The name Ashkenaz was applied in the Middle Ages
to Jews living along the Rhine River in northern France and western
Germany. The center of Ashkenazi Jews later spread to
Poland-Lithuania and now there are Ashkenazi settlements all over the
world. The term "Ashkenaz" became identified primarily with
German customs and descendants of German Jews.
In the 10th and 11th century, the first Ashkenazim, Jewish merchants in France and
Germany, were economic pioneers, treated well because of their
trading connections with the Mediterranean and the East. Jewish
communities appeared in many urban centers. Early Ashkenaz
communities were small and homogeneous. Until Christian guilds were
formed, Jews were craftsmen and artisans. In France, many Jews owned
vineyards and made wine. They carried arms and knew how to use them
in self-defense. The Jews of each town constituted an independent,
self-governing entity. Each community, or kahal, established
its own regulations made up by an elected board and judicial courts.
They enforced their rulings with the threat of excommunication. The
Ashkenazim generally shied away from outside influences and
concentrated on internal Jewish sources, ideas and customs.
Ashkenazim focused on biblical and Talmudic studies. Centers of rabbinic scholarship appeared in the tenth
century in Mainz and Worms in the Rhineland and in Troyes and Sens in
France. Ashkenazi scholarship centered around oral discussion. Sages
focused on understanding the minutiae of the texts instead of
extracting general principles. The most famous early teacher was
Rabbenu Gershom of Mainz. Some of his decrees, such as that
forbidding polygamy, are still in existence today. The first major
Ashkenazi literary figure was Rashi (Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes, 1040-1105), whose commentaries on the
Bible and Talmud are today considered fundamental to Jewish study.
The tosafists, Ashkenazi Talmudic scholars in northern France and
Germany, introduced new methods and insights into Talmudic study that
are also still in use. Early Ashkenazi Jews composed religious poetry
modeled after the fifth and sixth century piyyutim (liturgical
poems). While prayer liturgy varied even among Ashkenazi countries, the differences were almost
insignificant compared to the differences between Sephardi and Ashkenazi liturgy.
While Ashkenazi Jews occasionally experience anti-Semitism,
mob violence first erupted against them an the end of the 11th century. Many Jews were killed in what Robert Seltzer calls a
"supercharged religious atmosphere." Many were willing to
die as martyrs rather than convert.
In the 12th and 13th centuries, many Ashkenazi Jews became moneylenders. They were
supported by the secular rulers who benefited from taxes imposed on
the Jews. The rulers did not totally protect them, however, and blood
libels cropped up accompanied by violence. In 1182, Jews were
expelled from France. Ashkenazi Jews continued to build communities
in Germany until they faced riots and massacres in the 1200s and
1300s. Some Jews moved to Sephardi Spain while others set up Ashkenazi
communities in Poland.
The center of Ashkenazi Jewry shifted to Poland,
Lithuania, Bohemia and Moravia in the beginning of the 16th century. Jews were for the first time concentrated in Eastern Europe
instead of Western Europe. Polish Jews adopted the Ashkenazi rites,
liturgy, and religious customs of the German Jews. The Ashkenazi mahzor (holiday prayer book) included prayers composed by poets of Germany
and Northern France. In Poland,
the Jews became fiscal agents, tax collectors, estate managers for
noblemen, merchants and craftsmen. In the 1500-1600s, Polish Jewry
grew to be the largest Jewish community in the diaspora. Many Jews lived in shtetls, small towns where the majority of the
inhabitants were Jewish. They set up kehillot like those in
the Middle Ages that elected a board of trustees to collect taxes,
set up education systems and deal with other necessities of Jewish
life. The Jews even had their own craft guilds. Each kahal had
a yeshiva, where boys over the age of 13 learned Talmudic and
rabbinic texts. Yiddish was the language of oral translation and of
discussion of Torah and Talmud.
Ashkenazi scholars focused on careful readings of the text and also
on summarizing legal interpretations of former Ashkenazi and Sephardi scholars of Jewish law.
Ashkenazim focused on Hebrew, Torah and especially Talmud.
They used religion to protect themselves from outside influences. The Jews at this time were largely middle class. By choice, they mostly
lived in self-contained communities surrounding their synagogue and other communal institutions. Yiddish was the common language of
Ashkenazi Jews in eastern and central Europe. With the start of the
Renaissance and religious wars in the late 16th century, a
divide grew between central and eastern European Jews. In central
Europe, particularly in Germany, rulers forced the Jews to live apart
from the rest of society in ghettos with between 100 and 500
inhabitants. The ghettos were generally clean and in good condition.
