Medieval Jewish Culture

In Muslim and Christian lands.

Two great cultural sub-communities of Jews, Ashkenazim and Sephardim (their names date back to Biblical terminology), emerged during the Middle Ages. Ashkenazim had moved through Italy to the Rhineland, where they were concentrated during the high Middle Ages, and would later migrate to Poland and central and eastern Europe. Ashkenazim traditionally spoke Yiddish, a language that incorporates elements from Hebrew and German, although the language of their learned culture, largely religious, was Hebrew.

Sephardim are Jews who can trace their ancestry to the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal), although the term is sometimes used conterminously with Mizrahim (Easterners) to refer to any Jews other than Ashkenazim. Sephardic Jews traditionally spoke Ladino, a mixture of Spanish and Hebrew, and wrote extensively in Arabic. They can trace their religious traditions to Babylon.

Although their culinary and religious customs differed, both groups looked to Jewish law to shape their religious lives. Most, but not all Jews are either Sephardic or Ashkenazi. Italian, Yemenite and Iranian Jews are examples of other cultural sub-communities who inhabited their regions from ancient times, and maintained their own languages, foods, and customs.

Sephardic Jewish culture was transformed as a result of contact with Arab-Muslim civilization. Jews in Muslim lands adopted Arabic as their primary spoken and written tongue. Because of their fluency in Arabic, these Jews had access to secular culture. In this manner, a Jewish intelligentsia developed and became a part of the cultural elite of the Arab world, contributing to mathematics, philosophy, medicine, and poetry from Baghdad to Barcelona. Sephardic Jews also developed systematic approaches to biblical exegesis and codification of Jewish law.

Still, Jews continued to officially operate as a state within a state, with the synagogue as the central communal institution. Outside of the religious realm, Jews, especially the elite, maintained both professional and social relationships with their Muslim and Christian neighbors and were involved in government affairs. This state of multicultural harmony worked best in times of peace and economic stability; for war and/or economic crisis threatened these ties. Significantly, Sephardic Jews took this tradition of participation in secular culture with them as they relocated, after the 1492 expulsion from Spain, to the Ottoman Empire, Italy, Amsterdam, and the New World.

Culture in Christendom

In Christian Europe, Ashkenazi Jews were organized into kehillot (communities) by the eleventh century. A kehillah was a legally autonomous corporation of Jews that possessed recognized legal status in the feudal state. The kehillah organized the educational, religious, administrative, social, medical and penal services for the Jewish community.

The Jews did not resent this status. It provided them with the opportunity to maintain their religion. The synagogue remained the center of Jewish life. The Jews administered their own laws, based on religious law. Virtually all legal disputes were resoled within the Jewish community in Jewish courts before Jewish justices.

But the kehillah was insular. In the German lands and Poland there was neither the love of secular learning nor the embrace of sciences that characterized Sephardic Jewry. On the other hand, the rapid dispersion of printing drove the wide dissemination of rabbinic literature and from the sixteenth century on, typical Ashkenazi Jewish education dealt exclusively albeit enthusiastically with Jewish textual study. The goal of most Ashkenazi families was to produce religiously devout, learned men whose economic needs could be met by inheriting a family business or by an advantageous marriage.

Discover More

Eight Jewish Nobel Laureates You Should Know

These eight lesser-known Jewish Nobel laureates made groundbreaking contributions to science, culture and more.

Eight Famous Jewish Nobel Laureates

From Albert Einstein to Bob Dylan, there are many Jewish Nobel laureates who have become household names.

Modern Israel at a Glance

An overview of the Jewish state and its many accomplishments and challenges.