Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Difference Between The Sephardic Nosach (rite) and the so-called "Nusach Sefard"

Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760) known as the "Baal Shem Tov" founded the Chassidic movement in Eastern Europe and began spreading his teachings in circa 1734 . One of the results of this movement was the practical application of Kabalistic concepts and ideas into daily Jewish ritual. If until then most Eastern European Jews followed the (generally non-Kabbalistic) customs and traditions that they inherited from their Western European forbears (known as Minhag Ashkenaz), Chassidut now felt that Kabbalah should be dominant. One of the results of this was the complete change of Nusach (prayer liturgy) from the Ashkenazic tradition to the Sephardic one. The reason for this change was because the Chassidim felt that the Sephardic liturgy was more Kabbalistically oriented and therefore superior. This radical change was accompanied by much controversy and was one of the leading complaints against them by their opponents (known as the Mitnagdim).

To be sure, the Chassidim did not adopt the Sephardic nusach in its entirety, but rather modified the existing Ashkenazic nusach and incorporated within it many Lurianic formulae. The master Kabbalist
Rabbi Isaac Luria known as the ARI, was himself part Sephardic and part Ashkenazic, however he was raised and studied in a purely Sephardic milieu. In essence, it can be claimed that the preeminent figure in the Chassidic movement is not the Baal Shem Tov, but in fact it is Rabbi Isaac Luria.

To confuse matters even more, different versions of this new hybrid called "Nusach Sefard" abounded. Various Chassidic groups have different versions of it. The founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch dynasty, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (pictured third from top) was the first to publish a new prayer book "according to the rite of the Arizal", known as "Nusach Ari". However, as mentioned, his version was not accepted by all Chassidim as in fact being that of the Arizal.

In some parts of Eastern Europe, Orthodox Jews sometimes used the term 'sephardic' to distinguish themselves from their less traditional coreligionists. In Hungary, the election of a moderate religious Zionist, Rabbi Moses Glasner to the post of Chief Rabbi of Cluj, Transylvania (better known as Klausenberg) in 1878 precipitated the establishment of a newly formed “Sephardic” community in that city. The group consisted of about one hundred Chassidic families who decided that they could no longer remain subject to the authority of a Zionist Rabbi. The term “Sephardic community” was a sort of legal fiction designed to gain the recognition of the secular authorities that would recognize only one Orthodox community within a given town or district. The only “Sephardic” aspect of the community was that they recited prayers in “nusach sefard.” [1]

There were also many Ashkenazic Jews in Eastern Europe who adopted the Sephardic pronunciation of Hebrew because they felt it was the correct one, but we'll leave that for a different post.


The portrait (second from top) of Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Falk (1710-1782), (I mentioned this enigmatic figure before in a
previous post) known as the "Baal Shem of London" is often confused with that of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov and founder of the Chassidic movement.

An indication of the confusion that the misuse of the term “Sephardic” often engenders can be seen from the following example.

Former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Rabbi Dr. Herman Adler in his fascinating biographical sketch [2] of Rabbi Falk writes that Falk referred to himself in his personal book as “the son of Raphael the Sefardi”. However Adler is quick to point out that the term “Sephardi” in this case does not necessarily denote Iberian origins but rather refers to the (then) newly emerging sect of Chassidim who were often called “Sephardim” or “Anshei Sfard” because they prayed in a modified Sephardic rite. In a later republishing of the same article, Adler provides more clues as to the origins of Falk. This time no mention of his possible Chassidic connection is made. Adler merely wonders, “It is unclear why and how he (Raphael the Sephardi) received this appellation (Sephardi). Had he immigrated from Spain or Portugal?” and adds that “Falk's Sephardic pronunciation of Hebrew may have been due to his parentage”. Additional evidence seems to bear this out. In the comment on that passage, Adler writes that Falk gives his name in his commonplace book as חיים שמואל יעקב דפאלק מרדיולה לנידו (Chaim Shmuel Yaakov d’falk Mardiola Laniado) and wonders whether he might possibly be related to the Laniados, a Sephardic family that settled in Italy and the Middle East. The answer seems to be in the affirmative.
Falk's personal assistant, a Polish Jew by the name of Zvi Hirsch of Kalisch (not to be confused with this man. Paranthetically, Kalisch's descendants later anglicized their name to Collins and became part of the upper crust of British society) kept a personal journal where he described his masters daily activities magical experiments. The journal is an intimate window into Falk's life, it describes Falk's frequent quarrels with his wife. One entry records an incident where he threw a dish of food at her head, saying it was cooked so badly that any Sephardi who tasted it would laugh outright....[3].

