Term for the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula and their descendants that spread around the Mediterranean. In a confusing twist, 'Sephardim' has also come to mean any Jews whose origin are not Northern Europe. In this later meaning, Sephardim is in contrast to Ashkenazim, the Jews of Northern Europe.

Sefard was the ancient Hebrew name for the Iberian Peninsula. Jews may have reached it in the Carthaginian era, but the first settlement was in the Roman Imperial period, when the Jewish people spread from Palestine throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. After the decline of the Roman Empire, the Visgothic rulers of Spain tolerated the Jewish community.

The genesis of the Sephardi people was really when the Moors conquered Iberia in the 8th century. Many Jews from Islamic lands accompanied the Moorish invaders and Jews had prominent positions in Moorish society. The Cordoban caliphate of southern Spain was the most advanced nation of the world at the time, and Jews participated fully in the life of the nation. Great Jewish scholars such as Averroes thrived in this environment.

As the Christian reconquest proceeded southward, Jews found themselves under the Christian Kings of Castile, Portugal, and Aragon/Catalonia. At first, these societies had a doctrine of convivencia, meaning 'living together,' whereby Catholics, Muslims, and Jews were all allowed to maintain their culture. The Jews of the peninsula now participated in the societies of the Christian kingdoms. The Sephardim spoke a language called Ladino, which was a hybrid of the colloquial Latin of the era, with Arabic and Hebrew words. Iberia may have been home to half the Jews in the world at one point.

Tolerance gave way to persecution and the Inquisition, and by 1492 the Jews of the Spanish Monarchy and by 1497 the Jews of the Portuguese monarchy were given the choice to convert, leave, or die. Many converted, and these conversos were often prominent people in Spain and Portugal over the next centuries. Many of Columbus' sailors were conversos, as were officials in the governments. Allegations of conspiracies of conversos secretly practicing Judaism were a staple of Spanish politics.

Those that didn't convert left. Most went to North Africa, while others went east to the lands of the Ottoman Empire, especially Greece. The Sephardim blended with the existing Jewish communities in these regions. A few fled from Iberia north to the Low Countries, soon to become the tolerant Dutch Republic. From there, they were some of the first Jewish settlers in America. Among the prominent original settlers of New Amsterdam were the Cardozo family, Sephardim from Portugal, who remain a prominent New York family to this day. Other Sephardim settled in the south during the colonia era, and some were prominent officials in the Confederacy, including one Judah P. Benjamin, Jefferson Davis' secretary of state. Perhaps until the 1840s, the majority of Jews in the United States were Sephardim. One was Emma Lazarus, who penned the poem on the Statue of Liberty which would soon welcome the huddled masses of Ashkenazim to America. Thus, like the Jews as a whole, the Sephardim had a worldwide diaspora.

The Sephardi communities that settled in the East lived through the turbulent centuries in those regions. Salonika in Greece and Izmir in Anatolia were major centers, as was all of North Africa. When mass immigration to Israel began, these Sephardim were comparatively poor and uneducated compared to the western Ashkenazim. Israeli society had an Ashkenazim/Sephardim split in culture and ethnicity. When other Jews immigrated to Israel from other non-western areas, such as other parts of the Middle East, India, and elsewhere, their non-western-ness and the similarity of their religious rituals to the Sephardim caused all of those groups to be lumped together under the banner of Sephardim.

Today Sephardim can either mean the Iberian Jewish cultural group and its descendants, or all non-Ashkenazi Jews, depending on context. This is confusing and unfortunate.

Sephardic Cuisine

Because of their presence in the Mediterranean, Sephardic cuisine is rich and varied, with a strong emphasis on vegetables, rice, and beans. In fact, while Ashkenazi Jews will not consumer rice, corn, or beans during Passover, it is common practice among Sephardim to do so. There is a special name for these types of food eaten during passover: kitniot.

In my personal experience, Askhenazi food seems to salty. In contrast, many Sephardic dishes are very, very sweet. This may have to do with a readier supply of honey, which is used to drench nearly every kind of dessert. Also, Sephardim had readier access to spices, so their dishes tend to use them abundantly.

Some excellent Sephardic foods:

  • Roscas -- ring shaped breads that are lightly sweetened with honey and cinnamon.
  • Biscochos -- small cookies shaped like in rings just like small roscas. These are incredibly sweet and buttery.
  • Fritata -- a casserole made of shredded vegetables and eggs. Similar to a quiche, although it's mostly vegetable whereas a quiche is mostly eggs.
  • Arroz de Sabato (Sabbath Rice) - Rice pilaf flavored and colored by saffron
  • Taramasalata -- this is technically a Greek dish, but was a favorite among my Sephardic relatives. A spread made of caviar, white bread, and olive oil. Salty and delicious.
  • Sephardic Charoset - unlike the apple-based Ashkenazi concotion, the Sephardic version uses dates and has a thicker, more smearable texture. In that sense, it actually more closely resembles the mortar that the charoset is meant to emulate.
  • Ful -- dishes made with fava beans are generally referred to using the Arabic word ful, or occasionally pul. Fava beans, widely available in the Mediteranean, are one of the staples of Sephardic cooking.

Widely-used ingredients in Sephardic Cooking

Se*phar"dim (?), n. pl. [NHeb.; orig. uncert.]

Jews who are descendants of the former Jews of Spain and Portugal. They are as a rule darker than the northern Jews, and have more delicate features.


© Webster 1913

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