes, and in modern Israel, "Sephardim" is most often used in this wider sense which encompasses most non-Ashkenazi Jews who are not ethnically Sephardi, but are in most instances of West Asian origin, but who nonetheless commonly use a Sephardic style of liturgy.
The term Sephardi in the broad sense, thus describes 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. The term Nusach Sefard or Nusach Sfarad does not refer to the liturgy generally recited by Sephardim proper or even Sephardi in a broader sense, but rather to an alternative Eastern European liturgy used by many Hasidim who are in fact Ashkenazi.
Additionally, Ethiopian Jews, whose branch of practiced Judaism is known as Haymanot, have recently come under the umbrella of Israel's already broad Sephardic Chief Rabbi. Furthermore, in modern times, the term Sephardi has also been applied to Jews who may not have even been born Jewish, but attend Sephardic synagogues and practice Sephardic traditions.
The divisions among Sephardim and their descendants today is largely a result of the consequences of the royal edicts. Both the Spanish and Portuguese edicts ordered their respective Jewish populations to choose from one of three options: 1) convert to Catholicism to be allowed to remain within the kingdom, 2) remain Jews and be expelled by the stipulated deadline, or 3) be subjected to death without trial for any Jew who did not convert or leave by the deadline.
In Spain, the Jews were only given four months from the time the decree was issued before the expiry of the set deadline. Under the edict, Jews were promised royal "protection and security" for the effective three-month window before the deadline. They were permitted to take their belongings with them – except "gold or silver or minted money". It has been argued by British scholar Henry Kamen, that "the real purpose of the 1492 edict likely was not expulsion, but compulsory conversion of all Spanish Jews. Yet in giving Jews a choice and three months to think about it, the plan backfired; many opted to leave the country rather than convert", which ultimately was to Spain's detriment. Between a third to one half of Spain's Jewish origin population opted for exile, many flooding into Portugal.
Foreseeing the economic aftermath of a similar Jewish flight from Portugal, King Manuel's decree five years later was largely pro-forma to appease a precondition the Spanish monarchs had set for him if he wished to marry their daughter. While the stipulations were similar in the Portuguese decree, King Manuel then largely prevented Portugal's Jews from leaving, by blocking Portugal's ports of exit. This failure to leave Portugal was then reasoned by the king to signify a default acceptance of Catholicism by the Jews, and the king then proceeded to proclaim them New Christians. Actual physical forced conversions, however, were also experienced throughout Portugal.
Sephardi Jews, therefore, encompasses Jews descended from those Jews who left the Iberian Peninsula in the condition of Jews at, or before, the expiry of the respective decreed deadlines. These are themselves divided between those who fled southwards to North Africa, as opposed to those who fled eastwards to West Asia, the Balkans and beyond. Sephardi Jews also includes Jews descended from former New Christians who initially converted to Catholicism, but then reverted to Judaism at a later stage once they could finally leave Iberia, largely to Central and Northern Europe, and from there, westwards to the America. Additional to all these groups are the descendants of those conversos who remained in Iberia, or moved to their colonial possessions across various Latin American countries, but who for historical reasons and circumstances, never formally returned to the Jewish religion.
These sub-groups are defined by a combination of geography, identity, religious evolution, language evolution, and the timeframe of their reversion (for those who had in the interim undergone a temporary nominal conversion to Catholicism) or non-reversion back to Judaism.
It should be noted that these Sephardic sub-groups are separate from any pre-existing local Jewish communities they encountered in their new areas of settlement. From the perspective of the present day, the first three sub-groups appeared to have developed as separate branches, each with its own traditions.
In earlier centuries, and as late as the editing of the Jewish Encyclopedia at the beginning of the 20th century, they were usually regarded as together forming a continuum. The Jewish community of Livorno acted as the clearing-house of personnel and traditions among the first three sub-groups; it also developed as the chief publishing centre.[improper synthesis?].
Eastern Sephardim comprise the descendants of the expellees from Spain who left as Jews in 1492, this sub-group of Sephardim settled mostly in various parts of the Ottoman Empire, which included areas in West Asia (Middle East, Anatolia, etc.), the Balkans in Southern Europe, and Egypt. They settled particularly in Salonica (in what is today Greece), Constantinople (today known as Istanbul, in Turkey), and Sarajevo (in what is today Bosnia and Herzegovina), all of which were in the European area of the Ottoman Empire.
Their traditional language is referred to as Judezmo ("Jewish [language]"), it is the Judaeo-Spanish sometimes also known as Ladino. Some went further east to territories of the Ottoman Empire, settling among the long-established Arabic-speaking Jewish communities in Baghdad in Iraq, Damascus in Syria and Alexandria in Egypt. For the most part, Eastern Sephardim did not maintain their own separate Sephardic religious and cultural institutions from the pre-existing Jews, but instead the local Jews came to adopt the culture and customs of the recent Sephardic arrivals. This phenomenon is just one of the factors which has today led to the broader religious definition of Sephardi.
A few of the Eastern Sephardim followed the spice trade routes as far as the Malabar coast of southern India, where they settled among the established Cochin Jewish community, again imparting their culture and customs to the local Jews.
In recent times, principally after 1948, most Eastern Sephardim have since relocated to Israel, and others to the USA and Latin America.
