Language 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.

Unusual circumstances 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.

In 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 Gentiles.

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.

While 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 Spain.

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?

When 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 workd——words, 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 Portuguese.

What 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 culture—a 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.


Angel, Marc D. Voices in Exil
Hoboken, N.J.:
KTAV Publishing House, Inc. 1991

Jaros, Bonita Nahoum.
Language Attitudes: An Ethnolinguistic Profile of Judeo-Spanish.
Thesis, 1989


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