Over the centuries that they lived apart from each other, Sephardim and Ashkenazim developed different prayer liturgies. It is valuable to learn about the finer differences that emerged between Sephardic and Ashkenazic liturgies, to see how rabbinic interpretations and cultures shaped the religious experiences underlying prayer. This essay will briefly survey a few aspects of Sephardic and Ashkenazic liturgy.
Connection to Tanach
Although many rabbinic prayers draw inspiration from Tanach, Sephardim generally prefer an even closer connection to Tanach than do Ashkenazim.
For example, the Pesukei DeZimra offer psalms of praise to get us into the proper religious mindset for the mandatory prayers—Shema, Amidah, and their blessings. On Shabbat morning, Sephardim read the psalms in order of their appearance in Sefer Tehillim. Ashkenazim read the psalms in a different order, presumably arranged for thematic reasons. Rabbi Shalom Carmy recently wrote an article offering a conceptual explanation for the Ashkenazic arrangement. To understand the reasoning behind the order of the Sephardic liturgy, however, just open a Tanach.
In a similar vein, in Shabbat Minchah, Sephardim and Ashkenazim usually recite three verses beginning with Tzidkatecha after the Amidah. Once again, Sephardim recite these verses in their order of appearance in Sefer Tehillim (36:7; 71:19; 119:142). Ashkenazim reverse the order, requiring explanation. Perishah (on Tur Orach Chaim 292:6) suggests that God’s Name does not appear in 119:142; Elokim appears twice in 71:19; and God’s Name appears in 36:7. Therefore, Ashkenazim read the verses in an ascending order of holiness. Others suggest that Ashkenazim arranged the verses so that God’s Name is the last word before the Kaddish.
The Talmud (Berachot 11b) debates the proper opening to the second blessing prior to the Shema in Shacharit, whether it should be Ahavah Rabbah or Ahavat Olam (Sephardim and Ashkenazim both say Ahavat Olam in the blessing of Arvit). Ashkenazim chose Ahavah Rabbah, and Sephardim chose Ahavat Olam. Mishnah Berurah (60:2) explains that Ashkenazim selected Ahavah Rabbah to parallel Eichah (3:23): “They are renewed every morning—ample is Your grace! (Rabbah Emunatecha).” In contrast, Rif, Rambam, and Abudaraham explain that Sephardim preferred Ahavat Olam since that formula is biblical: “Eternal love (Ahavat Olam) I conceived for you then; therefore I continue My grace to you” (Yirmiyahu 31:2).
Piyut is an area where Sephardim and Ashkenazim diverge more significantly, since these poems were composed in the respective lands of Sephardim and Ashkenazim, rather than in earlier periods. Sephardim generally incorporated the Piyutim of Sephardic poets, and Ashkenazim generally incorporated the Piyutim of Ashkenazic poets. True to his Tanach-centered approach, Ibn Ezra on Kohelet 5:1 levels criticisms against several Ashkenazic Paytanim, including the venerated Rabbi Eliezer HaKalir, whose Piyutim are used widely in Ashkenazic liturgy: (1) Rabbi Eliezer HaKalir speaks in riddles and allusions, whereas prayers should be comprehensible to all. (2) He uses many talmudic Aramaisms, whereas we should pray in Hebrew, our Sacred Tongue. (3) There are many grammatical errors in Rabbi Eliezer HaKalir’s poetry. (4) He uses Derashot that are far from Peshat, and we need to pray in Peshat. Ibn Ezra concludes that it is preferable not to use faulty Piyutim at all. In contrast, he idealizes Rabbi Sa’adiah Gaon as the model Paytan.
Kaddish and Kedushah
Sometimes, minor text variations reflect deeper concepts. For example, Rabbi Marvin Luban notes a distinction between the Kaddish and the Kedushah. In the Kedushah, we sanctify God’s Name in tandem with the angels. In the Kaddish, we cry over the absence of God’s presence in the world.
Tosafot on Sanhedrin 37b refer to an early Geonic custom where Kedushah was recited only on Shabbat. Although we do not follow this practice (we recite both Kaddish and Kedushah on weekdays and Shabbat), it makes excellent conceptual sense. Kedushah conveys a sense of serenity, setting a perfect tone for Shabbat. In contrast, Kaddish reflects distress over the exile, which is better suited for weekdays.
A relic of this practice distinguishes the Kedushah read by Sephardim and Ashkenazim for Shacharit on Shabbat. Ashkenazim incorporate the language of Kaddish into the Kedushah:
From Your place, our King, You will appear and reign over us, for we await You. When will You reign in Zion? Soon, in our days, forever and ever, may You dwell there. May You be exalted and sanctified (Titgaddal VeTitkaddash) within Jerusalem Your city, from generation to generation and for all eternity. May our eyes see Your kingdom, as it is expressed in the songs of Your might, written by David, Your righteous anointed (ArtScroll translation).
In contrast, Sephardim keep the Kaddish and the Kedushah separate. They insist that there is a time and a place for each type of prayer.
