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Sephardi Jews and Their Relationship To Spain

By Anke Halner - Hebrew and Spanish Student @ St Anne's College, Oxford



The term Sepharad is Hebrew for Spain – it is due to this reason that people came to know those Jews who were living in Spain and the Iberian Peninsula as the Sephardim. According to records, Jewish presence in Spain existed as early as the 3rd century – it is also possible that Jews lived in Spain from the First Temple period onwards. Under Muslim ruled Spain, Jewish culture flourished, producing Torah scholars, scientists and intellectuals that would continue to influence both Jews and non-Jews to this day. That the Sephardi Jews of the Iberian Peninsula were direct positive contributors to the material and intellectual successes experienced by Muslim ruled Spain is an irrefutable fact.

After the Jewish expulsion in 1492 by the Spanish king and queen Ferdinand and Isabella, all Jews occupying the land faced a choice: either convert to Catholicism or migrate elsewhere. Many Spanish Jews flooded into Portugal, only to be expelled again, and fleeing to any possible place that could be deemed as safe. This included regions of the African continent such as North Africa, areas of the European continent as well as numerous cities throughout the Ottoman Empire. It is for this reason that Jews from countries other than Spain are still now referred to as Sephardim.

Jewish life in Spain

During the Golden Age in Spain, Jews enjoyed greater freedoms than in any other area at the time. As a result of the fact that Jews were permitted to own land, many became farmers and vintners. Jewish craftsmen experienced a lot of success even amongst non-Jewish inhabitants of Spain – in fact, when it came to their production of filigree silver, their best customers were, surprisingly, the Catholic Church! Further still, in Saragossa, on a street named El Medio, Jews were known to produce high quality shoes which were held in great esteem throughout Spain. Jews were also skilled weavers, tailors, furriers, blacksmiths, saddlers, potters, boilermakers, merchants, and shopkeepers.

Some significant Sephardi figures:

Hasdai ibn Shaprut (Sepharad, 915-975): the foreign secretary of the caliph (Chief Muslim ruler) Ibn Al Rahman III between 912-961 AD. Also a physician and devout scholar, it was under his influence that Cόrdoba became the flourishing nucleus for intellectual development and progression within both Jewish and non-Jewish worlds.

Rif (Sepharad, 1013-1103): Having spent the majority of his life in Morocco (although moving to Spain Al-Andalus in 1088), Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi produced a summarized version of the Talmud (see listed below- ‘what is Talmud?’) often known as the Talmud Katan (little Talmud), focusing on the most significant areas. Maimonides himself wrote that the work ‘‘superseded all the geonic codes…for it contains all the decisions and laws which we need in our day…". It is worth noting that when the Talmud itself was banned in Italy between the 16th and 19th centuries, Italy’s Jewish community used his work as a primary study source.

Rambam (Sepharad, 1135-1204): Born in Spain, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, who was also known by the names of Rambam or Maimonides is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in the history of Torah scholarship. The Rabbi, who lived in 12th century Egypt, produced works in Arabic and Hebrew, which had a monumental effect on many areas of study including those of Judaism, philosophy, medicine among many others. The impact of his writings was felt within and without the Hebraic world.


Languages most frequently spoken by Sephardim were Ladino, Portuguese or Arabic. Ladino (known also as Spanyolit, Judezmo and Hakitia), a Judeo-Spanish language, was essentially ‘‘born’’ in 1492 the year of the Spanish expulsion of the Jews. Although Hebrew had been the language used for prayer and study, the language spoken in informal daily contexts was 15th century Castilian Spanish. Thus Ladino, a fusion of Spanish with Hebrew (and originally written with the Hebrew alphabet before the 20th century), emerged.

As it was no longer under the influence of Spanish Spain, the language was to undergo a lot of change, moulded by the various influences of the languages spoken in the countries to which the Jews travelled from Spain. Different Ladino dialects emerged: oriental Ladino was spoken in Turkey and Rhodes, whilst western Ladino was spoken in Greece, Macedonia, Bosnia, Serbia and Romania. Whilst the former was more similar to Castilian Spanish, the latter was closer in influence to northern Spanish and Portuguese. Although at one point in history around 80 percent of the Jewish diaspora was Ladino speaking, today it has unfortunately become a dying language since nearly 90 percent of all Ladino speakers were killed as a result of the Holocaust.

Further reading:

  1. The Rise of the Sepharadim Article by Yosef Eisen

  2. 19 Facts you should know about Sephardic Jewry Article by Menachem Posner

  3. Will Ladino Rise again? Article by Lorne Rozovsky

  4. Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews by Menachem Posner

  5. Maimonides Articles

  6. What is the Talmud?


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