Judaism / Orientations /
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.