Sephardi Jews

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Sephardi Jews
יהדות ספרד‎ (Yahadut Sefarad in Sephardi Hebrew)
Total population
up to 15–20% of the global Jewish population
Regions with significant populations
 Israel1.4 million
 United States200,000–300,000
 El Salvador8,000
 Bosnia and Herzegovina1,000
 North Macedonia200
Historical: Hebrew, Aramaic, Ladino, Andalusian Arabic, Judeo-Arabic, Haketia, Judeo-Portuguese, Judeo-Berber, Judaeo-Catalanic, Shuadit, local languages
Modern: Local languages, primarily Modern Hebrew, French, English, Turkish, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Ladino, Arabic
Judaism (Jewish secularism, Conservative Judaism, Modern Orthodox Judaism, Haredi Judaism)
Related ethnic groups
Ashkenazi Jews, Mizrahi Jews, other Jewish ethnic divisions, Samaritans, other Levantines, Lebanese, Syrians, other Near Eastern Semitic people, Spaniards, Portuguese, Pieds-noirs and Hispanics/Latinos

Sephardi Jews, also known as Sephardic Jews, Sephardim,[a] or Hispanic Jews by modern scholars,[2] are a Jewish ethnic division originating from traditionally established communities in the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal). Sephardi are not to be confused with Jews living in the Crown of Aragon. These are known as Judeo-Catalan and didn’t consider themselves as part of the Sephardic tradition. Their language is known as Judaeo-Catalan (Hebrew: קטלאנית יהודית‎; Catalan: judeocatalà, IPA: [ʒuˌðewkətəˈla]), also called Catalanic or Qatalanit (Hebrew: קאטאלנית‎; Catalan: catalànic or qatalanit), was a presumed Jewish language spoken by the Jews in Northern Catalonia and what is today Northeastern Spain, especially in Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands.

Largely expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in the late 15th century, they carried a distinctive Jewish diasporic identity with them to North Africa, including modern day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt; South-Eastern and Southern Europe, including France, Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Turkey; the Middle East, including Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Iran; as well as the Americas (although in smaller numbers compared to Ashkenazi Jews); and all other places of their exiled settlement. They sometimes settled near existing Jewish communities or were the first in new frontiers.[3]

The millennial residence of the Sephardim as an open and organised Jewish community in Iberia began to decline with the Reconquista. That community's decline began with the Alhambra Decree by Spain's Catholic Monarchs in 1492. In 1496 Portuguese king Manuel I issued an edict of expulsion of Jews and Muslims.[4] These actions resulted in a combination of internal and external migrations, mass conversions, and executions. In 2015, both Spain and Portugal passed laws allowing Sephardim who could prove their ancestral origins in those countries to apply for citizenship.[5] Spain's law offering expedited citizenship expired in 2019, but Portugal citizenship is still available.[6]

Statue of Sephardic philosopher, Maimonides, in Córdoba, Spain

Historically, the vernacular languages of Sephardim and their descendants have been variants of either Spanish or Portuguese, though the Sephardim have also adopted and adapted other languages. The historical forms of Spanish that differing Sephardic communities spoke communally was related to the date of their departure from Iberia and their status at that time as Jews or New Christians. Judaeo-Spanish, sometimes called "Ladino Oriental" (Eastern Ladino), is a Romance language derived from Old Spanish that was spoken by the Eastern Sephardim who settled in the Eastern Mediterranean after the expulsion from Spain in 1492. Haketia (also known as "Tetouani" in Algeria), an Arabic-influenced variety of Judaeo-Spanish also derived from Old Spanish, was spoken by North African Sephardim who settled in North Africa after the expulsion from Spain in 1492.

The term "Sephardim" sometimes refers to traditionally Eastern Jewish communities of West Asia and beyond. Although not having direct roots in the Jewish communities of Iberia, they have adopted a Sephardic style of liturgy and Sephardic law and customs from the influence of 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 means "Spanish" or "Hispanic", derived from Sepharad (Hebrew: סְפָרַד, Modern: Sfarád, Tiberian: Səp̄āráḏ), a Biblical location.[7] The location of the biblical Sepharad is disputed. But much later Jews identified Sepharad as Hispania, that is, the Iberian Peninsula. Sefarád (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; Serbian: Сефарди, Sefardi; Serbian, Judaeo-Spanish: Sefaradies/Sefaradim; and Arabic: سفارديون‎, Safārdiyyūn.


