Sephardic Jews have been erroneously been described as almost "any" Jews which are not Ashkenazi, meaning descendant from Eastern Europe and Asia such as Russia. This is a politically correct term, but it is not an accurate one and thus should not be perpetuated. A more accurate statement would read more like the following:
The Sephardic Jews make up the second largest division of the Jewish population. The Sephardim have their historic roots in Spain, Portugal, North Africa as well as Mesopotamia and Arabia. They developed and shared common religious and cultural bonds with their fellow co-religionists from the Iberian/North African Atlantic seaboard to the eastern portion of the Fertile Crescent for at least the last 1,500 years. Sephardim have developed and possess a shared relationship based upon unique religious traditions, collective ideals, customs and ethnicity.
Today, Sephardic Jews inhabit all corners of the earth, with large populations living in North and South America as well as France, Turkey and Israel. Smaller populations exist in Amsterdam, Britain and Greece.
According to Sephardic tradition, the first Jews to arrive in Spain were the exiles from Jerusalem to whom the profit Obadia 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 CE. 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 CE, when the Almoravids came to rule the Islamic side of the frontier, Jewish cultural achievements in Muslim Spain (in cities such as Cordoba) 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.
Violent anti-Jewish riots broke out in several cities in 1391 CE, causing many to flee, and leaving thousands of Spanish Jews dead. The fifteenth century was marked by continuing hardships and religious pressure, leading many Jews to convert or to leave Spain. In January, 1492 CE, the Muslims were driven out of their last stronghold, Granada, completing the Reconquista.
Highly Recommended Reading: The Spanish Inquisitionby Prof. Cecil Roth (Available at all bookstores)
In the year 1481 CE, the Vatican established the Inquisition in Spain and for the following 11 years countless thousands of Spanish Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism. Others were tortured and burnt at the stake after Sunday mass in churches around Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, and Toledo.
In March 1492 CE, 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 CE, and the tiny kingdom of Navarre followed suit in 1498 CE.
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.
Sephardic Jews were warmly welcomed in the Ottoman Turkish empire. From the 1490’s CE, and in increasing numbers throughout the first quarter of the sixteenth century, boatload after boatload of Sephardic Jews arrived in the Ottoman Empire. The cities: Istanbul, Izmir, Safed, and Salonica became the centers for Sephardic Jewry. Sephardic Jews held very distinguished positions as diplomats, physicians, and literary icons. In 1493 CE a Sephardic Jew created a printing press, one of the most innovative inventions of its time.
Two Main Judaic Traditions: Ashkenazi and Sephardi
Ashkenazic Jews are Jews who lived or live in Eastern Europe - Poland, Germany, Russia, Lithuania, etc. Sephardic Jews are Jews who lived in Spanish speaking countries, primarily Spain and Portugal, Israel and the Near East. These groups naturally have some customs that are different because they were separated by great distances and also were influenced by the cultures in which they lived.
Fundamentally the word "Ashkenazic" is derived from the Hebrew word for Germany, it has taken on a broader definition that includes not only German Jews but those of Eastern Europe and Russia as well. Much like how the word "Sephardic" (which is derived from the Hebrew word for Spain) has come to represent the Jews of the the Middle Eastern communities.There are some Jews who do not fit into this Ashkenazic/Sephardic distinction. Yemenite Jews, Ethiopian Jews (also known as Beta-Israel and sometimes called Falashas), Asian Jews, etc. Though we all have rich and distinct customs and traditions, however we are ALL Jewish. We all speak the same Hebrew, read the Torá, study the Talmud, pray the same prayers, eat kasher food, and celebrate the same festivals.
Religious Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews have their own synagogues because they have their own special worship customs. However, they recognize and respect one another's cultures and traditions.
Today in Israel there is a Chief Sephardic Rabbi, as well as a Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi. They work for all the Jews, however they conduct rulings and provide, counsel, wisdom, and judgment primarily to the people within their own communities.