Sephardic Jewish Ancestry
Jewish culture is so diverse and complex that it’s impossible to capture its essence in a broad stroke. That’s why we’ve decided to zoom in on the major individual ethnicities of the Jewish people. Each one contributes to the tapestry of Jewish essence, a rich assortment of traditions and lifestyles that compose the Jewish identity.
Last week’s program offered a look at the Ashkenazi Jewish people, the most common Jewish ethnicity. This week in part 2 of our 4-part series on the backgrounds of the Jewish people, we’re learning about the Sephardic Jews—those with roots in Spain and Portugal. Their historical relationships to Christians and Muslims largely shaped their history and vitally impacts their identity today. Here’s a great chance to expand your Jewish vocabulary as you learn about Ladino, bourekas, Rambam, and other key elements of Sephardic Jewish culture!
If you missed last week’s show, you can Listen Now!
Steve Conover: Welcome to the Friends of Israel Today. I'm Steve Conover. With me is our host and teacher, Chris Katulka. We're so glad you joined us today. Chris, I'm really excited about this series that we're in. Can you tell our listeners more about it?
Chris Katulka: Yeah. We're looking at the different groups of Jewish people. Sometimes, I think we can lump Jewish people into one group, one understanding of how they think and act and worship. But really, there's a lot of subcultures, there's a lot of different backgrounds to the Jewish people. And this week we're going to be looking at the Sephardic Jewish Community. I think it's going to be pretty interesting for our people.
Steve Conover: In the news, Anthony Blinken, President Joe Biden's pick to lead the State Department, promised to keep the US Embassy to Israel in Jerusalem, maintaining one of President Trump's key foreign policy achievements. Blinken announced the decision during his Senate confirmation, saying that, "The Biden administration has no intention of moving the US Embassy in Israel, from Jerusalem back to Tel Aviv." And affirmed that the US recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Chris Katulka: Yeah, Steve this is my take on this. I am very happy to hear that Blinken and the Biden administration are maintaining this element of Trump's policy in Israel. The Biden administration and future presidential administrations will only benefit immensely from the hard work President Trump and his team did in Israel to establish a firm peace in the Middle East.
Chris Katulka: In 2015, Spain passed a law that granted citizenship to any Jewish person with Spanish heritage. That promise of Spanish citizenship went to Jewish people all around the world. They had had until the end of 2019 to submit their application. And Spain received 127,000 applications, most of them coming from Latin America. Jewish people living in Mexico topped that list, with about 20,000 requests, followed by Jewish people in Venezuela and Colombia.
So why did Spain offer this unusual request to the Jewish people? Well, maybe you learned this old saying in school, in 1492 Columbus, Christopher Columbus, sailed the ocean blue? Well, as Christopher Columbus embarked on his transatlantic voyage, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain gave their Jewish population three options, convert to Catholicism, leave Spain, or die. Jewish people whose families were forcibly expelled from the country in 1492, 500 years earlier, who could prove their Spanish heritage took advantage of the modern law and applied for Spanish citizenship in order to right a 500-year-old wrong.
Now, in last week's program, we started a four week series on the different backgrounds and ethnicities and subcultures of the Jewish people. To a non-Jewish person, Jewish culture and history and ethnicity, can seem like one unified story that defines Jewish people all around the world. The way one Jewish person thinks is the way another Jewish person thinks. But the reality is Jewish culture and history and ethnicity is much more complex, and it's much more nuanced. And personally, I didn't fully realize the complexity of Jewish culture until I spent my summers in Israel, interacting with Jewish people from various backgrounds.
On some nights, I'd spend the evening with a Jewish family who believed in Jesus, who immigrated to Israel from the Ukraine. And their experiences in Israel. Their experiences as Jewish people coming from Ukraine were so much different than the man that I would run into at work in Israel, who would greet me every day saying, "Buenos dias, Chris." This Israeli man's family grew up in Spain and immigrated to Israel. I'd drink coffee in the afternoon with a good friend of mine. His name was Bebier. Not your typical Jewish name for us Westerners. But Bebier's family immigrated to Israel from Yemen. One year, he invited me to his daughter's pre-wedding Yemenise henna party. It was unlike any party I've ever been to and unlike any Jewish celebration I'd ever been to. Another friend of mine, who lives in Tel Aviv, is a Moroccan Jewish man from North Africa. And he tells me that he thinks in French, speaks in Hebrew, and somehow squeezes out some English. Not only is he a good friend, he's a phenomenal tour guide in Israel.
