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Who are the Sephardim?
A Brief History
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-The Sephardim
-Jewish Presence in Spain
-Early History of Spain
-The Golden Age
-The Moors
-Christian Spain
-Conversos and Expulsion
-After the Expulsion
-Jews and Christians in the Moslem World

The Sephardim

Sefarad is a Hebrew word that over time has come to mean Spain. So, in the strictest sense of the word the Sephardim (plural of Sephardi) are the Jews who came from the Iberian peninsula. Today however the word Sephardim has taken a much wider meaning and includes Jewish Communities in North Africa, Iraq (Babylon), Syria, Greece, Turkey and most Jews who are not Ashkenazim. The word Ashkenazi has had a similar broadening of its definition. Arising from a Hebrew word meaning "German" (actually ancient southern Germany and northern France) it has taken on a broader definition that includes not only German Jews but those of Eastern Europe and Russia as well.

Today the distinction between Sephardim and Ashkenazim is primarily one of differing traditions due to their backgrounds. Differing languages (ladino and arabic vs yiddish and polish), religious melodies during the services, festival traditions, Hebrew pronunciation are among the things that differ between Sephardim and Ashkenazim.

While Ashkenazim can be religiously subdivided into Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, etc, the Sephardim have remained largely homogeneous and more traditionally religious in what, for lack of a better term, is called Orthodox. However it is an Orthodoxy that encompasses the entire spectrum of Sephardim, with obviously some Sephardim more religious than others, and due to the influence of philosophers like Saadia gaon and Maimonides who attempted to integrate known science and Aristotlian reason and logic into what has become known as Rational Judaism (see later) it is usually, in practice if not in dogma, often less rigid than one would expect. In contrast in Ashkenaz, dogma and tradition took on its own force even if subsequent theological arguments proved the basis to be incorrect.

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First let's get some terms clarified.

Arianism: Followers of Arius who reasoned that Jesus could not logically co-exist with God and must therefore be subservient to him. Considered heretic by the Catholic church because they did not accept the Trinity concept.
Anusim: (Hebrew, plural of anus) Involuntary forced converts
Marranos: pejorative term for crypto Jews, means pig
Crypto Jews: Converts that secretly kept the Jewish faith
Alboraycos: Name given to baptised Jews because they seemed otherwise unchanged. They were "neither Jewish nor Christian" like Mohammad magical steed, Alborak, which was neither horse nor mule.
Mozarabs: Christians who adopted arabic culture in Spain
Moriscos: Moors who had converted to Christianity
Ashkenazi: Hebrew term meaning German
Sepharad: Hebrew term meaning Spain
Mellah: Jewish ghetto in Morocco. The first such ghetto was in Fez and so named because it was built on a salty plain. (mellah=salt in arabic)
Aljama: Community, Jewish or Moslem; from the arabic "jama" (=gather).
Juderia: Jewish quarter in Spanish
Adafina: Jewish Saturday meal cooked over slow fire. To keep warm, it was sometimes buried under hot rocks. From arabic "dafina" (=bury).
Andalusia: Source uncertain. Some say it came from Vandalucia (below). Others say Arab "Al Andalus" was the name for the "western states" ie Spain.
Vandalusia: name the Vandals allegedly gave their state in Spain - probably not true.
Hidalgo: Spanish nobleman
Limpieza de sangre: Purity of blood (Spanish)
Limpeza de sangue: Purity of blood (Portuguese)
Sanbenito: "Holy Sack", punishment outfit worn by condemned
Auto da fe: "Act of faith", ceremony during which public punishment was done
Gibraltar: Jebel el Tariq (mountain of Tariq) allegedly named after the Moor Tariq ibn Ziyad.

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Jewish Presence in Spain

I will briefly relate here the history of the Sephardim who lived in Spain because they have the best known and easiest to tell history. Not all those known today as Sephardim have ancestors who lived in Spain and they too have equally fascinating histories of their own which I will get into if I have the time to do so. Stories such as the development of the rubber industry in the Amazon by Moroccan Sephardim, the Chuettas of Majorca, etc., etc.

Most historians feel Jews came to the Iberian peninsula with the Roman Legions, possibly as merchants and purveyors, with a second wave of arrivals after the destruction of the second Temple in 70 C.E. The first tangible evidence of a Jewish presence in Spain is found in the grave of a young Jewish girl named Salomonulla from the 3rd century C.E. found in Adra, Spain.