Eastern Sephardim still often carry common Spanish surnames, as well as other specifically Sephardic surnames from 15th century Spain with Arabic or Hebrew language origins (such as Azoulay, Abulafia, Abravanel) which have since disappeared from Spain when those that stayed behind as conversos adopted surnames that were solely Spanish in origin. Other Eastern Sephardim have since also translated their Hispanic surnames into the languages of the regions they settled in, or have modified them to sound more local.
North African Sephardim consist of the descendants of the expellees from Spain who also left as Jews in 1492. This branch settled in North Africa minus Egypt. Settling mostly in Morocco and Algeria and spoke a variant of Judaeo-Spanish known as Haketia. They also spoke Judeo-Arabic in majority cases. They settled in the areas with already established Arabic-speaking Jewish communities in North Africa and eventually merged with them to form new communities based solely on Sephardic customs.
In the 19th century, modern Spanish, French and Italian gradually replaced Haketia and Judeo-Arabic as the mother tongue among most Moroccan Sephardim and other North African Sephardim.
In recent times, principally after 1948, most North African Sephardim have since relocated to Israel, and most others to France.
North African Sephardim still also often carry common Spanish surnames, as well as other specifically Sephardic surnames from 15th century Spain with Arabic or Hebrew language origins (such as Azoulay, Abulafia, Abravanel) which have since disappeared from Spain when those that stayed behind as conversos adopted surnames that were solely Spanish in origin. Other North African Sephardim have since also translated their Hispanic surnames into local languages or have modified them to sound local.
Western Sephardim are the community of Jewish reverts whose families initially remained in Spain and Portugal as ostensible New Christians, that is, as Anusim ("forced [converts]"). Only later, once they arrived in the Netherlands, Italy, northern Germany, England, Belarus and southern Russia, did they rejoin the Jewish community, sometimes up to the third, fourth and even fifth generations after the initial decrees stipulating conversion, expulsion, or death.
These ex-converso Jews, for one reason or another, had not been able to depart Iberia by the specified deadlines. In Spain, of the Jews who stayed behind by becoming conversos, many had become conversos solely as a way to buy time, to get their affairs in order. In Portugal, having been made conversos by proclamation, they were initially prevented from leaving at all. In both cases, however, the exodus and reversions to Judaism would continue even generations after the initial conversion to Catholicism and deadline of the decreed expulsion. The conversos were generally accepted by the host Jewish communities as anusim whose conversion to Catholicism, being involuntary, did not compromise their Jewish status up to the third generation (sometimes fourth and fifth generation, depending on the Jewish legal opinion followed by the receiving local Jewish community).
Following the edict, conversos of the first generation (i.e. the anusim who themselves underwent the conversion to Catholicism) still retained knowledge of the religion based on memory of contact with a living Jewish community. Conversos of the second generation (i.e. the children of anusim) had less knowledge, and by the third generation (i.e. the grandchildren of anusim) Jewish knowledge had become rudimentary, since they and the generations before them avoided known Jewish practices that might attract undesired attention. Thus, depending on the generational distance of their forced conversions to Catholicism, conversos of the second and third generation had differing variations of the Judaism they followed. Second generation conversos evolved a home-made Judaism with practices peculiar to themselves, while third generation conversos had a purely intellectual conception of Judaism based on their reading of ancient Jewish sources preserved by the Church such as the Vulgate Old Testament, the Apocrypha, Philo and Josephus.
Both second and third generation conversos, therefore, needed extensive re-education in Judaism after reaching their places of refuge outside the Iberian Peninsula. This was achieved with the help of Sephardim living in Italy (and to a lesser extent, Italian Jews proper) and especially in Holland and Germany, Ashkenazi Jews. There is much Jewish responsa in regards to whether or not fourth and fifth generation conversos should be accepted as Jews, or if full formal conversion to Judaism was now required for their return. Some authorities held that full formal conversion requirements must be met by fourth and fifth generation conversos, while others stated that a pro-forma conversion was all that was necessary. The most lenient responsum stated that, at least in the case of conversos who could prove an unbroken matrilineal chain of descent to a certified Jewess, regardless of the number of generations that have passed, these should be considered Jews. Nevertheless, in practical terms, conversos of any generation beyond the third, fourth and at most the fifth generation, were universally considered to no longer be Jews, thus requiring formal conversion to Judaism. Those requiring conversion were termed Bnei Anusim, to whom other Halakhic criteria applied. For more information on past and present Sephardic Bnei Anusim please see the next sub-group below.
Not much later after their rejoining the Jewish fold, some of the Western Sephardim, during the colonial era, again migrated to non-Iberian colonial possessions in the Americas, principally to the region of what is today the Northeastern United States, and also territories of the Netherlands in the Dutch Antilles of the Caribbean, principally Curaçao.
Western Sephardim are the Sephardi Jews who are also known specifically as Spanish and Portuguese Jews. Contrary to common misconception, "Spanish and Portuguese Jews" refers not to Sephardim in general, but to Western Sephardim in particular, and their culture, customs and distinctive liturgy. These developed with a more amplified Spanish and Portuguese nuance due to their later migration from Spain and Portugal.