Israel is a melting pot of Jewish culture, of Jewish history, and Jewish ethnicity. And that's what we're talking about. We're talking about these various Jewish ethnicities and the nuances that they bring to the Jewish world. And you might be thinking, "Chris, I'm not Jewish. Why do I need to know about all these differences among the Jewish people?" Well, let me just say, as a Christian who loves and supports Israel and the Jewish people, I think it's so vital to understand Jewish culture, customs, and backgrounds. It helps us, I believe, minister more effectively, to show and share the love of the Messiah to our Jewish friends.
Now, last week, I introduced you to the Ashkenazi Jewish culture and ethnicity, their food, their faith and even their unique language, Yiddish. So if you didn't get a chance to listen to last week's message, just go to foiradio.org. And there you'll find it, along with an archive of all of our messages, all at one place, foiradio.org.
Well, today, I want to connect you with another ethnicity and culture of the Jewish people, the Sephardic Jews. Sephardic Jews are those who settled in the Iberian Peninsula, particularly in Spain and Portugal. Sepharad is actually the Hebrew term for Spain. Rabbis, prior to the Jewish expulsion of Spain in 1492, wrote that the earliest Jewish settlers in the area came not long after the Babylonian exile of 586 BC. Even Obadiah, the Old Testament prophet, mentions exiled Israelites in the far reaches of Sepharad. There's only one chapter in Obadiah. It's in verse 20 that it mentions that.
Spain has a very unique history in Europe. It was controlled for a time by Christians and then, controlled for a time by Muslims and then, by Christians again, which means the Sephardic Jewish community were stuck in the middle of a tug of war between tolerance and intolerance. Now, early on in the Roman era, going back pretty far, the Sephardic community, the Jewish community then experienced freedom. They had a freedom to worship as Jewish people and to engage in commerce with Jewish people and non-Jews, the Gentile community. However, sadly, Jewish persecution appeared in the 4th century AD with the establishment of the church. The church isolated the Sephardic Jewish community through laws that prohibited Christians from marrying them or even eating with their Jewish neighbors. Sadly, the church became enemy number one of the Jewish people. So much so, that when the Muslims invaded Spain in 711 AD, the Jewish people assisted the Muslims in their conquest.
See, they saw Muslims as a liberating force to church oppression. That's sad because it's completely un-Biblical. It's hard to imagine in today's religious and political climate, but a golden age of Judaism emerged under Islamic rule in Spain. Together, Muslims and the Sephardic community built one of Europe's most advanced civilizations. Under Islamic law, Jewish people were called the People of the Book, “dhimmis”, who were protected and permitted to study and practice their faith, as long as they paid their discriminatory tax, which was called Jizya. So as they paid a tax, they could enter into society and be part of society. So Sephardic Jewry became entwined, really, into the Muslim neighbors that they had in Spain. Jews actually started praying in Arabic, doing their prayers of the Jewish people in Arabic, and even started dressing like their Muslim neighbors in Moorish clothing.
Despite living in separate communities, the Sephardic Jewish people were active in Muslim government and military. Many Jews received fame in non-Jewish circles as poets and scholars and physicians. Even Talmudic and Halakhic Jewish law, the study of these things, really developed during this time. Jewish culture and faith flourished during this time of tolerance. For nearly 400 years, Jews lived at peace with their Muslim neighbors.
