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Published on Saturday, 06 July 2013 07:44 | Written by Rebecca Weiner |

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The descendants of Jews who

left Spain or Portugal after the 1492
expulsion are referred to as Sephardim. The
word Sephardim comes from
the Hebrew word for Spain, Sepharad, that is
stated in the Bible.


It is believed that Jews have lived in Spain

since the era of King Solomon (c.965930 B.C.E.). Little information can be found
on these Jews until the beginning of the first
century. We do know that in 305 C.E., the
Council of Toledo passed an edict forbidding
Jews from blessing the crops of non-Jews
and prohibiting Jews and non-Jews from
eating together.

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Visigoth Rule
In 409 C.E., the Visigoths conquered Spain. The Visigoths were Arian Christians, followers of Arius who
reasoned that Jesus could not logically co-exist with God and must therefore be subservient to him.
In 587 C.E., King Reccared, the Visigoth king in Spain, converted to Roman Catholicism and made it the state
religion. Subsequently, the Church was to exert powerful influence on all aspects of social life. Almost
immediately, in 589 C.E., a canon was passed forbidding the marriage between Christians and Jews; and in
612 C.E., the Council of Gundemar of Toledo ordered that all Jews submit to baptism within the year.


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In 638 C.E., the Arian Visigoths declared that only Catholics could live in Spain.

The Golden Age

The situation improved in 711 when Spain fell under the rule of the Muslim Moors.
Both Muslims and Jews built a civilization, based in Cordoba, known as Al-Andalus, which was more
advanced than any civilization in Europe at that time. Jews were able to coexist peacefully with their
neighbors; however, they were still treated as dhimmis, "People of the Book" (Jews and Christians) who are
protected under Islamic law. Jews did not have complete autonomy and had to pay a special tax, the jizha ,
but were able to freely practice their religion.
The era of Muslim rule in Spain (8th-11th century) was considered the "Golden Age" for Spanish Jewry.
Jewish intellectual and spiritual life flourished and many Jews served in Spanish courts. Jewish economic
expansion was unparalleled. In Toledo, Jews were involved in translating Arabic texts to the romance
languages, as well as translating Greek and Hebrew texts into Arabic. Jews also contributed to botany,
geography, medicine, mathematics, poetry and philosophy.
A number of well-known Jewish physicians practiced during this period, including Hasdai Ibn Shaprut (915970), who was the doctor for the Caliph (leader of Spain). Many famous Jewish figures lived during the
Golden Age and contributed to making this a flourishing period for Jewish thought. These included Samuel
Ha-Nagid, Moses ibn Ezra, Solomon ibn Gabirol Judah Halevi and Moses Maimonides.
Jews lived separately in aljamas (Jewish quarters). They were given administrative control over their
communities and managed their own communal affairs. Jews had their own court system, known as the Bet
Din. Rabbis served as judges and rendered both religious and civil legal opinions.
Islamic culture also influenced the Jews. Muslim and Jewish customs and practices became intertwined. For
example, Arabic was used for prayers rather than Hebrew or Spanish. Before entering the synagogue, Jews
washed their hands and feet, which is a practice done before entering a mosque. Arab melodies were used for
Jewish songs. Jews wore the clothing style of their Moorish neighbors, although they were not allowed to


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Jewish songs. Jews wore the clothing style of their Moorish neighbors, although they were not allowed to
wear silk or furs.
Jews lived peacefully in Al-Andulus for 400 years. The Golden Age for Jewry in Muslim Spain declined after
the Almovarids gained power in 1055 and continued to deteriorate after the Almohads came to power in 1147.
Jews continued to work as moneylenders, jewelers, cobblers, tailors and tanners, however, they had to wear
distinguishing clothing, such as a yellow turban.

Christian Rule, the Inquisition and the Expulsion of 1492

The Christians conquered Toledo in 1098 and the Jews in Christian Spain prospered, while those in Muslim
Spain suffered under the Almohad dynasty. Both Jews and Muslims were involved in the cultural, economic,
intellectual, financial and political life of Christian Spain. By the mid-13th century, the Christians controlled
most of Spain and increasingly forced Jews to convert to Christianity. Those who converted became known
as Marranos or New Christians. Marranos are also known as crypto-Jews because they taught their children
and practiced Judaism in secret. During this period, Jews were forced to participate in "religious" disputes with
Christians counterparts.

