Ashkenazi Jews, also known as Ashkenazic Jews or Ashkenazim (Hebrew: אַשְׁכֲּנָזִים, pronounced [ˌaʃkəˈnazim], singular: [ˌaʃkəˈnazi]; also יְהוּדֵי אַשְׁכֲּנָז, Yehudei Ashkenaz, "the Jews of Ashkenaz"), are the Jews descended from the medieval Jewish communities along the Rhine in Germany from Alsace in the south to the Rhineland in the north. Ashkenaz is the medieval Hebrew name for this region and thus for Germany. Thus, Ashkenazim or Ashkenazi Jews are literally "German Jews." Later, Jews from Western and Central Europe came to be called "Ashkenaz" because the main centers of Jewish learning were located in Germany. (See Usage of the name for the term's etymology.) Ashkenaz is also a Japhetic patriarch in the Table of Nations (Genesis 10).
Many Ashkenazi Jews later migrated, largely eastward, forming communities in non German-speaking areas, including Hungary, Poland, Belarus, Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere between the 11th and 19th centuries. With them, they took and diversified Yiddish, a basically Germanic language with Hebrew influence (see Jewish language). It had developed in medieval times as the lingua franca among Ashkenazi Jews. The Jewish communities of three cities along the Rhine: Speyer, Worms and Mainz, created the SHUM league (SHUM after the first Hebrew letters of Spira, Warmatia and Magentza). The SHUM-cities are considered the cradle of the distinct Ashkenazi culture and liturgy.
Although in the 11th century, they comprised only 3 percent of the world's Jewish population, at their peak in 1931, Ashkenazi Jews accounted for 92 percent of the world's Jews. Today they make up approximately 80 percent of Jews worldwide. Most Jewish communities with extended histories in Europe are Ashkenazim, with the exception of those associated with the Mediterranean region. The majority of the Jews who migrated from Europe to other continents in the past two centuries are Ashkenazim, Eastern Ashkenazim in particular. This is especially true in the United States, where most of the 5.3 million American Jewish population is Ashkenazi, representing the world's single largest concentration of Ashkenazim.
The exact definition of Jewishness is not universally agreed upon—neither by religious scholars (especially across different denominations); nor in the context of politics (as applied to those who wish to make Aliyah); nor even in the conventional, everyday sense where 'Jewishness' may be loosely understood by the casual observer as encompassing both religious and secular Jews, or religious Jews alone. This makes it especially difficult to define who is an Ashkenazi Jew. The people have been defined differently from religious, cultural, or ethnic perspectives.
Since the overwhelming majority of Ashkenazi Jews no longer live in Eastern Europe, the isolation that once favored a distinct religious tradition and culture has vanished. Furthermore, the word Ashkenazi is being used in non-traditional ways, especially in Israel. By conservative and orthodox philosophies, a person can only be considered a Jew if his or her mother was Jewish (meaning, more specifically, either matrilineal descent from a female believed to be present at Mt. Sinai when the ten commandments were given, or else descent from a female who was converted to Judaism before the birth of her children), or if he or she has personally converted to Judaism. This means that a person can be Ashkenazi but not considered a Jew by some of those within the Jewish communities, making the term "Ashkenazi" more applicable as broad ethnicity which evolved from the practice of Judaism in Europe.
Religious Jews have Minhagim, customs, in addition to Halakha, or religious law, and different interpretations of law. Different groups of religious Jews in different geographic areas historically adopted different customs and interpretations. On certain issues, Orthodox Jews are required to follow the customs of their ancestors, and do not believe they have the option of picking and choosing. Therefore, observant Jews at times find it important for religious reasons to ascertain who their household's religious ancestors are in order to know what customs their household should follow. These times include, for example, when two Jews of different ethnic background marry, when a non-Jew converts to Judaism and determines what customs to follow for the first time, or when a lapsed or less observant Jew returns to traditional Judaism and must determine what was done in his or her family's past. In this sense, "Ashkenazic" refers both to a family ancestry and to a body of customs binding on Jews of that ancestry.
In a religious sense, an Ashkenazi Jew is any Jew whose family tradition and ritual follows Ashkenazi practice. Until the Ashkenazi community first began to develop in the Early Middle Ages, the centers of Jewish religious authority were in the Islamic world, at Baghdad and in Islamic Spain. Ashkenaz (Germany) was so distant geographically that it developed a minhag of its own. Ashkenazi Hebrew came to be pronounced in ways distinct from other forms of Hebrew.
