Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 2 June 2018 / 19 Sivan 5778

A Tale of Two Communities

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
Become a Supporter Library Library

From: Jo Anne

Dear Rabbi,

Shalom! Can you please give me some information on the origins and history of Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews? Though I am not Jewish, I enjoy your posts, and think they are very informative and thorough! Blessings and thanks.

Dear Jo Anne,

Thank you for your interest, encouragement, and kind words.

As I’m sure you know, according to the Torah and ancient Jewish tradition, the Jewish People descend directly from Adam through Noah to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In this sense, the Jews are really more than a People or a Nation; they are literally one family. Jacob had twelve sons, who were the progenitors of what became the Tribes of Israel. Even though each tribe had its own distinct character and contribution to a multifaceted Nation of Israel, as well as its own distinct territory within the boundaries of the ancient Land of Israel, the Jewish People in those times was basically physically and spiritually one cohesive body.

However, even before the destruction of the First Temple, the Assyrian assault against the northern half of the Land of Israel resulted in the exile of what became known as the Lost Tribes of Israel, since they were separated from the remaining tribes of the southern half of Israel, exiled to the Far East, intermingled with those nations, and never returned en masse to the Jewish People till this day.

Later, after the destruction of the First Temple at the hands of the Babylonians around 450 BCE, the remaining tribes (Judah, Benjamin, Shimon and part of Dan, including the kohanim and Levites living among them all), were exiled to Babylon in modern-day Iraq. Although after the 70-year exile many Jews returned to Israel, the majority of the Jews did not return, preferring Babylon instead. These “Babylonian” Jews, as well as other Jews who settled in Yemen even before the exile, became the original core of what much later became termed Sefardic Jews who populated the Near East until recent times.

Of those Jews who did return to Israel after the fall of Babylon, nearly all were ultimately exiled about 450 years later in 70 CE by the Roman Empire (albeit, some did remain, resulting in the uninterrupted settlement of Jews in the Holy Land until modern times). The exiles of this Roman expulsion settled throughout the Roman Empire, initially in the countries of the Mediterranean including North Africa, Italy and Spain. Jews in Spain became known as Sephardim, which is the Hebrew term for “Spaniards.” Since for hundreds of years Spain was under Arab rule, the Jews of Spain had connection and communication with the Jews of North Africa and the Middle East. This connection was strengthened further when, after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, most exiled “Spanish” Jews settled in the communities of their brethren throughout the Ottoman Empire in the Eastern lands. Hence all the Jews of these lands eventually came to be referred to by the term Sephardim.

Of the Jews from the Roman exile who initially settled in Southern Europe, many eventually spread to the northern frontiers of the Roman Empire, in France and Germany. And from there, they later settled in Central and Eastern Europe, from where they later spread to the Ukraine and Russia. Early on, the Jews in France and Germany became known as Ashkenazim, which is the Hebrew term for “Germans.” And just as the term for Spanish Jews, Sefardim, was extended generally to all Jews of the Middle East whom they influenced and to where they immigrated, so too the term Ashkenazim eventually came to refer to Jews throughout greater-Europe, who originated from, and were significantly influenced by, the earlier, long-standing communities of Ashkenaz i.e. France and Germany.

Today, primarily as a result of European Colonialism in North Africa and the Middle East which resulted in the migration of many Jews from those lands to Europe and to European colonies in the New World (South America, Canada, and the U.S.), as well as the upheavals of World War II which scattered the remnants of European Jews across the globe and into Israel, in most Jewish communities worldwide, Sefardim and Ashkenazim live side-by-side.

© 1995-2024 Ohr Somayach International - All rights reserved.

Articles may be distributed to another person intact without prior permission. We also encourage you to include this material in other publications, such as synagogue or school newsletters. Hardcopy or electronic. However, we ask that you contact us beforehand for permission in advance at and credit for the source as Ohr Somayach Institutions

« Back to Ask The Rabbi

Ohr Somayach International is a 501c3 not-for-profit corporation (letter on file) EIN 13-3503155 and your donation is tax deductable.