However, that golden age of Judaism fizzled when new Muslim rulers took control of Spain and were less tolerant to their Jewish neighbors. Antisemitism started to intensify. When the Christians' re-conquest of Spain started advancing around 1100 AD, as Christians recaptured Spain from the Muslims, the church and the government were actually really at work to push for religious uniformity, which meant Jews were once again forced to convert to Christianity or face death. Fear that forced converts, secretly practicing Judaism, would impact other Jewish people who converted, drove religious and political leaders to initiate what was called, something you probably know, the Spanish Inquisition. In 1492, all practicing Jewish people were expelled from Spain in order to protect those Jewish people that converted to Christianity, to protect them from returning back to Judaism. There is actually a name for Jewish people who converted to Christianity, but secretly continued practicing their Judaism. They were called Marranos.
Those who were expelled were kind of trapped though. They couldn't settle east of Spain and France and Germany, since the Ashkenazi community were already forced out. We talked about that last week. They were forced out of Northern France and Germany. And they went east into Eastern Europe, into Poland, Hungary, and into Russia. The Sephardic community were forced to migrate into Northern Africa, into countries like Morocco and Algeria and Tunisia and Libya, to meet up with the Arabic speaking Jewish communities that were already established there. Others migrated across the Mediterranean, to the Ottoman empire that was coming to rise, specifically, in Turkey. The Sephardic Jewish community, think about this, is somewhere going across to the east toward Turkey. There were Jewish people from Spain that were going over to the Americas around this time. The Sephardic Jewish community were the first Jews to settle in the Americas. However, over time, the Ashkenazi would come to outnumber their Spanish counterparts.
Like Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardic Jews had their own language as well. It's called Ladino. Ladino is a Jewish-Spanish language, a Judaeo-Spanish language. And it's the combination of old Spanish with Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic. And it was used in this region, specifically, in the areas of religion, law, and spirituality. But today, like Yiddish, Ladino is actually seeing a minor resurgence in higher education across the United States and in Israel. Almost all American Jews that are Ashkenazi, with a tradition that's based in Yiddish, have Yiddish classes that they can take. They're pretty common. However, the University of Pennsylvania and Tufts University started offering Ladino courses among colleges in the United States, within the past 10 years. In Israel, you can find Ladino centered courses in Ben Gurion University of the Negev and Hebrew University as well. And in Spain, the Spanish Royal Academy, in 2017, announced that they plan to preserve Ladino, that Judaeo-Spanish language. And the move was seen again, as another step to make up for the expulsion that happened in 1492.
I do want to share with you one of my favorite Sephardic Jewish cuisines. I probably gained 10 pounds every time I go to Israel, and I eat this food. It's called bourekas. Bourekas are a staple in Israeli food. Bourekas are puff pastries that are just filled with a wide variety and vast selections of fillings, that are typically either fruit bourekas or vegetable bourekas or mushroom bourekas or cheese bourekas or pizza bourekas. It never ends. And I'm going to tell you what else doesn't end, my self control, when I'm around bourekas. I love these things. They're great to eat. That's a Sephardic Jewish cuisine, that's made its way into Israeli culture.
Now, do you remember, I was talking about the golden age of Judaism in Spain under Muslim rule? Well, one of Judaism's most famous influential theologians came from this period. But before we talk about him, I want to connect you with a resource that I think that you need to have. Steve Herzig, he's the Director of North American ministries. He wrote a book many years ago called Jewish Culture and Customs, a sampler of Jewish life. If you've ever wanted to know about why Jewish people celebrate a certain way or the different branches of Judaism. Or maybe, you even want to know more about Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrahi Jews, that we've been talking about in this episode. To really help you understand and go deeper into Jewish culture and custom, I want to encourage you to get Steve Herzig's book, Jewish Culture and Customs. Steve, can you let our listeners know how they can get their hands on Jewish Culture and Customs.
Steve Conover: To purchase a copy of Jewish Culture and Customs, you can visit us at foiradio.org. That's FOIradio.org. There you'll find a link on our homepage. Or you can call our listener line at 888-343-6940 and someone will return your call during our regular business hours, Monday through Friday. Again, that's 888-343-6940. In Canada, call 888-664-2584. Once again, in Canada, that's 888-664-2584.