In this respect, the counterpart of Ashkenazi is Sephardic, since most non-Ashkenazi Orthodox Jews follow Sephardic rabbinical authorities, whether or not they are ethnically Sephardic. By tradition, a Sephardic or Mizrahi woman who marries into an Orthodox or Haredi Ashkenazi Jewish family raises her children to be Ashkenazi Jews; conversely an Ashkenazi woman who marries a Sephardi or Mizrahi man is expected to take on Sephardic practice and the children inherit a Sephardic identity, though in practice many families compromise. A convert generally follows the practice of the beth din that converted him or her.
With the integration of Jews from around the world in Israel, North America, and other places, the religious definition of an Ashkenazi Jew is blurring, especially outside Orthodox Judaism. Many Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews have joined liberal movements that originally developed within Ashkenazi Judaism. In recent decades, the congregations which they have joined have often embraced them, and absorbed new traditions into their minhag. Rabbis and cantors in most non-Orthodox movements study Hebrew in Israel, where they learn Sephardic rather than Ashkenazi Hebrew pronunciation. Ashkenazi congregations are adopting Sephardic or modern Israeli melodies for many prayers and traditional songs. Since the middle of the 20th century, there has been a gradual syncretism and fusion of traditions. This is affecting the minhag of all but the most traditional congregations.
New developments in Judaism often transcend differences in religious practice between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. In North American cities, social trends such as the chavurah movement, and the emergence of "post-denominational Judaism" often bring together younger Jews of diverse ethnic backgrounds. In recent years, there has been increased interest in Kabbalah, which many Ashkenazi Jews study outside of the Yeshiva framework. Another trend is the new popularity of ecstatic worship in the Jewish Renewal movement and the Carlebach style minyan, both of which are nominally of Ashkenazi origin.
In a cultural sense, an Ashkenazi Jew can be identified by the concept of Yiddishkeit, a word that literally means “Jewishness” in the Yiddish language. Of course, there are other kinds of Jewishness. Yiddishkeit is simply the Jewishness of Ashkenazi Jews.
Before the Haskalah and the emancipation of Jews in Europe, this meant the study of Torah and Talmud for men, and a family and communal life governed by the observance of Jewish Law for men and women. From the Rhineland to Riga to Romania, most Jews prayed in liturgical Ashkenazi Hebrew, and spoke Yiddish in their secular lives.
But with modernization, Yiddishkeit now encompasses not just Orthodoxy and Hasidism, but a broad range of movements, ideologies, practices, and traditions in which Ashkenazi Jews have participated and somehow retained a sense of Jewishness. Although a far smaller number of Jews still speak Yiddish, Yiddishkeit can be identified in manners of speech, in styles of humor, in patterns of association. Broadly speaking, a Jew is one who associates culturally with Jews, supports Jewish institutions, reads Jewish books and periodicals, attends Jewish movies and theater, travels to Israel, visits ancient synagogues in Prague, and so forth. It is a definition that applies to Jewish culture in general, and to Ashkenazi Yiddishkeit in particular.
Contemporary population migrations have contributed to a reconfigured Jewishness among Jews of Ashkenazi descent that transcends Yiddishkeit and other traditional articulations of Ashkenazi Jewishness. As Ashkenazi Jews moved away from Eastern Europe, settling mostly in Israel, North America, and other English-speaking areas, the geographic isolation which gave rise to Ashkenazim has given way to mixing with other cultures, and with non-Ashkenazi Jews who, similarly, are no longer isolated in distinct geographic locales. For Ashkenazi Jews living in Eastern Europe, chopped liver and gefilte fish were archetypal Jewish foods. To contemporary Ashkenazi Jews living both in Israel and in the diaspora, Middle Eastern foods such as hummus and falafel, neither traditional to the historic Ashkenazi experience, have become central to their lives as Ashkenazi Jews in the current era. Hebrew has replaced Yiddish as the primary Jewish language for many Ashkenazi Jews, although many Hasidic and Hareidi groups continue to use Yiddish in daily life.
