1. Ashkenazim Originate In the Rhine Region

The Ashkenazi Jewish population developed in the Rhineland—a region straddling France and Germany—more than 1,000 years ago, and spread throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Where did they come from? Details in liturgy and other clues point to the Holy Land as a possible point of origin.

2. The Name Refers to Germanic People

Ashkenaz is the Biblical name of a grandson of Japhet, the ancestor of the Romans. Perhaps because the area had been part of the Roman Empire, the region, its language, and its (non-Jewish) inhabitants were associated with that name. By extension, over time, the Jews living there became known as Ashkenazi Jews, similar to how Jews in America are known as “Americans” vis-à-vis other Jews.

3. It Is One of Two Major Jewish Cultures Today

There are many sub-cultures and ethnicities within the Jewish people, including Yemenite, Italian, Greek, and Persian Jews. The two most dominant groups, however, are Ashkenazim and Sephardim—who originate in the Iberian Peninsula and the Arab lands.

Read: Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews

4. Early Greats Include Rabbenu Gershom and Rashi

Ashkenaz emerged as a center of Jewish scholarship just as the venerable academies of Babylonia—the traditional center of Jewish learning—were crumbling. The first major Ashkenazi leader was Rabbeinu Gershom Meor Hagolah (“Light of the Exile”), who lived from 960-1040, followed by Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105), who composed defining commentaries on most of Scripture and Talmud. His students, many of whom were his relatives, became the Tosafists, who dominated Ashkenazi Torah learning for generations.

Read: 14 Facts About Rashi

Rashi's Synagogue in Worms, Germany
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Rashi's Synagogue in Worms, Germany (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

5. Their Center of Gravity Shifted Northeast

The early Ashkenazim, who lived among Christians, suffered terrible persecutions. Entire communities were tortured, raped, and murdered by mobs, often encouraged by church officials. Waves of frenzied murders often followed trumped-up accusations of ritual murder (blood libels), and the Crusaders left thousands of dead Jews in their wake. In light of this suffering, it was natural for Ashkenazim to move northeast, to Poland and beyond, where they were welcomed catalysts for an emerging economy.

Read: Flourishing Judaism in Central and Eastern Europe

5. England Expelled Ashkenazim

The migration was further accelerated by the various expulsions of Jews in England, France, and Germany throughout the years. In fact, England (which also bears the dubious distinction of being the birthplace of the blood libel in 1144) did not allow Jews to live within its borders between 1290 and 1657.

Watch: Made in Medieval England

6. They Absorbed Sephardic Exiles

The burgeoning Ashkenazic communities, which flourished despite persecution, were greatly enriched by Sephardic Jews fleeing Catholic persecution in Spain and Portugal. Thus, many prominent Ashkenazi families, such as the houses of Epstein, Horowitz, and Rappoport, can all be traced to Spanish refugees.

Read: 19 Facts About Sephardic Jews

7. Chassidism Revolutionized Ashkenazi Community Life

The 18th century saw the rise of Chassidsm. The movement was founded by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, who taught love, joy and humility—both in our service of G‑d and in our treatment of fellow human beings. Chassidism breathed new life into Ashkenazi communal life, uplifting the poor and the unlearned and adding a new dimension of spirituality for the scholars.

Read: 17 Facts About Chassidic Jews

An early Hasidic master sharing inspiration with simple folk in the market place. (Art by Zalman Kleinman | Courtesy Rosa Kleinman | Via Zev Markowitz / Chai Art Gallery)
An early Hasidic master sharing inspiration with simple folk in the market place. (Art by Zalman Kleinman | Courtesy Rosa Kleinman | Via Zev Markowitz / Chai Art Gallery)

8. The Lingua Franca Is Yiddish

For centuries, the dominant language of Ashkenazi Jewry was Yiddish, a Jewish concoction of old German, Hebrew, Aramaic and Slavic languages. Thus, if an Ashkenazi from Lithuania met an Ashkenazi from London, they could immediately schmooze(Yiddish for “converse”). Traditionally, this language is also known as Ivre-Teitsch (“Jewish-German”) and Lashon Ashkenaz (“Ashkenaz Tongue”).

Read: Why Do Jews Insist on Speaking Yiddish?

9. The Term Is Sometimes Used Narrowly

Within the broader Ashkenazi community, which stretched from Milan to Moscow, the term Ashkenazi was sometimes used specifically to refer to those Jews living in Germany proper, especially those in western Germany and the Netherlands, colloquially known as Yekkes.

