In the strictest sense, a Sephardi (ספרדי, Standard Hebrew Səfardi, Tiberian Hebrew Səp̄ardî; plural Sephardim: ספרדים, Standard Hebrew Səfardim, Tiberian Hebrew Səp̄ardîm) is a Jew original to the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal: ספרד, Standard Hebrew Səfárad, Tiberian Hebrew Səp̄áraḏ / Səp̄āraḏ), or whose ancestors were among the Jews expelled from said peninsula during the Spanish Inquisition incited by the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella.
They settled mainly in Morocco, the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey, Southwest Asia, North Africa and south-eastern Europe), southern France, Italy, Spanish North America (Southwest United States and Mexico), Spanish South America and Brazil, as well as the Netherlands (from where a number of families continued onto the former Dutch possessions of Curaçao, Suriname and Aruba), England, Germany, Denmark, Austria and Hungary.
In the vernacular of modern-day Israel, the word Sephardi has also come to include the immigrant Jewish communities that were indigenous to the various countries of the Near East, most notably those of the Yemen, Iraq and Iran whom are now resident in Israel, and have no ancestral ties to Spain or Portugal. Jews from these Near Eastern communities are also sometimes called "Oriental Jews" or the Hebrew equivalent Mizrāħîm, and were once also referred to as "Arab Jews", a phrase that is rarely used today.
Note that the term Nusach Sepharad does not refer to the liturgy generally recited by Sephardim, but rather to an alternative European liturgy used by many Chassidim. Sephardim traditionally pray using Nusach Eidot Hamizrach (liturgy of the Eastern Congregations), which is also known (somewhat confusingly) as Nusach Sephardi
The remainder of this article concerns Sephardim in the first sense: Jews of Spanish origin.
The traditional language of the Sephardim is Judæo-Spanish, also called Ladino (a term considered pejorative in some circles).
It is a Romance Language derived mainly from Old Castilian (Spanish) and Sephardi Hebrew, and is often considered a dialect adjacent to modern Castilian — the official language of Spain — because of their intelligibility.
Judæo-Spanish has been conserved by the crypto-Jewish marranos of Portugal and Brazil and is still spoken by many of them. It is also spoken by many of the few Sephardim still remaining in Turkey and amongst the Sephardi immigrants of Israel.
Portuguese has also been used by Sephardim — especially amongst the Spanish and Portuguese Jews of Western Europe.
The pidgin forms of Portuguese spoken among slaves and their Sephardic owners have been an influence in Papiamento and Creole languages of Suriname.
Other languages associated with Sephardic Jews are mostly extinct, i.e., Italkian (Judæo-Italian), formerly spoken by some Jewish communities in Italy. Low German, formerly used as the vernicular amongst Sephardim of the Hamburg and Altona area of Northern Germany is also no longer in use as a specifically Jewish vernacular.
Among the Sephardim were many who were the descendants, or heads, of wealthy families and who, as Marranos, had occupied prominent positions in the countries they had left. Some had been state officials, others had held positions of dignity within the Church; many had been the heads of large banking-houses and mercantile establishments, and some were physicians or scholars who had officiated as teachers in high schools. Their Spanish was a lingua franca that enabled Sephardim from different countries to engage in commerce and diplomacy.
The Sephardim rarely engaged in buying or selling or bargaining (obseletely called chaffering) occupations nor in usury, and they did not often mingle with lower classes. With their social equals they associated freely, without regard to religion. They were received at the courts of sultans, kings, and princes, and often were employed as ambassadors, envoys, or agents. The number of Sephardim who have rendered important services to different countries is considerable, from Samuel Abravanel (financial councilor to the viceroy of Naples) to Benjamin Disraeli. Among other names mentioned are those of Belmonte, Nasi, Pacheco, Palache, Azevedo, Sasportas, Costa, Curiel, Cansino, Schonenberg, Toledo, Toledano, and Teixeira.
The Sephardim occupy the foremost place in the roll of Jewish physicians; great as is the number of those who have distinguished themselves as statesmen, it is not nearly as great as the number of those who have become celebrated as physicians and have won the favor of rulers and princes, in both the Christian and the Islamic world. That the Sephardim were selected for prominent positions in every country in which they settled was due to the fact that Spanish had become a world-language through the expansion of Spain.
For a long time the Sephardim took an active part in Spanish literature; they wrote in prose and in rhyme, and were the authors of theological, philosophical, belletristic (aesthetic art writing rather than content based writing), pedagogic (teaching), and mathematical works. The rabbis, who, in common with all the Sephardim, laid great stress on a pure and euphonious pronunciation of Hebrew, delivered their sermons in Spanish or in Portuguese: several of these sermons have appeared in print. Their thirst for knowledge, together with the fact that they associated freely with the outer world, led the Sephardim to establish new educational systems wherever they settled; they founded schools in which the Spanish language was the medium of instruction. Theatre in Istanbul was in Judæo-Spanish since it was forbidden to Muslims.
In Portugal the Sephardim were given important roles in the sociopolitical sphere and enjoyed a certain amount of protection from the Crown (e.g. Yahia Ben Yahia, first "Rabino Maior" of Portugal and supervisor of the public revenue of the first King of Portugal, D. Afonso Henriques). Even with the increasing pressure from the Catholic Church this state of affairs remained more or less constant and the number of Jews in Portugal grew with those running from Spain. This changed with the marriage of D. Manuel I of Portugal with the daughter of the Catholic Kings of the newly born Spain. In 1497 the Decree ordering the expulsion or forced conversion of all the Jews was passed, and the Sephardim either fled or went into secrecy under the guise of "Cristãos Novos", i.e. New Christians. This Decree was symbolically revoked in 1996 by the Portuguese Parliament.
