Once a Sephardic Jew, Always a Sephardic Jew? by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


In today’s socially integrated Am Yisrael, one of the most complex yet common dilemmas is that of conflicting Minhagim (customs). Of course, children must generally attempt to follow their parents’ Minhagim,[2] but exactly what this entails can be difficult to determine, given different family circumstances. One such question was brought before Rav Yosef Shalom Eliashiv (Kovetz Teshuvot 1:12), whose Teshuvah (responsum) on the parameters of following family traditions we shall discuss in this chapter.

The Case in Question

A man whose non-observant Sephardic parents raised him in an Ashkenazic environment approached Rav Eliashiv with the following dilemma. Despite his Sephardic background, his parents had sent him to Ashkenazic religious schools and synagogues, leading him to follow the Ashkenazic tradition in all matters. When the son was approximately 35 years old, his father returned to his roots and became a fully observant Jew in accordance with Sephardic tradition. The father demanded that the son return to his Sephardic roots as well, but the son found this very difficult after following Ashkenazic practice for so long. Now, as the son was planning a wedding for his eldest child, the father insisted that the wedding be conducted according to Sephardic practice, and he even threatened to boycott the wedding if it was not.

The son presented Rav Eliashiv with two questions. First, was he permitted to continue observing the Torah in accordance with Ashkenazic tradition? Second, would Halachah require him to obey his father’s demands under the Mitzvot of Kibbud and Mora Av (honoring and revering one’s father)?


Rav Eliashiv begins by emphasizing the importance of abiding by one’s family Minhagim. The Gemara (Pesachim 50b) insists that one abide by his family customs even when it is difficult to do so. For example, Rav Eliashiv writes that an Ashkenazic Jew may not change his method of pronunciation to Sephardic or modern Israeli pronunciation; rather, he must recite his prayers using the pronunciation of his ancestors.[3]

Rav Eliashiv adds, though, that the prohibition against changing Minhagim is not without exception, as demonstrated by a ruling of the Chatam Sofer (Teshuvot Chatam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat 188). The Chatam Sofer was approached by members of a town where two Kehillot (communities), one Sephardic and one Ashkenazic, had formerly functioned. However, a pogrom had caused most of the Jews to leave, and since the remaining populace could not sustain two separate Minyanim, the two groups now had to combine into one functioning synagogue. The Chatam Sofer ruled that the remaining members of the community should choose which of the two synagogues would continue to function, whose Minhagim they then would follow. Rav Ovadia Yosef (Teshuvot Yabi’a Omer 6, Orach Chayim 10) cites numerous authorities who concur with the Chatam Sofer’s ruling.

The Chatam Sofer reasons that one may change from practicing all Ashkenazic traditions to practicing all Sephardic traditions and vice versa. Just as a non-Jew who converts to Judaism fully integrates into the Jewish community, so too may an Ashkenazic Jew fully integrate into a Sephardic community and vice versa. Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin (Eidut LeYisrael p. 162) similarly rules that if an Ashkenazic Jew decides to join a Sephardic community permanently, he may change his Nusach HaTefillah (liturgy) to the Sephardic one. He notes that historically, the entire Chassidic community changed from Nusach Ashkenaz to Nusach Sefard with the noble intention of praying in accordance with the mystical teachings of the Arizal.[4] Of course, one should consult with a Rav before deviating from any family practice, as great caution must be exercised before deviating from practices observed by one’s ancestors for generations.

This also explains the rulings of twentieth-century authorities like Teshuvot Igrot Moshe (Orach Chayim 1:158) and Teshuvot Yabi’a Omer (5, Orach Chayim 37) that Ashkenazic women who marry Sephardic men, or vice versa, should follow the husband’s traditional family practices.[5] Although doing so entails deviating from the wife’s family tradition, these Poskim apparently believe, as the Chatam Sofer asserts, that a Jew may fully integrate into the practices of a different Jewish community.

Based on this, Rav Eliashiv rules regarding the case addressed to him that from the vantage point of Minhag, the son may continue to practice Torah in accordance with Ashkenazic tradition despite his Sephardic ancestry. Rav Hershel Schachter similarly rules that if someone was raised in a non-Chassidic community, he need not practice Chassidic Minhagim even if his paternal grandfather was Chassidic (see Beit Yitzchak 39:520). Indeed, most Modern Orthodox Ashkenazic Jews pronounce Hebrew differently than their European paternal forebears.[6]

We must emphasize that, exceptional situations notwithstanding, it is imperative to follow the practices of one’s family and community (see, for example, Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 468:4 and Mishnah Berurah ibid. 14). In fact, Rav Ovadia Yosef would likely disagree with Rav Eliashiv’s ruling for this very reason, especially if the son lived in Eretz Yisrael. Rav Ovadia (Teshuvot Yabi’a Omer 6, Orach Chayim 10:4 and Teshuvot Yechaveh Da’at 5:33; see also Teshuvot Yabi’a Omer 5, Orach Chayim 37) laments the choice of Ashkenazic Jews in Israel to maintain their Ashkenazic practices instead of acknowledging that the Rambam and Rav Yosef Karo are the Halachic authorities of Eretz Yisrael. Though he reluctantly yields to the Israeli Ashkenazim’s adherence to their traditional customs, he instructed anyone of Sephardic origin who lives in Israel to follow Sephardic practice.[7]

Rav Ovadia Yosef and Rav Shlomo Amar

Although I am unaware of Hacham Ovadia addressing this particular issue in his voluminous writings or in his son’s writings, I am aware of two situations in which Rav Ovadia in practice ruled that once a Sepharadi, always a Sepharadi. Rav Shlomo Amar told me the following story when he visited Teaneck’s Congregation Shaarei Orah on Shabbat Nachamu of 5777:

