The Forgotten Diaspora (2)

February 3, 2023 Category: Uncategorized


Medieval Sephardim routinely referred to the Ashkenazim as “Jews from the Caucuses”–a very peculiar appellation for fellow Jews to employ had the Ashkenazim originally been Sephardic. It makes sense, then, that the renown (Andalusian) Sephardic writer, Judah “ha-Levi” of Toledo (1085-1140) referred to the Ashkenazim as the “Yehudim Kuzari”–a moniker that explicitly announced the Ashkenazim’s [k]Hazarian roots. In spite of holding them in abeyance, Judah “ha-Levi” saw this newly-minted community of Jews as legitimately Jewish.  In that same text, he even praises the righteous King Bulan! {59}

There were various pejoratives used by Sephardim to refer to this foreign element of Beth Israel–most notably: “Tudesco”. It is well-attested that Sephardim treated Ashkenazim as subalterns; though, tellingly, not as TRAITORS.  Traitors would have only made sense had they seen the Ashkenazim as a separatist group that had–as it were–broken away.  Rather, they were just thought of as alien Jews—that is: as THE OTHER within the global community subscribing to the Mosaic Faith.  They were inferiors, not apostates.  (To reiterate: religious FACTIONS don’t see each other in this manner.)  Consequently, miscegenation was generally forbidden.  Such divisive mores would not have been warranted if the only issue had been quibbles on doctrinal points. It was STOCK with which Sephardim were concerned. At the time, they did not see Ashkenazim as fellow Semites…even if (strange) fellow denizens of Beth Israel.

Moreover, Sephardim decried the Ashkenazim’s glaring ignorance of Hebrew literature. Indeed, this peculiarly foreign Jewish people seemed oddly oblivious to–and simply heedless of–the coveted traditions (“minhag”) of which “normal” Jews seemed to take for granted.

Assessment of Jewish custom also points to different backgrounds. In other words, there are clear cultural discrepancies between the Ashkenazim and Sephardim that–to the present day–attest to disparate origins. As it turns out, the Ashkenazi “Yiddishkeit” (sense of Jewish identity) has origins that are entirely un- connected from the Semitic (read: Mishnaic / Masoretic) roots of both Sephardim and Misra[c]him.

Wait. “-keit”? From whence might this suffix have come? (Shouldn’t the term be “JudenKultur”?)  At the time, this peculiar morpheme was unique to the Rhineland. How so? As it turns out, it was a morphological quirk stemming from the Old Saxon term for “character”, “heit”, via the morpheme “ek- heit” [meaning “with the character of”; “-ness” / “-hood”].  It stands to reason that the Ashkenazi immigrants referred to their culture as something “with Jewish characteristics”, as immigrants seeking to retain certain aspects of their identity in a new geo-political context. This would have been a rather odd way for traditional Jews to conceive of their own culture.  (The Sephardim, meanwhile, referred to their culture as “minhag” / “masorah”.) “Yiddishkeit” reveals a newly-established community asserting its identity in a novel context; so that is how they came to refer to it.

It comes as no surprise, then, that in “Yiddishkeit” (a community “with Jewish characteristics”), we encounter NONE of the signature features of the creed established by the renowned “Gaon”, Sa’adiah ben Yosef of Faym in his landmark work: “Beliefs And Opinions”, which was composed in Judeo-Arabic c. 933.  This work championed the Rabbinic tradition; which is to say that it favored the Talmudic approach over the Karaite approach that would eventually come to characterize Ashkenazi liturgy.  There are notable discrepancies between Ashkenazic and Sephardic “nusa[c]h” (liturgical style). The latter often refer to their rites as the “Eidot Hamizra[c]h”. Might such discrepancies simply be due to geography? It is no secret that different vernaculars–and idioms–are attributable to different regions (just as different sartorial practices can be attributed to differences in climate), even within the same religious group.

There is nothing surprising about the fact that Sephardim tend to say certain things one way while Ashkenazim tend to say them another; as two different liturgical styles would invariably emerge due to geographical differences.  So different customs do not alone indicate different ancestry.  After all, environmental factors impinge upon cultures, molding them according to circumstance…even if geographically separate people happen to have a shared ethnic background.

Before proceeding, it is important to ensure we are looking at the relevant timeframe. The Halakha only started to be reconciled between the Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities when the Andalusian rabbi, Joseph ben Ephraim Karo composed the “Shul[c]han Arukh” c. 1563 (based largely on the “Arba’ah Turim”, a Halakhic work by Jacob ben Asher from the early 14th century). {77} Tellingly, in their adoption of this precedent, Ashkenazim made no reference to the most important Halakhist of the 11th century: the Algerian “posek”, Isaac ben Jacob “al-Fasi” (mentor of Judah “ha-Levi”…who, incidentally, used the [k]Hazars in his parable: “The Book of the [k]Huzari”). Over time, such reconciliation occurred under the auspices of “mizug” [merging / absorption], the implication of which is Mosaic solidarity via doctrinal homogeneity (that is: unity at the expense of pluralism).  This accounts for the Zionist “mizug Galuyot” [in-gathering at Galilee]: a geo-political conglomeration of Jewish people that included the establishment of a new language: modern Hebrew.  Hence the “aliyah”, birthright, and all the rest.

