The Sephardi Jews are people of the Jewish faith who are descended from the former Jewish population of the Iberian Peninsula. In addition to being used to describe people of a particular ethnic background, the term “Sephardi Jews” is also used to describe individuals who practice a particular form of Judaism, whether or not they are descended from Spanish and Portuguese Jews. Sephardi Jews can be found all over the world, with especially large populations in the Middle East and North Africa.
The history of Judaism in Spain is ancient, as numerous archaeological finds have suggested, but the Jewish people started settling Spain and Portugal in large numbers around the second century, as Roman influence spread across the Middle East. The Jewish population in this region was quite well integrated with the rest of the population, and some Jewish residents of the Iberian Peninsula became very influential and powerful. Separation from the Middle East also led the religious practices of Sephardi Jews to diverge slightly.
In the eighth century, with the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, the position of Jews in the region improved significantly, as many Jewish individuals were given power and authority by the Muslim government. For several centuries, Spain and Portugal had a remarkably mixed culture of Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and the result was a rich cultural tradition. All of this came to an end with the Christian reconquest of Spain, and the subsequent expulsion of the Jews in 1492 by order from the Monarchy.
At the time of the expulsion order, many Sephardi Jews fled to the Middle East, while others settled in North Africa, bringing Sephardi traditions with them to the native Jewish populations in these regions. Others remained in Spain and Portugal in hiding, pretending to be Christian so that they could remain in the Iberian Peninsula. These three separate groups of Sephardi Jews have evolved slightly different cultural traditions, leading some people to argue that they should be classified separately.
The Sephardim follow many of the beliefs and rules of Judaism shared by all people of the Jewish faith, with a few differences. They approach the Jewish liturgy slightly differently, for example, and they have some different rules about the observance of religious holidays. Sephardi Jews also inherited their own language, Judaeo-Spanish, sometimes known as Ladino. Linguists have raised concerns about the future of Ladino, due to the fact that many speakers are very old, with their children learning Hebrew or modern languages rather than Judaeo-Spanish.
Some people classify the Mizrahi Jews of the Middle East and North Africa among the Sephardi Jews, as there are many similarities between these two groups. Others argue that the two are ethnically and culturally distinct, and that these two aspects of Jewish culture are poorly served by being lumped together.