In this week’s parasha, Bo, the Israelites are finally freed from their subjugation in Egypt. We read that in their haste to leave, they bound up their unleavened dough in their garments (Exodus 12:34). Intriguingly, the very next verse says that the Israelites took from the Egyptians “silver items, gold items, and garments”. This is significant in light of the famous Midrash that the Israelites merited to be saved because they preserved three things throughout their long enslavement: their cuisine, their language, and their clothing (see Pesikta Zutrata on Ki Tavo, 46a).* In other words, the Israelites preserved their unique Hebrew foods (included in which is observing the mitzvah of not consuming the gid hanashe, which began with Jacob), their divine Hebrew language, and also their unique mode of dress. What was this dress, and how was it different from the garments of the Egyptians?
Tag Archives: Hasidic Jews
Two Inspiring Stories of the Baal Shem Tov
What Does It Really Mean to Be “Sephardi”?
The Haftarah of this week’s parasha, Vayishlach, ends with these words (Ovadiah 1:20-21):
And this exiled host of the children of Israel who are among the Canaanites as far as Tzarfat, and the exile of Jerusalem which is in Sepharad shall inherit the cities of the Negev. And saviours shall ascend Mount Zion to judge the mountain of Esau, and the kingdom shall be the Lord’s.
This verse happens to be the origin of the term “Sephardic Jew”. By the 13th century, Jews on the European continent were divided into four groups: the Ashkenazis were those in the Germanic lands, the Sephardis in the Iberian Peninsula, the Tzarfatis in France, and the “Canaanites” in Bohemia and Moravia (roughly what is today the Czech Republic). Those last two groups have been forgotten in our days. Yet, Jewish texts from that era make it clear that Tzarfati Jews were once a distinct category, as were the Canaani Jews (which in some texts appear to refer to those Jews living in all Slavic lands). These divisions were based on the verse above from this week’s Haftarah, which describes the Jewish people exiled as far as Tzarfat and Sepharad, and dwelling among distant Canaanites. (It is important to remember that in the Tanakh the word “Canaan” does not always refer to the ethnic Canaanites, but can also mean “merchant” more generally.)
Today, the Jewish world is often divided more simply among Ashkenazi and Sephardi lines. Having discussed the origins of Ashkenazi Jews in the past, we now turn to the Sephardis. However, I don’t want to focus here on the history of Sephardic Jewry. (In short: Jews arrived in Iberia at least as far back as Roman times, and began to migrate on mass after the Muslim conquest in 711.) The big question is: what makes a person “Sephardi” today, considering that Spain expelled all of its Jews in 1492—and didn’t officially rescind that decree until 1968!