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.

Ask The Rabbi: How are Sephardic rules for Passover different?


Regular reader and commenter temelevbarg wrote to ask, “Can you explain what is included in a Sephardic diet for Passover?”

Sephardic Judaism is the Jewish tradition handed down through the Jews of Sepharad, the Hebrew name for the Iberian peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal.) It includes specific interpretations of Jewish law, liturgical forms, and folk customs.   Other traditions of Judaism include the Ashkenazim (Jews from Eastern Europe) and the Mizrahi Jews (Jews of the Eastern Mediterranean.) While the majority of North American Jews today are descended from Ashkenazim and follow Ashkenazi customs, the first Jews to settle in North America were Sephardim.

For Passover, Sephardic Jews like all other Jews eliminate all chametz from their diets and their homes. This is based on Biblical commandments to observe Passover by refraining from eating or possessing chametz. (Exodus 12-13, Deuteronomy 16) Chametz is usually translated as “leavened bread.” The rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud later defined it more narrowly as any product of wheat, rye, barley, spelt or oats which might have become moistened. (The standard method of leavening in both the Biblical and talmudic periods involved the use of sourdough, wetting flour and allowing yeast from the air to grow in it.) The only bread allowed is kosher-for-Passover matzah, water and flour mixed and cooked so quickly that the leavening process has no chance to start.

Sephardic tradition differs from Ashkenazic tradition in that since the 13th century, some Ashkenazi authorities have prohibited the eating of kitniyot (rice, millet, and legumes) in addition to the prohibition of chametz.

Another difference is in the seder menu. Sephardic seder menus often include lamb, in memory of the original Passover sacrifice (pesach). Just as First and Second Temple era families roasted the lamb and ate it while telling the Exodus story to their children, Sephardic families eat lamb at the seder. By contrast, in Ashkenazi tradition one does not serve lamb at the seder out of an awareness that the Temple is no longer standing, so there can be no pesach sacrifice.

So when someone asks if you keep Passover by Ashkenazi or Sephardic rules, they are usually asking if you do or do not eat rice during Passover. It’s also possible that they are inquiring about the menu for seder.

Thanks for a great question! (For more depth on these matters, follow the links in this article.)

Image: “Question Box” by Raymond Bryson – http://www.flickr.com/photos/f-oxymoron/9647972522 Some rights reserved.

I say “Shabbat,” You say “Shabbos…” But Let’s Not Call Anything Off!

Yarmulkes or Kippot? (photo: David Berkowitz)
Yarmulkes or Kippot? (photo: David Berkowitz)

Have you ever wondered why so many Hebrew words are pronounced differently, and why so many Jewish things have two names?

One Jew wears a yarmulke, and another a kippah.    [Little hat.]

One keeps Shabbos, another keeps Shabbat.  [Sabbath]

One reads from the TOYrah, another reveres the ToRAH. [Torah]

One prays to AdonOI and the other to AdoNYE. [Adonai, substitute for the Name we don’t speak, sometimes pronounced HaSHEM.]

One goes to synagogue at Bays SHOlom, the other at Bayt ShaLOM. [name of a synagogue, meaning “House of Peace”]

One celebrates the Yuntiff, the other a Yom Tov. [holiday]

What’s a newcomer to do?

  • Get used to it.  Just as there are many answers to most questions, there is more than one way to say many words.
  • Know that most of these come from the two pronunciations of Hebrew.  The first word in each pair above is pronounced according to the Ashkenazi or Yiddish form from Eastern Europe.  (Yarmulke is actually a Yiddish word.) The second word is pronounced according to the Sephardic pronunciation, as Hebrew is pronounced on the street in Israel today. Both are correct.
  • While both are correct, it is a little mishuggeh [Yiddish for crazy] to mix the two (although trust me, you’ll hear it.  “Shabbat Shalom! Will you be in town for the Yuntiff?” is mixed-up but you might hear it at synagogue.  However, it is good manners and somewhat less mishuggeh to pick one language form and stick with it.
  • In general, in the US you will hear the Ashkenazi pronunciation from older Jews.  The Sephardic pronunciation has been on the rise in America since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.
  • For help with Jewish words new to you, check out the Jewish English Lexicon online.

Jewish culture and language are a rich amalgam of Torah plus three millennia of survival. Enjoy!