On the other hand, legends prevalent among Spanish Jews suggested that Jews first came to Iberia after the destruction of the Temple in the 6th century B.C.E. while others date their arrival with Phoenician merchants in the 10th century B.C.E., during the King Solomon era. Participating in the surrounding Spaniards' love of lineage some Spanish Jewish families (such as Ibn Daoud, Shaltiel, Abrabanel, etc.) claim direct descent from King David. Bolstering their claims are the prophecies of Abadiah who uses the name "Sefarad" for the land that Jews exiled from Jerusalem would live in. However in Abadiah's time, Sefarad did not mean Spain. Others claim that Tarshish of the bible was probably ancient Tartessus, a district of Southern Spain whose principal city was Gades (Cadiz).

Norman Roth makes the point that more Jews lived in Spain than in all the countries of Europe combined. Historians have calculated that in the 12th century C.E. Sephardim made up 90% of all the world's Jewry, though that percentage declined rapidly after that with the Ashkenazi population explosion. However, unlike Jews in Europe who lived mainly in large towns, Jews in Spain were found in both towns and tiny villages among the peasants.

Chaim Raphael points out that starting with Abraham in Babylon (Iraq), through Joseph and Moses in Egypt, the kingdoms of Israel and Judea, back to Babylon, then Spain and the Mediterranean, most Jewish history until the last few centuries has been largely the history of the Jews of middle-eastern and Mediterranean culture, the culture we associate today with Sephardic Jews. Through these centuries and till the 17th century C.E., Sephardim were the bulk of Jewry and the main centers of Judaism. In the recent 3-4 centuries European Jewry exploded into prominence, both in culture and population, and Sephardic Jews, like their host countries, went into a cultural decline that is only recently beginning to reverse itself.

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Early history of Spain

The relatively tolerant and laissez-faire atmosphere then prevalent in the crumbling Roman Empire's province of Hispania was shattered in 409 C.E. when the Visigoths poured into Iberia from their western german homeland. These Arian Christian (see glossary) Visigoths brought with them intolerance of all non Arian-Christian minorities, ruthlessly killing and plundering for much of the three centuries they ruled Iberia. A Roman witnessing the early slaughter commented that the Iberian countryside resembled an open air morgue. Christianity was the central focus of their state and Jews in particular were mercilessly persecuted for denying Christ. What remained of the sciences and arts were denounced and abolished. Trade and culture plummeted and a dark age descended on the Iberian peninsula.

At the end of the 6th century King Reccared converted to Catholicism and made it the state religion. The Church soon became the real power behind the throne and frequently were the behind the scenes deciding factor on who would become king. In 638 C.E. the Arian (now Catholic) Visigoths declared that "only Catholics could live in Spain", a statement reasserted and implemented many centuries later with the expulsion of Jews in later Spain and eerily presaging Nazi Germany's stance about non "Aryans" (different word and meaning).

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The Moors

In April 711 C.E. Tariq ibn Ziyad (el Moro) landed at what is now called Gibraltar (Jebel al Tariq or "Tariq's mountain"). Commanding an army of 7,000 Berbers from Morocco,, he promptly burnt the fleet that had transported them and gave his troops a rousing speech in which he told them that with the waters at their rear they had nowhere to go but forward. With 5,000 re-enforcing troops the Moors met and routed a Visigoth army of 60,000 under King Rodrigo. By 712 the Moors had reached the Visigoth capital of Toledo which threw open its gates to the invading army. Soon the Moors ruled all but a small northern slip of the Iberian peninsula and al Andalus (Moorish Spain) had come into being.

The reasons for the rapid advance and conquest are numerous but two stand out. Historians recount the legend that, following the initial battle and rout of the Visigoth army under King Rodrigo, the King's body disappeared but his outer clothing was found at a riverside. This peculiar event created a superstitious fear in the minds of the Spaniards about the magical powers of the Moors who "could make the king's body disappear right out of his clothes".

The other reason was the generous terms the Moors offered which contrasted markedly with the Visigoths' harsh rule. Approaching Toledo, Tariq offered that anyone who wished to leave could do so while those who stayed could retain property, practice their religion freely and be governed by their own rules and laws.

There have been unsubstantiated suggestions that the Moors may have been invited into Iberia by disgruntled members of the oppressive Visigoth kingdoms. Others suggest the conquest was quasi accidental in that Tariq was on a limited expedition but that his unexpected defeat of King Rodrigo caused a change in plans.

Click here for MAPS of Spain

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The Golden Age

The Ummayad dynasty that rules Moorish Spain for the next century, and many, but not all early Moorish rulers, maintained a tolerant and multicultural atmosphere that respected and protected minorities, encouraged science and the arts and invited scholars from all over to come and serve the Caliph. Flowery poetry and the arts, in Arabic and Hebrew, flourished and were recited in the langorous evening wine-parties while the sciences prospered as never before.