France's blended Jewish community is typical of the cultural recombination that is going on among Jews throughout the world. Although France expelled its original Jewish population in the Middle Ages, by the time of the French Revolution, there were two distinct Jewish populations. One consisted of Sephardic Jews, originally refugees from the Inquisition and concentrated in the southwest, while the other community was Ashkenazi, concentrated in formerly German Alsace, and speaking mainly Yiddish. The two communities were so separate and different that the National Assembly emancipated them separately in 1791.
But after emancipation, a sense of a unified French Jewry emerged, especially when France was wracked by the Dreyfuss affair in the 1890s. In the 1920s and 1930s, Ashkenazi Jews from eastern Europe arrived in large numbers as refugees from antisemitism, the Russian revolution, and the economic turmoil of the Great Depression. By the 1930s, Paris had a vibrant Yiddish culture, and many Jews were involved in radical political movements. After the Vichy years and the Holocaust, the French Jewish population was augmented once again, first by refugees from Eastern Europe, and later by immigrants and refugees from North Africa, many of them francophone.
Then, in the 1990s, yet another Ashkenazi Jewish wave began to arrive from countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The result is a pluralistic Jewish community that still has some distinct elements of both Ashkenazi and Sephardic culture. But in France, it is becoming much more difficult to sort out the two, and a distinctly French Jewishness has emerged.
In an ethnic sense, an Ashkenazi Jew is one whose ancestry can be traced to the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. For roughly a thousand years, the Ashkenazim were a reproductively isolated population in Europe, despite living in many countries, with little inflow or outflow from migration, conversion, or intermarriage with other groups, including other Jews. Human geneticists have identified genetic variations that have high frequencies among Ashkenazi Jews, but not in the general European population. This is true for patrilineal markers (Y-chromosome haplotypes) as well as for matrilineal markers (mitochondrial haplotypes).
Since the middle of the 20th century, many Ashkenazi Jews have intermarried, both with members of other Jewish communities and with people of other nations and faiths, while some Jews have also adopted children from other ethnic groups or parts of the world and raised them as Jews. Conversion to Judaism, rare for nearly 2,000 years, has become more common. Jewish women and families who choose artificial insemination often choose a biological father who is not Jewish, to avoid common autosomal recessive genetic diseases.
A study by Michael Seldin, a geneticist at the University of California Davis School of Medicine, found Ashkenazi Jews to be a clear, relatively homogenous genetic subgroup. Strikingly, regardless of the place of origin, Ashkenazi Jews can be grouped in the same genetic cohort — that is, regardless of whether an Ashkenazi Jew's ancestors came from Poland, Russia, Hungary, Lithuania, or any other place with a historical Jewish population, they belong to the same ethnic group. The research demonstrates the endogamy of the Jewish population in Europe and lends further credence to the idea of Ashkenazi Jews as an ethnic group. Moreover, though intermarriage among Jews of Ashkenazi descent has become increasingly more common, many Ultra-Orthodox Jews, particularly members Hasidic or Hareidi sects, continue to marry exclusively fellow Ashkenazi Jews. This trend keeps Ashkenazi genes prevalent and also helps researchers further study the genes of Ashkenazi Jews with relative ease. It is noteworthy that these Ultra-Orthodox Jews often have extremely large families.
In Israel, the term Ashkenazi is now used in ways that have nothing to do with its original meaning; it is often applied to all Jews of European background living in Israel, including sometimes for those whose ethnic background is actually Sephardic. Jews of any non-Ashkenazi background, including Mizrahi, Yemenite, Kurdish and others who have no connection with the Iberian Peninsula, have similarly come to be lumped together as Sephardic. Jews of mixed background are increasingly common, partly because of intermarriage between Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi, and partly because many do not see such historic markers as relevant to their life experiences as Jews.
Religious Ashkenazi Jews living in Israel are obliged to follow the authority of the chief Ashkenazi rabbi in halakhic matters. In this respect, a religiously Ashkenazi Jew is an Israeli who is more likely to support certain religious interests in Israel, including certain political parties. These political parties result from the fact that a portion of the Israeli electorate votes for Jewish religious parties; although the electoral map changes from one election to another, there are generally several small parties associated with the interests of religious Ashkenazi Jews. The role of religious parties, including small religious parties which play important roles as coalition members, results in turn from Israel's composition as a complex society in which competing social, economic, and religious interests stand for election to the Knesset, a unicameral legislature with 120 seats.
