When reading about Judaism, one often comes across the terms “Ashkenazim” and “Sephardim.” While these names are ethnic subdivisions of the Jewish world, they are actually based on geographic distinctions.
Ashkenazim (the Hebrew name for Germany is Ashkenaz, hence Ashkenazim) refers to those Jews whose ancestors settled in the communities of the Rhineland in the west of Germany in the early 4th century. It was not until the 10th century, however, that these communities became more substantial and spread into Northern, Central and Eastern Europe (France, Poland, Russia, etc).
Ashkenazi communities interpreted Jewish laws in similar ways, shared Torah leaders and adopted similar customs. For the most part, the common language of the Ashkenazim was (until WWII) Yiddish, a combination of German and Hebrew written with Hebrew characters.
Among the Ashkenazim there are many sub-groups: Litvaks, Galitzianers, Chassidim and Yekkes (Germans), to name a few.
Sephardim (the Hebrew name for Spain is Sepharad, hence Sephardim), on the other hand, refers to Jews whose ancestors settled in Spain or Portugal. Jews are known to have lived on the Iberian Peninsula since early Roman times. They experienced a Golden Age (10th through 12th centuries) that came to an astounding end with pogroms, forced conversion, expulsion and the Inquisition. Because of the Spanish exile (1492), Sephardi culture spread throughout the Mediterranean, as well as to cities in Central Europe and the New World.
Today, the term Sephardi often refers to any Jewish tradition that is not Ashkenazi. However, further distinction must be made between Sephardim and Mizrachim, a term referring to Jews of Africa/Asia who are not descended from Sephardim (such as the Jews of Syria, Yemen, Morocco, Iran, Iraq, etc.).
Of course, the bottom line is that a Jew is a Jew - whether Ashkenazi, Sephardi or Mizrachi. These distinctions are relevant, however, in order to understand certain laws and customs that evolved in these countries and were transmitted from generation to generation.
This Treat was originally posted on December 3, 2008.
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