Jewish History

Incorporate the history of Sephardi and Mizrahi communities into your world history and Jewish history curricula, emphasizing the connections between events in Sephardi and Mizrahi communities and global contexts.
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Jewish History

Incorporate the history of Sephardi and Mizrahi communities into your world history and Jewish history curricula, emphasizing the connections between events in Sephardi and Mizrahi communities and global contexts.
The Rise of Islam (622-949)

The rise of Islam during the 7th century significantly impacted the cultural and religious landscape of Jews throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and the Iberian Peninsula. Under Islamic rule, Jews were granted certain levels of tolerance, contributing to a rich fusion of traditions and intellectual exchange in fields like science and philosophy, and developing a unique synthesis of Jewish, Islamic, and Greek influences that shaped the cultural and intellectual understanding of Jewish communities around the world. While Jewish communities in the Islamic world experienced periods of relative tolerance, at other times, they faced discriminatory policies, economic restrictions, forced conversions, pogroms and expulsions.

Expose students to some of the major historical events, personalities, and texts pertaining to Jewish communities during the rise of Islam (622 – 949).

  • Watch The Birth of Islam: Muhammad and the Jews (Unpacked) for information on the relationship between Mohammad and the Jewish communities of the Arabian Peninsula.
  • Dhimi laws established the basis of Jewish legal status under Muslim rule, which determined the rights and legal limitations of Jews in the Islamic world. (Katz Center, UPenn)
  • The Pact of Umar (ca. 9th century) further regulated and restricted the status of Jewish life under Islamic rule stretching from Libya to Afghanistan.

During the early Islamic period, Jewish communities continued to be led by rabbinic authorities and rulings, primarily those centered in Iraq and North Africa. Explore some of the historical figures that led and impacted Sephardi and Mizrahi communities during this era and beyond.

  • Rabbi Saadia al-Fayyumi Gaon (882/892 – 942) born in Faiyum, Egypt, served as head of the rabbinic academy in Pumbedita (Fallujah, Iraq). Saadia defended the classic rabbinic tradition against Karaite, Islamic, and Christian critiques, translated the Torah into Arabic, penned the first major Jewish philosophical work, "Emunot Ve-Deot," and developed one of the first compilations of the siddur. For more information, listen to a lecture on the life of Saadia Gaon (Yafe Beito).
  • Rav Sherira bar Hanina Gaon (906 – c. 1006) also served as the head of the rabbinic academy in Pumbedita (Fallujah, Iraq). Among his lasting works is the “Iggeret Rav Sherira'' in which he provided a history of the composition of the entire Talmud.
  • Rabbi Yitshak Alfasi (1013 - 1103) was born in Algeria, studied under both Rabbenu Nissim and Rabbenu Hananel, and later settled in Fez, Morocco. At 75, Alfasi fled to Lucena, Spain, becoming a prominent teacher and influencing subsequent Sephardi rabbis like Yosef ibn Migash and Yehuda Halevi. Alfasi served as a symbolic bridge, connecting the Geonic legacy in Iraq to the rise of rabbinic influence in North Africa and the subsequent dominance of the Sephardi community in Spain, marking a crucial transition in Jewish intellectual history. His teachings, shaping the evolving landscape of Jewish scholarship, are accessible to English readers at this link.
Ascendancy of the Sephardim in Al-Andalus (950-1492)

The flourishing Jewish communities in the Iberian Peninsula during the late 10th century left a lasting impact on Jewish culture, enduring even after their expulsion in 1492. Students interested in exploring this rich heritage can delve into important texts and historical figures whose influence persists in Jewish thought and practice today.