Although the historical record is very limited, there is a scholarly consensus of cultural, linguistic, and genetic evidence that the Ashkenazi Jewish population originated in the Middle East. Jews have lived in Germany, or "Ashkenaz", at least since the early 4th century. They brought with them both Rabbinic Judaism and the Babylonian Talmudic culture that underlies it. Yiddish, once spoken by the vast majority of Ashkenazi Jewry, is a Germanic language that developed from the Middle High German vernacular, heavily influenced by Hebrew and Aramaic.
After the Roman empire had overpowered the Jewish resistance in the First Jewish–Roman War in Judea and destroyed the Jewish temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, the complete Roman takeover of Judea followed the Bar Kochba rebellion of 132-135 CE. Jews continued to be a majority of the population in Palestine for several hundred years. However, the Romans no longer recognized the authority of the Sanhedrin or any other Jewish body, and Jews were prohibited from living in Jerusalem. Outside the Roman Empire, a large Jewish community remained in Mesopotamia. Other Jewish populations could be found dispersed around the Mediterranean region, with the largest concentrations in the Levant, Egypt, Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy, including Rome. Smaller communities are recorded in southern Gaul (France), Spain, and North Africa.
Jews were denied full Roman citizenship until 212 CE, when Emperor Caracalla granted all free peoples this privilege. But, as a penalty for the first Jewish Revolt, Jews were required to pay a poll tax until the reign of Emperor Julian in 363. In the late Roman Empire, Jews were free to form networks of cultural and religious ties and enter into various local occupations. But, after Christianity became the official religion of Rome and Constantinople in 380, Jews were increasingly marginalized, and brutally persecuted.
In Palestine and Mesopotamia, where Jewish religious scholarship was centered, the majority of Jews were still engaged in farming, as demonstrated by the preoccupation of early Talmudic writings with agriculture. In diaspora communities, trade was a common occupation, facilitated by the easy mobility of traders through the dispersed Jewish communities.
Throughout this period and into the early Middle Ages, some Jews assimilated into the dominant Greek and Latin cultures, mostly through conversion to Christianity. In Palestine and Mesopotamia, the spoken language of Jews continued to be Aramaic, but elsewhere in the diaspora, most Jews spoke Greek. Conversion and assimilation were especially common within the Hellenized or Greek-speaking Jewish communities, amongst whom the Septuagint and Aquila of Sinope (Greek translations and adaptations of the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible) were the source of scripture. A remnant of this Greek-speaking Jewish population (the Romaniotes) survives to this day.
The Germanic invasions of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century by tribes such as the Visigoths, Franks, Lombards, and Vandals caused massive economic and social instability within the western Empire, contributing to its decline. In the late Roman Empire, Jews are known to have lived in Cologne and Trier, as well as in what is now France. However, it is unclear whether there is any continuity between these late Roman communities and the distinct Ashkenazi Jewish culture that began to emerge about 500 years later. King Dagobert I of the Franks expelled the Jews from his Merovingian kingdom in 629. Jews in former Roman territories now faced new challenges as harsher anti-Jewish Church rulings were enforced.
In Mesopotamia, and in Persian lands free of Roman imperial domination, Jewish life fared much better. Since the conquest of Judea by Nebuchadnezzar II, this community had always been the leading diaspora community, a rival to the leadership of Palestine. After conditions for Jews began to deteriorate in Roman-controlled lands, many of the religious leaders of Judea and the Galilee fled to the east. At the academies of Pumbeditha and Sura near Babylon, Rabbinic Judaism based on Talmudic learning began to emerge and assert its authority over Jewish life throughout the diaspora. Rabbinic Judaism created a religious mandate for literacy, requiring all Jewish males to learn Hebrew and read from the Torah. This emphasis on literacy and learning a second language would eventually be of great benefit to the Jews, allowing them to take on commercial and financial roles within Gentile societies where literacy was often quite low.
After the Islamic conquest of the Middle East and North Africa, new opportunities for trade and commerce opened between the Middle East and Western Europe. The vast majority of Jews in the world now lived in Islamic lands. Urbanization, trade, and commerce within the Islamic world allowed Jews, as a highly literate people, to abandon farming and live in cities, engaging in occupations where they could use their skills. The influential, sophisticated, and well organized Jewish community of Mesopotamia, now centered in Baghdad, became the center of the Jewish world. In the Caliphate of Baghdad, Jews took on many of the financial occupations that they would later hold in the cities of Ashkenaz. Jewish traders from Baghdad began to travel to the west, renewing Jewish life in the western Mediterranean region. They brought with them Rabbinic Judaism and Babylonian Talmudic scholarship.