Falk’s Sephardic ancestry is also briefly mentioned in the recently published Mibaal Shed L’baal Shem (translation mine): “it seems that his father Rabbi Joshua Refael the Sephardi was a descendant of Marranos who arrived in Poland in the 16th century and retuned openly to Judaism. Additional information on Falk’s family is unknown”. [4]
So it can be stated with assurance that the portrait which is purportedly that of the Baal Shem Tov is in fact not the Baal Shem Tov at all, but rather a Polish Kabbalist of Sephardic origin.
Another possible indication of how the conflation of the terms "sephardim" and "nusach sefard" can lead to assumptions and erroneous information can be seen from the case of the Bitterman family of Hrubieszow, Poland. The Bittermans had an oral tradition of Sephardic descent, however recent genetic testing has shown that the family falls within a large group of Ashkenazic families who have no tradition of Sephardic ancestry. The administrator of the Bitterman family website therefore concludes that “It is quite possible that Biterman ancestors were not Sephardim but rather part of a Nusach Sefard congregation, in the region where Hassidism developed” see here
I have recently been informed (by a member of this fmaily) that recent genetic testing has actually provided a clue that does in fact indicate a possible Sephardic origin for this family.


(The following is a brief synopsis of a subject that is dealt with in much more detail in my upcoming paper).

However, there were authentic Sephardic congregations in Eastern Europe. Dr. Moshe Montalto, a Sephardic Physician who settled in Poland in the 17th century built a Synagogue in Lublin where the congregants prayed in the Sephardic (Spanish-Portuguese) rite. In Zamocz too, a Synagogue (pictured first from top) was established by Sephardic Jews who settled there in the 16th century and was still called the "Sephardic Synagogue" up until World War II, long after the descendants of the original Sephardic founder assimilated into the Ashkenazi community or moved out.

In Krakow, the historic capital of Poland, a community of Sephardic Jews, who arrived in Poland via Italy, maintained a separate existence until the middle of the 17th century. They kept their own traditions, including praying in the Sephardic rite and only marrying among themselves.

In Lithuania too, authentic Sephardic congregations existed. Shlomo Katzav in his booklet Hasefardim be'eretz Lita lists Sephardic congregations in places like Otian, Biraz, Dolhinov, Heidozishok, Vilkomir and Kopishok. Katzav lists several congregations with the name "Alsheikh" (in Horodna and Shavel, which probably indicate eastern origins). There are also two "Alfas" (indicating origins in Fez, Morocco) congregations, one in Tabarig and one in Lida.

Arthur Menton in The Book of Destiny: Toledot Charlap mentions one Lithuanian town whose Jewish community seems to have been founded by Sephardic emigres, namely Vilkaviskis (Vilkovishk). The community kept accurate records and as recently as 1920, a massive tome containing information about 400 years of Jewish life in Vilkaviskis was cited by several researchers. The book was unofrtunately lost or destroyed in the decades after World War I.
The book indicated that a Jewish settlement existed here at the beginning of the 16th century...Princess Bora Sforges made a gift of lumber to the community to build prayer houses and the copper domed synagogue known to its last days as "the old shul". Its ark... housed the profusely embellished Sefer Torahs which originated in Spain.

Menton's book also recounts the fascinating story of the Charlap/Don-Yahya family; a Sephardic family that settled in Eastern Europe.