And so it went: The composition of Joseph ben Ephraim Karo’s “Shul[c]han Arukh” (a distillation of his landmark “Beth Yusef”) established the mid-16th century as the terminus POST quem for the revamped Ashkeanazi legacy. Thereafter, a slow, steady doctrinal reconciliation proceeded; whereby Ashkenazim explored the wider Judaic “minhag”, and thus became more interested in the Talmudic tradition. The relevant period if juxtaposition, then, is the beginning of the 11th century thru the end of the 15th century–that is: prior to that cultural melding. That is why THIS temporal threshold serves as a terminus ANTE quem for any valid analysis.

The timeline here is key.  A worthwhile analysis honors a temporal threshold that exists when we trace the metamorphosis of Ashkenazi culture.  The pivotal time-period is roughly between c. 1000 and c. 1500; with a focus on the High Middle Ages.  By the 16th century, Sephardic and Ashkenazi “minhag” had begun to meld—especially pursuant to Joseph Karo’s reconciliatory disquisitions in the 1550’s.

We can now conduct some cultural forensics on the Ashkenazim vis a vis Sephardim. While there are myriad differences between Ashkenazim and Sephardim that likely emerged simply due to them being different communities in different regions, there are other differences that can only be explained by disparate provenance.

Certain superficial liturgical discrepancies can be explained explicitly by geographical differences. For example, Ashkenazim stand during Kaddish; Sephardim sit. Ashkenazim wrap their Torah scroll in a “mappe” or “wimpel”; Sephardim put it in a hard case. Ashkenazim say “SHA-bos”; Sephardim say “Sha-BAT”. Etc. Such discrepancies tell us little about ancestral origins.  Indeed, many discrepancies we now see likely emerged during the last few centuries. 

So let’s look at deeper cultural discrepancies (regarding key vernacular, customs, and liturgies), which are indicative of disjunctive HERITAGES.  There is a myriad of nuanced differences between the two traditions.  While some kinds of discrepancies are not necessarily indicative of disparate ETHNIC antecedents, it is worth looking at some tell-tale signs that these two Judaic peoples do, indeed, have different BACKGROUNDS.  Here are four of the most notable:

ONE:  Let’s start with marriage.  The Synod (regarding Takkonot) at Troyes is renowned for having outlawed polygyny (following the precedent set by Gershom ben Judah).  This council was convened to clarify doctrine in 1078; and was followed by another in 1160.  Yet polygyny had already been prohibited in Sephardic Judaism for OVER A THOUSAND YEARS.  (Mizra[c]hi Jews would continue the practice into the modern era.)  Suffice to say: This decision would not have been warranted had there not been a recent development—that is: an encounter with those who had a significant difference of opinion (to wit: a community for whom polygyny was still at issue). {35}

Bear in mind that it had barely been three generations since the famed Maghrebi “posek”, Isaac ben Jacob “ha-Cohen” of Fez (a.k.a. “Al-Fasi”)—student of the “Gaon”, Nissim ben Jacob “ha-Maftea[c]h” of Kairouan—had written his landmark work on Halakha: the “Sefer ha-Halakhot”, which established precedent for the Sephardic community. {84}

It strains credulity that fellow Sephardim suddenly felt the need to back-track, and revisit Jewish law that had been long-established…unless, that is, they were suddenly contending with another Jewish community, which had recently been encountered.  (Note that other Synods were convened at Mainz in 1196 and 1233.)

Other marriage protocols give some clues. The Sephardim practiced “yibbum” (a Levirate marriage, whereby a man is obliged to wed his late brother’s widow) in keeping with the “Sefer ha-Halachot” by the aforementioned Al-Fasi.  (The writings of Maimonides confirm this.)  Ashkenazim, though, did NOT practice “yibbum”.  Instead they use a normalized “[c]hali[t]zah”; whereby a widow is absolved of any obligation to wed her late husband’s brother.  This difference in precedent indicates that the Ashkenazim were operating from a different tradition than those of western Europe and the Mediterranean basin.  That makes sense, as women in medieval Turkic cultures (where matriarchy was more prevalent) had far more prerogative than women in Semitic cultures (spec. Abrahamic traditions, which tend to be highly patriarchal).

TWO:  Ashkenazim and Sephardim had different dietary protocols.  “Kashrut[h]” is a Semitic word.  Yet Ashkenazim ended up using the term “kosher” for permissible foods, which was a mis-pronunciation of the Semitic root for “fit”: “K-Sh-R” (pronounced “kashr”).  Would a people with a Semitic heritage have made such a flub?

During “Pesa[c]h” (Passover), when food containing leavened ingredients is avoided, Ashkenazim–unlike Sephardim–avoid rice.  This dietary restriction is quite telling; as it is entirely explicable via the present thesis.  For rice was a staple of Eurasian cuisine, but NOT of either Western European, Mediterranean, OR Middle Eastern cuisine.  Meanwhile, bread (the primary focus of what was leavened vs. unleavened) was NOT a primary staple in Eurasia…at least, not nearly as much as it was in Europe, the Mediterranean basin, and the Middle East.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Jews hailing from the Eurasian Steppes would have taken this dietary restriction to pertain to rice.  The inclusion of rice in off-limits fare would never have occurred to Sephardim, for whom bread would have been the natural embodiment of “[c]hametz”.  Consequently, they have no qualms with incorporating rice (and legumes) into their cuisine on Passover.

