Origin of Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Karaite Jews

Today, most Jews either identify themselves as Ashkenazi Jew or Sephardic Jew and minority are Karaite Jews. The differences between Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Karaite Jews are the result of history and geography.

Ashkenzic Jews

The Babylonian exile and later dispersions forced the Jews to live in the Diaspora (communities outside of Israel). Those who eventually ended up in Central and Eastern Europe became known as Ashkenazim, or Ashkenazic Jews (derived from Ashkenaz, the Hebrew word for “Germany”).

Sepharadic Jews

Those who resided in southern France, Spain, Portugal, North Africa, and the Middle East came to be known as Sephardim, or Sephardic Jews (derived from Sepharad, the Hebrew word for “Spain”).

Most of the early Jewish settlers in the United States were Sephardic, as were the first Jewish synagogues (Shearith Israel, founded in New York in 1684, and Congregation Mikveh Israel, founded in Philadelphia in 1740).

However, the majority of Jews living in the United States today are Ashkenazic. They are descended from Jews who emigrated from Germany and Eastern Europe from the mid-nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries.

The respective cultures of the countries in which the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim lived greatly affected these two Jewish groups in terms of their customs, language, and modes of thinking.

It has been said that perhaps Sephardic Jews place greater emphasis on intellectualism, although they also practiced the Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism. Unlike the Ashkenazim, the Sephardim never split into separate branches of Judaism.

Today Sephardim practice Orthodox Judaism, which is similar to the Orthodox branch of the Ashkenazim.

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The major disagreement between the Pharisees and the Sadducees was the validity of the Oral Torah and whether or not it had come directly from God or was merely commentary inspired by human minds alone.

During the ninth century C.E., a movement in Persia again voiced skepticism over the validity of the Oral Torah, rejecting rabbinical law as part of the Jewish tradition.

Karaites Jews

The Karaites jews, or “People of the Scripture,” believed in a literal reading of the Bible without rabbinical interpretation. The Rabbanites (Rabbinical Judaism) opposed this viewpoint

It has been estimated that, at one time, as many as 40 percent of Jews were Karaites. Until recently, a surviving Karaite community jews existed in Egypt.

In 1967, after the Six-Day War between Egypt and Israel, most Karaites immigrated to Israel, Europe, or the United States. Currently the Karaite community is minuscule, but it retains its particular culture, which developed during centuries of existence in Egypt.