LimmudPhilly: In which a Sephardic Rabbi answers a bunch of questions

I went to LimmudPhilly and wrote a bunch of posts. Here’s a guide to them.

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.
  • Azose's siddurim

    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.
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20 responses to “LimmudPhilly: In which a Sephardic Rabbi answers a bunch of questions

  1. Pingback: A guide to posts about LimmudPhilly | The Reform Shuckle

  2. “Seph. wrap their tefiling inward instead of outward. Apparently, Lubavitchers do this also.”

    Strike that; reverse it. And it’s not only Lubavitch, but essentially all Chassidim.

  3. To avoid chaos, Seph. always roll to Torah to the proper place ahead of time.

    Ashkenazim are supposed to do this too!

  4. 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.

    Unfortunately, there has been a strain of the Ashkenazi world (from the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch through Artscroll) that has become far too conclusive.

  5. Nice job, David: a handy corrective to the widespread tendency of Ashkenazic Jews to assume that their practices are the only Jewish practices. Here is another point of difference that the rabbi could have mentioned: Sephardic Jews name their children after living family members rather than dead ones–or at least they do not balk at doing so. (I wanted to write “we” rather than “they,” but as only my mother is Sephardic, I am not sure if I am entitled to do that.)

    By the way, while the use of the term “Ladino” for Judeo-Spanish is widespread, Rabbi Gabbai was rightly contrasting that with the practice of cognoscenti. In scholarly usage, “Ladino” designates a translation of Hebrew sacred texts into Spanish (that is, of course, Judeo-Spanish), written in Hebrew characters.

    • As long as your mother was the Sephardic Jew, it seems reasonable that you can claim to be as well. In the Reform tradition, as long as only of your parents had Sephardic status, you can be accepted as Sephardic if you eschew all Askenazic practices and affirm your Sephardism through appropriate life cycle acts.

      • Thanks, Larry. Almost everything Jewish in my upbringing came from my mother rather than my father, but I tend to think of myself as Sephardic only with some qualification. As far as I know, in Orthodox terms, there is no halacha on whether the child of one Ashkenazic and one Sephardic parent is Ashkenazic or Sephardic, as there is on whether the child of one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent is Jewish. The former is not a halachic issue. And yet, whether one is Ashkenazic or Sephardic will affect the interpretation of halacha to which one is subject (e.g., whether rice and beans can be eaten during Pesach). When I was growing up in Seattle, the rabbi of the Sephardic synagogue to which my mother belonged (the synagogue of Isaac Azose, the cantor whose sidurim are mentioned above) was Ashkenazic by origin, but I suppose that he was Sephardic by practice, at least in his performance of his rabbinical duties. With me, the question is made difficult by my almost complete lack of Jewish observance. The distinction between a non-observant Sephardic Jew and a non-observant Ashkenazic Jew is arguably a distinction without a difference. Yet, if I were to attach a mezuzah to my door, I would certainly affix it straight up and not on the slant!

    • He did mention that, but I didn’t think it was that interesting so it didn’t make it into the post. But thanks for brining it up!

  6. Larry, Heres a question My boyfriend has a an Ashkenazi mother and a Persian Father (whos mother may have been jewish We believe she converted to islam) Does that mean he could label himself Sefardi or is he just Ashkenazi?

    • 1. I am not a posek, so my answers are hardly definitive, but tend anyway to be more than a little tongue-in-cheek.
      2. How he labels himself is of course up to him. The question is whether his label will be accepted by others (and whether it matters).
      3. If he decides to be Sefardi, he will get to eat rice during Pesach and to name his kid Junior. (One change in my own Ashkenazic practice over the years — I now break the Passover fast with Chinese food, although I was brought up to break it with a corned beef sandwich on rye.)

  7. In regards to the identifying as sephardic/ashk. question.. my Rabbi told me that minhag goes from the male. So if your father was sephardic, you are sephardic, and if a ashk. woman marries a sephardic man, the woman should take on sephardic customs. I never asked for a source, but I’d trust him!

    • I wouldn’t trust him. I think that’s nothing more than a minhag itself, an outgrowth of a more general sexism. “Do whatever the man does” etc.

      This is, haha, a minhag about how to do minhagim!

      • True, a minhag about minhag! Having said that, you can’t really dispute a minhag.. I mean, if it’s a custom, it’s a custom, whether or not it makes sense or is the ‘right’ way to do something. So I believe my Rabbi when he says that this is how it usually works. But hey, each and every one of the people questioning whether they should take ashk or seph customs can take their pick and create their own custom!

  8. Rabbi Gabbai has given you a few interesting points but he fails to mention that amongst the sephardim there are many disagreements and many of his points can be instantly contradicted by the next local sephardi shul down the road from his. My father is a Rav on a sephardi Bet Din.I’m currently doing my semicha and I find the more that I learn the more that I find there are other opinions and customs.

  9. Oh yeah – and many Ashkenazi Rabbis were opposed to codification of halacha such as the Rambam due to the fear that it would lead to neglect of study of the Gemara. They don’t just argue for argument’s sake!

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