The Economic Differences between the Sephardim and Ashkenazim

While the idea of Convivencia (positive social interaction and tolerance) is perhaps exaggerated with regards to Jewish life in Spain, the complex interrelationships of Muslims, Christians, and Jews provided the latter with a much more open society than that experienced by Jews living in medieval Germany or France. The differences between the Sephardim and Ashkenazim were, however often as attributable to simple issues like economic reality  as they were to differences in religious philosophy and application. Because the differences are simply too many to full enumerate, we will review a few examples.

                      Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed

The leniency of the Ashkenazim with regards to wine of non-Jews or Jewish wine handled by non-Jews is a perfect example.  In France and Germany, many Jews worked in wine trade and viticulture.[1] According to the Talmud wine handled by or made by non-Jews is prohibited as a beverage, nor may any benefit be derived from it.[2]  The prohibition extended rabbinically to even wine which was not definitely known to have been dedicated to an idol. The Biblical prohibition only restricts wine explicitly known to have been dedicated to an idol. The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law for Sephardic Jews) composed by Rabbi Joseph Caro retained the Talmudic prohibition.  The Ashkenazic rabbi, Moses Isserles, however, in his gloss to the Shulchan Aruch specifically mentions economic concern as the motivation for a more lenient application of the law. Rabbi Isserles explains,

“Since libation is not usual nowadays, some say that our wine touched by a non-Jew is prohibited only as far as drinking it concerned, but on may have a benefit from it. The same applies to setham yenam [the case of wine not definitively known to have been dedicated to an idol]. Because of this it is allowed to take their wine (setham yenam) as repayment of a debt since it is regarded as ‘rescue’ from their hands. Similarly, whenever a loss (of money) is imminent, e.g. if one has already bought (be-diabad) suspect wine, only may have a benefit from it. But one should not intentionally deal in the in the first instance (le-chathhilla) Some even permit this as well, but it is better to be scrupulous.”[3]

In contrast, Sephardic Rabbi Moses ben Maimon also known as Maimonides applied the Talmudic restrictions completely when dealing with Christians. He did however, concede some leniency with respect to Arabs, though this appears to be in line with the view of earlier Geonim. The general prohibition against alcohol by Islam most likely provided the basis of the leniency as did the idea that Muslims were monotheists.[4]

Sephardi leniency in the area of terefah (a kosher animal that is torn in the field, improperly slaughtered, or has genetic defects) is generally assumed. Geographical and economic influences on the observance of Terefah however reflected the different economic realities of the Sephardim. In some areas Ashkenazim owned slaughter houses, while in others they used the abattoirs of their non-Jewish neighbors.

In the latter cases, non-Jews provided the cattle. In such cases, the ability to more thoroughly inspect the lungs of slaughtered animals gave these Ashkenazim the ability to be more meticulous.  Animals which did not meet these requirements were simply provided to non-Jewish customers and hence no economic problems existed between Jewish and non- Jewish slaughterers.  In the case of Castile for example, where non-Jews refused to eat meat slaughtered by Jews, the concern for financial loss caused Sephardic rabbis to rule in accordance with Talmudic law only, and not on stricter laws introduced by recent authorities.[5]

Another example is that of selling hametz  (leaven) before Passover. Since many Jews in Poland and Germany traded in spirits or kept arendas (inns), the wholesale divesture of hametz could lead to financial ruin.[6]  The idea of selling hametz apparently developed over time. The first stage involved the actual sale of hametz to a non-Jew.[7] While the amount received would likely been lower that its actual value, its sale at least curtailed a full loss. The second stage saw the sale of hametz to a non-Jew with the expectation that it could be purchased back after Passover.[8] The third stage saw a sale of the hametz without its removal from the original owner’s premises or full payment, which remains in practice today. [9]

We will continue this review in subsequent posts.

[1] H.J. Zimmels, Ashkenazim and Sephardim: The Relations, Differences, and Problems as Reflected in the Rabbinical Responsa, (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), 210.

[2] Avodah Zarah 29b.

[3] Yoreh Deah., cap. 123, no. 1. H.J. Zimmels, Ashkenazim and Sephardim: The Relations, Differences, and Problems as Reflected in the Rabbinical Responsa, (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), 210.

[4] Ibid., 211.

[5] H.J. Zimmels, Ashkenazim and Sephardim: The Relations, Differences, and Problems as Reflected in the Rabbinical Responsa, (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), 200.

[6] Ibid., 215.

[7] Ibid., 215.

[8] Ibid., 215.

[9] Ibid., 215.-216.

Posted  Rabbi Juan Bejarano-Gutierrez the director of the B’nei Anusim Center for Education and author of What is Kosher?

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