Although the Sages of the Talmud codified the prophetic passages to be read as Haftarot for holidays, they left the choice of regular Shabbat Haftarot to the discretion of individual communities (Rabbi Yosef Karo, Kesef Mishneh on Rambam, Laws of Prayer, 12:12). Consequently, several Haftarah reading traditions have arisen.
Generally, when Sephardim and Ashkenazim read from same passage, Sephardim are more likely to have a shorter Haftarah. In BeShalach, for example, Sephardim read Devorah’s song in Shofetim chapter 5, whereas Ashkenazim read the chapter of narrative beforehand as well.
One striking example of this phenomenon is the Haftarah of VaYeira. Melachim Bet, chapter 4 relates the story of the prophet Elisha and a woman who offered him hospitality. Elisha prophesied that this woman would give birth to a son as a reward for her hospitality, and indeed she did. These themes directly parallel elements of the Parashah: Angelic guests visit Abraham and Sarah; Abraham and Sarah offer their guests hospitality; and the angels promise them the birth of Isaac.
After these initial parallels to the Parashah, the story in the Haftarah takes a tragic turn in verses 18–23. The son dies, and the woman goes to find Elisha. As she leaves home, the woman’s husband asks why she was going out if it was not a special occasion, and she replies, “Shalom.” This is where Sephardim end the Haftarah. Ashkenazim read the continuation of the narrative in verses 24–37, which relate how the woman finds Elisha who rushes back to her house and miraculously revives the child. It appears jarring that Sephardim would conclude the Haftarah at a point where the child still is lifeless rather than proceeding to the happy and miraculous ending of the story.
Rabbi Elhanan Samet explains the surprising discrepancy by noting that the entire story becomes inordinately long for a congregational setting (37 verses). Sephardim therefore abridged the Haftarah to 23 verses at the expense of reading its happy ending. They conclude with the word “Shalom” to strike at least some positive note.
In the final analysis, Sephardim did not want to burden the community with too long a Haftarah reading. Ashkenazim favored completing the story even though that meant reading a lengthy Haftarah. Perhaps the best solution would be to read the shorter Haftarah in synagogue and then to learn the story in its entirety.
Parashat Shemot is an example where Sephardim, Ashkenazim, and Yemenites adopted passages from different prophetic books to highlight different themes from the Parashah.
Sephardim read the beginning of Sefer Yirmiyahu (1:1–2:3). In this passage, God selects Yirmiyahu as a prophet. Yirmiyahu expresses reluctance only to be rebuffed by God: “I replied: Ah, Lord God! I don’t know how to speak, for I am still a boy. And the Lord said to me: Do not say, I am still a boy, but go wherever I send you and speak whatever I command you” (Yirmiyahu 1:6–7). This choice of Haftarah focuses on the parallels between Yirmiyahu’s initiation and ensuing reluctance, and Moshe’s hesitations in accepting his prophetic mission in the Parashah.
Ashkenazim read from Yeshayahu, focusing primarily on the theme of national redemption: “[In days] to come Jacob shall strike root, Israel shall sprout and blossom, and the face of the world shall be covered with fruit” (Yeshayahu 27:6). “For when he—that is, his children—behold what My hands have wrought in his midst, they will hallow My name. Men will hallow the Holy One of Yaakov and stand in awe of the God of Israel” (Yeshayahu 29:23). Although there is rebuke in the middle of the Haftarah, the passage begins and ends with redemption.
Yemenites read one of Yechezkel’s harsh diatribes against the Jews for their infidelity to God since their inception as a nation. The prophet compares them to an unfaithful woman who has cheated on God by turning to idolatry and the allures of pagan nations: “O mortal, proclaim Jerusalem’s abominations to her” (Yechezkel 16:2).
Ashkenazim highlight the link between the national exile and redemption. Yemenites selected Yechezkel’s caustic condemnation of the Israelites, implying that the Israelites deserved slavery as a punishment for having assimilated in Egypt. It likely was used as an exhortation to contemporary Jews to remain faithful to the Torah. Sephardim chose to highlight the development of the outstanding individual figure of the Parashah—Moshe.
 R. Shalom Carmy, “‘I Will Bless God at All Times’: Pesukei DeZimrah on Shabbat and on Weekdays,” forthcoming in in Mi-Tokh Ha-Ohel: Shabbat Prayer Volume (Jerusalem: Maggid).
 Macy Nulman, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer: Ashkenazic and Sephardic Rites (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1993), p. 327.
 Macy Nulman, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer, pp. 11-12.
 This section is taken from Hayyim Angel, A Synagogue Companion (New York: Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, 2013), pp. 340-341.
 R. Marvin Luban, “The Kaddish: Man’s Reply to the Problem of Evil,” in Studies in Torah Judaism, ed. Leon Stitskin (New York: Yeshiva University Press, 1969), pp. 191–234.
 This section is taken from Hayyim Angel, A Synagogue Companion, pp. 228-229, 240-241.
 R. Elhanan Samet, Pirkei Elisha (Ma’alei Adumim: Ma’aliyot, 2007), pp. 281-284.