Sephardi Jews are Jews who follow traditions which began in Spain and Portutgal before Jews were expelled from those countries at the end of the 15th century CE. Most Sephardi are descendants of those who were expelled from Spain in 1492 CE or from Portugal in 1497 CE. However, some of them were not born Sephardi (or even Jewish) but now attend Sephardic synagogues and follow Sephardic traditions.
The term "Sephardi Jews" is most often used in order to distinguish the community from Jews who follow traditions originating in other regions, such as the Ashkenazim.
It is unknown when Jews first arrived in the Iberian Peninsula (present day Spain, Portugal, Andorra and Gibraltar) but there is evidence that they began living there during the Roman occupation, before the defeat of Judea by the Romans in 70 CE.
Jews were citizens of the Roman Empire, they worked in all kinds of occupations and enjoyed close relations with the rest of the population. The adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire did not significantly worsen the lives of Jews in the Iberian Peninsula (as it did those in Italy and Greece) nor did the end of Roman rule and the coming of the Visigoths.
Life changed for the Sephardi Jews when the Visigothic royal family converted to Christianity in the 6th century CE, leading to orders of forced conversion, isolation, expulsion, enslavement and execution.
The intolerable situation that was created meant that many Jews had left the Iberian Peninsula by 621 CE. Their families would return in 711 CE with the Muslim conquest. Everywhere that they went, the Sephardi Jews welcomed the Muslims as liberators, which, for the most part, they were.
Although Islamic law placed some restrictions on which occupations Jews could hold, life under Muslim rule was one of far greater opportunity than it had been under the previous Christian kings. Many Jews from other countries ruled by Christians and Muslims moved to Al Andalus, the Muslim ruled territory that occupied most of present day Spain and Portugal, in search of greater freedom.
Arabic became the usual language of the Sephardi Jews and they were exposed to scientific and philosophical works of the Arabs and the Ancient Greeks. Sephardi Jews translated texts between Hebrew, Arabic, Greek and Latin. By translating texts into Latin they made them accessible to the rest of Europe and helped pave the way for the coming Renaissance. Jews rose to prominent positions in Al Andalus and experienced a Golden Age.
The Golden Age came to an end during the 12th and 13th centuries CE with the growing influence of stricter Muslim sects from North Africa who despised the liberal lifestyle of Al Andalus and the fact that some Jews held authority over Muslims. Some Sephardi Jews moved south to more tolerant Muslim lands, others moved north to the growing Christian kingdoms of Spain.
Many Sephardi Jews then welcomed the forces of the Christian Reconquista as liberators, as their ancestors had welcomed the Muslims centuries before, life for many of them initially improved under Christian expansion, Jews were valued for their professional skills and for their knowledge of the language and ways of the Muslim enemy.
During the reign of Ferdinand III of Castille (1217 CE-1252 CE), Jews were forced to wear a yellow badge on their clothes. During the following two centuries, anti-Jewish laws were enacted and declarations of forced conversion were issued. There were massacres of Jews in 1366 CE and 1391 CE.
On March 31, 1492 CE, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain signed the Alhambra Decree which forced all Jews to leave the Kingdom of Spain, its territories and posessions by the end of July of that year. Thus began the greater dispersal of Sephardi Jews around Europe, North Africa and the Middle East and, ultimately, around the world. Many went to Portugal, from which they were also expelled in 1497 CE. The most fortunate ones went to the Ottoman Empire, the majority of them settling in Istanbul, Izmir and Selanik (present day Thessaloniki in Greece), where Sultan Bayezid II guaranteed their protection. The Sultan is known to have sarcastically thanked King Ferdinand for sending away many of his most talented citizens, thereby making Spain poorer and Ottoman lands richer.
The language traditionally associated with the Sephardi community is Ladino, which evolved out of Spanish and contains some loan words from Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Turkish and other languages from areas where the speaker's ancestors once lived. Today it is written using both the Hebrew and the Roman alphabet.
Sephardi Jews are also believed to have contributed to the development of Llanito, a dialect spoken in Gibraltar that combines elements of Spanish and English with some words of Hebrew origin, and Papiamento, a language spoken in Dutch owned islands of the Caribbean which is chiefly derived from Spanish and Portuguese.
Notable Sephardi Jews
- Moses Maimonides (1135-1264), rabbi, physician and philosopher.
- Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), Dutch philosopher.
- Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1877), British prime minister.
- Flory Jagoda (born 1925), American musician, composer of Ocho kandelikas
- Harold Pinter (1930 - 2008) British playwright, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005.
- Patrick Modiano (born 1945) French novelist, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014.
- Paula Abdul (born 1962) American singer.
- Hank Azaria (born 1964), American actor, voice of many characters on The Simpsons.