Charlemagne's expansion of the Frankish empire around 800, including northern Italy and Rome, brought on a brief period of stability and unity in Western Europe. This created opportunities for Jewish merchants to settle once again north of the Alps. Charlemagne granted the Jews freedoms similar to those once enjoyed under the Roman Empire. Returning once again to Frankish lands, many Jewish merchants took on occupations in finance and commerce, including money lending, or usury. (Church legislation banned Christians from lending money in exchange for interest.) From Charlemagne's time to the present, there is a well-documented record of Jewish life in northern Europe, and by the 11th century, when Rashi of Troyes wrote his commentaries, Ashkenazi Jews had emerged also as interpreters and commentators on the Torah and Talmud.
Efforts to identify the origins of Ashkenazi Jews through DNA analysis began in the 1990s. In fact, it was from this research, prompted by an observation of the different physical features between Ashkenazi Jews and other of the world's Jewish ethnic divisions, that modern genetic genealogy was born. Dr. Karl Skorecki, a Canadian nephrologist of Ashkenazi parentage, noticed that a fellow-congregant of Sephardi parentage, who was a Kohen like him, had completely different physical features. According to Jewish tradition, all Kohanim are descended from the priest Aaron, brother of Moses. Skorecki reasoned that if Kohanim were indeed the descendants of only one man, they should, at least on the paternal line, have a common set of genetic markers and should perhaps preserve some family resemblance to each other.
Like most DNA studies of human migration patterns, these studies have focused on two segments of the human genome, the Y chromosome (passed on only by males), and the mitochondrial genome (mtDNA, passed on only by females). Both segments are unaffected by recombination, thus, they provide an indicator of paternal and maternal origins, respectively. Genome-wide association studies have also been employed to yield findings relevant to genetic origins.
A study of haplotypes of the Y chromosome, published in 2000, addressed the paternal origins of Ashkenazi Jews. Hammer et al. found that the Y chromosome of some Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews contained mutations that are also common among Middle Eastern peoples, but uncommon in the general European population. This suggested that the male ancestors of the Ashkenazi Jews could be traced mostly to the Middle East. The proportion of male genetic admixture in Ashkenazi Jews amounts to less than 0.5% per generation over an estimated 80 generations, with "relatively minor contribution of European Y chromosomes to the Ashkenazim," and a total admixture estimate "very similar to Motulsky's average estimate of 12.5%." This supported the finding that "Diaspora Jews from Europe, Northwest Africa, and the Near East resemble each other more closely than they resemble their non-Jewish neighbors."
A 2001 study by Nebel et al. showed that both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish populations share the same overall paternal Near Eastern ancestries. The authors also report on Eu 19 chromosomes, which are very frequent in Eastern Europeans (54%-60%) at elevated frequency (12.7%) in Ashkenazi Jews. They hypothesized that these chromosomes could reflect low-level gene flow from surrounding Eastern European populations, or, alternatively, that both the Ashkenazi Jews with Eu 19, and to a much greater extent Eastern European populations in general, might partly be descendants of Khazars. Again, this study suggested a total male admixture estimation that is no larger than ~12.5%.
A 2005 study by Nebel et al., based on Y chromosome polymorphic markers, showed that Ashkenazi Jews are more closely related to other Jewish and Middle Eastern groups than to their host populations in Europe. However, 11.5% of male Ashkenazim were found to belong to R-M17, the dominant Y chromosome haplogroup in Eastern Europeans, suggesting possible gene flow. The authors hypothesized that "R-M17 chromosomes in Ashkenazim may represent vestiges of the mysterious Khazars". They concluded "However, if the R-M17 chromosomes in Ashkenazi Jews do indeed represent the vestiges of the mysterious Khazars then, according to our data, this contribution was limited to either a single founder or a few closely related men, and does not exceed ~ 12% of the present-day Ashkenazim.
