Hebrew, Sfaradim, from Sfarad = Spain] - A
culturally separate branch of Jews originating in the Iberian Peninsula
(Spain, Portugal) and to some extent from Provence, where they had lived
since the time of the Roman Empire.
The freedom that the Sephardim enjoyed under Muslim rule meant that
they integrated with the surrounding population, and did not dress
differently, for example.
In the Middle Ages, their culture was highly developed. Some were
advisors to the Arab rulers and wrote court poetry; others were involved
in philosophy, astronomy, mathematics and medicine. They created maps,
navigational tables and precision instruments.
The philosophical thought of Spanish Jewry,
along with Arab philosophy, helped bring about the intellectual rebirth
of Christian Europe. The treatise Fons vitae [Source of Life], written
by Shlomo ibn Gabirol (1021-1070) in Arabic and then translated into
Latin, linked Jewish traditions and Neoplatonic philosophy. The works of
Majmonides were an attempt to reconcile Judaism and Aristotelianism. As
Spain was conquered by Catholic rulers, the Jews' situation worsened
After the kingdom was united (1492), the Jews were expelled. They
scattered throughout the Muslim countries in North Africa, the Middle
East and the Balkans. Groups of Sephardic Jews also settled in France,
Italy and the Netherlands. They arrived in South America along with the
first boats, and, in the seventeenth century, in North America as well. A
small Sephardic group settled in Zamosc, where it assimilated quickly
to the culture of the Ashkenazim who lived there.
Centuries of cultural isolation in the Muslim
countries meant that the Sephardim and Ashkenazim differed, while
maintaining a basic religious unity. Cultural borrowings also grew out
of these contacts. The Sephardim spoke Ladino (Jewish languages), and
their rituals did not differ much from those of the Ashkenazim
(intonation of religious songs, pronunciation of Hebrew words, order of
prayers during religious services, etc.). They also had strong
kabbalistic traditions (Sabbathaism), and a less restrictive
religiosity. There were much greater differences in dress, cuisine,
folklore and musical traditions.