and Culture of the Sephardim
The Language and History of the Sephardic Jews
Dr. Henry I. Nahoum and Bonita Nahoum Jaros
©1999 All rights reserved worldwide. No reproduction
without written consent.
sometimes influence the evolution and development of a language
so that the end product is vastly different from what it would have
been under normal evolving circumstances. Ladino, the language of
the Spanish Jews, emerged from the chaos that followed the Alhambra
Decree, which expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492. Ladino then
evolved in an Ottoman cocoon.
order to understand folklore and the language of the Spanish Jews,
AKA "Sephardim," it is necessary to know their history:
who were they, where did they come from, and where did they go?
These questions have a common base. In one word: "Diaspora."
Diaspora means the dispersion of any originally homogeneous people.
In its narrowest sense, it means the dispersion of the Jews amongst
The term "Sepharad" comes from the prophet Obadiah, who
had spoken of "the captivity of Jerusalem that is in Sepharad."
Spanish Jewry applied this verse to itself since they had a tradition
known as "Sephardim" or "Sepharadim."
Referred to as the "Babylonian Exile," the first Diaspora
resulted after the destruction of King Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem
in 586 B.C.E. by Nebuchadnezzar (605-538 B.C.E.) Although most of
the Jews were dispersed around the Middle East, some wandered over
North Africa and Southern Europe. Then Cyrus of Persia liberated
the Jews in 538 B.C.E.
It may be noted that the Phoenicians, a maritime people who came
out of what is now Syria and Lebanon, founded Carthage (Near Tunis)
in 815 B.C.E. There were some dispersed Jews who sailed with them.
In 200 B.C.E., the Carthaginian General, Hannibal, invaded the Iberian
Peninsula. At this time, Jews began to seed the Iberian Peninsula.
It was not until 400 years later (200 B.C.E.), that the Romans defeated
Carthage. This means that the Jews were in Iberia before the Romans.
The second Diaspora occurred with the destruction of the rebuilt
Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D. Once again, the Jews dispersed around
the Middle East, North Africa and Southern Europe. Many went to
the Iberian Peninsula to join colonies of their co-religionists
in Portugal and Spain. Simultaneously, however, some Jews established
communities in Greece, Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, Persia, Syria, Iraq,
Central Europe and England.
People change throughout the millennia. The ancient Greeks bear
little resemblance to modern Greeks. The Italian in Rome are not
the Romans of Caesar's time, not are the Nubians of Pharaoh's time
the Egyptians of today. However, the Jews of Iberia were a distinct
entity. They lived amongst successive conquerors: the Romans, the
Visigoths, the Moors, the Portuguese and the Spaniards. As a result,
it is important to note that the Jews were in the Iberian Peninsula
for more than 1500 years, longer than any conqueror.
The Jews served as a buffer between warring nations and lived in
harmony with all conquerors except the Christians. Nevertheless,
they flourished and became important artisans, business people,
physicians, scientists, theologians and very influential government
bureaucrats. During Spain's Golden Age, many Jews were included
in the aristocracy.
As a rule, the Jews did not fare well in any established Christian
Kingdom. The Jews were driven out of England in 1290 and from France
in 1306 and 1394. How then did they survive in Spain? Spain was
not a unified country and was in constant flux. It was not until
900 that the Spaniards started to drive the Moors out of Iberia.
When the Jews were attacked in one city, if they were not killed,
they moved to another area. Additionally many Jews converted to
Catholicism rather than be persecuted.
the Spaniards were consolidating their territories, they tolerated
the Jews as an undesirable minority. It was not until 1492, when
Ferdinand and Isabella defeated the Moors and consolidated their
kingdoms, that the Spanish Inquisition, which had begun much earlier,
entered a ferocious period. On March 30, 1492, King Ferdinand of
Spain signed the Alhambra Decree, which ordered the forced conversion
or expulsion of all Jews from the kingdom within four months. This
was the third and most infamous Diaspora. Like its two predecessors,
according to the Hebrew calendar, it ironically took effect on the
9th of Av. It is not known if Ferdinand knew the significance of
that date, but he might have since his closest advisors and bankers
were Jews, and he himself had a Jewish lineage.