Eastern European Jews lived in the shtetls, where Jews and
gentiles lived side by side.
In the 1600s and 1700s, Jews in Poland,
the center of Ashkenazi Jewry, faced blood libels and riots. The
growth of Hasidism in Poland drew many Jews away from typical Ashkenazi practice. After the
Chmielnicki massacres in Poland in 1648, Polish Jews spread through Western Europe, some even
crossing the Atlantic. Many Ashkenazi Polish Jews fled to Amsterdam
and joined previously existing communities of German Jews. Sephardim there considered the Ashkenazim to be socially and culturally
inferior. While the Sephardim were generally wealthy, the Ashkenazim were poor peddlers, petty
traders, artisans, diamond polishers, jewelry workers and
silversmiths. As the Sephardim became poorer in the 18th century, the communities became
more equal and more united.
The Jewish community in England also changed in the 1700s. It had been primarily Sephardi throughout the 1600s, but it became more Ashkenazi in culture as
growing numbers of German and Polish Jews arrived.
By 1750, out of 2,500 Jews in the American
Colonies, the majority was Ashkenazi. They were Yiddish-speaking Jews from Holland, Germany, Poland and England. The first Jews were
merchants and traders. Since then, Ashkenazi Jews have built up
communities throughout the United States.
By the end of the 19th century, as a
result of Russian persecution, there was massive Ashkenazi emigration
from Eastern Europe to other areas of Europe, Australia, South
Africa, the United States and Israel.
Ashkenazim outnumbered Sephardim everywhere except North Africa, Italy,
the Middle East and parts of Asia. Before World War II, Ashkenazim
comprised 90% of world Jewry.
The destruction of
European Jewry in World War II reduced the number of Ashkenazim
and, to some extent, their numeric superiority over Sephardim.
The United States became the main center for Ashkenazi Jews.
Over time Ashkenazim and Sephardim developed different prayer
liturgies, Torah services, Hebrew pronunciation and ways of life.
Originally, most Ashkenazim spoke Yiddish. Ashkenazi and Sephardi tunes for both prayers and Torah reading are different. An Ashkenazi
Torah lies flat while being read, while a Sephardi Torah stands up.
Ashkenazi scribes developed a distinctive script. One major
difference is in the source used for deciding Jewish law. Sephardim follow Rabbi Joseph Caros Shulhan
Arukh. The Ashkenazim go by Rabbi Moses
Isserles, who wrote a commentary on the Shulhan
Arukh citing Ashkenazi practice. There are differences in
many aspects of Jewish law, from which laws women are exempt from to
what food one is allowed to eat on Passover.
Today, many of the distinctions between Ashkenazim and Sephardim have disappeared. In both Israel and the United States today,
Ashkenazim and Sephardim live side by side, though they generally have separate institutions.
In Israel, political tensions continue to exist
because of feelings on the part of many Sephardim that they have been discriminated against and still dont get the
respect they deserve. Historically, the political elite of the nation
have been Ashkenazim; however, this is gradually changing. Shas,
a religious Sephardi party, has become one of the most powerful in the country and
individual Sephardi politicians now hold powerful positions. Moroccan-born David
Levy, for example, has served as foreign minister and, in July
2000, Iranian-born Moshe Katsav was elected president.
An international team of scientists announced on September 9 2014 that they had come to the conclusion that all Ashkenazi Jews are descended from an original group of about 350 individuals who lived between 600 and 800 years ago. These people were of Middle-Eastern and European descent. The analysis was done by comparing the DNA data of 128 Ashkenazi Jews with the DNA of a reference group of 26 Flemmish people from Belgium, and then working out which genetic markers are unique to people of Ashkenazi descent. The similarities in the Ashkenazi genomes allowed the scientists to identify a base point from which all Ashkenazi Jews descend. According to the scientists, this effectively makes all modern Ashkenazi Jews 30th cousins, stemming from the same population almost 800 years ago. This discovery may help medical professionals treat genetic diseases, because diseases like Tay Sachs and certain types of cancers are more prevalent in the Ashkenazi Jewish population. In order to treat these diseases doctors will now have a better idea of where to sequence an individuals genome to test for disease succeptability. This discovery also effectively disproves the idea that Ashkenazi Jews were descended from Khazars who converted to Judaism during the 8th or 9th centuries C.E.