Chris Katulka: Well, we've been talking about Sephardic Jewish people, the Sephardic Jewish culture, the ethnicity of the Sephardic Jewish people. And I left off telling you about one of the most influential theologians, philosophers, physicians in Jewish culture. It doesn't matter what branch of Judaism you're in. It really doesn't matter whether you're Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrahi, whatever ethnicity of Jewish people you come from. They all have a respect and high regard for Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, better known as Moses Maimonides, or even better known as Rambam. One of Judaism's most influential rabbis. The writings and achievements of this 12th-century Jewish Sage seem almost impossible for one person to accomplish in a lifetime. Maimonides was the first person to write a systematic code of Jewish law. I just want you to imagine all of the Jewish law that was written in the Mishnah and the Talmud and the Torah and the Tanakh and all these different Holy books. Rambam was able to take all of these things that seem scattered throughout all these texts. And he was able to create what was called the Mishneh Torah. He made assessing Jewish law for Jewish people incredibly easy, in that time.
He served as the physician to the Sultan of Egypt. And he even wrote numerous books on medicine. In his spare time, he even served as Cairo's Jewish community leader. Of course, Rambam is a Sephardic Jew who grew up in Cordoba, Spain, toward the end of the golden era that we were talking about, of Judaism in Spain. When a different sect of Muslims took control of Spain, they demanded that the Jewish people convert or die. And Rambam's family actually hid out, as long as they could, where they were, until they couldn't bear the persecution any longer. So they moved to Fez, Morocco for just a brief period of time. Again, until persecution forced them out.
Moses eventually moved to Israel. He and his family were free there. But economic hardships forced them to move to Egypt. Rambam's family found some tolerance in Egypt, where a Jewish people were accepted. But this is interesting, if somebody had converted to Islam, but then returned to their original faith, then they could face death. And Rambam could have done that. There's some question as to whether or not Rambam converted secretly to Islam, and then, back to Judaism in order to preserve his life. That would have caused him a lot of hardships in Egypt. He could have died. But it's a question about his life as Rambam, as the Rabbi. But Rambam fell on some hard times in Egypt, his father and his brother died leaving him to care for his family. He took up his practice of being a physician. And eventually, became the court physician of Sultan Saladin, one of the most famous Muslim military leaders. This helped him tremendously.
Now, Maimonides is famously known in Judaism for his 13 principles of faith, a summary of Judaism's required beliefs. No rabbi before him took on the endless corpus of Rabbinical law and Biblical law and summarized it into easy principles to read. It's a doctrinal statement that he made. I'll end with this, one of my favorite Rambam principles, really there's three, are this. The sixth one, the belief that God communicates with man through prophecy. The 12th one that he wrote, the belief and the arrival of the Messiah and the Messianic era. And finally, the 13th principle that Rambam wrote was the belief in the resurrection of the dead. Maimonides, the Sephardic Rabbi, valued what the Hebrew Bible taught about prophecy. He didn't believe that Jesus was the Messiah. But he did believe in a coming Messiah, and he valued the future resurrection. Maimonides died in Egypt on December 12th, 1204. His body was taken to Lower Galilee and buried in a very holy city to the Jewish people in Israel, during his lifetime, the city of Tiberias.
Now, as we close, I find this most interesting, I've sat down with Ashkenazi Jewish friends of mine, and they tell me, "Chris, the Sephardics speak Hebrew different than us. They say it all wrong." And then, I go and I meet with my Sephardic Jewish friends, who tell me, "Oh, Ashkenazis, they speak Hebrew wrong and they pray wrong. They pray in the wrong order, they pray the wrong prayer." And so, it's only proper to introduce you to another Jewish subculture that we're going to talk about next week, the Mizrahi Jews. So come back next week to learn all about them.
Steve Conover: Now, Apples of Gold, a dramatic reading from the life and ministry of Holocaust survivor, Zvi Kalisher.
Mike Kellogg: Recently on the bus, I met a rabbi who knows I believe in Jesus. I greeted him, "Shalom, Rabbi. How are you feeling?" He did not answer, but stared at me for a long time. Then he asked, "Is that your business?" I quickly said, "I'm sorry if I offended you." He said, "I do not want to talk to an apostate like you." I replied, "I am a Jew who believes in the living God and all He has done for us." "What has He done for us?" he asked. I answered, "He gave His son to be crucified. He taught us to love and forgive our enemies. Even you, I can consider to be my friend." "No, no, no," he said, "Many like you have said that to me. And now, they come to my home as friends. And do they believe the same as you?" I replied, "Come to my home and ask them." He then warned, "I will come to your home soon, but be ready for trouble if I learn they believe because of you."