A young man whose father was a Persian Jew and mother was a Yemenite Jew was raised in his mother’s predominantly Yemenite neighborhood. His maternal grandfather had a large influence upon him and trained him to pray and read Torah in the distinctive Yemenite style. Upon reaching the age of maturity, he posed a question to Rav Amar as to whether he was permitted to follow the practice of his mother’s family or whether he must adopt the more general Sephardic practice of his father and his family. Rav Amar referred the young man to Hacham Ovadia who instructed the young man to abandon Yemenite practice and change to his father’s family practices. Rav Amar relates that the young man followed Rav Ovadia’s ruling despite the considerable difficulty involved in making this transition.

The current president of Congregation Shaarei Orah in Teaneck, Mr. Joshua Murad, relates a similar story. Mr. Murad was raised in the overwhelmingly Ashkenazic Jewish section of the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. Both the synagogue and Yeshivot he attended were Ashkenazic, and despite his father’s Sephardic origin, Mr. Murad practiced Ashkenazic Halachah from A to Z. During his year of study in Israel when he was eighteen years of age, Mr. Murad had the opportunity to meet Rav Ovadia Yosef. Mr. Murad asked Rav Ovadia if he was obligated to return to his ancestral Sephardic practices. Mr. Murad reports that Hacham Ovadia insisted that he must “Machazir Atarah LeYoshenah,” “Restore the crown to its original luster,” and fully observe Halachah in accordance with Sephardic tradition. I am delighted to report that Mr. Murad is very proud to be an enthusiastic follower of Rav Ovadia’s ruling, to the extent that he currently serves as the devoted lay leader of the Teaneck Sephardic congregation.

Rav Amar fully subscribes to Rav Yosef’s approach. Interestingly, he told me that even if a Sephardic Jew never attends Sephardic services[8] and even neglects the venerated Sephardic Halachah to recite Selichot beginning from the second day of Elul, he is still entitled to eat Kitniyot on Pesach. I had thought that if a Sephardic Jew does not observe the stringent Sephardic practices, he loses his right to follow the lenient Sephardic practices. Rav Amar clarified that although he acts improperly in regards to the stringent practices, he remains a Sephardic Jew and is entitled to observe Sephardic leniencies. Similarly, Rav Ben Zion Abba Shaul rules (Or LeTzion, volume one) that a Ba’al Teshuvah of Sephardic origin should follow Sephardic standards, even if his father did not observe Torah law.


Rav Amar concluded his ruling by telling me that a non-Jew may convert to Judaism, but a Sephardic Jew may not change to Ashkenazic practice. Presumably, Rav Amar would not permit an Ashkenazic Jew to change to Sephardic practice. However, it seems that an Ashkenazic Jew who wishes to make this change is permitted to do so according to the view of Rav Eliashiv. In any event, any change in ancestral practice should not be taken lightly. Adopting a course of action which deviates from centuries of family practice and has profound impact on future generations must be contemplated with the utmost of care and sober consideration.

[2] Refer to Gray Matter 3:128-135 for a discussion of why children should maintain their parents’ Minhagim.

[3] Not all authorities agree with Rav Eliashiv on this specific point. Rav Yehuda Amital reports that his wife’s grandfather, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, permitted changing to modern Israeli pronunciation. Common practice among Ashkenazic students of Yeshivot Hesder is to follow Rav Isser Zalman’s ruling. Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook (Teshuvot Orach Mishpat 17), though, disagrees with Rav Isser Zalman. For further discussion of this issue, see Teshuvot Mishpetei Uzziel (Orach Chayim 1), Teshuvot Seridei Eish (2:5), Teshuvot Igrot Moshe (Orach Chayim 3:5), and Rav Kook’s letter of approbation for Teshuvot Mishpetei Uzziel.

[4] See Teshuvot Yabia Omer (6, Orach Chayim 10) for a summary of the rich response literature regarding the legitimacy of the Chassidim’s change of Nusach. Some “Mitnagdic” Poskim, such as Teshuvot Sho’eil UMeishiv (3:1:247) and Teshuvot Maharam Schick (Orach Chayim 43), wrote that the change was illegitimate and violates the obligation not to “abandon the teachings of [one’s] mother” (see Pesachim 50b). Other Poskim (especially Chassidic Poskim), such as Teshuvot Divrei Chayim (2, Orach Chayim 8), defend the change, and as Rav Henkin notes, this opinion has emerged as the accepted view. Rav Henkin cautions, though, that it is forbidden to make such a change arbitrarily.

[5] This issue is discussed at greater length in Gray Matter op. cit..

[6] For example, Ashkenazic Modern Orthodox Jews do not pronounce Hebrew in the Chassidic style despite their Chassidic ancestry. This is an example of community practice prevailing over family custom. For a discussion of how to resolve conflicts between community and family customs, see Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg’s Darchei HaPsak (p. 24 note 44).

[7] For a defense of the Ashkenazic Jews in Israel retaining their Minhagim, see Chazon Ish (Shevi’it 23:5), Rav Yechiel Michel Tukachinsky’s Ir HaKodesh VeHaMikdash (3:24), Pe’at HaShulchan (3:11), and Rav Elyakim (Getsel) Ellinson’s Ish VeIshto (pp. 24-25 note 31).

[8] Rav Amar clarified that his ruling applies even if Sephardic services are readily available to him and he never participates in these services. 

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