Jews, Moors and Christians lived and worked together in this tolerant atmosphere. Many Christians adopted some of the Moors' culture and became known as mozarabs. Jews similarly adopted Moorish customs, studied Arabic and the Koran while Arabs studied Hebrew and Jewish scriptures. The Greek philosophers original writings were studied. Learned Jews and Arab scholars translated them into Arabic and Hebrew and from there into Latin setting the stage for the European Renaissance. Jewish scholars developed the theories that created trigonometry. Algebra was invented. Arabic numbers replaced the unwieldy Roman numerals. Paper was manufactured in Europe for the first time. Immense libraries developed and were open to the public. Cordoba had a million volumes at a time when the largest library in Europe had a dozen manuscripts.

Jewish philosophers studied Plato and Aristotle and developed new philosophies incorporating these theories with Jewish theology and thinking. Prominent among these was Maimonides who was influenced by the arab philosopher Averroes and whose writings aroused much controversy and criticism from the narrowly traditionalist Jewish religious authorities particularly of France and Germany because of his use of reason and logic rather than tradition and blind faith. Solomon Ibn Gabriol, ibn Ezra and Judah ha Levi wrote exquisite poetry and Moses Ibn Ezra and others wrote grammar and mathematical treatises. With the interest in Arabic grammar, Hebrew grammar was developed and the language revived.

A striking example was Hasdai ibn Shaprut. He was a famous Jewish physician who rose to become personal physician and chief advisor to the Caliph and his chief tax collector. Becoming very wealthy, he was very charitable, founded rabbinical institutes, purchased Talmuds, built synagogues, etc. He also recruited 2 scholars from Morocco to expanded the Hebrew language and develop its structure, which permitted its use in science and in the wonderful Jewish poetry of Spain.

And one could go on like this for a long time.

Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Christian Europe flocked to Spain much as they did to the USA in our day. Even educated Christian scholars seeking erudition moved to tolerant Spain, some even converting to Judaism. In the 8th and 9th centuries thousands of Jews from Morocco and Egypt migrated to Al Andalus.

Actively engaged in trade Spanish Jews were the main Andalusian importers-exporters of silk,leather, textiles, grain, fruit spices and cattle. Jewish travellers such as Benjamin of Tudela left records of travels even more extensive than Marco Polo's, reaching China a century before him. Communication and interchange with Jewish areas throughout the Mediterranean was profuse all the way from North Africa to Baghdad and Damascus as well as the Ashkenazi centers as evidenced by the documents found in the Cairo geniza.

In 1140, the golden age came to an abrupt end. Almohad Berber warriors came to Iberia to support the Muslims against the Christian armies reconquering parts of Spain. Fundmanetalist Islamists, they made life miserable for Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Rigid Sharia and discrimination was enforced and a dark ages came to Moorish Spain. Jewish communities were destroyed and Jews fled to Christian Spain, North Africa and Italy. This is when Maimonides's family fled Spain to go to Morocco and Egypt.

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Christian Spain

When the Catholics reconquered Spain, it was under the pretext of ridding Iberia of the heathen Moors and their decadent multicultural ways. How could Christianity be the one true religion if non-Christians refused to accept it. However, through the centuries of association with the Moors the Christian Spaniards had grown accustomed to intercultural interchange and equally tolerant. So after the Christian reconquest, the broad-minded multicultural attitudes persisted for a while, especially by the rulers who saw it in their self interest to continue a system that had created so much prosperity for them. Indeed Alfonso VI named himself "Emperor of the three Religions".

This did not please the Papal authorities who looked with great displeasure at the easy fraternization between Christians and non Christians. The Pope sent several Edicts and Bulls urging the Christian monarchs to deal more harshly with their Jews and Moslems. French and other troops were sent in to assist the Spanish reconquest and deal more harshly with the enemy than the Christian Spanish troops were apt to do.

Although history has been re-written to transform el Cid into an idealized hero fighting to restore Christianity, he was in fact a particularly able mercenary (like many others in his day) who fought at times for the Christians and other times for the Moors and ended carving out for himself a personal kingdom in Valencia. Christian Kings were allied at various times with Moslem rulers against fellow Christian kingdoms and vice versa. Jewish battalions with distinctive uniforms fought in both the Christian and Moslem armies.

The tolerant mixing of the religions in Spain was abhorrent to the Papal authorities especially after the Christians were in control of most of Iberia. By the XIV century things took a definite turn for the worse for the Jews. Periods of drought and bad crops were followed by the Black Plague which killed almost half the inhabitants of Spain and a third of the population of Europe. The Jews were accused of poisoning the wells and blamed for the plague. Jews were massacred in the thousands by religious fanatics whipped up by travelling self flagellating Catholic fanatics although this occurred less in Spain than in France and other parts of Europe. Slowly old Visigoth heritage and thinking came to the front gradually transforming Spain from the most tolerant nation in Europe into what became the one most intolerant of minorities.

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