Others on the bus were quietly listening. They were surprised when the Rabbi asked, "Where does the Bible speak about the Lord?" I was happy to show him. Then he said, "I am sorry. I do not have with me my books." I replied, "All other books have no value, except the book which has been inspired by the Holy Spirit." All this, the Rabbi said to those listening, "Aha, you see, he is against all of our great books." I said, "True wisdom comes from God, but you spend all your time studying superstitions. You try to make a point through hatred and force." "Only the use of power and force can stop apostates like you." Then someone on the bus said, "You are wrong, Rabbi. You cannot be a good representative of our people when you cannot even answer questions in your own profession, as we have just seen." Many on the bus, agreed. The rabbi replied, "I can see this apostate has greatly influenced you. This, I call danger." From the other side of the bus, someone said, "Rabbi, can we go against the Torah?" "No, of course not," he replied. The other man continued, "Then there is no danger, because what this man is saying is in the Torah." I did not feel alone anymore. There were many who had received the truth about the Lord. And they asked for my address and received it without fear.
Then the rabbi said, "Now, I know where you live, and I even know your telephone number." "Oh, you're welcome to visit or call anytime," I told him. The next day he came to my home. I showed him what it means to be a Jew, who has received His savior. He said, "If I hate someone, I will never open my door to him." I said, "The Lord has told us to pray for those who hate us and to open our homes to them." The Rabbi replied, "We are friends. I do not hate you anymore. Please pray that the Lord would truly open this Rabbi's eyes and show him the way to salvation and peace through our Savior."
Steve Conover: Thank you so much for being with us today. We hope you've enjoyed the second part in the series, as we explore the differences between the Jewish backgrounds and cultures.
Chris Katulka: Next week, Steve, we're going to be looking at another group of Jewish people called the Mizrahi Jews. These are Jews that come from the Arab lands. This title actually is one that was created because there were so many Arab Jews coming into the land of Israel. So it's a title that comes from the modern state of Israel, to define who these Jewish people are. I think it's going to be a great episode.
Steve Conover: Our host and teacher is Chris Katulka. Today's program was produced by Tom Gallione. Our theme music was composed and performed by Jeremy Strong. Mike Kellogg read Apples of Gold. And I'm Steve Conover, Executive Producer.
Our mailing address is FOI Radio, PO Box 914, Bellmawr, New Jersey, 08099. Again, that's FOI Radio, PO Box 914, Bellmawr, New Jersey 08099. And one last quick reminder to visit us at foiradio.org.
The Friends of Israel Today is a production of The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry. We are a worldwide evangelical ministry proclaiming biblical truth about Israel and the Messiah, while bringing physical and spiritual comfort to the Jewish people.
Jewish Culture and Customs
By Steve Herzig
You may love the Jewish people, but what do you know about their culture? Do you know about their symbolic customs that date back thousands of years and the special meaning they hold?
Enjoy a front-row seat to the colorful traditions and lifestyles of the Jewish people with Jewish Culture and Customs! Order your copy of Steve Herzig’s personal and entertaining book today!
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Apples of Gold: True Wisdom Comes From God
As Zvi was riding the bus one day, he saw a local rabbi and greeted him. The rabbi glared at him and did not respond. Zvi was kind to him and even invited him to his home, though the rabbi called him an apostate. When the rabbi confronted him about believing in Jesus the Messiah, Zvi gently took verses from the Bible and showed him and others on the bus why he believed it to be true. What happened next surprised the rabbi and changed his attitude.
Zvi’s unique story is available in Elwood McQuaid’s biography, “Zvi: The Miraculous Story of Triumph over the Holocaust,” available in our online store.
A compilation of Zvi’s stories are also available in the book, “The Best of Zvi,” available in our online store.
The Friends of Israel Today and Apples of Gold theme music was composed and performed by Jeremy Strong.
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