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Sephardim: origin and modern life

21.05.2018 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin

The Jewish Diaspora has formed over many centuries. Different groups were created, which differed from each other in customs, languages and dialects.

Ashkenazim and Sephardim, which originate from Spain, are closely related. Meanwhile, these ethnic groups have some differences in their way of life and the manner of speaking of their adherents.

The beginning of the formation of sephardim

Sephardi Jews originally formed as a sub-ethnic group on the Iberian Peninsula and then migrated to Portugal and Spain. If we take the translation from Modern Hebrew, the word means “Spanish.” The expulsion took place in 1492, which gave an impetus to the migration of Jews to different countries of the world. The event was associated with the completion of the Reconquista. Refusing to accept Christianity, Jews were forced to leave their native land and look for new places to live.

Followers of Sephardim have much in common with the Spanish. They spoke the Ladino language, which resembled Spanish. Without distinguishing the words, one can easily mistake Ladino for the melodic language of Spain.

The Silver Age of the Sephardic culture began after the expulsion from Germany. It did not take long for the Sephardim followers to roam. Some of them received invitations from the Ottoman Turks, who at that time were conquering new lands. They invited the Romance language Jews to populate the Balkan Peninsula, which was given to the Turks after the war with Byzantium. Most Sephardic Jews settled in the city of Thessaloniki. The Turks did not want new clashes between Greeks and Christian Slavs, so they chose to welcome the residence of Jews.

More than a hundred thousand people live in Thessaloniki, and until the beginning of the twentieth century, half of the population were Jewish and most of the citizens spoke Ladino. Terrible events related to the German occupation caused the mass emigration of Jews and people migrated to Israel and the United States. There were even groups of Russian Sephardim followers. After these events there were very few members of the ethnic group left in Thessaloniki, which led to the disappearance of a rich and beautiful language.


History of the origin of sephardim

If we take the term “Sephardi”, which is identified with Spain, it is easy to understand where the group or sub-ethnic group calling themselves the Sephardim came from. A small number of Jews united for life on the Iberian Peninsula, separating from the flow of Jewish migration. They lived in the Roman Empire and then in the Caliphate. The Sephardi Jews exiled from Spain spoke Ladino their own language, Ladino is also called the Sephardic language. Another dialect was Judezmo, which also came from the Iberian languages—a group of Romance languages. In everyday life, the people used a tongue more convenient for them – the Sephardic pronunciation of the Hebrew language.

After the expulsion from Spain, Sephardim followers travelled to the south, northeast and north and settles in such places as: 

  • North Africa;
  • France;
  • England and the Netherlands;
  • The Apennine and Balkan Peninsulas, Palestine and Asia Minor.

The assimilation of Spanish Jews took place in different ways. Those who remained in North Africa infiltrated the local communities, and Sephardim from other countries assimilated into new cultures. Groups living in Greece and Turkey, who continued to use the Ladino language until the mid-twentieth century, are considered the most entrenched in their linguistic preferences.

The differences between Sephardim and Ashkenazim are insignificant. The latter similarly include Jews expelled from Spain, but also those who settled in Central Europe. Their name comes from the ancient word for Germany and they are descendants of the original Ashkenaz. At the moment, this ethnic group is the largest in the world. It makes up 80% of all Jews. About half of the Sephardic population live in Israel. Confrontations between the Sephardim and Ashkenazim are quite common and people quite often confuse or mix them.

The sephardim of israel

The sephardim of israel

The year 1948, witnessed an event that changed the course of history. The Jewish state of Israel was created. Having found their homeland, many Jewish people were anxious to settle there. Thus, many Sephardim living in Turkey and Greece were the first to relocate to Israel. There they teamed up with Jews from other lands, learned to converse in Hebrew, and forgot the Ladino language.

The Sephardim of Israel are now comprised of returnees from many lands. The group includes Arab, Persian, Afghan, Kurdistan, Caucasian, Georgian, Cochin and Central Asian Jews. Representatives support the “right” – radical Judaism. Other ethnic groups, such as Ashkenazim, follow the German branch which is a more modern movement. Their prayers and services differ from the Sephardim’s not only in content but also in way they sound.

It is noteworthy that the descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain include Bulgarian Jews, representatives of the western part of Turkey, Greeks, Yugoslavs, and Italians. The Sephardim lived around the territory of the Mediterranean Sea, but their descendants travelled beyond this habitat and settled all over the world. In modern Spain, the Sephardim are entitled to citizenship.


There are some differences in the pronunciation of some Hebrew words and phrases. If you compare the speech of some famous Sephardim, Yemeni Jews and the Ashkenazim, you can see the differences.

The Ashkenazim stood out because they used the Hebrew language as accurately as possible. In their dialect, many letters sound the same. For comparison, take “het” and “haf,” “ain” and “aleph.” The Sephardim use letters in different ways.

By comparing other sounds and pronunciation, it is possible to identify different Jewish ethnic groups. Those who have lived or live in Yemen and Syria use “vet” and “vav” in a different way, although other ethnicities do not see any difference. People who have studied dialects, considered that the Sephardic version is the correct interpretation of the Hebrew language. The sounds are clearer and it is easier to read and speak.

The Sephardim have inhabited large areas of the south, east and north of Israel where there are many representatives of this ethnic group. There are also representatives of this religious sect in Russia.