All of the oldest congregations in the non-Iberian America were founded by Western Sephardim, with their synagogues being in the tradition of "Spanish and Portuguese Jews". In the United States in particular, Congregation Shearith Israel, established in 1654, in New York City, is the oldest congregation in the United States, its present building dates from 1897. Congregation Jeshuat Israel, ca. 1658, in Newport, Rhode Island is dated to sometime after the arrival of Western Sephardim in 1658 and prior to the 1677 purchase of a communal cemetery, now known as Touro Cemetery. See also List of the oldest synagogues in the United States.
Most Western Sephardim trace their last place of residence in Iberia as having been Portugal, rather than Spain. This is owed to the fact that many of the ancestors of today's Western Sephardim who fled Spain, initially did so to Portugal, only to have Portugal's king issue a decree of his own. Furthermore, it is also due to the fact that many of those who did not altogether leave Iberia at the outset of the decrees, did so not because they chose to stay in Iberia, but because they were prevented from leaving it, and it was Portugal, not Spain, that prevented their immediate departure. Thus, the working language used to conduct internal business of most congregations of "Spanish and Portuguese Jews" in the US up until the last century was largely Portuguese.
This is also the reason why the surnames of most Western Sephardim also tend to be Portuguese surnames, though some are Spanish. Among a few notable figures with roots in Western Sephardim are the current president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, and former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Benjamin N. Cardozo. Both descend from Western Sephardim who left Portugal for the Netherlands, and in the case of Nicolás Maduro, from the Netherlands to Curaçao, and ultimately Venezuela. Congregations of Spanish and Portuguese Jews increasingly include Jews of other backgrounds, particularly Ashkenazim, as descendants of Ashkenazim have migrated to those areas. Currently, some putatively "Ashkenazi" surnames are actually translations of earlier ones with Sepharadic roots that have merely taken up the form of pre-existing Ashkenazi surnames or have become Ashkenazi-sounding, such as Sapoznik (Zapatero), Baum (Silva) and Stein (Rocha).
Known by rabbinical authorities as Sephardic Bnei Anusim, this group of Sephardic descendants is made up of the descendants of those Sephardic Jewish conversos to Catholicism who remained in Iberia or moved to the Iberian colonial possessions across various Latin American countries during the Spanish conquest, but who for historical reasons and circumstances, never returned to the faith. Sephardic Bnei Anusim are categorized as "Zera Yisra'el" (זרע ישראל, literally "Seed of Israel"), that is, the Halakhically non-Jewish descendants of Jews. As a collective, Sephardic Bnei Anusim are not recognised as Jewish under Jewish religious law, although on an individual basis, some have begun formally returning to the Jewish fold, regaining their status as Jews individually.
Unlike Anusim and conversos up to the third, fourth or fifth generation (depending on the Jewish responsa), Bnei Anusim are considered the "[later] descendants [of the] forced [converts]". They have remained hidden ever since the Inquisition in the Iberian Peninsula and its American franchises. Some Sephardic Bnei Anusim had initially also tried to revert to Judaism, or at least maintain crypto-Jewish practices in privacy, but this was not feasible long-term in Iberia or their colonies in Iberoamerica, where many Judaizing conversos were persecuted, prosecuted, convicted, and executed.
With a current Sephardic Bnei Anusim population estimated by the Jewish Agency for Israel to number in the millions, the population is several times larger than the previous three Sephardic Jewish sub-groups combined, and more than twice the size of the world Jewish population as a whole. They are also, however, the least prominent sub-group of Sephardi descendants. Their low prominence being due primarily to the fact that as a group, they have not reverted to Judaism, the number of generations that have transpired since their conversions to Catholicism are now manifold, and as a result, they are no longer recognized as Jews under Jewish religious law.
Historical documentation shedding new light on the origin of Iberian immigration to the Spanish colonies in the Americas during the conquest era suggests that the number of New Christians of Sephardi origin that actively participated in the conquest of America was more significant than previously estimated. Famous and renowned Spanish conquerors, administrators, settlers, even the most famous chronicler during the Spanish conquest, Pedro Cieza de León, have now been confirmed to have been of Sephardi origin. Recent revelations have only come about as a result of newly discovered records in Spain, which had been either lost or hidden, relating to conversions, marriages, baptisms, and Inquisition trials of the parents, grandparents and great grandparents of the Sephardi-origin Iberian immigrants.
Overall, it is now estimated that up to 10% of colonial Latin America's Iberian settlers may have been of Sephardic origin, although the regional distribution of their settlement throughout the colonies was uneven, ranging from none in most areas, to as high as 1 in every 3 (approx. 30%) in other areas. With Latin America's current population standing at close to 590 million people, the bulk of which consists of American Hispanics and Brazilians of full or partial Iberian ancestry (i.e. criollos, mestizos and mulattos), it is estimated that up to 50 million of these possess Sephardic Jewish ancestry to some degree.
Recent DNA evidence and historical settlement patterns of Sephardi-origin New Christians indicates that the concentration of these Hispanic/Latino-assimilated Christian-professing descendants of Sephardic Jews are found primarily in the following localities: the northern states of Mexico, particularly in Nuevo León; the formerly Spanish-held American Southwest (i.e. New Mexico, Texas, Colorado); northern Venezuela; the Paisa region of Colombia; south and central regions of Ecuador, particularly Loja and Zaruma (El Oro); southern Chile; the Río de la Plata Basin region of Argentina; and in Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia's east. In some cases, Sephardi-descended Hispanics of these communities have inherited genetic mutations and diseases specific to Jews or Sephardi Jews in particular, including Jewish-specific mutations of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes which increases the risk of breast cancer (found also among Southwestern US Hispanos) and Laron syndrome (found also among Ecuadorians).