A 2003 study of the Y-chromosome by Behar et al. points to multiple origins for Ashkenazi Levites, a priestly class who comprise approximately 4% of Ashkenazi Jews. It found that Haplogroup R1a, uncommon in the Middle East or among Sephardic Jews, originating in Central Asia and dominant in Eastern Europe, is present in over 50% of Ashkenazi Levites, while the rest of Ashkenazi Levites' paternal lineage is of Middle Eastern origin. Behar suggests a founding event, probably involving one or very few European men, occurring at a time close to the initial formation and settlement of the Ashkenazi community as a possible explanation. Ashkenazi and Sephardic Cohanim and Israelites, on the other hand, were found to share the same genetic signature, originating in the Middle East 2000 years earlier.
Before 2006, geneticists largely attributed the genesis of most of the world's Jewish populations, including Ashkenazi Jews, to founding effects by males who migrated from the Middle East and "by the women from each local population whom they took as wives and converted to Judaism." In line with this model of origin, David Goldstein, now of Duke University, reported in 2002 that, unlike male lineages, the female lineages in Ashkenazi Jewish communities "did not seem to be Middle Eastern", and that each community had its own genetic pattern and even that "in some cases the mitochondrial DNA was closely related to that of the host community." In his view this suggested "that Jewish men had arrived from the Middle East, taken wives from the host population and converted them to Judaism, after which there was no further intermarriage with non-Jews."
However, a 2006 study by Behar et al., based on high-resolution analysis of haplogroup K(mtDNA), suggested that about 40% of the current Ashkenazi population is descended matrilineally from just four women, or "founder lineages", that were "likely from a Hebrew/Levantine mtDNA pool" originating in the Middle East in the first and second centuries CE. Although Haplogroup K is common throughout western Eurasia, "the observed global pattern of distribution renders very unlikely the possibility that the four aforementioned founder lineages entered the Ashkenazi mtDNA pool via gene flow from a European host population:
"..Both the extent and location of the maternal ancestral deme from which the Ashkenazi Jewry arose remain obscure. Here, using complete sequences of the maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), we show that close to one-half of Ashkenazi Jews, estimated at 8,000,000 people, can be traced back to only four women carrying distinct mtDNAs that are virtually absent in other populations, with the important exception of low frequencies among non-Ashkenazi Jews. We conclude that four founding mtDNAs, likely of Near Eastern ancestry, underwent major expansion(s) in Europe within the past millennium.."
In addition, Behar et al. have suggested that the rest of Ashkenazi mtDNA is originated from ~150 women, most of those likely of Middle Eastern origin.
In genetic epidemiology, a genome-wide association study (GWA study, or GWAS) is an examination of genetic variation across a given genome, designed to identify genetic associations with observable traits. In human studies, this might include traits such as blood pressure or weight, or why some people get a disease or condition.
A 2007 study by Bauchet et al.. found that Ashkenazi Jews were most closely clustered with Arabic North African populations, and in the European structure analysis, they share similarities only with Greeks and Southern Italians, reflecting their East Mediterranean origins.
Historical records show evidence of Jewish communities north of the Alps and Pyrenees as early as the 8th and 9th century. By the end of the first millenum, Jewish populations were well-established in Western Europe, later followed the Norman Conquest into England in 1066, and settled in many cities of the Rhine area by the end of the 11th century. With the onset of the Crusades, and the expulsions from England (1290), France (1394), and parts of Germany (1400s), Jewish migration pushed eastward into Poland, Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and Russia. Over this period of several hundred years, some have suggested, Jewish economic activity was focused on trade, business management, and financial services, due to several presumed factors: Christian European prohibitions restricting certain activities by Jews, preventing certain financial activities (such as "usurious" loans) between Christians, high rates of literacy, near universal male education, and ability of merchants to rely upon and trust family members living in different regions and countries.
By the 1400s, the Ashkenazi Jewish communities in Poland were the largest Jewish communities of the Diaspora. This area, which eventually fell under the domination of Russia, Austria, and Prussia (Germany), would remain the main center of Ashkenazi Jewry until the Holocaust.
The answer to why there was so little assimilation of Jews in Eastern Europe for so long would seem to lie in part in the probability that the alien surroundings in Eastern Europe were not conducive, though contempt did not prevent some assimilation. Furthermore, Jews lived almost exclusively in shtetls, maintained a strong system of education for males, heeded rabbinic leadership, and scorned the life-style of their neighbors; and all of these tendencies increased with every outbreak of antisemitism.