Many Spanish Jews settled in Portugal, which allowed the practice of Judaism. In 1497, however, Portugal
also expelled its Jews. King Manuel of Portugal agreed to marry the daughter of Spains monarchs. One of the
conditions for the marriage was the expulsion of Portugals Jewish community. In actuality only eight Jews
were exiled from Portugal and the rest converted, under duress, to Christianity.

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In the first Sephardi Diaspora, a large number of Jews settled in North Africa and in the Ottoman Empire,
especially, Turkey and Greece. Spanish exiles brought with them a unique culture, language (Ladino) and
traditions. Many of these immigrants continued to speak Ladino until the 20th century.

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Anti-Jewish riots broke out in 1391 in several Spanish cities and the situation worsened for the Jewish
community. New Christians were tortured or killed in the Spanish Inquisition during the 15th century. Father
Tomas de Torquemada felt that if the Jews remained in Spain, then they would influence the new converts to
Christianity. After the capture of Granada from Muslim forces, Father Torquemada convinced King Ferdinand
and Queen Isabella that the Jewish community was expendable. In 1492, Isabella and Ferdinand commanded
that all Jews who refused to convert to Christianity be expelled from Spain. The Jews were given four months
to leave Spain and were forced to sell their houses and businesses at low prices. It is estimated that 100,000
Jews left Spain at this time. The expulsion from Spain is commemorated every year by all Jews on the holiday
of Tisha BAv.

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A Marrano Diaspora took place a century later. Some Marranos had settled in Portugal and eventually moved
to Holland, where they were allowed to outwardly practice Judaism. Many settled in Western Europe and
moved to the Americas. Marranos who settled in Latin America continued practicing crypto-Judaism for
many years because Spain began an inquisition in its New World colonies. Fear of persecution led Crypto-Jews
to settle in remote villages. Today, descendants of crypto-Jews can be found in Colorado and New Mexico.

Exiled Sephardic Communities

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Large Sephardic communities were founded

i n Venice, Leghorn, London, Bordeaux, Bayonne and
Hamburg. These immigrants spoke Portugese and
Spanish and many adapted mainstream Western
European culture. Successful business enterprises were
started by the Sephardim and their trade networks
became famous worldwide.

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Throughout the medieval period in Europe, the

Sephardic Jews were treated as elites among Jews. Many
times they had a secular education and often had great
wealth. In the 18th century, the Sephardic Jews who
lived in Amsterdam and in London, tended to
discriminate against non-Sephardic Jews who wanted to
pray at their synagogues by forcing them to sit separately from the rest of the congregation.

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North Africa and the Arab World

For hundreds of years, Sephardic Jews lived, as dhimmis, in relative peace with Muslim neighbors and rulers
in North Africa and in the Ottoman Empire. They were considered second-class citizens, but were free to
practice their own religion and participate in commerce. Similar to Spain and Portugal during the Golden Era,
the Sephardic upper class in the Ottoman empire were employed as translators.
The Sephardic communities in the Arab world were more receptive to modernity than
their Ashkenazi counterparts in Europe. The Zionist movement became popular among Sephardic Jews in
North Africa. Many Sephardic rabbis in the Ottoman Empire supported Zionism and the Zionist movement
spread to many Muslim countries in North Africa, such as in Egypt and Tunisia.

World War II - Present

I n World War II, Sephardim in Europe suffered the same fate as other Jews, and most perished during
the Holocaust. In a few places, such as Holland, they received some preferential treatment, meaning they
were among the last to be liquidated.

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After the establishment of the State of Israel, conditions for Jews in many Islamic countries grew increasingly
uncomfortable and, in some cases, their lives were threatened. In the 1950's and 1960's, tens of thousands of
Sephardic Jews fled from North Africa and other countries in the Middle East to settle in Israel, usually being
forced by the Muslim authorities to leave behind most of their worldly possessions. Once they came to Israel,
most of the Sephardic immigrants were put in transit camps and became dependent on welfare. The
conditions in these camps were very bad and it was difficult for the newcomers to work their way out of the
lower rung of Israeli society because they had less education than the establishedAshkenazic community.
Consequently, many worked in blue-collar professions.

