The Term Sephardic Jew
by Sarina Roffé
Sarina Roffé is a career journalist and holds a masters in Jewish Studies.
She has researched numerous genealogies including the Kassin and Labaton
rabbinic dynasties ans is considered an expert in Aleppan Jewry. She is a member
of Brooklyn's Syrian Jewish community and the Jewish Genealogical Society, Inc.
of New York.
Many researchers believe the term "Sephardic" originally
referred to Jews living in and later expelled from Spain in 1492. Today
the term "Sephardic" has come to be accepted as a reference to
the Jewish exiles and their descendants who settled in countries along
the Mediterranean Sea, North Africa, the Balkans, Italy, Syria and
Palestine, as well as indigenous Jews who already lived in these places.
Some of these Jews fled to Brazil, Holland and the Jewish communities of
the New World, including New Amsterdam (New York), Mexico and Curacao in the Caribbean.
Sephardim of the Iberian Peninsula (what are now Portugal and Spain),
spoke Ladino, a combination of Hebrew and Spanish.
There is debate in academic circles about the definition of the term
Is a Sephardic Jew a descendant of Spain and the Iberian Peninsula?
Are Syrian Jews, many of whom came from Spain in the 16th
Century, all Sephardic? The issue revolves around the fact that Jews
were indigenous to the Middle East for centuries before the birth of
Christianity and later, Islam.
The official definition of Sephardic according to Rabbi Marc Angel of
Sephardic House, is "almost any Jew who is not Ashkenazi."
||The official definition of Sephardic according to Rabbi Marc Angel of
Sephardic House, is "almost any Jew who is not Ashkenazi. Although
there are wide cultural divergences within the Sephardic world, common
liturgy and religious customs constitute underlying factors of
One issue is whether it is possible to bring under
|one heading Jews
who spoke Ladino for generations and those who never set foot on Spanish
land who spoke various Oriental languages, such as Arabic and Persian.
Further complicating the issue is what to call the indigenous Jewish
populations of the Middle East and North Africa, where a majority of the
Jews expelled from Spain settled.
Daniel Elazar, the first President of the American Sephardi
Federation and a distinguished scholar, said
"For Jews, what is most important as a distinguishing characteristic is not the specific culture acquired
in any particular country of exile by any particular Jewish
population but the broader issues of halakhah and mishpat
(Jewish law), community organization, and cultural patterns from
food to synagogue rituals. In these respects, the Sephardi world is
one, from the Atlantic to the Indian Oceans, significantly
influenced by its location within Islamic civilization."
Another issue concerns the Talmud and is expressed by S. Alfassa
"The Crusades which started in the beginning of the last millennium virtually destroyed Jewish intellectual life.
It was suppressed and almost brought an end to the Jewish creative
process in the middle European countries and the Holy Land. It was
during this period that the further development of the Talmud passed
to Jewry living in Iberia and North Africa. Our Talmud, the base of
how we interpret Jewish law, came to Spain from Babylon (Iraq) and
the Middle East. It was not developed there; it went there with
Rabbi Saadia ibn Joseph Gaon, Rabbi Chanoch ben Moshe and Rabbi
Hananel ben Hushiel in the 10th and 11th
centuries. These rabbis were born in North Africa. These three
rabbis fueled Rabbi Yitzhak Alfassi (born in Algeria, raised in
Morocco), who later became one of the highest recognized Talmudists
in history. He later lived his life in Cordoba and Lucena,
Marks notes that it was common for Jews, especially
traveling merchants, to travel and have homes in more than one place and
on more than one continent. Rabbis commonly thought of as Sephardic
settled and lived in many places. In one reference, Marks notes that
Rambam lived most of his life in North Africa, not in Spain.
According to references in Genesis, 10.3 and Obadiah, 1.20, the lands
called Sepharad were located in areas north of the Holy Land, and
were not necessarily in Spain and the Iberian peninsula, as the term is
generally understood. Joseph A. D. Sutton contends that Jews in Spain, also known as
Sephardic Jews, lived there for many centuries, but were descendants of
Middle East ancestors who came to the Iberian Peninsula in stages from
Egypt, Baghdad, North Africa, Palestine and Syria. Arabic was the
principal language in large sections of Spain until the Christian
conquests and was used by the Jews for daily communication and religious
"In effect, Jewish Spain was merely an extension of the Middle
East, to all extents and purposes, the Sephardim did not substantially
differ from their brothers in the Fertile Crescent, in language,
religious practices and endeavors."
Today, many religious leaders in Israel consider
themselves as Sephardic and identify with the founders of the Babylonian
Talmud, who went to Spain and were considered ‘saved’ in the West.
Marks states that the Babylonian Talmud was written by their ancestors
in what is today Iraq, and codified in Iberia. In sending the Talmud to
the West, many believe that Judaism flourished and survived.
Joseph A. D. Sutton contends that since the Jews of Spain
originally came from the Middle East and their descendants went back to
the Middle East, it is reasonable to categorize all of these Jews as
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