In reference to the Jewish peoples of Northern Europe and particularly the Rhineland, the word Ashkenazi is often found in medieval rabbinic literature. References to Ashkenaz in Yosippon and Hasdai ibn Shaprut's letter to the king of the Khazars would date the term as far back as the tenth century, as would also Saadia Gaon's commentary on Daniel 7:8.
The word Ashkenaz first appears in the genealogy in the Tanakh (Genesis 10) as a son of Gomer and grandson of Japheth. It is thought that the name originally applied to the Scythians (Ishkuz), who were called Ashkuza in Assyrian inscriptions, and lake Ascanius and the region Ascania in Anatolia derive their names from this group.
Ashkenaz in later Hebrew tradition became identified with the peoples of Germany, and in particular to the area along the Rhine.
Ashkenaz and the Ashkenazi contrast to the land of Knaan, a geo-ethnological term denoting the Jewish populations living east of the Elbe river as opposed to the Ashkenazi Jews living to the West of it, and the Sephardic Jews of Iberian Peninsula.
In the first half of the 11th century, Hai Gaon refers to questions that had been addressed to him from Ashkenaz, by which he undoubtedly means Germany. Rashi in the latter half of the 11th century refers to both the language of Ashkenaz and the country of Ashkenaz. During the 12th century, the word appears quite frequently. In the Mahzor Vitry, the kingdom of Ashkenaz is referred to chiefly in regard to the ritual of the synagogue there, but occasionally also with regard to certain other observances.
In the literature of the 13th century, references to the land and the language of Ashkenaz often occur. See especially Solomon ben Aderet's Responsa (vol. i., No. 395); the Responsa of Asher ben Jehiel (pp. 4, 6); his Halakot (Berakot i. 12, ed. Wilna, p. 10); the work of his son Jacob ben Asher, Tur Orach Chayim (chapter 59); the Responsa of Isaac ben Sheshet (numbers 193, 268, 270).
In the Midrash compilation Genesis Rabbah, Rabbi Berechiah mentions Ashkenaz, Riphath, and Togarmah as German tribes or as German lands. It may correspond to a Greek word that may have existed in the Greek dialect of the Palestinian Jews, or the text is corrupted from "Germanica." This view of Berechiah is based on the Talmud (Yoma 10a; Jerusalem Talmud Megillah 71b), where Gomer, the father of Ashkenaz, is translated by Germamia, which evidently stands for Germany, and which was suggested by the similarity of the sound.
In later times the word Ashkenaz is used to designate southern and Western Germany, the ritual of which sections differs somewhat from that of Eastern Germany and Poland. Thus the prayer-book of Isaiah Horowitz, and many others, give the piyyutim according to the Minhag of Ashkenaz and Poland.
According to 16th century mystic Rabbi Elijah of Chelm, Ashkenazi Jews lived in Jerusalem during the 11th century. The story is told that a German-speaking Palestinian Jew saved the life of a young German man surnamed Dolberger. So when the knights of the First Crusade came to siege Jerusalem, one of Dolberger’s family members who was among them rescued Jews in Palestine and carried them back to Worms to repay the favor. Further evidence of German communities in the holy city comes in the form of halakhic questions sent from Germany to Jerusalem during the second half of the eleventh century.
The Halakhic practices of Ashkenazi Jews may differ from those of Sephardi Jews, particularly in matters of custom. Differences are noted in the Shulkhan Arukh itself, in the gloss of Moses Isserles. Well known differences in practice include:
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The term Ashkenazi also refers to the nusach Ashkenaz (Hebrew, "liturgical tradition", or rite) used by Ashkenazi Jews in their Siddur (prayer book). A nusach is defined by a liturgical tradition's choice of prayers, order of prayers, text of prayers and melodies used in the singing of prayers. Two other major forms of nusach among Ashkenazic Jews are Nusach Sphard (not to be confused with Sephardi), which is the same as the general Polish (Hasidic) Nusach; and Nusach Chabad, otherwise known as Lubavitch Chasidic, Nusach Arizal or Nusach ha'Ari.
This phrase is often used in contrast with Sephardi Jews, also called Sephardim, who are descendants of Jews from Spain and Portugal. There are some differences in how the two groups pronounce certain Hebrew letters and in points of ritual.