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Today, tensions remain between Ashkenazim and Sephardim in Israel because of the poor treatment the latter
received and the long, difficult road Sephardic Jews have had to travel to approach parity in society. Though
they have not yet achieved equality, Sephardic Jews increasingly occupy positions of prestige and influence.
Moroccan-born David Levy, for example, has served as foreign minister and, in July 2000, Iranianborn Moshe Katsav was elected president.
Besides Israel, other large Sephardic communities developed in Central and South America, Rhodesia and
the Belgian Congo. Meanwhile, the existing communities in New York, Paris and London grew. One of the
most famous Sephardic synagogues is Congregation Shearith Israel, the first Jewish congregation in North
America, and the only Jewish congregation in New York from its founding in 1654 until 1825.

The Sephardi Jews preserved their special language, which was a combination of Hebrew and Spanish, known
as Ladino. Ladino is still spoken by some Sephardic communities, such as those
i n Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, Rumania, France and Latin America. Today the largest Ladino-speaking
community can be found in Israel. One can also read Ladino in Sephardic literature.
When Jews left Spain and Portugal they continued to speak Ladino, in the same grammar and vocabulary of
14th and 15th century Spanish. The Sephardic exile communities of Amsterdam, London and Italy were still in
contact with Spain and hence they continued to speak Castillian Spanish.
Exile communities in the Ottoman Empire, however, retained the 14th and 15th century Spanish and
borrowed words from Hebrew, Arabic Greek, Turkish and French and diverged considerably from Castillian
Spanish. There are many different Ladino dialects. An Oriental Ladino was used in Turkey and Rhodes, while
a Western Ladino was spoken in Greece, Macedonia, Bosnia, Serbia and Rumania.
Ladino is written using Hebrew letters and often uses the Rashi script. In fact, Rashi script was originally a
Ladino script; however, after Rashis death, this script was used to differentiate his commentary from others
ones. More recently, in the 20th century, Ladino has been written using the Latin alphabet.

Religious Practice
Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews share the same tenets of Judaism, follow the Babylonian Talmud and
the Shulkhan Arukh. Differences arise in customs and in liturgy. For example, on Passover, Sephardic Jews
eat kitnyot, rice and corn products. Also, at many Sephardic sedars, the father will reenact the experience of
gaining freedom by circling the sedar table and holding a symbolic bag over his shoulder.
Other differences exist in the way Sephardic Jews wind their tefillin straps outwards, whereas Ashkenazi Jews
wind the tefillin inwards. Sephardic grooms are honored with an aliyah to the Torah on the Shabbat after their
wedding, whereas Ashkenazi grooms are called up to the Torah the Shabbat before the wedding.
Sephardic Torah scrolls are usually stored in a large wooden cylinder, which stands erect when opened. The
parchment is in an upright position when read, whereas, Ashkenazi scrolls just have an embroidered cover and
the scrolls are read while lying flat on a table.
Sephardic liturgy uses the same basic prayers, but add different psalms and poems. The prayer, Ein
Keloyheinu, is recited at the Saturday morning services for both Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews, however, it is
also read daily by Sephardic Jews. Sephardim also use a different cantillation for reading the Torah and
different melodies for prayers. All Sephardic synagogues are traditional, women are seated separately, typically
in a balcony.
Sources: Congregation Shearith Israel
Golden Age of Spain. Sephardic Adventure.
Marks, Scott Alfassa. "The Jews in Islamic Spain." Sephardic House.
Sephardim. Encyclopedia Judaica. CD -Rom Edition 1995.
The Sephardim or Spanish Jews
Stillman, Norman A. The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times. The Jewish Publication Society of America.
Telushkin, Rabbi Joseph. Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion,
Its People and Its History. William Morrow and Company, Inc. 1991.
Ward, Seth Dr. Sephardim and Crypto-Judaism: Definition of Terms and Brief History.

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