Sephardim and Crypto-Judaism: Definition of Terms and Brief History


 By: Dr. Seth Ward, Program in Religious Studies, University of Wyoming

 What do we mean by the term "Sephardim"?


Spanish Jews are called Sephardim; the singular is "Sephardi." The Hebrew "sephardi" or "sepharadi" refers either to a single Spanish Jew, or is used as an adjective meaning pertaining to the Sephardim. For example, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) called himself Moses… the Sephardi. "Sephardic" is used in English as an adjective, not a noun: someone may be Sephardic, but the people should be called "Sephardim" rather than "Sephardics;"


Up to the fifteenth century, "Sephardi" was used primarily to refer to the Jewish community in the Iberian peninsula itself, or to someone who was born there. Thus Maimonides called himself "the Sephardi," but his son Abraham, born in Egypt, did not. This changed in the fifteenth and especially sixteenth centuries, primarily as a result of the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula.


How did the Biblical term Sepharad come to mean "Spain?"


The place-name "Sepharad" is mentioned in the Bible only in the book of Obadiah, where the prophet refers to the Jerusalemite exiles in Sepharad. There is no scholarly concensus as to the geographical location to which this passage originally referred. Some scholars have suggested locations in Mesopotamia, Sardis in Asia Minor, or Sparta in Greece. From late Roman times, some Jews assumed that Sepharad referred to Spain. In any case, this was but one instance of the transference of biblical terms such as Sepharad, Tzarefat and Ashkenaz from their original Middle-Eastern referents to European locales. By the Middle Ages, Sepharad was the normal term used by Jews to refer to Spain.


A Brief History of Jewish Life in Spain


According to Sephardic tradition, the first Jews to arrive in Spain were the exiles from Jerusalem to whom Obadiah referred, who came in the sixth pre-Christian century. Many scholars assume Jews settled in Spain in Roman times, but we have little information about Jewish life in Spain until the time of the Visigothic Spanish kingdom, which outlawed Judaism at the end of the seventh century after the kings had become Catholics. Spain was conquered by the Muslims in 711. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, Spanish Judaism flourished under the Muslims, producing poets, scholars, and courtiers of the first order. After the Christian Reconquista gained Toledo in 1085, when the Almoravids came to rule the Islamic side of the frontier, Jewish cultural achievements in Muslim Spain began to decline, disappearing under the Almohades in the mid-twelfth century. But Christian Spain meanwhile developed its remarkable convivencia in which Jews (and Muslims) were involved in cultural, intellectual, financial and even political life all over Christian Spain. By the mid-thirteenth century, the Christians controlled all of the Peninsula except for a small area from Granada to the Mediterranean. In many of the independent Spanish kingdoms, the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries still saw striking religious, cultural and literary achievements among the Jews, but Jews also faced increasing religious pressures and occasionally were forced to participate in religious "disputations" with Christians.


Anti-Jewish riots broke out in several cities in 1391. The fifteenth century was marked by continuing hardships and religious pressure, leading many Jews to convert or to leave Spain. In January, 1492, the Muslims were driven out of their last stronghold, Granada, completing the Reconquista. In March, 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella decreed the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Many Jews converted or left the Iberian peninsula; other Jews went to Portugal, where Judaism could still be practiced freely. But Portugal expelled its Jews in 1497, and the tiny kingdom of Navarre followed suit in 1498. Judaism could be practiced openly nowhere in the Peninsula.


The exact number of Jews who left Spain and Portugal at the end of the fifteenth century is debated by scholars, but may be estimated at several hundred thousand, significant enough to enable Sephardim to establish their own congregations in such places as Morocco, Italy, Egypt, the Ottoman Empire, the Land of Israel, and elsewhere. Eventually, Sephardic communities were established in Amsterdam, London and the New World as well. In many places the Sephardim, with their energy, resources, training and vitality, quickly took a leading role in local Jewish cultural and religious life.