Also note: On Hanukkah and Shavuot, Ashkenazim eat cheese-stuffed pancakes (sometimes fried in oil) known as “blintzes”, which are a variation on the medieval Slavic “blini”.  If they were a break-away community from western European Jews, Ashkenazim would have more likely carried with them a Sephardic dish for such occasions. It makes little sense that they would have jettisoned a long-standing culinary tradition.

There are several more lexical clues. The Yiddish term for a sweet, doughy desert is “baklava”—a Turkic word.  The Yiddish term for noodles (typically in broth), “loksh[en]” is from the Turkic word for noodles, “loksha”.  The Yiddish term for dumplings, “pirogi” is from the Turkic “böreg”.  The Yiddish term for beef or lamb brisket, “pastrami” is from the Turkic “pastirma”.  So it goes with “kabak” (squash), “bülbe” (potato), “solet” (meat and potato stew), and “knish” (meat-filled dough): ALL from the language of the Tatars.  Some of these were eventually adopted by Western languages from Yiddish—though without recognizing their earlier (Turkic) etymology.

Why the inordinate amount of residual Turkic vernacular when it comes to food?  Because even when an ethnic group migrates to a new land, it tends to retain its cuisine, insofar as it is possible to do so.  (This lexical retention often includes hallowed customs that have no direct translation in alternate tongues.)  So it makes sense that much of what remains of the [k]Hazarian tongue is found with culinary terms.

To this day, Sephardic Jews tend to eat “boyikos” (crispy cheese), “bu[r]muelos” (fried pastries), and “bombonikos” (chocolate treats).  Mizra[c]hi Jews eat “kubaneh”. (Maghrebi Jews eat “mo[u]na”; Yemeni Jews eat “ja[c]hnun” and “malawa[c]h”.)  Sephardim eat “hamin” (hard boiled eggs; “huevos haminados” in Ladino), which are sometimes served in a stew known as “cholent” (from French), “[a]dafina” (from Ladino), or “hareesa” (from the Maghrebi dialect).

Meanwhile, Ashkenazi Jews tend to eat gefilte fish: stuffed carp, beluga, or pike. These were species that existed only in central Asia at the time.  (Other species–like mullet–were incorporated into the culinary repertoire in the modern era.)  While some stylistic variation emerged amongst Ashkenazi communities–notably between (Ukrainian) Galician Jews (“Galitzianer”) who used sugar, and Lithuanian Jews (“Litvak”) who used pepper–, the dish was distinctly Ashkenazi.  Ashkenazim also eat a stew of meat and potatoes known as “solet” (from the Turkic term for the dish) or “osh[i]” (from the Sogdian term for the dish).  Potatoes have always been standard fare for Eurasians, so this makes sense.  It’s also worth noting that the term, “knish” has Turkic origins.  Ashkenazim eat meats like “kishke” and “helzel”; and–as mentioned–make it a point to NOT incorporate rice (or legumes) into their cuisine on Passover (due to the prevalence of rice in the Eurasian diet).

Reconciliation of religious precedents between Ashkenazim and Sephardim began after Joseph Karo’s “Shul[c]han Arukh” moved to homogenize protocols in the late 16th century (pace some hedging that was explicated by the Ashkenazi posek, Moses ben Israel of Krakow). This included a melding of vernacular.  Notably, Ashkenazim eventually started using the term “schalet” for “cholent”.  Consumption of “matzah” (dumplings, often served in soup) was transmitted in the opposite direction. For Ashkenazim, they were originally referred to as “knödel” / “knedli” (later rendered “kneidel”); and were served with potatoes. Usually no eggs were involved. When Sephardim made the dumplings, they referred to them as “matzo”; and typically served them WITHOUT potatoes, yet WITH eggs.

THREE:  Liturgy also shows us some key differences.  Note the presence of “Hatanu Lefanecha” and “Keil Nora Alila” in Sephardic prayer books, in contradistinction to the presence of “Kol Nidrei” in Ashkenazi prayer books. This disparity indicates disparate liturgical genealogies. {47}  What could possibly explain this?  The former two prayers have HEBRAIC origins whereas the latter prayer has ARAMAIC origins.  This is explicable when we consider the different histories involved.

As it happened, the use of the “Kol Nidrei” suddenly became a point of contention in the 11th century–most notably with the French Tosafist, Meir ben Samuel.  It continued to be a source of controversy during the 12th century (as attested by the French Talmudist, Simhah ben Samuel of Vitry and the Andalusian Talmudist, Judah ben Barzillai)…and on into the 13th century (as attested by the French Tosafist, Meir of Rothenburg).  In other words: The “Kol Nidrei” suddenly became a hot topic when the [k]Hazrian diaspora arrived in Eastern Europe.  Go figure.

