A Brief History of the Sephardim
The Jews of Spain
The Golden Age of the Jews in Medieval Spain
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).
Jewish Political Figures
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.
Inquisition and Persecution
The Jews co-existed with the Muslims and the Christians for centuries. However as Christians conquered more territory and the Muslim presence in Spain declined Jews became the object of Catholic persecution. The Jews suffered from the riots of 1391, forced conversions, and the Inquisition. Consequently many Jews became “Anusim” (Maranos). Jews who were “Anusim” outwardly practiced Catholicism, but in private, they lived as Jews.
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.
Conversos and Annusim
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.
Others known as “Anusim” (forced converts) or secret Jews also continued to practice Judaism secretly, thus preserving their Jewish identity. Although some held high positions with the official government, they secretly attended synagogue and fought and suffered for their religion. They were also known as Marranos which became a derogatory term that in Spanish meant pigs; it stemmed from the ritual prohibition against eating pork, a prohibition practiced by both Jews and Muslims.
Expulsion and Migration
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.
It was issued on June 3, 1492, the day before the Ninth of Av, already the saddest day on the Jewish calendar – a major fast day commemorating the destruction of the holy temples in Jerusalem.
Jews of Portugal
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.
The Portuguese “Anusim” who managed to escape went to England, France, Belgium, and Holland between the 15th and 17th centuries.
Arrival in the Ottoman Empire
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.
The new arrivals established a large community in the port city of Salonica. During the 16th century, the Jewish community of Salonica was estimated at 20,000. The Jews also settled in large numbers in the capital city of Constantinople (later renamed Istanbul) where the Jewish community numbered 30,000 during the 16th century. In Constantinople, the Jews were involved in commerce, medicine, and the government court. Jews also settled in Belgrade, Sarajevo, Edirne, Bursa, Sofia, Kastoria, Monastir, Rhodes, Damascus, Aleppo, Adrianople and Izmir. At its peak, the Jews of the Ottoman Empire, numbered 300,000.
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.
Salonica was also the home to a large Talmud Torah where more than 10,000 pupils studied and over 200 teachers taught. The Jewish community also had their own printing press, textile industry, and well as their own treasury.
In 1913, the port city of Salonica had a Jewish population numbered 70,000. At its height, the Jewish population was about 50% of the city. It was the only port in the world that shut down for Shabbat because the Jews were involved in many of the jobs that ran the port affairs.
The Ladino Language
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.
Ladino spread throughout the Mediterranean after the Spanish expulsion in 1492. Today, Ladino is spoken by about 160,000 Jews in Turkey, the Balkans, North Africa, Israel and the Americas.
Aliyah to Israel
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.
Arrive in Safed
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.
Jewish Life in Jerusalem
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.
The Old City was overcrowded and plagued by unsanitary conditions. As a result, Jews, in the middle of the 1800s began to leave the walls of the Old City. They turned westward to create the beginnings of the new city of Jerusalem and began to settle and establish new communities outside of the walls.
The new neighborhoods that were established outside the walls of the Old City included Mishkenot Sha’anaim (1855), Yemin Moshe and Nachane Yisrael (founded by the Moroccan community in 1866), Sha’ama (founded by the Moroccan and Monastir communities, Ohel Moshe (founded in 1882 for the Judeo-Spanish speaking Jews), Shevat Tzedek (1889 – 1890) and Nachalat Zion (1894) both founded by the Shiraz and Yemenite Jews, Mamila (founded in 1949 by the Persian Kurdish Jews) and Rehovot (founded by the Bucharan Jews in 1889). Sir Moses Montefiore (1784 – 1885), a prominent Sephardic Jew was responsible for settlement in the Yemin Moshe and Mishkenot Shaananim neighborhoods outside the walls of the Old City.
By the early 1800s the Jewish population of Jerusalem numbered 12,000, which was half of the total population of the city. The Judeo-Spanish community, which was led by the Vaad Eiad HaSephardit, was the dominant Jewish community in Jerusalem.
The first Sephardic Chief Rabbi appointed under the British Mandate of Palestine was Rabbi Yaacov Meir (1856 – 1939) who was born in Jerusalem. He was in the forefront of the effort to revive Hebrew as a modern language.