There were approximately 150,000-300,000 Jews who chose exile instead
of conversion. They were deprived of their material wealth; however,
they were able to take their culture and their language to the counties
where they found refuge. We will concentrate on their language,
which is called "Ladino, Spaniolit, Muestra Lingua, or Djudesmo."
What is it? Who speaks it? And what is its future? For our purpose
here, we will refer to the language as "Ladino."
We tend to divide Jews into two main groups: the Ashkenazim and
the Sephardim. The Hebrew word Ashkenaz refers to Germany, and word
Sefarad refers to Iberia. Hence, the Jews of Central Europe are
known as Ashkenazim, and the remaining Jews are called Sephardim.
This is a simplistic classification because Yemenites, Kurdistani,
Ethiopian, Bukharan and other Middle Eastern Jews do not fit into
either category and are included in with the Sephardic Jews. The
reason for this is that their Hebrew pronunciation and liturgical
services are similar to that of the Spanish Jews. Today in Israel,
the term Edot Hamisrach is used to denote the "Communities
of the East" for those Oriental Jews who never set foot in
This separation is not done in order to rank Jews according to religious
fervor, wealth, education or social standing, but according to geography.
Geographic location helps us to understand differences in culture,
religious rituals, and the different Jewish languages that are spoken.
For example, the Spanish Jews had privileges that were denied their
co-religionists in Central and Eastern Europe. They were able to
achieve a higher culture than the repressed Jew who lived in a ghetto
and was in constant fear of attack.
There were many outstanding Jews of Spain's Golden Age who contributed
to Spain's glory. Moses Maimonides was an outstanding philosopher,
scientist, physician and interpreter of the Talmud. Beautiful poetry
by Yehuda Halevi, Solomon Ibn Ezra was added to Jewish prayers.
The Kaballah, or Jewish mysticism, took root in Spain. The most
important work, "the Zohar," was written by Moses de Leon.
Jewish architecture was expressed by the many beautiful synagogues
that were built in Spain. Finally, the Shulkhan Arukh, the
code of Jewish Law, was written, soon after the expulsion, by Joseph
Karo, a Sephardic Rabbi.
It is not known if Christopher Columbus had a Spanish Jewish Lineage.
What is known is that Jews financed him and Jewish cartographers
drew the maps that he used for his voyage to the New World. The
Astrolabe, without which he could not navigate, was invented by
the Spanish Jew named Abraham Zacuto. A good portion of his crew
was also Jewish.
All of the above achievements were written in either the Judeo-Spanish
dialect of the day or Hebrew and were later translated to other
languages. So what was this dialect, which later evolved to a language
and became known as Ladino?
In the Diaspora, Ladino became a language. It currently meets all
the linguistic criteria of a language, not a dialect, but it also
has one additional feature that is enormously valuable. It is a
fossilized Jewish language, and it reflects Medieval Spanish as
spoken 1000 years ago. For example, Spaniards read Don Quixote
de la Mancha in Castillian Spanish, without realizing that what
they read is a modernization from the Medieval Spanish in which
it was originally written. Even the alphabet is different. An educated
native speaker of Ladino can read Don Quixote in its original
form and understand it! It is logical to ask: Why did this language
fossilize and why hasn't it changed as Castillian has?
the Jews were driven out of Spain, some went north to Holland and
England, where they were assimilated into the existing Jewish communities
and cultures. They established new communities in Amsterdam and
later in the New World. Some went south to Morocco and parts of
North Africa, where they eventually melded into Arabic culture.
The rest went eastward onto the Ottoman Empire.
The Turkish Sultans Mehmet ll. (1451-1481) And his successor Bayazid
ll. (1481-1512) accepted the Jews with open arms. As a result, the
Jews settled in the Balkans and the Levant and established major
communities in Sarajevo, Salonika, Istanbul, Allepo, Alexandria,
and in parts of Iraq and Italy. In some instances, the Spanish Jews
were more numerous and better educated than the Jews, who were already
there, so they assimilated the natives.