Eventually, most Sephardim came to reject this particular prayer as an integral part of Yom Kippur–in keeping with the position taken by the geonim from the Babylonian Talmudic academies.  It seems that the [k]Hazrian Jews never got the memo on this matter; and, moreover, seem to have not been around for the inclusion of the “Hatanu Lefanecha” and “Keil Nora Alila” in Judaic liturgy. {78}

As mentioned earlier, toward the end of the 11th century, a student of Rashi, Simhah ben Samuel of Vitry (who was the grandfather of Isaac ben Samuel “the Elder”) compiled a highly-influential prayer book: the “Ma[c]h[a]zor Vitry”.  Interestingly, the only surviving manuscript of this work is from the 19th century (redacted by an Italic scribe, Isaac Samuel Reggio of Gorizia; a.k.a. “YaShaR”).  None of that material seems to have influenced the earliest Ashkenazim; let alone been INFLUENCED BY them.  This would be a peculiar oversight had Simhah ben Samuel hailed from the same community.  The book is cited in the 12th century by the Sephardic scholar, Jacob ben Meir ben Samuel of Ramerupt (a.k.a. “Rabbeinu Tam”), who finished his career in Troyes.  Clearly, for Sephardim, the book was a big deal at the time.  Not so for Ashkenazim.  Why not?  Well, because the latter came from a different place than the former; so wouldn’t have been privy to such material when it was first written. {96}  It would not be until the 15th century that Ashkenazim would fully embrace the Talmudic tradition.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the Ashkenazim never made use of the “Avodah Zarah”, which essentially served as a guidebook for interacting with “avodei ha-kochavim” (“star-worshippers”, essentially meaning pagans / idolators); yet this tract had been indispensable for Sephardim for centuries. Oddly, the book would have been all-the-MORE important in Eastern Europe at the time, as paganism still maintained a presence. Had Sephardim migrated their, the “Avordah Zarah” would have been eminently relevant; not non-existent.

FOUR:  Ashkenazim don the “kolpik” (alt. “spodik”; a.k.a. “shtreimel”): a large, black, fur hat that was used by medieval Turkic peoples–including Tatars, Alans, and Magyars. Sure enough, the Yiddish term for this article of clothing is derived from the Old Turkic word for hat: “kalpak”. (“Kara-kalpak” means “Black Hats” in Old Turkic.)

The only other medieval instance of this kind of hat was the “papakha”, which was worn by Turkic peoples in the Caucasus. (Turkic peoples from the Caucasus? This should ring some bells.) As it happens, “papak” was ANOTHER Old Turkic word for “hat”. (The Slavic term, “ushanka” is a more recent development; and eventually became popular in the Balkans and in Russia.)

Notably, the Kalmyk, Ingush (a.k.a. “[Vai-]Nakh”) and Balkar / Karachay people of the former [k]Hazaria (who–to this day–dwell in the northern Caucuses) donned this sort of head-dress through the Middle Ages.  (In the Georgian Chronicles, they were associated with a folkloric figure known as D[z]urdzuk, a descendent of the mythical patriarch, Kavkas[os].  In Judaic lore, they were associated with the Biblical figure, Togarmah.  They were likely some combination of Alan and Kipchak.)  The Kumyks—likely, descendants of the [k]Hazars—STILL don the tall fur hats that are used by some Haredim / Hassidim to the present day.  Wherefore?  Well, the Kumyks and Haredim have a common ancestry.  In other words, they have divergent custom-based continua with a shared origin point.  (Also worth noting are the Ingush / [Vai-]Nakh people—known in Georgian as the “Dzurdzuki”—who don similar tall fur hats.)

If we want to conduct worthwhile genetic evaluation, we should check to see if the all these groups come from the same haplo-group going back a millennium—a task that would require factoring in any miscegenation that has occurred in the intervening time.  Heaven forfend that Ashkenazim share ancestry with Turkic peoples like the Dagestanis and Chechens—most of whom converted to Islam during the Middle Ages; and are associated with the (oft-derided) Japhethites (via Gomer).

The point is not to simply point to the (obvious) fact that Sephardim, who lived in much warmer climes, did not wear furry winter hats.  Why would they?  The point is that, of all other options, Ashkenazim wore distinctly Turkic hats; and even called them by their Turkic name.  They did not acquire this sartorial practice, or adopt this vernacular, from the Germans or the Slavs (amongst whom they came to live).  The only alternative is that they CAME WITH the sartorial practice, as well as the vernacular.

And let’s not forget that the skull-cap was called a “yarmulke”, based on the Turkic “yargmuluk” (“protective dome / canopy”; i.e. a cap) rather than the Sephardic term: “kippah”. Meanwhile, the head-wrap worn by Ashkenazi women is called a “tikhl” (a Turkic lexeme) rather than a “mitpa[c]hat” (a Hebraic lexeme). Both these etymologies were discussed in the previous section, on language. Such a lexical switch would have made no sense had Ashkenazim previously been Sephardim.

There are myriad other clothing discrepancies.  Into the 18th century, Ashkenazi winter attire consisted primarily of an inexpensive, coarse cloth known as “paklak”—often in the form of a “zhupitse” / “yupitse” [alt. “zhupe” / “yupe”], “kapote”, “tuzlik”, or “bekeshe”. Lighter garments included the “kh[a]lat” (jacket) and “brislak” (vest).  Women often donned a “brusttukh” (bodice) and “patsheyle” (head wrapping).  ALL these terms have Turkic etymologies.

Taken in light of the linguistic discrepancies discussed in the previous section, these four cultural differences (marriage protocols, culinary practices, liturgical practices, and sartorial practices) make perfect sense.  Without the present thesis, NONE of them make ANY sense.