  • Abraham Ibn Daud’s Sefer HaKabbalah presents a significant legend regarding the origins of the Sephardi community in the Iberian Peninsula in the tale of "The Four Captives."
  • Hasadai Ibn Shapurt (915 – 970) played a crucial role in the cultural and intellectual flourishing of Jewish life in Islamic Spain. Serving as a physician and minister to Caliph Abd-ar-Rahman III, Ibn Shaprut's patronage and support for Andalusian rabbinic scholars marked a significant shift in the stature of the community. His influence contributed to the elevation of Spain as a center of religious jurisprudence, where Jewish scholars made significant contributions to philosophy, science, mysticism and linguistics.
  • Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, known as Maimonides or HaRambam (1138 – 1204), was perhaps the most influential Sephardi leader in Jewish history. Born in Cordoba, Spain, he was later compelled to exile in Cairo, Egypt. Maimonides left an enduring legacy through his vast contributions to Jewish thought, including his Commentary on the Mishna written in Judeo-Arabic, the comprehensive legal codification in his Mishne Torah, and his philosophical masterpiece, The Guide for the Perplexed. Introduce students to some of Maimonides’ historical correspondence which provide insights into the intellectual, spiritual, and practical aspects of medieval Jewish life.
    • Maimonides' "Iggeret HaShmad," (Letter on Apostasy), remains a significant historical document reflecting the challenges faced by Jews compelled to convert to Islam. This letter was written to offer comfort and guidance to those who wished to maintain their Jewish identity.
    • Maimonides' “Iggeret Teiman” (Epistle to Yemen) addressed the challenges faced by the Jewish community in Yemen, including the emergence of messianic movements and religious persecution.
  • Philosophical studies in Jewish education became a primary concern among Sephardi communities during the Middle Ages. Inter-Jewish disputes emerged, which culminated in bans on the study of certain philosophical works. These restrictions highlight the ongoing challenges in reconciling diverse intellectual traditions within Jewish scholarship.
  • The Disputation at Barcelona in 1263, between Pablo Christiani and Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman (Nahmanides), marks a critical point in the religious polemics and disputations that significantly impacted Sephardi communities in Christian Spain. Nahmanides' defense of Judaism against Christian theological arguments was even dramatized in this TV movie.
  • The Disputations in Tortosa unfolded in 1413–1414 in an attempt to convert Jews to Christianity. Prominent rabbis, including Yosef Albo and Profiat Duran, engaged in debates with Christian theologians. Studying these historical confrontations provides insights into the dynamics of religious discourse and the resilience of Jewish leaders in the face of theological attacks.
  • The Expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, initiated by the Alhambra Decree, marked a pivotal and tragic event in Jewish history. This decree, issued by King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella, offered Jews the choice of converting to Christianity or being expelled from the Spanish kingdoms. The treatment of Sephardim and their property during this period can be explored through historical documents such as this original letter.
  • Encyclopedia Britannica's timeline of the Spanish Inquisition provides a valuable resource for understanding the tragic events surrounding the expulsion from Spain and the broader impact on Jewish communities during the Spanish Inquisition.
Post-Expulsion, the New World, and a return to Zion (1493-1799)

The expulsion of the Sephardic Jews from Spain in 1492 had a profound impact as they dispersed throughout the Mediterranean and beyond, bringing their rich cultural, intellectual, and economic contributions to Italy, North Africa, the Middle East, the Americas, and the Balkans. For further information about Sephardic migration patterns around the turn of the 16th century, watch The 1492 Expulsion and the Creation of Virtual Sepharad (The Habura).

Here's an overview of the impact of the Sephardim in different areas:

  • The Portuguese Inquisition, established in 1536 by King John III and the Catholic Church, targeted Sephardim who escaped persecution during the Spanish Inquisition. Many of these people became known as “anusim,” Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity but secretly maintained their Jewish practices. For a detailed overview of the impact of these experiences, read Jews, Conversos, and Native Americans: The Iberian Experience.
  • In Morocco, the arrival of Sephardim resulted in the establishment of new communities alongside those that had existed for centuries prior. Throughout the following centuries, Moroccan Jewish communities were composed of both Sephardim and native Moroccan Jews, which coexisted and influenced each other's cultural, religious, and communal practices. For an overview of Jewish life in this part of North Africa, watch Dr. Eliezer Papo’s lecture on the History of Morocco.
  • The majority of Sephardim fled to the Balkans, which emerged as a significant haven of Jewish life. These refugees, now living under the protection of the Ottoman Empire, lived in a relatively tolerant environment for Jews. Sephardic communities began to thrive in major cities such as Salonica, Sarajevo, Izmir, and Istanbul, which became centers of Jewish learning and Ladino literature. View Unpacked’s recent video The Rise and Fall of Jews in the Ottoman Empire and learn more from Dr. Eliezer Papo’s short video The Jews in the Balkans (Centropa). For further information check out Urban Sephardic Culture in the Ottoman Empire (Tablet).
  • Jews fleeing persecution in Spain and Portugal sought refuge in the Land of Israel, establishing communities in Safed, Tiberias, Gaza, and Jerusalem. Among the historical figures associated with these settlements were renowned rabbis such as Yoseph Karo, Yisrael Najarah, Moshe Alshik and Shelomo Alkabetz.
  • Dona Gracia Mendes, also known as Beatrice de Luna Mendes (1510–1569), born into a Sephardic family in Portugal, was a notable businesswoman and philanthropist. Forced to escape persecution, she lived in Belgium, Italy, and Istanbul. Among her significant contributions was the establishment of the Jewish community in Tiberias. Gain further insights by listening to a lecture on her remarkable life, available at this link.
  • Sephardic communities, particularly those originating from Amsterdam, were established in the Americas following the expulsions from Spain, Portugal, and Italy. Sephardim sought refuge and opportunities in the New World, playing a significant role in shaping the early Jewish communities in the Americas. Their cultural, economic, and intellectual contributions have left a lasting impact on the development of Jewish life in the Western Hemisphere. For a comprehensive overview of the rich heritage and intellectual endeavors of these Sephardic communities, explore the "Reflections on the Western Sephardic Tradition of Amsterdam."

