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.
Sources: Ausubel, Nathan. Pictorial History of the
Jewish People. New York: Crown Publishers, 1953.