While there are palpable traces of the Andalusian influence in Sephardic “minhag” (e.g. the cosmopolitan ideal known as “Adab”), there are ZERO such traces in early Ashkenazi culture.  The Sephardic world was infused with the Talmudic tradition; yet no trace of such a tradition could be found in “Yiddishkeit” during the High or Middle Ages. {124} Again, this would be inexplicable but for the present thesis.

How people talk, wed, eat, pray, and dress tells us a lot about their culture.  Sephardim and Ashkenazim differ in language, domestic customs, diet, supplication, and attire—exactly as we would expect given their disparate provenance.  Sephardim NOTICED all this.  It’s not for nothing that, in his “Sefer ha-Kabbalah” c. 1161, the Andalusian rabbi, Ibrahim ibn Dawood of Cordoba [Ladino for “Abraham, son of David”] (a.k.a. “Rabad”) viciously attacked Karaite Judaism.  What prompted such animus?  The “Karaim” were Turkic Jews who practiced a version of Judaism that was likely quite foreign to him; and—in any case—they weren’t Semitic.  So, in his eyes, they would have been ethnically suspect.  Such asperity would not have made sense if he saw them as fellow Sephardim; or even a wayward denomination thereof.

As mentioned earlier, the anti-Semitic “blood libel” myth (that Gentile children were being murdered by nefarious Jews, who used the victims’ blood for diabolism) cropped up in Eastern Europe in the early 12th century.  How is it that such a perfidious rumor suddenly emerged at THAT particular point in history, and began circulating in THAT particular region?  Bear in mind that, by then, anti-Semitism had existed throughout Christendom for over a thousand years; and in the Middle East since the Iron Age.  Not only did it exist throughout the Holy Roman Empire—from Slavic lands to the Frankish lands—, it proliferated from the Hindu Kush to the Barbary Coast.  There was anti-Semitism in Britannia, Andalusia, Gallia, Frankia, Germania, and Italia.  So why did this particular urban legend crop up there and then?  The present thesis reveals what the catalyst would have been.

It’s also worth exploring the brand of Jewish mysticism that came to be known as “[c]Hassidei Ashkenaz” suddenly emerged in the Rhineland in the 12th century.  This is typically ascribed to Judah ben Samuel of Speyer (a.k.a. “Ha-Hasid”; who primarily operated out of Regensburg) and Eleazer ben Judah of Mainz (a.k.a. “ha-Rokeach”; who primarily operated out of Worms); though there is no hard evidence for this supposition.  (See the Appendix for more on these two figures.)  A slew of apocrypha proliferated with respect to the origins of this movement–replete with purported visitations from the ghost of the Biblical prophet, Elijah.  Such tall tales don’t bode well for the credence of the accompanying historiography.

What is peculiar is that there is a disjuncture between THIS brand of mysticism and the Kabbalah of medieval times.  Had Ashkenazim been descendants of Sephardim, one would expect to find vestiges of the Kabbalah in their (new-fangled) mysticism.  After all, such vestiges proliferated amongst contemporaneous SEPHARDIC practitioners.  The medieval (Sephardic) mystical movement can be separated into six major groups:

The Occitanian mystics of Narbonne and Lunel (a.k.a. “Hachmei Provence”):  As legend has it, Makhir ben Judah Zakkai—whose family hailed from the Middle East—pioneered the movement in Narbonne at some point in the 8th century.  Abraham ben David (a.k.a. “Rabad”, who’s family hailed from Marida, Andalusia), Merwan “ha-Levi”, and Moses ben Jacob ben Moses ben Abun “ha-Darshan” contributed to the movement in Narbonne during the 11th century.  Judah ben Saul ibn Tibbon (originally from Granada, Andalusia) and Abraham ben Nathan were both influential in Lunel in the late 12th century.  Yitzhak Saggi Nehor (a.k.a. “Isaac the Blind”) conceptualized the divine as “ayn sof” [unending]; and penned the “Sefer ha-Bahir” [Book of Brightness / Illumination] c. 1200 (which he attributed to the 2nd-century sage, Nehunya ben ha-Kanah).

The Castilian mystics of Leon and Castile:  Moses of Leon penned the “Zohar” in the 13th century (which he attributed to the 2nd-century sage, Shimon bar Yochai).  Joseph ben Abraham Giketilla, who pioneered “gematria” and “temurah”, was said to have performed miracles; so was often referred to as “Ba’al ha-Nissim”.  Also notable here were Meir ben Todros “Abu Lafia” (a.k.a. the “Ramah”) and his nephew, Todros ben Joseph “Abu Lafia”.

The Catalonian mystics of Girona:  The star pupil of Isaac the Blind, Azriel ibn Mena[c]hem ibn Ibrahim al-Taras adopted his mentor’s term, “ayn sof” in the early 13th century.  Moses ben Na[c]hman (a.k.a. “Nachmanides”) engaged in this teaching soon thereafter.

The Aragon mystics of Zaragoza:  Bahya ben Joseph ibn Pakuda was influential in this community.  Abraham ben Samuel “Abu Lafia” (also affiliated with Tudela in Navarre) penned the Book of Jasher in the 13th century.  His student, Joseph ben Abraham Gikatilla ended up teaching in Castile.