In Budapest, Hungary there once existed both a Sephardic and Mizrachi synagogue (the former composed of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish refugees and the latter composed of Syrian Jews who settled in the city). As their numbers decreased, gradually their seperate minyan folded up everywhere and those who remained joined the Ashkenazi minyan (a process that was repeated all across Eastern Europe). [5]


For the background and more information about the reasons behind the secession see I am indebted to David Glasner (a descendant of Rabbi Moses Glasner) for this inormation.

The article is available in its entirety online

[3]. see Roth, Cecil. Essays and Portraits in Anglo-Jewish History, p. 146
[4]. See Oron, Michal. Mibaal Shed l’baal Shem (Hebrew). Mossad Bialik, (Tel Aviv, 2002). p. 29.
I was surprised to find descendants of Rabbi Falk in present day England, searching for their roots on this website. Unfortunately, until the present moment, I was unsuccessful in initiating contact with them.

See Jewish Budapest; Monument, Rites History
Other parts of Hungary and Transylvania (not to mention Romania) also had Sephardi and Mizrachi populations. In Bekeczaba, Hungary, many Jews had a tradition they were descended from Mizrachi Jews who came from the region of Armenia. Recent genetic testing has vindicated this claim. More about this in a future post.

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At Thursday, February 05, 2009 6:49:00 AM, Blogger Menachem Mendel said...

Nice to have you back and blogging. Are you familiar with the research of Howard Lupovitch (Colby College)? He has written about Sephardim in Romania and Hungary.

At Friday, February 06, 2009 2:55:00 AM, Blogger Joels W. said...

Hello Menachem and thanks for the comment. I have never heard of that particular professor or his research before, however I am very interested in reading his work. Thanks for the tip!

At Friday, February 06, 2009 3:40:00 AM, Blogger SCHELLY TALALAY DARDASHTI said...

Excellent post!

At Sunday, February 08, 2009 7:07:00 AM, Blogger YK said...

Welcome back!

As a descendant from a Cluj family, I took special interest in what you said about the Sefard breakout in that city.

The Alsheikh family name you mentioned is most probably related to Moshe Alshich (check wikipedia), one of the prominent students of Rabbi Yosef Caro in Safed.

In my upcoming Safrut blog, I will be writing about the special Arizal font, used by the Chassidim today.

I wonder why only the Chassidim adopted the Ktav Arizal and not the Sephardim, after all, the Sephardim did followed most of Ari's teachings... maybe you know?


At Thursday, September 17, 2009 7:24:00 AM, Blogger Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...

Fascinating article. As a follower of Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner, and his son's student Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits, the "Sephardi" community of Klausenberg is an interesting incident for me.

But I will note: you refer to "Rabbi Dr. Hertz Adler". You are confusing Rabbi Dr. Hermann Adler and his successor Rabbi Dr. Joseph Hermann Hertz. The book you refer to is the former, I believe.

At Sunday, October 18, 2009 6:48:00 AM, Blogger Joels W. said...

Thank you Mikewind for the kind words and the correction.

I should point out that the Klausenberg example is not exactly unique; most of the main synagogues in Hungary and Transylvania prayed in nusach ashkenaz, however most of these same large cities (such as Budapest for example) also contained chassidic shteebles that prayed in nusach sefard. The main synagogue in the town of Satumare(now known as satmar)for instance davened in nusach ashkenaz. When Joel Teitelbaum assumed the position of Grand Rabbi of that city, he often retreated to his small Chassidic shteeble in order to be able to pray in his preferred Chassidic rite.

At Friday, July 29, 2011 1:40:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your post is about the "Nusach Sefard" yet at the end of the last paragraph of the section "A CHASSID OR A SEPHARDI?" you switch spell and refer to "... Nusach Sephard congregations ..."

This is confusing! One of the primary ways can distinguish between the two is the spelling. i.e. Sefard refers to the nusach whereas Sephard refer to Iberian/Mediterranean Jews.

Even the ArtScroll siddur is called the "Nusach Sefard."

At Sunday, September 04, 2011 10:37:00 AM, Blogger Joels W. said...

to anon:

You are correct. It is now fixed. Thanks for the comment.


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