There were two things required of the Jews in return for the Sultan's
protection: the Sultan expected them to pay taxes, and since they
were not Moslem, they could not become citizens or serve in the
military. As a result, the Jews quickly set up their own communities
apart from the mainstream. This meant their own schools, medical
facilities, courts of law, and houses of worship. They were not
required to speak Turkish, so they spoke Ladino at home, at work,
in schools, and in the coffeehouses. Only businessmen who went outside
of the community spoke Greek or Turkish. Eventually schools were
established by L'Alliance Francaise Israelite Universelle. They
now leaned French. Through contact with these other languages, the
Judeo-Spanish speakers gradually borrowed words from them. The Castillian
portion of the language, which was the grammatical structure (i.e.,
morphology and syntax) and a great majority of the lexical structure,
remained static due to lack of contact with the motherland. Thus,
while Castillian was evolving in one direction in Spain, Ladino
was a grammatically fossilized Jewish/Romance language borrowing
words from Greek, Turkish and French, and evolving in another direction.
In addition, on the Peninsula, the Jews had always written Ladino
with Hebrew characters, called Rashi script, and they added Hebrew
words as needed culturally. This is why Ladino was a dialect even
when the Jews were in Iberia. Rashi script varied from Biblical
Hebrew, and since Hebrew does not contain certain sounds that are
found in Castillian, it was necessary to add some letters and further
modify others. It is called Rashi script because Rashi's commentaries
of Talmud were written in the 11th century in Ladino in this script.
Ladino, then, is Spanish that was spoken by the Jews prior to the
expulsion. Of necessity, it contains Hebrew words and expressions,
just as Yiddish (the language of the Ashkenazim) does, and a wide
range of borrowed words from other languages. Sometimes the people
who speak these languages are not aware of the Hebrew origin of
their words, and speakers of Ladino often don't think about the
origin of the Greek, Turkish, or French words. In addition, since
Ladino is an ancient language, it has many archaic Castillian workdwords,
which are no longer used in Spain, or words which are used but have
changed meaning. Surprisingly, some variants of these archaic words
are found in other Romance languages such as French, Italian and
then does 20th century Ladino look and sound like? And what does
the future hold for this language? It sounds like it did in Medieval
Iberia, with the softness of Portuguese and influence from Turkish
and Greek. It looks like an archaic Romance language with heavy
peppering from Greek, Turkish and French. It also looks like a Jewish
language because of borrowing form Hebrew and the Rashi script.
Now we can also observe that it has developed dialect variants of
its own due to the Diaspora after World War II. Ladino in the United
States has English borrowings, and dialects of all the remaining
communities of the world have assimilated scientific and technological
terminology, such as words for airplane, telephone, and computer.
In its written form, it may be seen in either the Roman alphabet
or in Rashi Script.
There are very few Spanish Jews left and fewer still that speak
Ladino. In the 13th century 80% of the Jews in the Diaspora spoke
Ladino. At the beginning of the 20th century, 80% of the Jews in
the Diaspora spoke Yiddish. This startling reversal was a sequel
of the expulsion from Spain. In addition, the Nazi Holocaust annihilated
90% of the Spanish Jews in Europe. Of the survivors, most went to
Israel. There are 250,000 Spanish Jews in the United States, most
from before the war, and they are being assimilated rapidly. There
does not seem to be any pressing need to learn Ladino, and if it
is lost, an important part of our Jewish culture will disappear.
Yeshiva University in New York has established an Institute of Sephardic
Studies and is attempting to retain as much of this civilization
as possible. In addition, Sephardic House, under the guidance of
Rabbi Marc Angel, maintains a large roster of events and publications.
Nevertheless, without a native literature, daily newspapers and
radio broadcasts, the task of language maintenance is relegated
to a few linguists, musicians, scholars and devotees who feel the
pressing need to not let this language be lost. Language reflects
culturea long glorious culture. In order to preserve Ladino,
it is incumbent on the community of professionals who study linguistics,
anthropology and sociology to recognize that this is a segment of
our culture that should be preserved and to act as though it is
an endangered specie.
D. Voices in Exil
House, Inc. 1991
Language Attitudes: An Ethnolinguistic Profile of Judeo-Spanish.
From Generation to Generation