A Brief History of the Sephardim

The Jews of Spain

In 1492 King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella issued an edict calling for the expulsion of all Jewish people from his kingdom which included Castile, Catalonia, Aragon, Galicia, Majorca, Minorca, the Basque Provinces, Sardinia, Sicily, and Valencia. The official edict of expulsion was called the Alhambra Decree. Drawing of the Expulsion of the Jews 1492

In 1496 when King Manuel of Portugal married the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, he too expelled the Jews from his land. Many were forbidden to leave and were this forcefully converted. Those who resisted conversion were put to death, and some 2,000 Jewish children were taken captive and enslaved.
Many refugees settled in the Ottoman Empire Sultan Bayezid II (1448 – 1510) welcomed the Jews and even sent ships to Spain to bring the expellees to his kingdom. During this time the empire spanned three continents, Europe, Asia and North Africa.
During the 16th century, Sephardic Jews established a center for Torah and Kabbalah study in Salonica. Many great personalities studied there. Among them were Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of the Shukhan Arukh, Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, who composed the Lekha Dodi, and Rabbi Yehuda Abravanel, a famous philosopher and author.
Ladino is the Judeo-Spanish dialect spoken by Sephardic Jews. The origins of Ladino are similar to that of Yiddish, in that they both combine Hebrew and local languages. As the Ladino language developed during the 15th and 16th centuries, it grew to include Arabic, Turkish, Greek, French and Italian.
Beginning in the 8th century with Moorish rule, Spain became a magnet for world Jewry. The arrival of the Jews to the Iberian Peninsula ushered in one of the most flourishing periods in Jewish history known as The Golden Age of Spain. The Jews of Spain excelled in philosophy, Jewish thought and law, poetry, astronomy, medicine, mathematics, and science. They also held prominent political positions in the royal courts as treasurers, diplomats, and advisors.
The foremost Jews included Rabbis such as Abraham Ibn Ezra (1092 – 1167). Moses Ben Maimon (Rambam) (1135 – 1204) (1192 – 1270) the great codifier of Jewish law, philosopher and physician, as well as Moses Ben Nachman (Ramban) (1192 – 1270).
There were great poets such as Solomon Ibn Gabirol (1021 – 1058) and Yehuda Halevi (1075 – 1141)
Many Jews held important political positions in the Spanish Court. Among them was Hasdai Ibn Shaprut (915 – 970) who was a court physician and minister. Samuel Ibn Naghrela (haNagid) (993 – 1055) and his son Joseph Ibn Naghrela. Both served as prime ministers in the Spanish Court. Joseph ibn Naghrela’s assassination in Granada in 1066 marked the decline of the Golden Age of Spain. Other prominent political families included the Abravanel, Benveniste, and Abulafia families. Don Isaac Abravanel (1437 – 1508) was treasurer to King Alfonso V of Portugal and advisor to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand.
From 1391 until 1492, Jews in large numbers were forced to convert to Catholicism. Even as New Christians they were suspected of retaining their Judaism and were often put on trial in the Inquisition accused of “Judaizing” and observing Jewish customs and traditions. The first Inquisition began in Majorca in 1413 and by the early 1480s it became a widespread institution in Castille. Tomas de Torquemanda (1420 – 1498) was the Grand Inquisitor, whose family was said to be of Jewish ancestry. He led the campaign of persecution against the Jews in Spain.
Under state pressure in the late 15th century, an estimated 100,000 – 200,000 Jews in the Iberian Peninsula converted to Christianity. The converts were known as conversos. Many. whether for expedience or faith, wholeheartedly accepted Christianity and raised their children as Christians. They were called “New Christians”; Cristianos nuevas and Cristaos novas in Spain and Portugal, respectively.
Beginning in the 16th century with the Ottoman Empire’s conquest of the Land of Israel in 1517, Sephardim began to arrive in Israel. They arrived by boat from the Green Peninsula and Turkey. Sephardic settlement from the mid 19th century was strengthened by new waves of Sephardi and Mizrahi immigrants that arrived from Salonica, Constantinople, and other parts of Turkey, Morocco, Aleppo, Buchara, and the Persian lands. The Sephardic Jews established centers in the cities of Jerusalem, Safed, Tiberias, and Hebron.
As a result of the hardship of displacement, many Sephardic Jews began to settle in the mystical city of Safed. Safed was home to Rabbi Moses Cordovero and Rabbi Isaac Luria Ashkenazi (the Ari) who followed him and pioneered the Lurianic school of Kabbalah. Rabbi Hayim Vital was his most famous disciples. Among the other famous personalities of Safed were Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of the Shulkhan Arukh (the Code of Jewish Law), the students of Rabbi Isaac Aboav who build the famous Aboav Synagogue, and Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, author of Lekha Dodi. In addition to its vibrant religious character, Safed also had a thriving textile industry.
Jewish Life was restored in the city of Tiberias in 1558, when the Portuguese born Dona Gracia, a former Marrano, was given the tax collecting rights in Tiberias and its surrounding villages by Suleiman the Magnificent. Suleiman the Magnificent was the 10th and longest reigning Sultan of the Ottoman Empire (1520 – 1566). He showed favor to the Jews, constricting the walls that today surround Jerusalem’s Old City in order to guarantee the safety of the Jewish Population. Dona Gracia restored the city walls and built a yeshiva. The revival came to an end in 1620.

In 1740 Jewish families were encouraged to resettle in Tiberias. The community was headed by Rabbi Hayim Abulafia, who was the chief Rabbi of Izmir. In 1746, Rabbi Moshe Hayim Luzzatto, a leading ethicist and Kabbalist of his generation, was buried overlooking Tiberias, next to the site traditionally venerated as the grave of Rabbi Akiva. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Tiberias received an influx of Rabbis who established the city as a center for Jewish learning. During this time, Tiberias became recognized as one of the four holy cities of Judaism, along with Jerusalem, Hebron, and Safed.

In the Old City of Jerusalem, the Sephardic Jews prayed at the Ben Zakkai synagogue, a complex of four synagogues: Yohanan Ben Zakkai, Eiyahu HaNavi, HaEmtza’i (the Middle One) and the Istambuli. To this very day the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, also known as the “Rishon Lezion”, is inaugurated in the Yohanan Be Zakkai synagogue.