What do Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi mean?

Image: Four women complete the Sargeant-First-Class Course for the IDF Infantry Corps in 2007. We can’t tell whether they are Ashkenazi, Sephardic, or Mizrahi Jews by looking at them, but all are Jewish. Photo by the IDF, some rights reserved.

If you are around the Jewish world long enough, you’ll hear a mention of the terms “Ashkenazi” and “Sephardic.” Hang around a bit longer and if you are lucky you’ll hear the term “Mizrahi.” These are three different groups of Jewish traditions, each with their own ancient roots.

Mizrahi Jews – These are the oldest of the Diaspora communities of Judaism: Jews from the Levant (Eastern Mediterranean) North Africa and Central Asia. It includes Moroccan Jews, Iranian (Persian) Jews, Iraqi (Baghdadi) Jews, Egyptian Jews, Libyan Jews, Bukharan Jews, Yemenite Jews, Ethiopian Jews, Syrian Jews, Jews from Lebanon and Tunisia.

Most Mizrahi Jews no longer live in the lands that were their homes for centuries. Most now live either in Israel or in North America but many have retained their cultural heritage. One great source of information about the Jews of the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa is JIMENA, (“Jews of the Middle East and North Africa.”)

Sephardic Jews – These Jews are descendants of the Jews of the Iberian peninsula, present-day Spain and Portugal. In 1492 (Spain) and 1497 (Portugal) the monarchs of those countries offered a cruel choice: convert to Christianity, leave immediately and forever, or die. Thus began the Sephardic Diaspora, the scattering of these people across the globe from Amsterdam to Brazil, from Greece to India.

Because Arab countries were generally more hospitable than Christian nations at the time of the Dispersion, many of the Sephardim settled in cities with existing Mizrahi communities. In some of those locations, Sephardic liturgical customs became dominant. That is the reason that you will sometimes hear the two terms “Sephardic” and “Mizrahi” conflated, although that is not really quite accurate. Sephardic Judaism is not a monolith; it encompasses many different Jewish cultures and heritages, all going back to the flowering of culture known as Golden Age Spain.

Nowadays the thing that unites Sephardic Jews worldwide is their minhag, their customs regarding worship and details of Jewish Law.

Ashkenazi Jews – Ashkenazi Jews are the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. Unlike the other two groups, most of their history they lived in countries where Christianity was the dominant religion. They include the Jews of Poland and the Pale of Settlement as well as the Jews of Germany. The majority of Jews in Canada and the U.S. are of Ashkenazi descent; their ancestors arrived in the great immigration from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and very early 20th century. Many (but not all) of the founders of the State of Israel were from Ashkenazi families, which is why Ashkenazim have been dominant in Israeli politics.

In case you are wondering: converts to Judaism take on the traditions of the Jewish communities into which they convert. As with many other Jewish matters, these three are not so much a matter of DNA as of heritage and context.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

19 thoughts on “What do Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi mean?”

  1. There is also the case of “mixed” families, where the tradition wants you to take your father’s minhag. In my family, my mother was sefardic and my father, although not religious, was coming from a lineage of askhenaz, so I should follow the ashkenaz minhag. But only sefardic traditions were passed on to me: so what a girl to do? 🙂

    1. I’m a descendant of the Sephardic community and I know about my Spanish culture however I’m interested in learning more about my Jewish culture in general can you suggest a good source of knowledge I can begin with from Babylonian times til present

  2. Once upon a time “intermarriage” between the communities was very much frowned upon. But nowadays it is so common that no one even remarks on it. We are a yekkish (i.e. German) family, very Ashkenazi in traditions. Our daughter married a boy of Moroccan parentage – although he looks more Ashkenazi than she because of his fair skin and blue eyes! 🙂

    Our daughter has taken on his customs and I guess their children will be technically Mizrachi or Sephardi, but in reality just plain old Israeli Jews.

    In the end this blending of the communities is a good thing, reuniting the Jewish people under one banner again, as we were in the past.

    1. Sorry to confuse many here with the actual facts. In point of *fact*, we had been united under one single banner *before the Pharisees came along, invented the “oral” torah’s core and overtook the religious aspects of life in the public expanse in the latter half of the Second Temple era*.
      Therefore, no unification can ignore the valid points made by the Qaraite Jews and their likes about Rabbinic-Orthodox Halakha.