The Andalusian mystics of Cordoba:  Solomon ben Judah ibn Gabirol of Malaga (who also taught in Valencia and Toledo) coined the term, “she-en lo tiklah” [the Endless One] in the 11th century.  Moses ben Maimon ben Joseph (a.k.a. “Maimonides”) penned the highly-influential “Guide To The Perplexed” c. 1190; while Aaron of Cardena penned “Karnayim” [Rays] around the same time.

The Berber mystics of the Maghreb:  Dunash ibn Tamim and Jacob ben Nissim ibn Shahin of Kairouan wrote major commentaries on the Italic “Sefer Yetzirah” in the 10th century.

Yet there was no trace of Kabbalist activity—either having to do with the Merkovah [Chariot] or the Hekhalot [Palaces] texts—amongst Ashkenazi mystics during the relevant period.  Nor was there anything from the “Sefer Yetzira”.  This absence is quite remarkable considering the sudden efflorescence of “[c]Hassidei Ashkenaz” in the 12th century.

Had Ashkenazim been a break-away sect of the Sephardim, some palpable memetic residue from Sephardic mysticism would have subsisted in Ashkenazic mystical vernacular (e.g. exhibiting traces of Ladino, as found in the “Zohar”).  Hence one would also expect to find key Semitic terms like “sefirot” (divine powers / emanations), “sod” (mystery), “[neh]or” (light), and “bahir” (brightness / illumination) in the earliest Ashkenazi mystical tradition.  We find no such ideations.  How about “ayn sof”?  Nope.  Instead, we find novel locutions like “ratzon ha-borei” (Will of the Creator) and a peculiar usage of the ancient term, “K-B-D” (typically rendered “kavod”)…which could mean anything from “weight” / “gravity” to “honor”.  (One of the Mosaic commandments is to give “K-B-D” to one’s parents.)

Moreover, there was no fascination–let alone obsession–with the Hebrew alphabet amongst Ashkenazi mystics (until the advent of Hassidism in the 17th century).  This makes sense for those who were not of a Semitic background.  Such “gematria” and “temurah” include silly games like P-R-D-S [“orchard”, derived from the same Persian root as “paradise”], whereby practitioners purport to uncover “sod” (secrets) hidden deep within Biblical text.  While Sephardim pioneered this hokey art; medieval Ashkenazim seemed utterly unaware it existed.

Later, Sephardic mystics began operating in Greece—notably: Joseph ben Solomon Taitazak, who taught in Thessalonika in the early 16th century (after having migrated from Andalusia in 1492, pursuant to the expulsion).

Recall the watershed moment discussed earlier: Joseph Karo’s great doctrinal reconciliation, at which point the Talmudic tradition began penetrating Yiddishkeit.  Lo and behold, it was not until the 16th century that Kabbalist activity finally emerged amongst the Ashkenazim—notably: with Elijah ben Aaron Judah “Ba’al Shem” of Lublin, who earned his renown teaching in the Cherven town of Chelm / Khelm.  (Unsurprisingly, various apocrypha came to surround him—most notably: tales of the golem.)  By the time Bezal-El ben Abraham (followed by his famous student, Isaac ben Solomon Luria) was teaching in Palestine, Kabbalist teachings had spread throughout Beth Israel.  (Interestingly, these men had mixed Ashkenazic-Sephardic parentage—something that had started to occur by that time.)

Prior to c. 1500, was there any interaction between the Sephardic mystics and ANYONE in Ashkenaz? No. So when Judah ben Saul ibn Tibbon of Granada left Spain c. 1150 due to the anti-Semitic policies of the Almohades, he went to Lunel in Occitania to join the Hachmei Provence. It would have never occurred to him to venture into Eastern Europe.

NONE of the Kabbalah had origins in Eastern Europe.  Mysticism didn’t really take off amongst Ashkenazim until Israel ben Eliezer of Volhynia-Galicia (a.k.a. “Baal Shem Tov”) founded Hassidism in the 18th century.  And EVEN HE employed some novel vernacular–referring to communion with the divine as “dvekut”: a term that had never existed in Talmudic literature (though it has since been incorporated into the modern Hebrew lexicon).  Lo and behold: “Dve-Kut” is Old Turkic for “emphatic blessing”!

Upon assaying the earliest Ashkenazic mysticism, we find no palpable influence from Western Europe (i.e. from Sephardim).  There did not even seem to be any influence from Eleazer ben Judah of Worms’ “Sefer Galei Razia” (transmitted via the “Sefer Raziel ha-Malakh”).  This would be inexplicable had the Ashkenazim splintered off from Sephardic forebears.

Such a marked disjuncture–nay, complete disconnect–in mysticism would not make any sense had such material come from a people who had been immersed in the Kabbalist tradition for over a thousand years.  While I’m no expert on Jewish mysticism, I suspect that traces of Turkic mysticism may have existed in “[c]Hassidei Ashkenaz” in the first few centuries.  Such memetic residue would stem from the Shamanism of the Eurasian Steppes.  Hence further inquiries might be made about vestiges of Turkic shamanism in early Ashkenazi mysticism.