The common denominator between all the abovementioned localities is that they are situated in remote areas, isolated either by distance or geographical features, from the Spanish colonial administrative centres at the time, which were Mexico City, in central Mexico, and Lima, in Peru. Mexico City and Lima were also the American headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition. These branches of the Spanish Inquisition were established as a result of the complaints made by Spanish conquerors and settlers of Old Christian backgrounds to the Catholic Monarch back in Spain regarding the significant illegal influx of New Christians of Sephardi origin into their colonies, many coming in via Brazil.
Only Spaniards of Old Christian backgrounds were legally allowed passage into the Spanish colonies. Many New Christian Spaniards, however, falsified their pedigree documents, or obtained perjured witness statements attesting pureza de sangre (purity of blood), more often from other New Christians who had themselves already made it into the colonies and built up "Old Christian" identities. Others yet simply evaded the screening process altogether through influence of family members who had managed to pass as Old Christians and become members of ship crews and assistants of conquistadors.
Portuguese New Christians, on the other hand, were entering the Spanish colonies via Brazil, which as a Portuguese possession, was more lax at enforcing the prohibition on New Christian immigration. Such was the influx of Portuguese conversos into Spanish colonies in South America, that the term "portugués" came to be synonymous with "Jewish". To this day, Portuguese surnames can still be found among their descendants in Spanish-speaking countries, though many have since Hispanicized their surnames to fit Spanish orthography, hiding their "Portuguese" (i.e. Jewish) origin. The installation of the Inquisition in the Spanish American colonies thus prompted the migration of New Christians to the areas of concentration mentioned above, essentially eradicating the New Christian population in all but the northernmost regions of Mexico and virtually all of Peru.
In Iberia itself, known settlements of Bnei Anusim include the population of Belmonte, in Portugal. The proclamation of the Jews' default acceptance of Catholicism by the Portuguese king actually resulted in a high percentage being assimilated in the Portuguese population. See: History of the Jews in Portugal. Outside of Iberia and the Iberian colonies in the Americas, the former Portuguese colony of Goa, in India, also received a limited number of Bnei Anusim, where they were subjected to the Goa Inquisition.
Among descendants of those who maintained crypto-Judaism, there are people in Spain, Portugal and throughout Hispanic America and Brazil who still practice family customs with Jewish origins. Over the course of the centuries, however, the knowledge of the origins of these customs among specific individual families has been lost, or there is only a vague awareness in the families of a historic Jewish genealogy. Some of these communities have only just begun a reemergence in Iberia and throughout Latin America. While Jewish religious law considers Bnei Anusim to no longer be Jews due to the number of generations which have passed, there are Jewish outreach organisation catering to Bnei Anusim. Among these is Shavei Israel, which operates in Spain, Portugal, and throughout Latin America, with headquarters in Israel, and caters to Sephardi-descended Hispanics who on an individual basis are seeking a late return to the Jewish people, as was initially done a few centuries ago for the Western Sephardim mentioned above.
Almost all Sephardic Bnei Anusim carry surnames which are known to have been used by Sephardim during the 15th century, however, per se, almost all of these surname are not specifically Sephardic, and are in fact mostly surnames of gentile Spanish or gentile Portuguese origin which only became common among Bnei Anusim because they deliberately adopted them during their conversions in an attempt to obscure their Jewish pedigrees. Very few Sephardic Bnei Anusim carry surnames that are specifically Sephardic in origin, or that are specifically found only among Bnei Ansuim.
Prior to 1492, substantial Jewish populations existed in most Spanish and Portuguese provinces. Among the more prominent were in Lisbon, Toledo, Córdoba, Seville, Málaga and Granada. Smaller towns such as Ocaña, Guadalajara, Buitrago de Lozoya, Lucena, Ribadavia, Hervás, Llerena, and Almazán were founded or inhabited principally by Jews.
In Castile, Aranda de Duero, Ávila, Alba de Tormes, Arévalo, Burgos, Calahorra, Carrión de los Condes, Cuéllar, Herrera del Duque, León, Medina del Campo, Ourense, Salamanca, Segovia, Soria, and Villalón were home to large Jewish communities or aljamas. Aragon and Catalonia had substantial Jewish communities in the famous Calls of Girona, Barcelona, Tarragona, Valencia and Palma (Majorca).
Following the 1492 edict of expulsion from Spain, Sephardic Jews settled mainly in the Ottoman Empire (primarily in the provinces of Balkans Anatolia and Ottoman North Africa), Morocco and Algeria, and other areas of Middle East, like Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
In the migrations subsequent to the deadline established by the edict in Portugal (1497), Sephardic-descended New Christians fled to southern France, Italy, and most notably (due to it having been a Spanish territory) the Netherlands. Here they reverted to Judaism and migrated once again to the Americas. Later a number of families continued onto the former Dutch possessions of Curaçao, Suriname, Aruba and New Netherland (present-day New York), England (as well as English colonies such as Barbados and Jamaica), Germany, Denmark, Poland, Austria and Hungary.
