Jewish Population Movements & Who is Sephardic?

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(This Original Essay is Copyrighted by Shelomo Alfassa - All Rights Reserved)

There are several reasons why there is an unfortunate modern day trend to declare that all non-Ashkenazim are Sephardim, and it comes from both the Sephardi and Ashkenazi world. First and foremost there is a grave ignorance coming from the Ashkenazi yeshiva world, which educates 95% of the worlds rabbinical scholars. Yeshivot are not places for learning history outside of Talmudic history. They are not set up or traditionally equipped to teach the history of the Jewish people. Of course a more progressive yeshiva which also offers college degrees might have some courses, but these are the exception and not the rule. Rabbi Berel Wein, one of Ashkenazi Jewry's well known modern historians declared,

Students without knowledge and a sense of history are doomed to be poor citizens and shortsighted in their political and national assessments and decisions. That is why I am disturbed by the lack of knowledge of the history of our people which is, unfortunately, prevalent in all sections of our society.
The other trend is the politically correct-erroneous viewpoint.  It is wrong in our modern day to declare that Sephardim are only those who come from Iberia, as the population exchanges between Iberia and North Africa were common and numerous. Clearly, when looked at carefully, the matter of 'who is Sephardic' is muddied when you use the location of birth as the indicator of what makes a person Sephardic. Would 15th century Spanish Jews that migrated to Poland be Sephardic? Would 20th century Salonikan Jews living in Seattle be Sephardic? What if 19th century Greek speaking Romaniote Jews from the Ottoman Turkish city of Janina migrated to Spain, would they be Sephardic? Would Moroccan Jews that fled to Montreal be Sephardic?—what if their grandparents had come from Spain? These are the types of questions that can and should be asked. Many times, non-Sephardim live in Sephardic lands, this is best known in Constantinople which had an overwhelmingly Sephardic milieu, but also substantial Ashkenazi community.

One typical argument previously issued by Judeo-Spanish Sephardim is that Syrian Jews are not Sephardic. However, although Syria had an ancient Arabic speaking population of indigenous Jews from time immemorial (known as Must'Arab'een), Spanish Jews arrived in Damascus and Aleppo in the early 16th century. After 1516, when Syria became part of the Turkish Empire, even more followed. Senor Shelomo Kassin of Spain lead an emigration of people to Aleppo, arriving there in 1540 and quickly becoming head of the community. While the Kassin family remains leaders in the Syrian community, even to this day, and have since the 16th century, they no longer speak Spanish; that language was probably lost by the second generation after the Spanish Jews assimilated into Syrian society.

Jews throughout the Arab world have been geographically vacillating for centuries. The first large wave of Jews emigrated in the course of the 9th and 10th centuries to Syria, and North Africa. Prior to the Islamicization of the east, the Arab lands were said to have very large Jewish populations. A 9th century Egyptian author recorded that upon the approach of the Arab legions into Egypt, some 70,000 Jews fled Alexandria, leaving some 40,000 remaining in that city; but even if these numbers are inflated, surely a large group left, but where did that body of people go? During the mid 13th century, Jews from Iraq and areas surrounding that region fled to Syria and Egypt in fear of the approaching Mongols.

It was said that, "When the news of the Mongol conquests spread, terrified Babylonians, Moslems and Jews alike, left their homes and wandered westward." This was the second "big wave" that fled Babylon, the first occurring three centuries prior. Mongols were enemies of Islam, and they began expanding from Persia toward Mesopotamia around 1250. In 1258, Baghdad was conquered. Religious intolerance toward the Jews from both the Muslim population and the Mongol army increased considerably. In a 2004 paper issued by the Journal of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, Victor Ozair reported how Iraqi Jewish families, most notably his own, fled from Iraq to Spain to escape the arrival of the Mongols:

Consequently, in order to escape this intolerable oppression, numerous Jews including many Ozair families fled to Egypt and North Africa, then to Andalusia in Spain...On many tombstones in old churches in Andalusia and in other cities in Northern Spain the name Oxair is written (the letter z was changed to x in order to adapt the name to the Spanish pronunciation at that time).
To some extent, Spain always possessed a fluid population, a transitional populace which whether for business, fiscal opportunities or other rationale, migrated to and from the peninsula. Benjamin of Tudela relates that he found Sephardim in Rhodes, and Rottiers says that Jews fled Spain after persecution in 1280 at Tarragona, they then left and established themselves in Rhodes. When the Jews were banished from Spain and Portugal, the Jewish population at Bordeaux increased, for the refugees fled to the cities of southern France. Yacob ben David ibn Yahya Tam was a Portuguese-Turkish rabbi and physician; born in Portugal in the second half of the fifteenth century and passing at Constantinople between 1534 and 1542. It was said he presumably succeeded Eliyahu Mizrahi as rabbi of Constantinople. His father had fled Portugal with the family to Naples in 1493. In the late fifteen century, Yacob Berab, a Spanish born Talmudist and rabbi fled from Toledo to Tlemçen, then the chief town of the Barbary states, the Jewish community there, consisting of 5,000 families, chose him as their rabbi, and though he was but a youth of eighteen, he was highly respected.