    2. Things were still complicated among Jews. . . I think our history books grossly simplifies the issue or ends up causing people to make assumptions. The nature of diaspora itself has been continunual movement.

      And yes, a great fault of it is we’re expected to fly under one banner.. it’s easier to dealing with non Jews when we get into these conversations as tensions and defensiveness tends to run so high. And in truth, because we know so little about one another.

      For those in western nations, I think the diasporic conflate it too much as being akin to the politics as they do in the separation of orthodox, conservative, reform, etc and gloss over, simplify our own familes’ histories… in which unless they connect to something like the holocaust, there’s an underlining pressure to remain silent.

      but I’ve also dealt with the ignorant that seemingly believe Jews only appeared after the holocaust and never existed before. Which sounds absurd but the history is downplayed too much or too generalized… there’s countless ‘Jewish’ towns but we rarely hear of those outside of the U.S. – of course, truth is many of the smaller Jewish towns go crypto and get called german or polish towns instead. Odd there isn’t as many lativian or lithuanian, given the sheer numbers that were moved out that way.. but then they’re more apt to say they were german or polish than latvian even if their families stayed out there for several generations.

      My family, we would be considered mizrahi but you’ll find most mizrahi don’t make as big of a deal of it as ashkenazi and sephardic do. It’s not uncommon for mezrahi to favor ashkenazi or sephardic rites, namely as grouping all us under mizrahi is an imperfect fit there too most separation between say a Jew with Iranian roots and one with Afghani than there would say between a brazillian Jew and one from modern portugal. Although, similar to the u.s. it does matter as to when their family emigrated to start the guessing game of ethnic, culture, religious, food differences.. and other factors come into play as well. But the realities that in most nations where Jews are present we have the choice between mainstream services with either ashkenazi or sephardic rites as again, services for mizrahi would be a misonmer and wouldn’t represent the greater whole as it really comes down to an even greater regional variance — although historically, many do tend to be closer to sephardic in services although we see a bit more overlap with others when it comes style – there’s a few mountain folk that the style of dress was unlike anything in the geographical region, the only comparative is that of russian jews… which with the russians it makes sense, it snows, gotta wonder how they got from point b to point c. and if that was a tradition, a style of dress common with both having roots in point a or did b and c connect at some other point of time that doesn’t appear to be illustrated or referenced anywhere. .

      and then the realities that unlike ashkenazi and sephardic there is not as much generalities to be compared between mizrahi as depending where our families – I don’t know if my family truly came from Judea or converted.. we can trace the family line back only about eight hundred years.

      Of course, the greater humor is that they did spend several centuries in a location that many blanketly assume is ashkenazi however the region in question had been in the hands of several faraway nations, which led to a local diversification… it’s been friendly and unfriendly to diffeent dialects at different times.

      I’m rambling here, reading up on the ‘social’ politics aka the different factions during the brief Jewish enlightenment period… it also likely explains why there’s such an innate hatred of Poland (which isn’t all modern politics. surely, rooted in dumb pollack jokes… whereas my fam having left before main event, developped a prejudice of lubavitch which took many years to recover from and fascination with breslov, though largely, I’d say they would have been recognized as being closer to sephardic and the inherent culture, attitude but with a preference for ashkenazi food with the smashing good looks that’s sets off TSA with having roots closer to the cradle. still, at some point they had to have intermingled with ashkenazi, or there was amish in the family some time back as some of us are carriers for conditions you don’t normally find outside of ashkenazi or pennsylvanian dutch families.)

  3. Ruth Adar, you described this subject quite well, except for two mistakes: (a.) the Ethiopian Jews (Beta Yisra’el) are an entirely separate diaspora or community from the Mizraḥi communities; some of them still desparately cling to their old unique practices and customs, many of which radically differ from Rabbinic Judaism. Historically, until coerced by the Rabbinical establishment to embrace Orthodoxy, they were 3/4 Scriptural, akin in many aspects to the Qaraite Jews.
    (b.) While the Yemeni Jews are Mizraḥi in the broadest sense, they, too, constitute a unique community that has its own liturgy/ies and customs that are distinct from the Mizraḥim.

  4. What about the Italian Jews
    Is it true that the Roman Jews trace their origin as slaves brought to Rome

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