 

Below are several examples of communities and synagogues established by Sephardim in the Americas:

  • Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue was established by Sephardim in Recife, Brazil, in 1636. This community comprised approximately 1,450 Sephardic Jews and was led by Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca.
  • Congregation Shearith Israel in New York was established by Sephardim from Dutch Brazil in 1654 and played a crucial role in shaping the early Jewish community in North America. It is currently the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States.
  • Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia was founded by Sephardic Jews in 1740. This congregation has a rich history and has been an integral part of the Jewish community in Philadelphia.
  • Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island (1763) was built by Sephardim in 1763 and remains the oldest surviving synagogue building in the United States. It is a historic landmark, symbolizing the early contributions of Sephardic Jews to the religious diversity of the American colonies.
  • George Washington's 1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, is a pivotal historical document highlighting the principles of religious freedom and tolerance in the early United States. Addressing the Touro Synagogue, Washington asserts a commitment to religious liberty, declaring that the new government would give "to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."
The 19th Century:
Independence, Colonialism, Emancipation and Political Antisemitism (1800- 1900)

During the 19th century, Jews achieved emancipation in various countries, including being granted citizenship during the Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire. Similarly, with the French conquest of Algeria, Jews were extended French citizenship.

  • The Hatt-i-Sherif and the Hatt-i-Humayun, introduced between 1839 and 1856, were two important decrees that began to grant civil rights to minorities in the Ottoman Empire, including its Jewish subjects.
  • The Crémieux Decree, issued in 1870, played a pivotal role in granting French citizenship to Algerian Jews, impacting the legal status and rights of Algerian Jews within the French colonial context.

 

During the 1830s, while legal restrictions were being lifted in some Jewish communities, Sephardic Jews continued to face persecution and antisemitism. In the Land of Israel, Jewish communities endured attacks from Muslims and Druze, particularly in Safed, Jerusalem, and Hebron. Additionally, the Galilee earthquake of 1837 further compounded the hardships for Jewish communities in Safed and Tiberias, underscoring the vulnerability of the Jewish population during this tumultuous period.

Blood libels were maliciously launched against Sephardim, falsely accusing Jews of murdering Christians for ritualistic purposes, contributing to prejudice, persecution, and violence. These false allegations resulted in significant hardships for Jewish populations in the region. For a deeper understanding, students can explore the history of The Rhodes Blood Libel of 1840 and a parallel case in Syria, known as The Damascus Affair of 1840.

In Tunisia, the execution of Samuel "Batto" Sfez served as a test of the "colonial protection power" granted to Jews, revealing complexities and limitations under colonial rule. This incident exposed intricate power dynamics and authority challenges within Tunisia. This international diplomatic incident led Muhammad Bey to grant equal rights to all citizens, including Jews, through the enactment of The Fundamental Pact.

Learn more about the Sephardi and Mizrahi rabbis and their leadership of Jewish communities during the 19th century:

  • Rabbi Hayyim Abraham Gagin (1787 – 1848) was appointed to the position of “Rishon LeZion,” Chief Rabbi of the Jews of the Land of Israel, by the Ottoman Sultan from 1842 until his passing.
  • Rabbi Hayyim Palache (1788 – 1868) assumed the position of Hakham Bashi (Chief Rabbi) in Izmir in 1857, appointed by Sultan Abdülmecid I during the Tanzimat period. Notable for his writings in Hebrew and Ladino, Palache also dedicated himself to supporting and safeguarding Jewish communities in need.
  • Rabbi Yisrael Moshe Hazan (1808 – 1862) was born in Izmir, Turkey and studied in Jerusalem, Israel. He served as a chief rabbi to Sephardic communities in Rome, Italy; Corfu, Greece; Alexandria, Egypt and Beirut, Lebanon.
  • Rabbi Hayyim Habshush (1833 – 1899) of Sana, Yemen was a coppersmith, a historiographer of Yemenite Jewry, and one of the principal leaders of the Dor Deah movement.

For more information, read Sephardim in the Nineteenth Century - New Directions and Old Values.