"Sephardim" after 1492 


Today, Jews descended from the communities where Spanish Jews settled are called Sephardim. Indeed, the term "Sephardic Jews" is often used by extension to refer to all Jews who are not part of the Ashkenazi (Central and Eastern-European) culture-world. Although some Jews of Spanish heritage resent this loose usage, it reflects the success of Sephardic religious traditions, language and customs in many of the places in which the exiles settled. The "Sephardic Rite" is sometimes used to refer not to the prayer ritual of the Sephardim but of Rabbi Isaac Luria (d. 1573), an Ashkenazi (!) who combined elements of both Sephardic and Ashkenazic ritual. This prayerbook was adopted by the Hasidim in Eastern Europe and is probably the most common one in use in Israel today. 


Who are the Conversos?


Many Spanish Jews converted to Catholicism in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, especially in the aftermath of the Edict of Expulsion in 1492. These "conversos," often called "New Christians," included many who became devout, believing Catholics, or at any rate educated their children to be. Others, however, preserved Jewish practices and did their utmost to retain some sort of Jewish identity. Most knew little or nothing about the Jewish religion and beliefs of their ancestors; some may have developed an interest in Judaism only after threatened by or actually charged by the Inquisition. Scholars debate the percentage of New Christians who were loyal to Judaism; some believe it was very low. Nevertheless, a steady stream of conversos and their descendants returned to the open practice of Judaism throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and even afterward; often their communities were called "Spanish-Portuguese." Conversos or their descendants who were believed to continue Jewish practices or to hold Jewish beliefs were called "Marranos," a derogatory term meaning "swine."


What do we mean by the term Crypto-Judaism?


"Crypto-Judaism" is used to describe the broad range of secret practices and beliefs of those secretly maintaining some tie to Judaism but forced to uphold another religion in public. Although the term is almost always used with respect to Sephardic conversos, it could be said to apply to the secret Judaism practiced under Islam under the Almohades in the 12th century, in Mashhad, Iran, in the 19th-20th centuries, and possibly to the Turkish Dönme. Due to its secretive nature, a sense of community was possible only in fairly remote areas; even so, there was a constant fear that a practice might "give them away" to the authorities, or even that a family member might turn them in.


"Crypto-Judaism" is used to refer to a wide range of phenomena. In some cases, families are reported to have transmitted explicit statements such as "We are Jews" through the generations. In other cases, no one knew the reason for practices passed down as family traditions.


What about Crypto-Judaism in the New World?


Some of those who settled in Spain’s American colonies were conversos or descendants of conversos. When Spain established the Inquisition in her New-World colonies, inquisitors soon found much evidence of "Judaizing." Whether from loyalty to Judaism or fear of the Inquisition (which confiscated property first and conducted hearings only afterwards), many New Christians found their ways to remote areas. Research documentation is particularly strong about New Christian settlement in what later became northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Inquisition records clearly indicate, however, that throughout the Spanish empire, the Holy Office located individuals who expressed loyalty to the "Law of Moses" rather than to Christianity, and suffered the consequences.


At the end of the seventeenth century, the Inquisition for the most part lost interest in prosecuting crypto-Jews, ironically leading to a dramatic reduction in the preservation of Judaic practices. Many crypto-Judaic families lost much of their identity and assimilated into the Catholic mainstream. Others, however, appear to have maintained some Jewish customs, and even a consciousness of their ancestral faith. Today, some of the descendants of New Christians are discovering their Jewish or converso heritage. At least in some villages, traditional converso crypto-Judaic practices have survived up to the present.


Not all manifestations of Judaism in these areas should be assumed to preserve converso practices brought over from Spain. There may well have been other contacts with Jews, and, curiously, several communities sometimes thought to be converso descendants who returned to Judaism may reflect instead the workings of a Judeophilic Protestant missionary church.


At the end of the twentieth century, many converso descendants from this area find themselves no longer in the village but in the city. They have come into contact with Jews, but also have lost some of their contact with family and village traditions. Paradoxically, as these traditions have begun to fade, those who have inherited them are in a better position to relate to them openly. This process has not only been going on in the American Southwest, but in Portugal itself, where the converso community of Belmonte openly returned to Judaism, undergoing a formal conversion ceremony.                      

Seth Ward


This pamphlet was prepared by Dr. Seth Ward, approximately 1999, and retrieved from the “Wayback Machine” and presented here without substantive editing. Ward was then at the Center for Judaic Studies and the Department of History, University of Denver, and served as President of the Hispano Crypto-Jewish Resource Center.

For more information, contact Dr. Ward at or visit

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