Several famous people have Ashkenazi as a surname, such as Vladimir Ashkenazy. Ironically, most people with this surname hail from within Sephardic communities, particularly from the Syrian Jewish community. The Sephardic carriers of the surname would have some Ashkenazi ancestors since the surname was adopted by families who were initially of Ashkenazic origins who move to Sephardi countries and joined those communities. Ashkenazi would be formally adopted as the family surname having started off as a nickname imposed by their adopted communities. Some have shortened the name to Ash.
The theory that the majority of Ashkenazi Jews are the descendants of the non-Semitic converted Khazars was advocated by various racial theorists and antisemitic sources in the late-19th and 20th centuries, especially following the publication of Arthur Koestler's The Thirteenth Tribe. Despite recent genetic evidence to the contrary, and a lack of any real mainstream scholarly support, this belief is still popular among antisemites.
There are many references to Ashkenazi Jews in the literature of medical and population genetics. Indeed, much awareness of "Ashkenazi Jews" as an ethnic group or category stems from the large number of genetic studies of disease, including many that are well reported in the media, that have been conducted among Jews. Jewish populations have been studied more thoroughly than most other human populations, for a variety of reasons:
A study by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine examines a particular genetic trait that increases the lifespan of the Ashkenazi population. The study focuses on telomerase, the enzyme responsible for maintaining telomeres at the ends of chromosomes during cell division.
Genetic counseling and genetic testing are recommended for couples where both partners are of Ashkenazi ancestry. Some organizations, most notably Dor Yeshorim, organize screening programs to prevent homozygosity for the genes that cause these diseases. E. L. Abel's book Jewish Genetic Disorders: A Layman's Guide (McFarland, 2008: ISBN 0-7864-4087-2) is a comprehensive reference text on the topic; also see The Chicago Center for Jewish Genetic Disorders for more information.
In an essay on Sephardi Jewry, Daniel Elazar at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs summarized the demographic history of Ashkenazi Jews in the last thousand years, noting that at the end of the 11th century, 97% of world Jewry was Sephardic and 3% Ashkenazi; in the mid-17th century, "Sephardim still outnumbered Ashkenazim three to two", but by the end of the 18th century, "Ashkenazim outnumbered Sephardim three to two, the result of improved living conditions in Christian Europe versus the Ottoman Muslim world." By 1931, Ashkenazi Jews accounted for nearly 92% of world Jewry.
Ashkenazi Jews developed the Hasidic movement as well as major Jewish academic centers across Poland, Russia, and Belarus in the generations after emigration from the west. After two centuries of comparative tolerance in the new nations, massive westward emigration occurred in the 1800s and 1900s in response to pogroms in the east and the economic opportunities offered in other parts of the world. Ashkenazi Jews have made up the majority of the American Jewish community since 1750.
Of the estimated 8.8 million Jews living in Europe at the beginning of World War II, the majority of whom were Ashkenazi, about 6 million — more than two-thirds — were systematically murdered in the Holocaust. These included 3 million of 3.3 million Polish Jews (91%); 900,000 of 1.5 million in Ukraine (60%); and 50–90% of the Jews of other Slavic nations, Germany, France, Hungary, and the Baltic states. Sephardi communities suffered similar depletions in a few countries, including Greece, the Netherlands and the former Yugoslavia. As the large majority of the victims were Ashkenazi Jews, their percentage dropped from nearly 92% of world Jewry in 1931 to nearly 80% of world Jewry today. Many of the surviving Ashkenazi Jews emigrated to countries such as Israel, Canada, Argentina, Australia, and the United States after the war.
Today, Ashkenazi Jews constitute the largest group among Jews, and among Israeli Jews as well. They have played a prominent role in the economy, media, and politics of Israel since its founding. During the first decades of Israel as a state, strong cultural conflict occurred between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews (mainly east European Ashkenazim). The roots of this conflict, which still exists to a much smaller extent in present day Israeli society, are chiefly attributed to the concept of the "melting pot". That is to say, all Jewish immigrants who arrived in Israel were strongly encouraged to "melt down" their own particular exilic identities within the general social "pot" in order to become Israeli.
Ashkenazi Jews have a noted history of achievement in western societies. They have won a large number of the Nobel awards. In those societies where they have been free to enter any profession, they have a record of high occupational achievement, entering professions and fields of commerce where higher education is required. For example, during the 20th century in the United States, Ashkenazi Jews represented approximately 3% of the population, but won 27% of the US Nobel Prizes in science, and 25% of the ACM Turing Awards (the Nobel-equivalent in computer science).