Sephardi Jews

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Among the Sephardim were many who were the descendants, or heads, of wealthy families and who, as Marranos, had occupied prominent positions in the countries they had left. Some had been state officials, others had held positions of dignity within the Church; many had been the heads of large banking-houses and mercantile establishments, and some were physicians or scholars who had officiated as teachers in high schools. Their Spanish or Portuguese was a lingua franca that enabled Sephardim from different countries to engage in commerce and diplomacy.

With their social equals they associated freely, without regard to religion and more likely with regard to equivalent or comparative education, for they were generally well read which became a tradition and expectation. They were received at the courts of sultans, kings, and princes, and often were employed as ambassadors, envoys, or agents. The number of Sephardim who have rendered important services to different countries is considerable, from Samuel Abravanel (or "Abrabanel" — financial councilor to the viceroy of Naples) to Benjamin Disraeli. Among other names mentioned are those of Belmonte, Nasi, Francisco Pacheco, Pedro de Herrera, Palache, Pimentel, Azevedo, Sasportas, Salvador, Costa, Curiel, Cansino, Schonenberg, Toledo, Toledano, Pereira and Teixeira.

The Sephardim have distinguished themselves as physicians and statesmen, and have won the favor of rulers and princes, in both the Christian and the Islamic world. That the Sephardim were selected for prominent positions in every country in which they settled was only in part due to the fact that Spanish had become a world-language through the expansion of Spain into the world spanning Spanish Empire—the cosmopolitan cultural background after long associations with Islamic scholars of the Sephardic families also made them extremely well educated for the times, even well into the European Enlightenment.

For a long time the Sephardim took an active part in Spanish literature; they wrote in prose and in rhyme, and were the authors of theological, philosophical, belletristic (aesthetic rather than content based writing), pedagogic (teaching), and mathematical works. The rabbis, who, in common with all the Sephardim, emphasized a pure and euphonious pronunciation of Hebrew, delivered their sermons in Spanish or in Portuguese. Several of these sermons have appeared in print. Their thirst for knowledge, together with the fact that they associated freely with the outer world, led the Sephardim to establish new educational systems wherever they settled; they founded schools in which the Spanish language was the medium of instruction. Theatre in Istanbul was in Judæo-Spanish since it was forbidden to Muslims.

In Portugal the Sephardim were given important roles in the sociopolitical sphere and enjoyed a certain amount of protection from the Crown (e.g. Yahia Ben Yahia, first "Rabino Maior" of Portugal and supervisor of the public revenue of the first King of Portugal, D. Afonso Henriques). Even with the increasing pressure from the Catholic Church this state of affairs remained more or less constant and the number of Jews in Portugal grew with those running from Spain. This changed with the marriage of D. Manuel I of Portugal with the daughter of the Catholic Monarchs of the newly born Spain. In 1497 the Decree ordering the expulsion or forced conversion of all the Jews was passed, and the Sephardim either fled or went into secrecy under the guise of "Cristãos Novos", i.e. New Christians (this Decree was symbolically revoked in 1996 by the Portuguese Parliament). Those who fled to Genoa were only allowed to land provided they received baptism. Those who were fortunate enough to reach the Ottoman Empire had a better fate: the Sultan Bayezid II sarcastically sent his thanks to Ferdinand for sending him some of his best subjects, thus "impoverising his own lands while enriching his (Bayezid's)". Jews arriving in the Ottoman Empire were mostly resettled in and around Selanik (Thessaloniki in Greek) and to some extent in Istanbul and İzmir. This was followed by a great massacre of Jews in the city of Lisbon in 1506 and the establishment of the Portuguese Inquisition in 1536. This caused the flight of the Portuguese Jewish community, which continued until the extinction of the Courts of Inquisition in 1821; by then there were very few Jews in Portugal.

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