Ashkenazi (אשכנזי, Standard Hebrew Aškanazi, Tiberian Hebrew ʾAškănāzī) Jews or Ashkenazic Jews, also called Ashkenazim (אשכנזים, Standard Hebrew Aškanazim, Tiberian Hebrew ʾAškănāzīm), are Jews who are descendants of Jews from Germany, Poland, Austria and Eastern Europe. In historical times, Ashkenazi Jews usually spoke Yiddish or Slavic languages such as (now extinct) Knaanic.
Since the 19th century, many of them have emigrated to other countries such as France, the United States and, recently, Israel.
History of the word Ashkenaz
Ashkenaz is a traditional Hebrew word for Germany, and in particular to the area along the Rhine where the allemani tribe once lived (compare the French and Spanish words Allemagne and Alemania, respectively, for Germany).
The word ashkenazi is often used in medieval rabbinic literature. References to Ashkenaz in Yosippon and Hasdai's letter to the king of the Khazars would date the term as far back as the tenth century, as would also Saadia Gaon's commentary on Daniel 7:8. Literature about the alleged Turkic origin of the Ashkenazi population appeared mainly after 1950. In the first half of the eleventh century Hai Gao n refers to questions that had been addressed to him from "Ashkenaz", by which he undoubtedly means Germany. Rashi in the latter half of the eleventh century refers to both the language of Ashkenaz (Commentary on Deuteronomy 3:9; idem on Talmud tractate Sukkah 17a) and the country of Ashkenaz (Talmud, Hullin 93a). During the twelfth century the word appears quite frequently. In the "Mahzor Vitry", the kingdom of Ashkenaz is referred to chiefly in regard to the ritual of the synagogue there, but occasionally also with regard to certain other observances (ib. p. 129).
In the literature of the thirteenth century references to the land and the language of Ashkenaz often occur. See especially Solomon ben Adret 's Responsa (vol. i., No. 395); the Responsa of Asher ben Jehiel (pp. 4, 6); his "Halakot" (Berakot i. 12, ed. Wilna, p. 10); the work of his son Jacob ben Asher, "Tur Orah Hayyim" (chapter 59); the Responsa of Isaac ben Sheshet (numbers 193, 268, 270).
The first use of the name comes from a Midrash about the descendants of Japheth (Genesis 10:1). In the Midrash compilation Genesis Rabbah, Rabbi Berechiah mentions "Ashkenaz, Riphath, and Togarmah" as German tribes or as German lands. It may correspond to a Greek word that may have existed in the Greek dialect of the Palestinian Jews, or the text is corrupted from "Germanica." This view of Berechiah is based on the Talmud (Yoma 10a; Jerusalem Talmud Megillah 71b), where Gomer, the father of Ashkenaz, is translated by "Germamia," which evidently stands for Germany, and which was suggested by the similarity of the sound.
In later times the word Ashkenaz is used to designate southern and western Germany, the ritual of which sections differs somewhat from that of eastern Germany and Poland. Thus the prayer-book of Isaiah Horowitz , and many others, give the piyyutim according to the Minhag of Ashkenaz and Poland.
Customs, laws and traditions
The halachic practices of Ashkenazic Jews may differ from those of Sephardic Jews, particularly in matters of custom. Differences are noted in the Shulkhan Arukh itself, in the gloss of Moses Isserles. Well known differences in practice include:
- Observance of Pesach (Passover): Ashkenazic Jews traditionally refrain from eating legumes, peanuts, corn, millet, and rice, whereas Sephardic Jews do not prohibit these foods.
- In the case of Kashrut for meat, conversely, Sephardic Jews have stricter requirements - this level is commonly referred to as Bet Yosef . Meat products which are not Glatt , may still be acceptable to Ashkenazic Jews as kosher, but are considered by the Sephardi to be Treif (non-kosher).
- Ashkenazic Jews frequently name newborn children after deceased family members, but not after living relatives. Sephardic Jews, on the other hand, often name their children after the children's grandparents, even if those grandparents are still living. (See Sephardi Names).
- Ashkanazic Jews have a custom not to see their bride/groom one week prior to their wedding.
Relationship to other Jews
The term Ashkenazi also refers to the nusach (Hebrew, "liturgical tradition") used by Ashkenazi Jews in their Siddur (prayer book). A nusach is defined by a liturgical tradition's choice of prayers, order of prayers, text of prayers and melodies used in the singing of prayers.
This phrase is often used in contrast with Sephardic Jews, also called Sephardim, who are descendants of Jews from Spain, and Portugal. There are some differences in how the two groups pronounce Hebrew, and in points of ritual.
Several famous people have this as a surname, e.g. Vladimir Ashkenazi. Ironically, most people with this surname are in fact Sepharadim, and usually of Syrian-Jewish background. This family name was adopted by the families who lived in Sephardic countries and were of Askenazic origins, after being nicknamed Askenazi by their respective communities. Some have shortened the name to Ash. Other spellings exist, such as Eskenazi by the Syrian-Jew s who relocated to Panama and other South-American Jewish communities.
See also: Jew, Judaism, Rabbenu Gershom
The Ashkenazi Jewish population has, like many other populations, a higher incidence of specific hereditary diseases. Genetic counseling and genetic testing are recommended for couples where both partners are of Ashkenazi ancestry. Some organizations, most notably Dor Yeshorim, organize screening programs to prevent homozygosity for the genes that cause these diseases. A large number of these diseases are neurological. See Jewish Genetics Center http://www.jewishgeneticscenter.org for more information on testing programmes.
Diseases with higher incidence in Ashkenazim include:
Many studies report Ashkenazim to have the highest average IQ of any ethnic group, with the most pronounced gains in tests of verbal ability. See the article Race and intelligence for further discussion.
- Beider, Alexander (2001): A Dictionary of Ashkenazic Given Names: Their Origins, Structure, Pronunciations, and Migrations. Avotaynu. ISBN 1886223122.
- Brook, Kevin Alan (1999): The Jews of Khazaria. Jason Aronson. ISBN 0765762129.
- Brook, Kevin Alan (2003): "The Origins of East European Jews" in Russian History/Histoire Russe vol. 30, nos. 1-2, pp. 1-22.
- Haumann, Heiko (2001): A History of East European Jews. Central European University Press. ISBN 9639241261.
- Koestler, Arthur (1976): The Thirteenth Tribe: The Khazar Empire and Its Heritage. Random House. ISBN 0394402847. (Most hypotheses in this book are now considered incorrect by most historians)
- Wexler, Paul (1993): The Ashkenazic Jews: A Slavo-Turkic People in Search of a Jewish Identity. Columbus: Slavica. ISBN 0893572411.
Last updated: 02-06-2005 20:58:04
Last updated: 05-03-2005 02:30:17