What are we to make of all this?  That question brings us back to the crucial point: There is no record of some great Jewish schism in the 10th or 11th century—a religious fissure that would have led to the bifurcation of Beth Israel.  Had such an event occurred, we would surely have heard about it. There would have been documentation regarding numerous points of disagreement—nay, points of serious contention—during the late Masoretic period (roughly: when the era of the Geonim transitioned to the Rishonim) that came to be a major source of discord within European Jewry.  This would have boiled over in central Europe…to the point that one community (the progenitors of the Ashkenazim) decided to separate from the other; thus discarding centuries of Rabbinic heritage. That never happened. YET…we suddenly find two Judaic communities in Europe, only one of which was Talmudic; only one of which exhibited Semitic (Mishnaic / Masoretic) linguistic features.  All evidence indicates that the other must have had alternate provenance.

There is another item of note.  The “göz bonc[h]uk” [Turkic for “eye bead”] was used by medieval Turkic peoples as the “evil eye”.  The periapt seems to have had Hellenic origins, and may have come to the Eurasian Steppes via Bactrian influences.  The distinctly Turkic version of the talisman made its way into Ashkenazic culture in a way that is notably different from its modern (much more recent) incarnation in Sephardic culture.  The idea was to ward off evil forces by donning an amulet (typically on a necklace).  In the Middle East, the notion of a protective eye actually goes back to the Bronze Age with the Eye Temple at Nagar in Nineveh (now “Tel Brak”)—a leitmotif that was adopted by the Akkadians / Assyrians; as well as the Hurrians and Hittites of Anatolia.  Yet it did NOT propagate in Semitic traditions thereafter.  (Such pagan magic wasn’t consummate with traditional Abrahamic lore.)  During Classical and Late Antiquity, it was primarily found in Hellenic and Persian / Bactrian cultures; then—during the Middle Ages—in Sogdian and Turkic cultures.  (The “evil eye” seems NOT to have played a noticeable role in Sephardic culture in the Middle Ages.)  Only later did Ottoman Turks adopt this semiotic, as their literati were primarily influenced by PERSIAN culture.

Tellingly, when warding off evil, the Ashkenazim of the early modern period opted for the phrase, “[AWAY] ayin hara” (Hebrew for “evil eye”).  Interestingly, the “away” was rendered with “kein” (the Germanic negation) instead of “b’li” (the Hebraic negation).  This is an odd lexical combination for a singular phrase.  Clearly, the speakers did not come from a Hebraic (read: Talmudic) background; or they would not have divided the locution between two languages.  Once more, we see that, as Yiddish developed, Ashkenazim incorporated Hebrew terms into their vernacular in awkward ways—that is: in ways that would not have made sense for those who used to be Sephardic (i.e. well-versed in Hebrew). {104}

We might also note a more general assessment of the two peoples.  It is no secret that–until the Second World War–Sephardim tended to be much more cosmopolitan (open to other cultures), whereas Ashkenazim tended to be much more parochial (closed off to the rest of the world).  The question naturally arises: How is it that the FORMER came to be decidedly worldly while the LATTER came to be decidedly insular?  Though the explanation is complicated, their different histories offer a clue.

During the Middle Ages, Sephardim–after having lived amongst the Romans for many centuries–were living amongst Arab Muslims (spec. during the Islamic Golden Age), as well as people like the (Greek) Byzantines, (Maghrebi) Berbers, (Syriac) Assyrians, Persians, and Armenians. Over time, they would have grown accustomed to intermixing culturally / linguistically with a diverse array of non-Jewish people…whenever the need arose.

By stark contrast, Ashkenazim were a distinct community that had needed to stick together for survival after having abandoned their homeland (in the relatively recent past). Consequently, they found the need to “circle the wagons”, as it were; and thus keep to themselves. Upon arriving in the Rhineland, rather than being an integral part of Germanic society, they found themselves suddenly embedded within it (subsisting in a rather isolated manner). Their insularity, then, was likely a defense mechanism… which would have persisted through the Pale of Settlement in the midst of the amplified alterity of Tsarist Russia.  (While there were certainly distinct Jewish communities in the Middle East, north Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, and France…there was no analogue of the Jewish cordon known as a “shtetle”.)

In assaying the Ashkenazim vis a vis the Sephardim, we find a kind of juxtaposition that cannot be explained by some sort of liturgical schism. Such a marked disparity in ethos would not have occurred had a break-away faction of Sephardim simply continued a migration northward / eastward…and simply re-branded themselves “Ashkenazim”.

By the time of the [k]Hazarian diaspora, Sephardim in southern / western Europe had been contending with Christendom and/or Dar al-Islam for quite some time.  And while this had not always gone smoothly (!), they had become relatively acclimated to ethnic diversity over the centuries.  So negotiating an environment of Germanic and Slavic peoples would have been nothing strikingly new for them.  Their integration THERE would have looked similar to their integration in Andalusia, France, the Italic Peninsula, the Balkan Peninsula, the Maghreb, and the Middle East.

A diaspora from the Pontic Steppes, though, would have been a different story. As we’ve seen, the kind of relations Ashkenazim conducted with Europeans was strictly mercantile; and otherwise culturally segregated.

Let’s review: The issue is not THAT all these differences between Sephardic Jewry and Ashkenazi Jewry existed; it’s WHY they existed.  After all, it is unremarkable that social norms differed between separate communities even within the same (Mosaic) Faith; as is typically the case between the various denominations of any given religion.  There is even a difference of social norms between different communities WITHIN a given denomination (as with British Anglicans vs. American Episcopalians; or Greek Orthodox Christians vs. Russian Orthodox Christians).