In 1704 when the British took possession of Gibraltar at the southern tip of Spain, Jews were reported to have settled there, many coming from Amsterdam, a portion which could have been said to have fled some 200 years earlier. By 1890 there were four synagogues in the British colony. A community was established which contributed considerably to the growth of trade between Gibraltar and Morocco and between Gibraltar and England. At times, Jews of Gibraltar venturing on Spanish soil, were seized by the Inquisition. In 1843 a Ladino newspaper, "Cronica Israelitica" circulated on Gibraltar. As early as 1870 many newly educated young Sephardim from the Alliance Israelite Universelle departed from Tetuan, Morocco and emigrated to Gibraltar, as well as Algeria, Canary Islands, Latin America, Greece, Bulgaria, Egypt, France, Portugal, and Ceuta where they went to start families and seek employment. In 1878, there were 1,533 Jewish inhabitants in Gibraltar; by the early 20th century they had afforded shelter to many Russian and Rumanian Jews, and the total Jewish population of Gibraltar was recorded as much as 9,400, of which 7,000 were native Sephardi and 2,400 Ashkenazi immigrants.

The Spanish and Portuguese rabbinical leaders carried their traditions to North Africa, where they would expose the local population to their minhagim (religious traditions), thus expanding their customs and ways of life through out Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Just as there are many accounts of Jews migrating away from North Africa and Iberia, there are many showing migration toward that region. When this happened, the rabbinical leaders carried their traditions from Morocco, Tunisia and other parts of North Africa into Spain and Portugal. We can not forget the most famous case of emigration out of Spain, the family of Maimonides, they fled Islamic persecution by crossing over to North Africa. There was a well known rabbi named Mordehai Assaban who was born at Morocco in 1700 who died at Aleppo about 1760. He was at one time the chief rabbi of Leghorn, and emigrated to Jerusalem about 1729, where he dwelt for thirty years. Cases such as this of Jews coming from North Africa are popular in the literature.

As we can see, it is complicated to bluntly state that all Sephardim only come from Spain, because whether it was in the 9th, 10th or 11th century, or after the expulsion in the 15th, the literature is chock-filled with evidence of Jews going to Spain and Portugal from North Africa, some after coming from Babylonia, or Jews coming from those Iberian states to North Africa.

What is clear, is that Sephardic Jews developed and shared common religious and cultural bonds with their fellow co-religionists from the Iberian/North African Atlantic seaboard to the eastern portion of the Fertile Crescent for at least the last 1,500 years. The Jews living in this aforementioned geographic area all fell under the jurisdiction of the Babylonian Talmudic academies in the Iraq cities of Sura and Pumbedita, and it was from there (Babylonia), that religious instruction went to the Jews in cities such as Barcelona and Cordoba.

It is not geographical cultural items such as food or music which kept the Jews Sephardic, but their acceptance of Sephardic rabbinical scholars, their law, decisions and judgments. Sephardim, worldwide, have developed and possess a shared relationship based upon unique religious traditions, collective ideals, customs and ethnicity. These all revolve around a Torah-based nucleus which was deliberated on, and disseminated from, Babylonia.


Anonymous said:

The word Sepharad means Spain in Hebrew.

And a sepharadic jew is the one who left Spain after the inquisition.

How can a babylonian jew be sepharadic when they even didnt know where spain was.

IP (Israel)

Renee said:

Many of the Baghdad community came from Aleppo and also trace their family's roots all the way back to Pre Expulsion Spain.

There are many Syrian Jews from Aleppo who document their families all the way to Spain. Such is the case for our family, (Kohen-Dweck)we have genealogy back to the 1200's that is well documented in several seforim. The family is certainly Sephardic in original.

Many Aleppo families have Ladino words and foods in their vocabulary and some also have the tradition to recite Haggadah in Ladino as well.
At least among Aleppo Jews, it is not uncommon to document genealogy all the way back to Spain. The same is also true of many North African and Turkish families. Sephardic families have always kept detailed genealogies.

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This page contains a single entry by Shelomo Alfassa published on November 28, 2007 7:25 AM.

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