The division of Jewry between Sephardim and Ashkenazim (I am referring here to the two major divisions, though of course a significant portion of Jewry falls in neither one of the two categories) has engendered many different theories and opinions.
The historian H.J. Zimmels in his book “Sephardim and Ashkenazim” cites the theory that the migration of the Jews after the destruction of the Temple took place in two directions. The Jews from the northern part of the Land of Israel went mainly to the north, those from the south went to the west. Owing to various external influences (e.g., absorption of sections of gentile populations, climatic conditions, etc.), the former developed through racial admixtures of Aramaean-Mongoloid-Alpine-Northern elements into the “Ashkenazi type,” while the latter, by a similar fusion of Oriental-Bedouin-Mediterranean racial elements, were turned into “Sephardim.”
Sephardim would often claim for themselves patrician Jewish origins; “these beliefs were current in the Middle Ages and in the centuries following them—that the Jews of Spain were the descendants of the noblemen in Jerusalem [the Tribe of Judah] while the Jews in Germany originated in the other parts of the Judean population,” writes Zimmel.
Some modern “historians” have taken the division between Sephardim and Ashkenazim to ridiculous extremes and sought to strip the Ashkenazim of any Jewish connection. Perhaps the most famous proponent of this was the Hungarian-Jewish writer Arthur Koestler who in 1976 authored “The Thirteenth Tribe” (still a favorite of anti-Semites). Koestler sought to prove that the bulk of present-day Ashkenazic Jewry are not Semitic in origin but rather descended of a medieval Turkic-Mongol people called Khazars who converted to the Jewish faith.
And it wasn’t only the Ashkenazim who some in academia sought to “dejudaize”; in 1996, Dr. Paul Wexler published “The Non-Jewish Origins of the Sephardic Jews,” where he used linguistic, ethnographic and historical evidence to support his theory that the origins of Sephardic Jews are predominantly Berber and Arab.
The truth, however, is far more nuanced than that; studies (including genetic—which I will discuss at another time) have consistently shown that the perceived differences between Sephardim and Ashkenazim are negligible and that both derive from a common origin. The notion that there were two massive migrations out of Judea following the destruction of the Temple with one group ending up in the frigid north of Europe and the other in the Mediterranean is preposterous. Even the notion that this split occurred during the Middle Ages and that the two communities developed thereafter independent of each other is patently untrue. What I reveal in my findings are constant transmigration—which began very early—between the Ashkenazic and Sephardic centers of world Jewry—with Ashkenazi Jews often traveling and settling in “Sephardic countries” and Sephardic Jews immigrating to “Ashkenazi countries.” What is certain is that Sephardim and Ashkenazim did not develop independent of each other as two organic blocs of Jewish civilization.
Before we delve into the differences and similarities between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, we must remember that before these categories were generated, the bulk of Jewry was split between the two centers of Babylonia (Iraq) and the Land of Israel. The Jewish community of Babylonia dated back to the end of the First Temple period but we do not hear much about it until about the third century CE. The principal arbiters of Jewish scholarship had until that period been in the Land of Israel where the Mishnah was redacted by Rabbi Judah the Prince in circa the third century. Following that seminal accomplishment, with the rise of the Byzantine Empire, Israeli Jewry slowly fell into decline as the Jews of Babylonia began to assert themselves. The Babylonian academies would produce the Talmud that we all know, while its Israeli counterpart would produce a less-defined and less-sharpened corpus of work known as the Talmud of Jerusalem.
An in-depth discussion of the differences and sometimes conflicts between these two streams of Jewry (both of which heavily influenced Sephardim and Ashkenazim in every sense), which continued until about the Crusader invasion in the 11th century, is beyond the scope of this article.
Let us return to Europe of the High Middle Ages and begin with the case of one of the most important Ashkenazi halachists, Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel, who is better known as the “Rosh” (a Hebrew acronym of his name). Born in Germany in 1250, he relocated to Toledo and died there in 1327. Rabbi Asher, as an Ashkenazi expat in Spain, held fast to his Ashkenazi rites and customs. He founded a yeshiva where he attempted to conserve his ancestral customs. His daughters married Ashkenazim, although at least one of them married a local Sephardi who adopted Ashkenazic customs.
It is interesting to note that when the first serious anti-Jewish riots began to target the Jewish communities in Iberia during the last part of the 14th century, a significant number of Jews submitted to baptism. Sephardim were usually averse to self-martyrdom, while Ashkenazim had a long and sad history of committing this deed since the days of the anti-Jewish Crusades in Germany. In 1391, Rabbi Judah ben Asher II, a great-grandson of the Rosh, was self-martyred along with his family when faced with the choice of death or apostasy—an act that both impressed and horrified his Sephardic compatriots.
It was only a couple of generations, however, before Rabbi Asher’s family would completely assimilate and become Sephardim. The now common North African Jewish surname “Benharoche” (literally, “son of the Rosh”) is said to have been taken on by the descendants of the Rosh.
To be continued...
By Joel S. Davidi Weisberger
Joel S. Davidi Weisberger is a historian specializing in the history of worldwide Medieval Jewry as well as the Jews of Europe from the 16th to the 20th centuries. He is the author of the forthcoming book “The Exiles of Sepharad That Are in Ashkenaz,” which explores the settlement of Sephardic Jews in various parts of Eastern Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. He resides in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, with his wife Michal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.