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Judaism / Orientations /

Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Amar. Photo: Miriam Alster.
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Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Amar. Photo: Miriam Alster.

Sephardis by country
Last column: % Sephardic Jews of the population
Israel 950,000 16%
950,000 0.2%
Other countries: 2,000,000

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

Interior of a Sephardic synagogue in Jerusalem, Israel. Note how the seating is on all four sides of a centred ceremony table of the rabbi.
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Interior of a Sephardic synagogue in Jerusalem, Israel. Note how the seating is on all four sides of a centred ceremony table of the rabbi. Photo: Chadica.

Orientation in Judaism, developing in the Iberian peninsula and North Africa, contrary to Judaism developing in the central, northern and eastern part of Europe called Ashkenazi. Today, Judaism is often defined into more groups, but in some contexts, Ashkenazi and Sephardic are still in use.
The name Sephardim was attributed to the Jews who were forced to leave Spain and Portugal in 1492. Many of these settled in North Africa, other parts of Europe and the Ottoman Empire.
The language of the Sephardi was Ladino, a language no longer in any vernacular use.
Sephardim and Ashkenazi came to develop different prayer liturgies, Torah services, Hebrew pronunciation and ways of life. The rituals of the Sephardi were of the Babylonian traditions. Ashkenazi and Sephardi tunes for both prayers and Torah reading are different. A Sephardi Torah is contained in a wooden cylinder which makes it stand up while being read, while an Ashkenazi Torah lies flat.
In order to decide upon Jewish law, there are different authorities. Sephardim follow Rabbi Joseph Caro’s Shulhan Arukh. 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 other countries like USA, Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews live side by side, even if they generally have separate institutions.
Today there are about 3,000,000 Sephardi Jews in the world, of which 1/3 live in Israel.
Being far smaller in number than the Ashkenazi, Sephardim have been the least influential in Israeli politics. But over the last decades much of this has changed. Through their party Shas, which won 17 of 120 seats in the Knesset in 1999, they have become more visible. And in July 2000, the Iranian-born Sephardi Jew Moshe Katsav was elected president.

10th century BCE: According to the legends the first Jews settle in Spain. This has however never been proven historically.
305 CE: The Council of Toledo passes an edict saying that Jews cannot bless the crops of non-Jews, and Jews cannot eat together with non-Jews.
612: Spanish rulers order forced baptism of all Jews.
711: The Muslims take control over most of Spain, and the Jews become part of building the most advanced civilization of its time. During this time, the Jews paid a special discriminatory tax compared to Muslim inhabitants, the jizha, but had full religious freedom. The Jews lived in their separate quarters, called al-jarnas.
8th- 11th centuries: This period became the golden age of Judaism, with many cultural achievements. By the positive coexistence of the religions in this period, Judaism became influenced by Islam: washing of hands and feet before entering the synagogue was introduced; clothes, language and music was borrowed from Islam.
1055: The Almoravids take power over Spain, and introduce restrictions on Jewish life and activities.
1098: The Christian reconquest starts, and Jews in the Christian parts of Spain enjoys more freedom than the ones living in the Muslim parts.
1147: More restrictions come with the Almohads, like the obligation of all Jews to wear a yellow turban.
Middle 13th century: Christian rulers of Spain starts imposing restrictions on the Jews, and there are attempts on forced conversion to Christianity.
1492: Following the Catholic reconquest of Spain, a process of driving the Jews out of the Iberian peninsula starts. The about 100,000 Jews of the area would be expelled within the next 5 years. They moved into France, Netherlands, England, Italy, the Balkans, the Ottoman Empire and North Africa. Many Jews were also forced to convert to Christianity, especially was this the case in Portugal.
17th century: Many Sephardi Jews settle on the American continent.
1940's: The Sephardi Jews are among the Jewish groups that suffers most death during the Holocaust of the Nazis.
1950's: Many Jews flee or move from Muslims countries to the new state of Israel. In Israel, many of them experience that they become second rate citizens compared to Ashkenazi Jews.

By Tore Kjeilen