Additional to these are Sephardic-descended New Christians who fled to Spanish North America (Puerto Rico, Cuba, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, and Northern Mexico), Spanish South America, Portuguese Brazil, and Portuguese Goa. These were unable to revert, and have remained Christians ever since. Being under Spanish rule again, those that did revert were persecuted and executed.
As a result of the more recent Jewish exodus from Arab lands, many of the Sephardim Tehorim from the Middle East and North Africa relocated to either Israel or France, where they form a significant portion of the Jewish communities today. Other significant communities of a Sephardim Tehorim also migrated in more recent times from the Near East to New York City, Argentina, Costa Rica, Mexico, Montreal, Gibraltar, Puerto Rico, and Dominican Republic. Because of poverty and turmoil in Latin America, another wave of Sephardic Jews joined other Latin Americans migrated to United States, Canada, Spain, and other countries of Europe.
Today, around 12,000 recognized Jews live in Spain, and another 2,500 in Portugal. These are not necessarily Sephardi as per the narrower ethnic definition. Many are in fact recent Ashkenazi immigrants or their descendants. A community of 600 Sephardic Jews, however, live in Gibraltar.
Furthermore, in 2011 Rabbi Nissim Karelitz, a leading rabbi and Halachic authority and chairman of the Beit Din Tzedek rabbinical court in Bnei Brak, Israel, recognized the entire community of Sephardi-descendants in Palma de Majorca, the Chuetas, as Jewish being approximately 18,000 people, or just over 2% of the entire population of the island.
Of the Bnei Anusim community in Belmonte, Portgual, some officially returned to Judaism in the 1970s, and opened a synagogue, Bet Eliahu, in 1996. The Belmonte community of Bnei Anusim as a whole, however, have not yet been granted the same recognition as Jews that the Chuetas of Palma de Majorca achieved in 2011.
In 2014, it was reported that Spain's legislature had begun a new process of legislating to grant Spanish citizenship to the descendants of Spanish Sephardim who requested it. Said legislation had been in discussion since 2012. Spain's citizenship law already requires a reduced time of residency in Spain for Sephardi Jews, as it does for Hispanic Americans and others with ties to Spain, before they apply for citizenship. Ordinarily, the residency requirement is 10 years. This is reduced to 2 years. The proposed citizenship law relating to Sephardic descendants would then remove the residency requirements altogether.
It is the narrow ethnic definition of Sephardi Jews which is alluded to in a bill currently in the process of becoming law in Spain, which relates to the automatic granting of Spanish citizenship to descendants of Sephardim who request Spanish citizenship. The bill is currently awaiting approval by Spain's legislature. The secretary general of the Spanish Federation of Jewish Communities, Mauricio Toledano, has stated that the legislature is still working on the details of the law, and when it is presented to parliament, it's expected to specifically state that all descendants of Sephardic origin - whether they are Jewish or not - be given citizenship.
According to the draft legislation, article 23 of the Código Civil de España will be amended to state that Spanish citizenship will be granted to "those Sephardic foreign nationals who prove that [Sephardic] condition and their special relationship with our country, even if they do not have legal residence in Spain, whatever their [current] ideology, religion or beliefs."
The draft law outlined the eligibility criteria for proving Sephardic descent, and it included; by a certificate issued by the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain, or the production of a certificate from the competent rabbinic authority, legally recognized in the country of habitual residence of the applicant, or other documentation which might be considered appropriate for this purpose, or; by justifying one's inclusion as a Sephardic descendant, or a direct descendant of persons included in the list of protected Sephardic families in Spain referred Decreed Law of 29 December 1948, or any other similar list (also included are descendants of those who obtained naturalization by way of the Royal Decree of December 20, 1924), or; by the combination of other factors including surnames of the applicant, spoken family language (Spanish, Ladino, Haketia), and other evidence attesting descent from Sephardic Jews and a historic relationship to Spain (however, surnames alone, language alone, or other evidence alone will not be determinative in the granting of Spanish nationality).
In what appeared to be a reciprocal gesture, Natan Sharansky, chairman of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel, referred to the millions of descendants of conversos around Latin America and Iberia, including hundreds of thousands who were exploring ways of returning to the Jewish people. Sharansky stated "the state of Israel must ease the way for their return".
In April 2013 Portugal amended its Law on Nationality to allow descendants of Jews who were expelled in the Portuguese Inquisition to become citizens if they 'belong to a Sephardic community of Portuguese origin with ties to Portugal', thus becoming the first country after Israel to enact a Jewish Law of Return. This law is currently awaiting regulamentation.
The most typical traditional language of Sephardim is Judeo-Spanish, also called Judezmo or Ladino. It is a Romance language derived mainly from Old Castilian (Spanish), with many borrowings from Turkish, and to a lesser extent from Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and French. Until recently, two different dialects of Judeo-Spanish were spoken in the Mediterranean region: Eastern Judeo-Spanish (in various distinctive regional variations) and Western or North African Judeo-Spanish (also known as Ḥakitía), once spoken, with little regional distinction, in six towns in Northern Morocco and, because of later emigration, also in Ceuta and Melilla (Spanish cities in North Africa), Gibraltar, Casablanca (Morocco), and Oran (Algeria). The Eastern Sephardic 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.