In Amsterdam, where they were especially prominent in the seventeenth century on account of their number, wealth, education, and influence, they established poetical academies after Spanish models; two of these were the Academia de los Sitibundos and the Academia de los Floridos. In the same city they also organized the first Jewish educational institution, with graduate classes in which, in addition to Talmudic studies, instruction was given in the Hebrew language.
A sizeable Sephardic community had settled in Morocco and other Northern African countries, which were colonized by France in the 19th century. The Jewish inhabitants were given French citizenship in 1870 by the décret Crémieux (previously, any Jewish or Muslim local could apply for French citizenship; but this meant renouncing the use of traditional religious courts and laws, a move that many did not want to take). When France withdrew in 1956 (Morocco) and 1962 (Algeria), the local Jewish communities largely relocated to France. There are some tensions between some of those communities, and the earlier French Jewish population (ashkenazi), as well as with the Arabic-Muslim communities.
The Sephardim have preserved the romances and the ancient melodies and songs of Spain, as well as a large number of old Spanish proverbs. A number of children's plays, like, for example, El Castillo, are still popular among them, and they still manifest a fondness for the dishes peculiar to Spain, such as the pastel, or pastelico, a sort of meat-pie, and the pan de España, or pan de León. At their festivals they follow the Spanish custom of distributing dulces, or dolces, a confection wrapped in paper bearing a picture of the magen David (six pointed star).
They generally bear Portuguese and Spanish surnames, as Aleqria, Angel, Angela, Amado, Amada, Bienvenida, Blanco, Cara, Cimfa, Comprado, Consuela, Dolza, Esperanza, Estimada, Estrella, Fermosa, Gracia, Luna, Niña, Palomba, Preciosa, Sol, Ventura, and Zafiro; and such Spanish or Portuguese surnames as Belmonte, Benveniste, Bueno, Calderon, Campos, Cardoso, Cardozo, Castro, Clemente, Cordova, Curiel, Delgado, Fonseca, Guerreiro, Josué, Leon, Lima, Mercado, Monzon, Nunes, Rocamora, Pacheco, Pardo, Penedo, Pereira, Pinto, Prado, Sarabia, Sousa, Suasso, Toledano, Tarragona, Valencia, and Zaporta.
In contrast to Ashkenazic Jews, who do not name newborn children after living relatives, Sephardic Jews often name their children after the children's grandparents, even if they are still alive. The first son and daughter are traditionally named after the paternal grandparents, and then the maternal parent's names are next up in line for the remaining children. After that, additional children's names are "free", so-to-speak, meaning that one can choose whatever name, without anymore "naming obligations." The only instance in which Sephardic Jews will not name after their own parents when one of the spouses shares a common first name with a mother/father-in-law (since Jews will not name their children after themselves.) There are times though when the "free" names are used to honor the memory of a deceased relative who died young or childless.
Great authority was given to the president of each congregation. He and the rabbinate of his congregation formed the "ma'amad," without whose approbation (often worded in Spanish, Portuguese, or Italian) no book of religious content might be published. The president not only had the power to make authoritative resolutions with regard to congregational affairs and to decide communal questions, but he had also the right to observe the religious conduct of the individual and to punish anyone suspected of heresy or of trespassing against the laws.
Relationship to other Jews
Although the Sephardim lived on peaceful terms with other Jews, they rarely intermarried with them; neither did they unite with them in forming congregations, but adhered to their own ritual, which differed widely from the Ashkenazic. Paradoxically, those who had suffered the racial pride of limpieza de sangre (clean bloodline) applied a similar concept toward other Jews. Wherever the Sephardic Jews settled they grouped themselves according to the country or district from which they had come, and organized separate communities with legally enacted statutes. In Constantinople and Thessaloniki, for example, there were not only Castilian, Aragonian, Catalonian, and Portuguese congregations, but also Toledo, Cordova, Evora, and Lisbon congregations, and differenced themselves from Romaniotes. In Morocco, Sephardim considered themselves superior to Berber Jews. Under the common pressure of the Islamic society, the Berbers tried to merge with the Sephardim by naming their children with Sephardic names.
One interesting example is the "Belmonte Jews" in Portugal. A whole community survived in secrecy for hundreds of years by maintaining a tradition of intermarriage and by hiding all the external signs of their faith. The Jewish comunity in Belmonte goes back to the 12th Century and they were only discovered in the 20th Century. Their rich Sephardic tradition of Crypto-Judaism is unique. Only recently did they contact other Jews and they now profess Orthodox Judaism, although they still retain their centuries-old traditions.
The term Sephardi can also describe the nusach (Hebrew language, "liturgical tradition") used by Sephardi Jews in their Siddur (prayer book). A nusach is defined by a liturgical tradition's choice of prayers, order of prayers, text of prayers and melodies used in the singing of prayers. This is to be distinguished by the "Nusach Sepharad" used by Chassidic Jews.
This phrase is frequently used in contrast with Ashkenazi Jews, also called Ashkenazim, who are descendants of Jews from Germany, Poland, Austria and Eastern-Europe.
Although less than in Ashkenazi Jews, there is a higher incidence of certain hereditary diseases in Sephardi Jews. The most important ones are:
See also Jewish Genetics Center (http://www.jewishgeneticscenter.org) about testing.