Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews
There are several subgroups of Jews with different culture and traditions:
Ashkenazic: Descendants of Jews from France, Germany and Eastern Europe
Sephardic: Descendants of Jews from Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East
Mizrachi: Descendants of Jews from North Africa and the Middle East
Other subgroups are Yemenite, Ethiopian and Oriental
Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews represent two distinct subcultures of Judaism. We
are all Jews and share the same basic beliefs, but there are some variations in
culture and practice. It's not clear when the split began, but it has existed
for more than a thousand years, because around the year 1000
C.E., Rabbi Gershom ben Judah issued an edict against
polygamy that was accepted by Ashkenazim but
not by Sephardim.
Who are Ashkenazic Jews?
Ashkenazic Jews are the Jews of France, Germany, and Eastern Europe and their
descendants. The adjective "Ashkenazic" and corresponding nouns, Ashkenazi
(singular) and Ashkenazim (plural) are derived from the Hebrew word "Ashkenaz,"
which is used to refer to Germany. Most American Jews today are Ashkenazim,
descended from Jews who emigrated from Germany and Eastern Europe from the mid
1800s to the early 1900s. The pages in this site are written from the
Ashkenazic Jewish perspective.
Who are Sephardic Jews?
Sephardic Jews are the Jews of Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle
East and their descendants. The adjective "Sephardic" and corresponding nouns
Sephardi (singular) and Sephardim (plural) are derived from the Hebrew word
"Sepharad," which refers to Spain.
Sephardic Jews are often subdivided into Sephardim, from Spain and Portugal,
and Mizrachim, from the Northern Africa and the Middle East. The word
"Mizrachi" comes from the Hebrew word for Eastern. There is much overlap
between the Sephardim and Mizrachim. Until the 1400s, the Iberian Peninsula,
North Africa and the Middle East were all controlled by Muslims, who generally
allowed Jews to move freely throughout the region. It was under this relatively
benevolent rule that Sephardic Judaism developed. When the Jews were expelled
from Spain in 1492, many of them were absorbed into existing Mizrachi
communities in Northern Africa and the Middle East.
Most of the early Jewish settlers of North America were Sephardic. The first
Jewish congregation in North America,
Shearith Israel, founded in what is now
New York in 1684, was Sephardic and is still active. Philadelphia's first
Jewish congregation, Congregation Mikveh
Israel, founded in 1740, was also a Sephardic one, and is also still active.
In Israel, a little more than half of all Jews are Mizrachim, descended from
Jews who have been in the land since ancient times or who were forced out of
Arab countries after Israel was founded. Most of the rest are Ashkenazic,
descended from Jews who came to the Holy Land (then controlled by the Ottoman
Turks) instead of the United States in the late 1800s, or from Holocaust
survivors, or from other immigrants who came at various times. About 1% of the
Israeli population are the black Ethiopian Jews who fled during the brutal
Ethiopian famine in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
What is the difference between Sephardic and Ashkenazic?
The beliefs of Sephardic Judaism are basically in accord with those of
Orthodox Judaism, though Sephardic
interpretations of halakhah (Jewish Law) are
somewhat different than Ashkenazic ones. The best-known of these differences
relates to the holiday of Pesach (Passover):
Sephardic Jews may eat rice, corn, peanuts and beans during this holiday, while
Ashkenazic Jews avoid them. Although some individual Sephardic Jews are less
observant than others, and some individuals do not agree with all of the
beliefs of traditional Judaism, there is no formal, organized differentiation
into movements as there is in Ashkenazic
Historically, Sephardic Jews have been more integrated into the local
non-Jewish culture than Ashkenazic Jews. In the Christian lands where
Ashkenazic Judaism flourished, the tension between Christians and Jews was
great, and Jews tended to be isolated from their non-Jewish neighbors, either
voluntarily or involuntarily. In the Islamic lands where Sephardic Judaism
developed, there was less segregation and oppression. Sephardic Jewish thought
and culture was strongly influenced by Arabic and Greek philosophy and science.
Sephardic Jews have a different pronunciation of a few Hebrew vowels and one
Hebrew consonant, though most Ashkenazim are adopting Sephardic pronunciation
now because it is the pronunciation used in
Israel. See Hebrew
Alphabet. Sephardic prayer services are
somewhat different from Ashkenazic ones, and Sephardim use different melodies
in their services. Sephardic Jews also have different holiday customs and
different traditional foods. For example, Ashkenazic Jews eat
latkes (potato pancakes) to celebrate
Chanukkah; Sephardic Jews eat sufganiot (jelly
The Yiddish language, which many people think of
as the international language of Judaism, is really the language of Ashkenazic
Jews. Sephardic Jews have their own international language: Ladino, which was
based on Spanish and Hebrew in the same way that Yiddish was based on German
Other Jewish Subcultures
There are some Jews who do not fit into this Ashkenazic/Sephardic distinction.
Yemenite Jews, Ethiopian Jews (also known as Beta Israel and sometimes called
Falashas), and Asian Jews also have some distinct customs and traditions. These
groups, however, are relatively small and virtually unknown in America. For
more information on Ethiopian Jewry, see the
North American Conference on Ethiopian
Jewry or Friends of
Ethiopian Jews. For more information on Asian Jewry, see
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