So we are obliged to inquire: How is it that such differences came about in the first place? As we’ve seen, it is not as if the notable differences on these issues emerged AMONGST European Jewry (i.e. within the Sephardic community).  On the contrary, the differences we encounter between Sephardic Judaism and Ashkenazi Judaism must have INHERED WITHIN the two groups. In other words, there was not a bifurcation of a formerly single “Masorah”; there was an abutment of two disparate “Masorot[h]” (each hailing from different places) that occurred in the Rhineland.  When?  Precisely when there was a sudden emergence of a NEW Jewish ethnic group in the region.

Thus: The disjuncture arising from the differences adumbrated above was not concomitant with a SEPARATION (due to a doctrinal divergence); it was the result of an INTERSECTION (due to a geographical convergence). It is, then, understandable that there are residual traces of the Ashkenazim’s Turkic origins–origins, that is, in [k]Hazarian “zakanon” [customs] rather than in Sephardic “masorah” / “minhag”.

To recapitulate: There is a major linguistic clue that the proximity of Sephardim and Ashkenazim was due to a CONVERGENCE of two groups (hailing from two different places) rather than a DIVERGENCE from a single group (due to a cultural schism): From the 11th thru 14th centuries, Jews from the Rhineland vs. Jews from northern France spoke completely different languages.  Obviously, the former did not COME FROM the latter; as such a decisive linguistic disjuncture would not have occurred so abruptly.  There are no intermediary tongues linking the Hebraic dialects of the Sephardim (Ladino, Zarfatic, etc.) to Old Yiddish.  If there had been some sort of CULTURAL transition, then there would be traces of a LINGUISTIC transition–vestiges of which would exist as some composite (creolized) language between that of, say, Rashi, and that of the early Yiddish expositors.

No such vestiges exist amongst the Ashkenazim.

Moreover, amongst all the Sephardic expositors of that pivotal generation, none mentioned a wayward faction of their Sephardic brethren.  This includes the extensive writings of Andalusians enumerated earlier, as well as the major figures of Kairouan in the Maghreb (e.g. Nissim ben Jacob).  AND it includes the many expositors of Rashi’s generation (e.g. Joseph ben Samuel “Bonfils” of Narbonne) who never mentioned a divergent Jewish community that had recently broken from Sephardim in the Rhineland.

Bottom line: If the Ashkenazim were Sephardic transplants, we would find residual traces of Sephardic culture–linguistically and ritualistically. We find almost none. Instead, we find vestiges of the Ashkenazim’s (non-Talmudic) Turkic background. {100}

It is also clear that Ashkenazim do not come from the (Greco-Roman) Romaniote Jews of the eastern Mediterranean rim; as the rites of the respective Jewish communities are markedly different. Tellingly, when the two encountered each other, they did not mix.

So let’s review: Pursuant to the Slavic take-over of [k]Hazaria toward the end of the 10th century, the Jews of that (former) Jewish Empire migrated westward into eastern Europe; and they did so simply because there was no other viable option.  Thus they moved across the new Slavic kingdom of which they had become a part (Kievan Rus)…westward, through Ruthenia, Moravia / Bohemia, Silesia, and Bavaria…into the Rhineland; and thus out of reach of the Tsarist persecution that had begun in the centuries following the loss of their kingdom.

There is no evidence I could find (not so much as a single document) that belies this explanation.

What is so compelling, then, is not simply that there is so much evidence of the Ashkenazim’s [k]Hazarian origins, but the fact that there is literally no evidence to refute it.  Of the countless ways the thesis could be easily falsified–a single document declaring, say, “We Ashkenazim, who used to be of the Sephardim…” or “Our ancestors were Sephardim” or “We migrated from the west…from France…”, no such statement exists in the historical record.

The point cannot be emphasized enough: There is no record of any schism in Europe’s Jewish population. In other words: There was no interlude whereby one group (the Ashkenazim) broke off from another group (the Sephardim)…subsequently asserting a new identity. This only makes sense if the two peoples were never of the same people TO BEGIN WITH. There can be little doubt that if there HAD been any sort of schism, there would have likely been almost NOTHING BUT discussion of that momentous event.  Yet nothing of the sort is mentioned in any Jewish document. {6}

It is plain to see, then, that “Yiddeshkeit” did not emerge out of Sephardic “minhag”; it RAN INTO it.  When?  Between the late 10th and early 12th century.  Where?  In the Rhineland.  This cultural discrepancy remained until the 16th century, when the Galilean Kabbalist, Isaac ben Solomon Luria attempted to reconcile the Sephardic “Nusa[k]h” with the Ashkenazic “Nusa[k]h” via the “Nusa[k]h ha-Ari” [Rites of the Lion]: a precedent that would be adopted by the hyper-fundamentalist Hassidim / Haredim.  Subsequently, the Ashkenazi community rebuked the “Haskalah” (the Judaic Enlightenment, replete with its embrace of cosmopolitanism / secularism) in favor of re-constructing an ultra-puritanical “am Israel” (see my essay on “The Land Of Purple”).  It was likely during this period that remaining traces of the Ashkenazim’s Turkic ancestry were expurgated from the collective memory.

The conclusion is unavoidable: The Ashkenazim came from a different place than the Sephardim.  Consequently, the contention that the Ashkenazim had primarily Sephardic origins is without merit. {117}

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