On the other hand the North African Sephardic 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, probably the most Arabized of the Romance languages apart from Mozarabic, has essentially ceased to exist. By contrast, 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 (i.e. Bosnia, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, and Turkey for instance) are already either extinct or doomed to extinction. Only time will tell whether Judeo-Spanish koiné, now evolving in Israel—similar to that which developed among Sephardic immigrants to the United States early in the 20th century will prevail and survive into the next generation.
Judæo-Portuguese was used by Sephardim — especially among the Spanish and Portuguese Jews. 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 Romance languages with Jewish forms, spoken historically by Sephardim, include Judeo-Catalan, often understimated, this language was the main language used by the Jewish communities in Catalonia, Balearic Isles and the Valencian region. The Gibraltar community has had a heavy influence on the Gibraltar dialect Llanito contributing several words to this English/Spanish patois.
Other languages associated with Sephardic Jews are mostly extinct, i.e., formerly spoken by some Sephardic communities in Italy. Judeo-Arabic and its dialects have been a large vernacular language for Sephardim who settled in North African kingdoms and Arabic-speaking parts of the Ottoman Empire. 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.
In other words, through their diaspora, Sephardim have been a polyglot population, often learning or exchanging words with the language of their host population, most commonly Italian, Arabic, Greek, Turkish, Dutch and were easily integrated in the societies that hosted them. Within the last centuries and more particularly the 19th and 20th century, two languages have became dominant in the Sephardic diaspora; French introduced by the Alliance Israélite Universelle and Hebrew by the state of Israel.
The precise origins of the Jewish communities of the Iberian peninsula are unclear. There is fragmentary and inconclusive evidence of a Jewish presence on the Iberian Peninsula dating from pre-Roman times. More substantial references date from the Roman period.
The Provençal Rabbi and scholar, Rabbi Abraham ben David, wrote in anno 1161: “A tradition exists with the [Jewish] community of Granada that they are from the inhabitants of Jerusalem, of the descendants of Judah and Benjamin, rather than from the villages, the towns in the outlying districts [of Palestine].” When exactly these Jewish immigrants first settled in Spain is not clear, as there are references to two Jewish influxes into Spain, one following the destruction of Israel’s First Temple and the other after the destruction of the Second.
The earliest mention of Spain is, allegedly, found in Obadiah 1:20: “And the exiles of this host of the sons of Israel who are among the Canaanites as far as Ṣarfat (Heb. צרפת), and the exiles of Jerusalem who are in Sepharad, will possess the cities of the south.” While the medieval lexicographer, David ben Abraham Al-Alfāsī, identifies Ṣarfat with the city of Ṣarfend (Judeo-Arabic: צרפנדה), the word Sepharad (Heb. ספרד) in the same verse has been translated by the 1st century rabbinic scholar, Yonathan Ben Uzziel, as Aspamia. Based on a later teaching in the compendium of Jewish oral laws compiled by Rabbi Judah Hanasi in 189 CE, known as the Mishnah, Aspamia is associated with a very far place, generally thought of as Hispania, or Spain.
According to Rabbi David Kimchi (1160–1235), in his commentary on Obadiah 1:20, Ṣarfat and Sepharad, both, refer to the Jewish captivity (Heb. galut) expelled during the war with Titus and who went as far as the countries Alemania (Germany), Escalona, France and Spain. The names Ṣarfat and Sepharad are explicitly mentioned by him as being France and Spain, respectively. Some scholars think that, in the case of the place-name, Ṣarfat (lit. Ṣarfend) – which, as noted, was applied to the Jewish Diaspora in France, the association with France was made only exegetically because of its similarity in spelling with the name פרנצא (France), by a reversal of its letters.
Spanish Jew, Moses de León (ca. 1250 – 1305), mentions a tradition concerning the first Jewish exiles, saying that the vast majority of the first exiles driven away from the land of Israel during the Babylonian captivity refused to return, for they had seen that the Second Temple would be destroyed like the first. In yet another teaching, passed down later by Moses ben Machir in the 16th century, an explicit reference is made to the fact that Jews have lived in Spain since the destruction of the First Temple:
Similarly, Gedaliah ibn Jechia the Spaniard has written:
Don Isaac Abrabanel, a prominent Jewish figure in Spain in the 15th century and one of the king’s trusted courtiers who witnessed the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, informs his readers that the first Jews to reach Spain were brought by ship to Spain by a certain Phiros who was confederate with the king of Babylon when he laid siege to Jerusalem. This man was a Grecian by birth, but who had been given a kingdom in Spain. He became related by marriage to a certain Espan, the nephew of king Heracles, who also ruled over a kingdom in Spain. This Heracles later renounced his throne because of his preference for his native country in Greece, leaving his kingdom to his nephew, Espan, by whom the country of España (Spain) derives its name. The Jewish exiles transported there by the said Phiros were descended by lineage from Judah, Benjamin, Shimon and Levi, and were, according to Abrabanel, settled in two districts in southern Spain: one, Andalusia, in the city of Lucena - a city so-called by the Jewish exiles that had come there; the second, in the country around Ṭulayṭulah (Toledo).
