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Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews

Level:  Basic

The pages in this site were originally written from an Ashkenazic Jewish perspective, but they are currently being rewritten from a more universal Torah viewpoint.  Ashkenazic Jews are the Jews of France, Germany, and Eastern Europe.  Sephardic Jews are the Jews of Spain, Portugal, North Africa, and the Middle East.  The word "Ashkenazic" is derived from the Hebrew word for Germany.  The word "Sephardic" is derived from the Hebrew word for Spain.

Most Jews in the US today are Ashkenazic, descended from Jews who emigrated from Germany and Eastern Europe in the mid-1800s, although most of the early Jewish settlers of this country were Sephardic.  The first Jewish congregation in the city of Philadelphia, Congregation Mikveh Israel, was a Sephardic one (it is still active).

The beliefs of Sephardic Judaism are basically in accord with those of Orthodox Judaism, though Sephardic interpretations of halakhah (Jewish Law) are somewhat different from Ashkenazic ones.  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 Judaism.

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, no such segregation existed.  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.  Their prayer services are somewhat different from Ashkenazic ones, and they use different melodies in their services.  Sephardic Jews also have different holiday customs and different traditional foods.

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 and Hebrew.

There are some Jews who do not fit into this Ashkenazic/Sephardic distinction.  Yemenite Jews (including people on Mechon Mamre's staff), Ethiopian Jews (also known as Beta Israel and sometimes called Falashas), and Oriental Jews also have some distinct customs and traditions.  These groups, however, are relatively small and almost unknown in the West.

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