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Judaism / Orientations /

Ashkenazi synagogue, the Ha'Ari. Safed, Israel.
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Ashkenazi synagogue, the Ha'Ari. Safed, Israel. Photo: upyernoz.

Askhenazi by country
Last column: % Ashkenazi Jews of the population
Israel 3,700,000 62%
3,700,000 0.9%
Other countries: 6,500,000

*) Calculated for the total population of North Africa and the Middle East, approx. 460,000,000.

Chief Ashkenazi rabbi, Yona.
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Chief Ashkenazi rabbi, Yona.

Orientation in Judaism, developing in the central, northern and eastern part of Europe, contrary to Judaism developing in the Iberian peninsula and North Africa called Sephardi. Today, Judaism is often defined into more groups, but the Ashkenazi-Sephardic is relevant in many fields: identity, different synagogues and politics.
The name "askhenaz" was the name that the Jews themselves used for Germany, a name taken from Genesis 10:3.
The Ashkenazi communities were from the start of organized like small cities inside a Christian city. The Jews had their own laws, they had social contact only with each other, and they organized and armed themselves in order to protect their communities against villains and thieves.
In Poland the Jews often formed shtetls, small towns where they represented the majority of the inhabitants.
Already from the 11th century did the Ashkenazi scholars start to develop material that is still in use in Judaism today, like the Mahzor, a work that contained prayers by poets of Germany and France.
For the Ashkenazi Jews the studies of Hebrew, the Torah and the Talmud was more than just a way of understanding their religion, it was also a way of protecting themselves against the influence of the societies around them.
Ashkenazim and Sephardim came to develop different prayer liturgies, Torah services, Hebrew pronunciation and ways of life. The rituals of the Ashkenazi were of the Palestinian traditions. Ashkenazi and Sephardi tunes for both prayers and Torah reading are different. An Ashkenazi Torah lies flat while being read, while a Sephardi Torah stands up.
In order to decide upon Jewish law, there are different authorities. The Ashkenazim go by Rabbi Moses Isserles, who wrote a commentary on the Shulhan Arukh (by Rabbi Joseph Caro) citing Ashkenazi practice. There are differences in many aspects of Jewish law, from which laws women are exempt from to what food one is allowed to eat on Pesach.
But today, many of the distinctions between Ashkenazim and Sephardim have disappeared. In Israel as well as in other countries like USA, Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews live side by side, even if they generally have separate institutions.
The language of the Ashkenazi Jews was Yiddish, a language close to German. In modern times, Yiddish is in danger of dying out.
Today, about 10 million of the 13 million Jews in the world are Ashkenazi.

10th century: Jewish merchants start settling in France and Germany. Their main asset were good connections with Mediterranean and the East, allowing them a wide range of products. As the Jews formed small communities in cities, many of them became craftsmen and artisans. The main centres for Jewish scholarship were Mainz, Worms, Troyes and Sens.
11th century: Rabbenu Gershom of Mainz stands out as the first major scholar in the Ashkenazi tradition.
1182: The Jews are expelled from France.
14th century: Following riots and massacres, many Jews move from Germany into Poland.
16th century: Eastern Europe has become the centre of Ashkenazi Judaism.
19th century: Many Ashkenazi Jews move to North America.
1809: In some Ashkenazi communities, Reform Judaism is starting to be defined and developed.
1845: As a reaction towards Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism is defined.
20th century: Ashkenazi Jews move into Palestine, and becomes the largest Jewish group of what would become the State of Israel.

By Tore Kjeilen