The 20th Century: Levantine Sephardim arrive in the U.S. and Pogroms in Muslim countries (1901-1950)

The migration patterns of Sephardi and Mizrahi communities were significantly shaped by historical factors such as the Tanzimat reforms, military conscription, the rise of Zionism and Arab nationalist movements, the First World War, and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, all of which collectively influenced the social, political, and economic conditions for these Jewish communities in the Ottoman Empire and the broader Middle East.

  • A significant wave of Sephardic migration to the U.S. occurred, with Jews from the Ottoman Empire establishing communities in cities such as New York, Seattle, Portland, and Los Angeles.

At the turn of the 20th century, many Ladino-speaking Jews arrived at Ellis Island, unfamiliar with their new surroundings and culture. To help his co-religionists adapt to the new country and language, journalist Moise Gadol wrote a Guidebook for Sephardic Immigrants.

Learn about the establishment of Sephardi and Mizrahi communities at the turn of the 20th century:

 

During the early 20th century, many Sephardi and Mizrahi communities experienced a rise in antisemitism:

  • The 1910 Shiraz blood libel instigated a pogrom in the Jewish quarter of Shiraz, Iran, fueled by false accusations of the ritual killing of a Muslim girl by Jews. The violent episode resulted in the deaths of 12 Jews, injuries to around 50 individuals, and the looting of all possessions from the 6,000-strong Jewish community in Shiraz.
  • Jews in Yemen faced continued discriminatory policies, which might have encouraged more than 1,500 Jews to flee to Israel in 1911. The reintroduction of the Orphans Decree in 1918 mandated the forced conversion of Jewish children under 12 to Islam. In 1923, the Jewish community in Al Hudaydah experienced the abduction of 42 orphaned children, followed by the Yemeni king's restriction on Jewish immigration to Israel the following year.
  • The 1934 Constantine pogrom in Algeria lasted 3 days and claimed the lives of 25 Jews, injured around 200 individuals, and saw the destruction and pillaging of Jewish establishments, businesses, and homes.
  • The Thrace pogroms, known in Ladino as La Furtuna, "The Storm," took place in June and July of 1934 throughout Tekirdag, Edirne, Kırklareli, and Çanakkale, and led to the forced displacement of over 15,000 Jewish citizens of Turkey.
  • The Massacre in Tiberias during 1938 led to the murder of 11 Jewish children and 8 adults, including the city’s mayor, Zaki Alhadeff. The fatalities, along with the burning of Jewish homes and the local synagogue, highlighted the constraints of local defensive measures during British Rule in Mandate Palestine.
  • The Farhud in Iraq, translating to "violent dispossession" in Arabic, unfolded as a result of a pro-Nazi movement brutally assaulting the Jewish community of Baghdad during Shavuot in 1941. Over the course of two days, approximately 179 Jews of all ages were killed.
  • The Tripoli Riots in Libya during 1945 marked the most violent attack against Jews in modern times in North Africa. The assailants murdered over 140 Jews, including 36 children, and injured many more. The violence resulted in the destruction of five synagogues and the plundering of over 1,000 Jewish homes and businesses, leaving approximately 4,000 Jews homeless and 2,400 in poverty. A similar riot took place in Libya during 1948, in which 14 Jews were murdered, but this time the Jews defended themselves in Tripoli with grenades, pistols, and molotov cocktails, preventing dozens of other deaths.
  • The Balfour Day Riots in Egypt during 1945 claimed the lives of 5 Jews, with hundreds of people sustaining injuries in Cairo and Alexandria. Violence against Egyptian Jews continued in 1948 with bombings of Jewish areas, which killed 70 Jews and wounded nearly 200, while the following year a bombing in the Cairo Jewish quarter killed 34 and wounded 80.
  • The Aleppo Pogrom in Syria during 1947 resulted in the murder of approximately 75 Jews and the wounding of several hundred others. The rioters destroyed over 150 homes, 50 Jewish businesses, 5 schools, 18 synagogues, a youth club, and an orphanage. Two years later, a hand grenade attack at the Menarsha synagogue in Damascus, Syria claimed the lives of 12 Jews and injured approximately 30 others, primarily children.
  • The Aden Riots in Yemen occurred during December 1947, resulting in the deaths of 82 Jews and wounding 72. More than 100 Jewish shops were looted and 30 houses burned. Most of Yemen’s Jewish community fled to Israel after the riots.

Further information about Sephardi and Mizrahi participation in Zionism and building the State of Israel, see our Israel education page.

For details regarding the impact of the Shoah on Sephardi and Mizrahi communities, visit the page about the Holocaust.