On the history of the term “Sepharad”

by Seth Ward, University of Wyoming

Originally posted sometime before 2001. Recovered from archive.org October 2012.

  The Jews of Spain, some of whom trace their settlement in the Iberian peninsula back to the sixth pre-Christian century, eventually came to call their new home "Sepharad," a place-name mentioned only once in the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Obadiah (v. 20). Perhaps this was because of a perceived similarity of the term to "Espaniah," or, perhaps, to "sephar," which in the Aramaic vernacular would denote furthermost limit or seacoast. It is also possible, as has been suggested by David Neiman, that it reflects an ancient connection with the colonization of Spain by people from Sardis, in what is now Western Asiatic Turkey. (D. Neiman, "Sefarad, the Name of Spain," Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 22 (1963) 128-132.) Indeed, a bi-lingual inscription found in Sardis in Hebrew and Greek characters, and occurrences in other Greek, Mesopotamian and Egyptian writings, support the conjecture that the Old Testament usage actually refers to the city or area of Sardis, surely perceived as a far-distant location in Obadiah’s time.  In any case, Jews immigrating to Spain brought along this serviceable term to express both the remoteness of the peninsula and their spiritual identification with Scriptures and Holy Land.  By early mediaeval times, Spanish Jews were referring to themselves as Sephardim. 

  Obadiah the prophet refers to the exile of Jerusalem in Sepharad.  Although the term has come to refer to Spain, there is no consensus about what the term originally meant in the Book of Obadiah. 

  Sepharad is clearly not one of the ancient Biblical "nations of the world," entities mentioned in the "Table of Nations" in Genesis 11, many of which have clear references to ancient peoples. It is not even clear  whether "Sepharad" in Obadiah represents a concrete reference to a real  location, or a veiled, poetic or prophetic reference to what may be  merely a symbolic toponym. Traditional interpreters of this verse have not even agreed about whether it refers to exiles which occured after the destruction of the first or second Temples. Obadiah, who was close in time to the destruction of the First Temple, may have been referring to the dispersion of Judaeans at that time. We know about Judaeans in Babylonia and Egypt, although perhaps they were in other locations as well. Many Jewish commentators, however, aware of the association of Sepharad with Spain, assume the passage is talking prophetically about  the exile from Jerusalem under Titus, an event far in the future in  Obadiah’s time. 

  Some of the discussion of this matter depends on a sense of group pride.  Regardless of the dating of the Jerusalemite dispersion in Sepharad, the association of Obadiah’s Sepharad with Spain confers upon this group the sense of an ancient heritage, and a centuries-old presence in the Iberian  peninsula. There is no reason to dismiss the possibility of Roman-period Jewish settlement in Spain, and Judaean settlement there may possibly  even predate Roman times. But the later application of the term Sepharad to Spain is irrelevant to the discussion of when Jews first arrived there.   

  Centuries after Obadiah, the Jews of Sardis in Asia Minor apparently  assumed Sepharad in the Bible referred to their community in Roman and  Byzantine times; many scholars assume that Obadiah’s reference, or the  Talmudic period understanding of the term, may have been this or some  other location in Asia Minor. Presumably this is because of the  similarity in sound between Sardis and Sepharad.  

  The Targum or Aramaic translation of Obadiah, ascribed to Jonathan ben Uzziel, provides what may be the earliest example of making Obadiah’s Sepharad refer to Spain: Targum Jonathan translates Sepharad in Obad. 20 as "Espamia." According to the Talmud, Jonathan was a student of Hillel, which would date him to the end of the last pre-Christian century or beginning of the first Christian century. But scholars assume that the Targum Jonathan is much later than that, and certainly "Espamia" could well be a gloss by an even later hand. 

  The Pshitta, a Christian Aramaic translation of the Bible, also glosses Sepharad to refer to Spain. Here too, the date of the Peshitta is hard to determine; any dating based on this occurrence would involve careful examination of variants in manuscript texts.

  Presumably the association of Sepharad with Spain is based on the similarity of sounds. Note, however, that the assonance is not as clearly evident or lacking in ascription of biblical terms like Tsarefat and Ashkenaz to France and Germany. 

  The editors of the Encyclopedia Judaica assert that Sepharad became the most common way of referring to Spain already in Jewish texts of the  eighth century. Yet this ascription was not so standard as to obviate comment by such twelfth century scholars as Ibn Ezra, Rashi and David  Kimchi. Nor had Sepharad had not totally replaced Espaniah or Espamiah  (or al-Andalus in Judaeo-Arabic) in other texts from this period. These references show that the term Sepharad was widely understood to refer to  Spain, but it was not so standard as to pass without comment.  

  One of the more fanciful suggestions about the derivation of Sepharad was offered by a seventeenth century churchman. Dwelling on a superficial similarity in English transcription, he associated Sepharad with the term "span," which he said meant, inter alia "hidden." In Hebrew the term tsafun "hidden" shares only one letter with Sepharad. While the "S" of Sepharad and "Tz" of tzafun might be rendered the same in English, they are distinct in Hebrew.  Perhaps the "n" was suggested by the final letter in the English name of the country. 

  To summarize: Sepharad is found only once in the Bible, in the book of Obadiah. There is no consensus about what location Obadiah had in mind when using this term. Several centuries after Obadiah, the term was appplied to Sardis, at least by the Jewish residents of Sardis, and may have been applied to other areas in Asia Minor or perhaps elsewhere.   Still later, it came to be the term generally used to refer to Spain.  While the use of Sepharad to refer to Spain may go back to the reputed  time of Jonathan ben Uzziel, the end of the last pre-Christian century,  it is really not possible to fix with certainty when this usage is first  encountered, or when it became common. Probably it was already in common use by the eighth century, but even in mediaeval times it was still necessary to provide a presumably more familiar term, Espamia, to describe the location. 

  The original meaning of Sepharad as used by Obadiah cannot be known with certainty if at all; nor can the date by which it was commonly adopted to refer to Spain. Thus from the historian’s viewpoint, it has no historical relevance for determining the beginnings of the community. The true significance lies elsewhere. The term "Sepharad" symbolizes the high aspirations of the Jewish community of Spain, and their deep sense of heritage. It is no doubt the source of the uniform ascription by Sephardim of their ancestry to exiles from Judaea, more specifically, from Jerusalem, (to give only one example, Ibn Verga’s title Shevet Yehuda "The Tribe of Judah" for his history of Spanish Jewry) and supports the antiquity of their arrival in Spain. (Apparently this is also the source of the assumption sometimes encountered that the exile of Ashkenaz comprises non-Judaeans; since the Ten Tribes went off into captivity these must be descendants of the erev-rav "mixed multitude." The earliest reference of which I am currently aware is from Israel Zangwill’s King of the Schnorrers). Ancestry from Judah connects the community with Scriptures and prophecy, and with a promised return to the Holy Land. Thus, underlying the application of Sepharad to Spain (or to Sardis before it) is a statement of great cultural and even ideological meaning. Although it tells us little if anything about the actual history of the community, it provides a clear symbol of values Jews see within history. 

  Seth Ward  

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