Sefardim and Ashkenazim, Chassidim and Misnagdim

Like Jewish families in general, rabbinic families are to be found in both Sefardi and Ashkenazi communities, and the Ashkenazim were further divided according to their Chassidic or Misnagdic affiliation. It is therefore important to understand some of the implications of these subdivisions of the Jewish people.

If the terms Ashkenazim and Sefaradim are used in the context of familial descent then they indicate origin from communities which stemmed from either Europe or Spain, Mediterranean, "Arab" countries, etc.

The connotations in the State of Israel indicate the division of the population into those of European origin (Ashkenazim) and those from the Arab countries (Sefardim). The latter usage is not strictly correct since the Jews of Iraq, and Persia were never in Spain and are not strictly Sefardim, but are referred to as Mizrakhim (easterners).

The terms "Sefarad" and "Ashkenaz," used in the context of synagogue practice, have no geographical connection. Chassidic Jews use the form of prayer known as "Sefarad", regardless of whether they lived in eastern or western Poland or any other part of Europe. It depends on the context. Titles such as "Congregation Anshei Sefarad" refer to the Nusakh of prayer and not the descent of the congregants from Ashkenazim or Sefaradim. Chassidim or people of Chassidic origin use a prayer book which is Nusakh Sefarad. This is due to religious reasons and not due to descent.

Ashkenazim may pray according to Nusakh Ashkenaz if they are not of Chassidic affiliation or descent. Chassidim pray according to Nusakh Sefarad, which can be further divided into subgroups, notably Nusakh Ari used by Lubavitcher Chassidim.

Nusakh Ashkenaz also has subdivisions, principally customs of Western Europe (German/French communities) and Eastern European Polish or Lithuanian custom.

It should be noted that the Old Yishuv in Jerusalem (the community prior to the Zionist period) was clearly divided into Sefaradim and Ashkenazim. The latter were divided into Chassidim and Perushim (i.e. non-Chassidim) and then further divided into Kolelim according to city or region of origin.

Chaim Freedman
Petah Tikva, Israel


1. Excerpted from: Freedman, Chaim. Beit Rabbanan: Sources of Rabbinic Genealogy. Petah Tikva, Israel: self-published, 2001. Used with permission. (return)