On Sunday at LimmudPhilly, Rabbi Albert Gabbai did a session on Sephardic Jewry. Unlike a lot of Limmud sessions that have some highly specific point they’re getting at, Gabbai, the rabbi at Sephardic Philly shul Congregation Mikveh Israel (founded 1740!), was just sort of talking a rather tangential fashion about Sephardi Jews. Then he took questions from a rather dumbstruck group of rather Ashkenazi Jews.
Here are my notes, with an emphasis on what he had to say about ritual and liturgy:
- Who is Albert Gabbai? He’s been the rabbi at CMI for like 20 years. He is of Baghdadi descent (see this for more on Philly’s other Baghdadi rabbi), but he grew up in Cairo. And his mother in law is from Livorno.
Sephardi Siddurim:I inquired about which Seph. siddurim he recommended. He recommended David De Sola Pool’s classic Seph. siddur and current Seatle Seph. cantor Isaac Azose’s siddur. Here’s an article that I haven’t read that compares the two.
- Syrian ArtScroll whaaaat? He also mentioned that some Syrian Jews went to ArtScroll for a siddur. I said that sounds disastrous. He agreed. He thinks it wasn’t published under the ArtScroll name though. I’m guessing they went to ArtScroll for layout help or something like that. Still. Terrible.
- Year 68, not 70: According to Seph. tradition, the second Temple was destroyed in the year 68, not the year 70.
- Ladino is not a language: He was quite adamant that Judeo-Spanish is a language and that Ladino is merely a translation of either Spanish into Hebrew or Hebrew into Spanish–it was unclear which way. He also mentioned Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-French, Judeo-Italian–and of course, Yiddish. He emphasized that all were written in Hebrew characters and then cracked a joke about how American Jews all transliterate Hebrew into English all the time.
- Seph. Jews arrive at conclusions! He was quite adamant–this became a recurring theme of the session–that Seph. Jews arrive at conclusions and Ashkenazi Jews just talk and talk and discuss and discuss and never settle anything. (So?) In support of this, he mentioned that the major law codes–Shulchan Aruch and Mishneh Torah–are Seph. creations.
- Seph. Jewish scholars are cooler: Rashi takes midrash even it if makes no sense, he says. Ramban (seph., of course) is more logical. And Ibn Ezra might be called the first modern biblical critic.
- Seph. Jews study secular stuff: While there are Ashk. yeshivot that don’t study science etc, Seph. Jews all follow the Ramban, who says that you must study science and philosophy.
- They hang their mezuzah straight: The original tradition was vertical or horizontal. Ashk–who, he pointed out, never like to settle the argument–compromised and hang it at an angle. But Seph. say, “No compromise! Either, or!”
- He is very punny: While explaining why Seph. Jews eat beans and rice during Passover, he mentions spelt. Someone asks what that is. He says, “Spelt. S-P-E-L-T. There, I just spelt it!”
- Different legal fiction for lighting candles: I have to say, I think the Sephardim have it right on this one. There is a problem: One cannot light fire on Shabbat. One cannot say a blessing after the act being blessed has been performed. And candles must be lit at the start of Shabbat and the act of lighting them must be blessed. Ashk. Jews work around this by lighting them, then covering their eyes and saying the blessing. Then, they open their eyes and–surprise!–the candles have been lit. Sephardim just light them shortly before Shabbat and announce that it is now Shabbat and begin acting as though it it. As Gabbai pointed out, you can’t delay Shabbat, but you can welcome it into your home early.
- How many times around the groom? Germans brides go 3 times around the groom. Polish brides go 7 times. Seph. brides don’t go at all. Which is great because it gives some precedent for eschewing that bizarre practice altogether
- If there are too many reasons, there is no reason: That thing about going around the groom was the first example of Gabbai’s favorite thing: pointing out a minhag with no real reason. “If there are many reasons, he said, there is no reason.” I like this guy.
- No white for wedding: They don’t wear white for their weddings, they don’t fast before their weddings and they don’t avoid seeing their intended for any arbitrary period before their weddings. He mentioned that there is Talmudic tradition that the bride and groom are cleansed of their sins before the wedding. “You can still have sins forgiven if you don’t wear a white coat!” he said.
- Tefilin inward: Seph. wrap their tefiling inward instead of outward. Apparently, Lubavitchers do this also. He said they have many Seph. traditions because Kabbalah is of Seph. origin.
- No yizkor: It started in 1648 after the Chmielnitzky massacre in Europe, so Seph. never picked up the tradition. He wondered to us whether German shuls have it, since the massacre was in Poland. “You have to go to a real Yekke synagogue to find out!” he said.
- Bride buys groom a talit: The bride buys the groom a new talit for the wedding, though Seph. boys begin wearing their first talit when they’re six. During Sheva Brachot, the bride and groom stand wrapped in the talit together. I think that’s nice.
- Yahrtzeit: They say Kaddish from the Shabbat preceding the anniversary of the loved one’s death through the day of the anniversary. So if the anniversary is on Tuesday, they say it Shabbat, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and then they stop.
- No cantors! A Seph. chazan, according to Rabbi Gabbai, has only one job: to pass on the tradition as he has received it. So melodies, he says, don’t change. “Not a cantor!” he emphasizes. Seph. nusach is in a major scale, not a minor one like Ashk. so it’s happier and more uplifting.
- A very ancient nusach: Some melodies are from Spain, but for some things, such as Az Yashir and Ps. 92, the nusach is pentatonic, which means it’s very ancient. It’s similar to the Greek Orthodox Church music, which purports to be so ancient that it’s from the Temple.
- No chaos! To avoid chaos, Seph. always roll to Torah to the proper place ahead of time.
- And no Kabbalat Shabbat either! In the Amsterdam Seph. community, the reaction to the disappointment of Shabbetai Tzvi was to remove Kabbalat Shabbat, by association. But they kept Lecha Dodi!
- Persians do what? Persian Jews whip each other with scallions during the seder.
- If you chew it long enough… He said that they use lettuce for the bitter herb. “It you chew it long enough, it gets very bitter.” Whatever. Lettuce is for sissies. Real Jews use magenta horse radish!
- Lemon juice? He also claimed you can use lemon juice instead of salt water.