Abrabanel says that the name Ṭulayṭulah (Toledo) was given to the city by its first Jewish inhabitants, and surmises that the name may have meant טלטול (= wandering), on account of their wandering from Jerusalem. He says, furthermore, that the original name of the city was Pirisvalle, so-called by its early pagan inhabitants. He also writes there that he found written in the ancient annals of Spanish history collected by the kings of Spain that the 50,000 Jewish households then residing in the cities throughout Spain were the descendants of men and women who were sent to Spain by the Roman Emperor and who had formerly been subjected to him and whom Titus had originally exiled from places in or around Jerusalem. The two Jewish exiles joined together and became one.
Evidence that suggests Jewish connections with the Iberian Peninsula includes:
Some suggest that substantial Jewish immigration probably occurred during the Roman period of Hispania. The province came under Roman control with the fall of Carthage after the Second Punic War (218–202 BC). 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. The Jewish historian Josephus confirms that as early as 90 CE there was already a Jewish Diaspora living in Europe, made-up of the two tribes, Judah and Benjamin. Thus, he writes in his Antiquities: “ …there are but two tribes in Asia (Turkey) and Europe subject to the Romans, while the ten tribes are beyond Euphrates till now and are an immense multitude.”
Although the spread of Jews into Europe is most commonly associated with the Diaspora that 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. 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 that may refer specifically to Jews in the Iberian peninsula during the Roman period is Paul's Epistle to the Romans. Many[who?] 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 the year 39 may have been to Hispania.
From a slightly later period, Midrash Rabbah, Leviticus 29:2 makes reference to the return of the Diaspora from Hispania by 165.
Perhaps the most direct and substantial of early references are the several decrees of the Council of Elvira, convened in the early 4th 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, those that pertain to Jews maintained 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 southern Europe was relatively tolerable. This is due in large measure to the difficulty 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 the Jews enjoyed a degree of peace their brethren to the east did not.
Barbarian invasions brought most of the Iberian Peninsula under Visigothic rule by the early 5th century. Other than in their contempt for Orthodox Christians, who reminded them of the Romans and also because they were Arians, the Visigoths were largely uninterested 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 Roman Catholicism 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, the situation for Jews became intolerable and many left Spain for nearby northern Africa. In 711, 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. This began 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. Though Islamic law placed restrictions on 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 claim that Jews provided valuable aid to the Muslim 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 the 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. Jewish communities were enriched culturally, intellectually, and religiously by the commingling of these 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 the Arabs had for grammar and style also had the effect of stimulating an interest in philological matters in general among Jews. Arabic became 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 9th 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. Mainly in Toledo, 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 Muladi, 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 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 as 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 11th and early 12th 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.
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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 as Samuel Abravanel (or "Abrabanel" — financial councilor to the viceroy of Naples). Among other names mentioned are those of Belmonte, Nasi, Francisco Pacheco, Blas, Pedro de Herrera, Palache, Pimentel, Azevedo, Sagaste, Salvador, Sasportas, Costa, Curiel, Cansino, Schönenberg, Sapoznik (Zapatero)<Bima de Sapoznik em Tomar>, Toledo, Miranda, 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 where 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 that used Spanish as the medium of instruction. Theatre in Constantinople 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 "impoverishing his own lands while enriching his (Bayezid's)". Jews arriving in the Ottoman Empire were mostly resettled in and around Thessalonica and to some extent in Constantinople 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 17th 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.
The largest part, likely a majority, of Spaniard Jews expelled in 1492 fled to Portugal, where they eluded persecution for a few years. The Jewish community in Portugal was perhaps then some 10% of that country's population. They were declared Christians by Royal decree unless they left, but the King hindered their departure, needing their artisanship and working population for Portugal's overseas enterprises and territories. Later Sephardic Jews settled in many trade areas controlled by the Empire of Philip II and others. With various countries in Europe also the Sephardi Jews established commercial relations. In a letter dated November 25, 1622, King Christian IV of Denmark invites Jews of Amsterdam to settle in Glückstadt, where, among other privileges, the free exercise of their religion would be assured to them.
Álvaro Caminha, in Cape Verde islands, who received the land as a grant from the crown, established a colony with Jews forced to stay on the island of São Tomé. Príncipe island was settled in 1500 under a similar arrangement. Attracting settlers proved difficult, however, the Jewish settlement was a success and their descendants settled many parts of Brazil.
In particular, Jews established the relations between the Dutch and South America. They contributed to the establishment of the Dutch West Indies Company in 1621, and some were members of the directorate. The ambitious schemes of the Dutch for the conquest of Brazil were carried into effect through Francisco Ribeiro, a Portuguese captain, who is said to have had Jewish relations in the Netherlands. Some years afterward, when the Dutch in Brazil appealed to the Netherlands for craftsmen of all kinds, many Jews went to Brazil. About 600 Jews left Amsterdam in 1642, accompanied by two distinguished scholars—Isaac Aboab da Fonseca and Moses Raphael de Aguilar. Jews supported the Dutch in the struggle between the Netherlands and Portugal for possession of Brazil.