Narrow ethnic definition[edit]

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"), derived from a misunderstanding of the initials ס"ט "Samekh Tet" traditionally used with some proper names (which stand for sofo tov, "may his end be good"[8]), has in recent times been used in some quarters to distinguish Sephardim proper, "who trace their lineage back to the Iberian/Spanish population", from Sephardim in the broader religious sense.[9] This distinction has also been made in reference to 21st-century genetic findings in research on 'Pure Sephardim', in contrast to other communities of Jews today who are part of the broad classification of Sephardi.[10]

Ethnic Sephardic Jews have had a presence in North Africa and various parts of the Mediterranean and Western Asia due to their expulsion from Spain. There have also been Sephardic communities in South America and India.

Broad religious definition[edit]

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. It encompasses most non-Ashkenazi Jews who are not ethnically Sephardi, but are in most instances of West Asian or North African origin. They are classified as Sephardi because they commonly use a Sephardic style of liturgy; this constitutes a majority of Mizrahi Jews in the 21st century.

The term Sephardi in the broad sense, 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 Ashkenazi.

Additionally, Ethiopian Jews, whose branch of practiced Judaism is known as Haymanot, have been included under the oversight of Israel's already broad Sephardic Chief Rabbinate.


The divisions among Sephardim and their descendants today are largely a result of the consequences of the royal edicts of expulsion. Both the Spanish and Portuguese edicts ordered their respective Jewish residents to choose one of three options:

  1. to convert to Catholicism and be allowed to remain within the kingdom,
  2. to remain Jewish and be expelled by the stipulated deadline, or
  3. to stay and be summarily executed as Jews.

In the case of the Alhambra Decree of 1492, the primary purpose was to eliminate Jewish influence on Spain's large converso population, and ensure they did not revert to Judaism. Over half of Spain's Jews had converted in the 14th century as a result of the religious persecution and pogroms which occurred in 1391. They and their Catholic descendants were not subject to the Decree or to expulsion, yet were surveilled by the Spanish Inquisition. British scholar Henry Kamen has said that

"the real purpose of the 1492 edict likely was not expulsion, but compulsory conversion and assimilation of all Spanish Jews, a process which had been underway for a number of centuries. Indeed, a further number of those Jews who had not yet joined the converso community finally chose to convert and avoid expulsion as a result of the edict. As a result of the Alhambra decree and persecution during the prior century, between 200,000 and 250,000 Jews converted to Catholicism and between one third and one half of Spain's remaining 100,000 non-converted Jews chose exile, with an indeterminate number returning to Spain in the years following the expulsion."[11]

Foreseeing a negative economic effect of a similar Jewish flight from Portugal, King Manuel issued his decree four years later largely to appease a precondition that the Spanish monarchs had set for him in order to allow him to marry their daughter. While the stipulations were similar in the Portuguese decree, King Manuel largely prevented Portugal's Jews from leaving, by blocking Portugal's ports of exit. He decided that the Jews who stayed accepted Catholicism by default, proclaiming them New Christians. Physical forced conversions, however, were also suffered by Jews throughout Portugal.

Sephardi Jews encompass Jews descended from those Jews who left the Iberian Peninsula as Jews by the expiration of the respective decreed deadlines. This group is further divided between those who fled south to North Africa, as opposed to those who fled eastwards to the Balkans, West Asia and beyond. Others fled east into Europe, with many settling in northern Italy. Also included among Sephardi Jews are those who descend from "New Christian" conversos, but returned to Judaism after leaving Iberia, largely after reaching Southern and Western Europe.[citation needed]

From these regions, many late migrated again, this time to the non-Iberian territories of the Americas. Additional to all these Sephardic Jewish groups are the descendants of those New Christian conversos who either remained in Iberia, or moved from Iberia directly to the Iberian colonial possessions in what are today the various Latin American countries. For historical reasons and circumstances, most of the descendants of this group of conversos never formally returned to the Jewish religion.

All 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.

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, the Sephardim were usually regarded as together forming a continuum. The Jewish community of Livorno, Italy 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[edit]

Sephardi Jewish couple from Sarajevo in traditional clothing (1900)

Eastern Sephardim comprise the descendants of the expellees from Spain who left as Jews in 1492 or prior. This sub-group of Sephardim settled mostly in various parts of the Ottoman Empire, which included areas in the Near East (West Asia's Middle East such as Anatolia, the Levant and Egypt), and the Balkans in Southeastern Europe. They settled particularly in European cities ruled by the Ottoman Empire, including Salonica in what is today Greece; Constantinople, which today is known as Istanbul on the European portion of modern Turkey; and Sarajevo, in what is today Bosnia and Herzegovina. Sephardic Jews also lived in Bulgaria, where they absorbed into their community the Romaniote Jews they found already living there. They had a presence as well in Walachia in what is today southern Romani