(In addition, since Chassidic Jews adopted certain Sephardic customs, non-Chassidim are at times referred to as Ashkenazim.)

Read:15 Facts About Yekkes

10. Ashkenazim Do Not Eat Kitniyot

On Passover, when food containing chametz (grain that has risen) is forbidden, Ashkenazim also avoid legumes, rice, corn and other foods known as kitniyot. Most (but not all) Sephardim have no such compunctions, happily serving rice (carefully checked for stray wheat kernels) as a Passover delicacy.
Read: Is Kitniyot Kosher for Passover?

A mixture of beans, all of which fall under the rubric of kitniyot.
A mixture of beans, all of which fall under the rubric of kitniyot.

11. They Follow the Glosses of the Rama

The Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch) was written by Rabbi Yosef Caro (1488-1575), a Sephardic sage who lived in the holy city of Safed, in the north of Israel.

Upon seeing his work, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, an Ashkenazi rabbi in Cracow, added glosses noting when Ashkenazic tradition differs from the rulings codified by Rabbi Caro. Thus, a unified text was able to be used by all segments of the Jewish world.

Read: 14 Facts About the Code of Jewish Law

The first page of the Cracow edition of the Shulchan Aruch, which also incorporated the glosses of the Mapah.
The first page of the Cracow edition of the Shulchan Aruch, which also incorporated the glosses of the Mapah.

12. They Have a Unique Pronunciation of Hebrew

Over the thousands of years that the Jewish people have traversed the globe, they carefully guarded the Hebrew language, ensuring that the next generation could read and understand the Holy Tongue. Nevertheless, inevitable differences in pronunciation arose. Some unique aspects of Ashkenazi Hebrew pronunciation:

  • The ח is pronounced the same as the כ
  • The ע is pronounced the same as the א1
  • The ת is pronounced as “s”

Read: The Hebrew Alphabet

13. They Have a Peculiar Custom of When to Start Selichot

For 40 days before Yom Kippur, starting on the first of Elul, Sephardim rise early to recite penitential prayers, known as Selichot. Ashkenazim, however, begin early on a Sunday morning, ranging between four and nine days prior to Rosh Hashanah.

Read: Why Do Selichot Follow Such an Odd Schedule?

14. The Holocaust Was Devastating

The scourge of the Nazi Holocaust was felt in every country with a significant Jewish population in continental Europe, and left more than 6,000,000 Jews dead, the vast majority of whom were Ashkenazim. This effectively ended Jewish life in places where there had been Ashkenazi Jewish life for generations.

Read: Belief After the Holocaust

15. Most American Jews Are Ashkenazim

The first Jews in the United States were Sephardim, who came during the colonial period. The mid-1800s saw an influx of German and French Ashkenazim, followed by an even larger migration of Eastern-European Ashkenazim from the 1880s through the 1920s. Thus, Yiddish-speaking Jews from Russia, Ukraine, and Poland became the dominant strand in the US, and have continued to heavily influence the public perception of Jewish culture in American life.

Read: Did Chabad’s Founder Envision an American Future?

16. Classic “Jewish” Foods Are Ashkenazi

Due to the place of Ashkenazim as the dominant community in North America, many foods seen as “Jewish” are actually classic Ashkenazi kosher cuisine. This includes chicken soup with matzo balls, gefilte fish, chopped liver, latkes, lekach cake, and more.

Read: 22 Kosher Facts

17. Ashkenazim Have a Rich Musical Tradition

Just like their Sephardic brothers, despite their suffering, Ashkenazi Jews have found ways to remain joyous and inspired. One way is music. Classic Ashkenazi music includes many strands, such as:

  • Chazzanut (Cantorial Music): In the synagogue, services are led by a chazzan (cantor) who uses traditional tunes. A large prestigious synagogue may employ a cantor, whose traditional craft can be described as a quasi-operatic musical art. Listen to a sample of classical Chazzanut
  • Klezmer (Wedding Music): Klezmer is a contraction of the two Hebrew words klei zemer (“musical instruments”) and refers to the joyous music played at Ashkenazi weddings and other celebrations, often by bands of itinerant musicians. Listen to a Klezmer presentation
    These songs are often easy to master and often sung at Shabbat and holiday tables, set to traditional hymns. Listen to Zemirot
  • Niggunim: The music of Chassidic Jewry. Some niggunim are fast-paced (overlapping with klezmer) and others are pensive, to be used as an aid to the contemplation of Chassidic teachings. Listen to a Niggun