In 1642, Aboab da Fonseca was appointed rabbi at Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue in the Dutch colony of Pernambuco (Recife), Brazil. Most of the white inhabitants of the town were Sephardic Jews from Portugal who had been banned by the Portuguese Inquisition to this town at the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. In 1624, the colony had been occupied by the Dutch. By becoming the rabbi of the community, Aboab da Fonseca was the first appointed rabbi of the Americas. The name of his congregation was Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue and the community had a synagogue, a mikveh and a yeshiva as well. However, during the time he was rabbi in Pernambuco, the Portuguese re-occupied the place again in 1654, after a struggle of nine years. Aboab da Fonseca managed to return to Amsterdam after the occupation of the Portuguese. Members of his community immigrated to North America and were among the founders of New York City, but some Jews took refuge in Seridó.
Besides merchants, a great number of physicians were among the Spanish Jews in Amsterdam: Samuel Abravanel, David Nieto, Elijah Montalto, and the Bueno family; Joseph Bueno was consulted in the illness of Prince Maurice (April 1623). Jews were admitted as students at the university, where they studied medicine as the only branch of science of practical use to them, for they were not permitted to practise law, and the oath they would be compelled to take excluded them from the professorships. Neither were Jews taken into the trade-guilds: a resolution passed by the city of Amsterdam in 1632 (the cities being autonomous) excluded them. Exceptions, however, were made in the case of trades that related to their religion: printing, bookselling, and the selling of meat, poultry, groceries, and drugs. In 1655 a Jew was, exceptionally, permitted to establish a sugar-refinery.
The Nazi war that devastated European Jewry and virtually destroyed its centuries-old culture also wiped out the great European population centers of Sephardi Jewry and led to the almost complete demise of its unique language and traditions. Sephardi Jewish communities from France and the Netherlands in the northwest to Yugoslavia and Greece in the southeast almost disappeared.
On the eve of World War II, the European Sephardi community was concentrated in Southeastern Europe countries of Greece, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria. Its leading centers were in Salonika, Sarajevo, Belgrade, and Sofia. The experience of Jewish communities in those countries during the war varied greatly and depended on the type of regime under which they fell.
The Jewish communities of Serbia and northern Greece, including the 50,000 Jews of Salonika, fell under direct German occupation in April 1941 and bore the full weight and intensity of Nazi repressive measures from dispossession, humiliation, and forced labor to hostage taking, and finally deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau and died from malnutrition due to no food available towards the end of the war. The dead were incinerated in March–August 1943. The Jewish population of southern Greece fell under the jurisdiction of the Italians who eschewed the enactment of anti-Jewish legislation and resisted whenever possible German efforts to transfer them to occupied Poland, until the surrender of Italy on September 8, 1943 brought the Jews under German control.
Sephardi Jews in Bosnia and Croatia were ruled by a German-created Independent State of Croatia state from April 1941, which subjected them to pogrom-like actions before herding them into local camps where they were murdered side by side with Serbs and Roma (see Porajmos). The Jews of Macedonia and Thrace were controlled by Bulgarian occupation forces, which after rendering them stateless, rounded them up and turned them over to the Germans for deportation.
Finally, the Jews of Bulgaria proper were under the rule of a Nazi ally that subjected them to ruinous anti-Jewish legislation, but ultimately yielded to pressure from Bulgarian parliamentarians, clerics, and intellectuals not to deport them. More than 50,000 Bulgarian Jews were thus saved.
The Jews in North Africa, during WWII, identified themselves only as Jews or European Jews, westernized by French and Italian colonization. During WWII, the Jews of pro-Nazi Vichy Morocco/Algeria/Tunisia suffered the same antisemitic legislation, that Jews suffered in France metropole, in the continent. So did the Jews in Italian Libya. The Jewish communities in those European North Africa countries, in Bulgaria, and in Denmark were the only ones who were spared the mass deportation and mass murder that afflicted other Jewish communities. Following Operation Torche, the Allies saved more than 400,000 Jews in European North Africa.
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).
In Mexico, the Sephardic community originates mainly from Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria. In 1942 the Colegio 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" 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.
As of April 2013, Sephardim who are descendants of those expelled in the inquisition are entitled to claim Portuguese citizenship provided that they 'belong to a Sephardic community of Portuguese origin with ties to Portugal.' The amendment to Portugal's "Law on Nationality" was approved unanimously on 11 April 2013. A similar law was approved in Spain in 2014.
The Sephardim usually have followed the general rules for Spanish and Portuguese names. Many used to bear Portuguese and Spanish names; however, it is noteworthy that a large number of Sephardic names are of Hebrew and Arabic roots and are totally absent in Iberian patronyms and are therefore often seen as typically Jewish. Many of the names are associated with non-Jewish (Christian) families and individuals, and are by no means exclusive to Jews. After 1492, many marranos changed their names to hide their Jewish origins and avoid persecution, adopting professions and even translating such patronyms to local languages like German, Arabic or even Russian. It was common to choose the name of the Parish Church where they have been baptized into the Christian faith, such as Santa Cruz or the common name of the word "Messiah" (Savior/Salvador), or adopted the name of their Christian godparents. Dr. Mark Hilton's research demonstrated in IPS DNA testing that the last name of marranos linked with the location of the local parish were correlated 89.3%
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, then the maternal parents' names are next 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 is 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.
Great 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 or 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.
Due to their origin in the Mediterranean basin, there is a higher incidence of certain hereditary diseases and inherited disorders in Sephardi Jews. However, there are no specifically Sephardic genetic diseases, since the diseases in this group are not common to Sephardic Jews in general, but are instead common in the particular country of birth. The most important ones are:
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