The question is posed quite often. Sepharad is the word Jews use to refer to Spain. If so, why are eastern, or Mizrahi, Jews such as those whose families lived in lands such as Persia and Iraq referred to Sephardic Jews? These Jews never lived in Spain! Referring to them as Sephardic appears to be inappropriate. Moreover, in the distant past eastern Jews who did not originate from Spain and lived in Arab lands were called Musta’arabim. Why are they now known as Sephardic Jews and the term Musta’arabim is no longer extant?
Rav Ovadiah Yosef’s Explanation
Rav Yehuda Azoulay relates (Maran: The Life and Scholarship of Hacham Ovadia Yosef, pages 387-388):
When meeting King Juan Carlos of Spain, Hacham Ovadia explained to the king why Sephardic Jewry goes by the word “Sepharadim,” which means “Spanish.” Although [many] Sephardic Jews hail from Middle Eastern and North African countries, they are known as “Sepharadim” because they received their guidance from the Rambam, a Spanish native.
We may add to this explanation that Sephardic Jews receive their guidance from Rav Yosef Caro, who also was a Spanish native.
Adding to Rav Ovadiah Yosef’s Explanation - The Great Rabbis of Spain near the Time of the Expulsion
I suggest an addition to Rav Ovadia’s explanation based on the content of Rav Yosef Bitton’s magnificent work “Forgotten Giants: Sephardic Rabbis before and after the Expulsion from Spain”. This slim volume offers brief descriptions of twenty six great, but mostly lesser-known, rabbis of Spanish-Jewish origin who lived during the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I suggest that recognition of the enormous impact of these rabbis in shaping the Halacha practiced by Eidot HaMizrach (eastern communities) Jewry serves as yet another reason why Mizrachim are commonly called Sepharadim.
The first section of Rav Bitton’s book describes rabbis who were born in Spain and lived most of their lives in Spain immediately before the Expulsion. The second group describes great Spanish rabbis who were born in Spain but were expelled from Spain at a young age and resettled elsewhere. The final section describes a group of great rabbis born to Jewish refugees from Spain who were born outside of Spain after the Expulsion.
The common denominator of all of these rabbis was that each lived, to some extent or another, a life that included severe disruption and suffering. Yet, despite the severe handicaps imposed on all of these rabbis, their literary productivity and legacies are beyond amazing!
Two Examples - Rav Chasdai Crescas and Rav David ben Zimra
The year 1391 was the beginning of the end of the rich Jewish life in Spain. In that year Catholic leaders led their community to engage in vicious pogroms against Jews in Spain that murdered tens of thousands of Jews and forcibly converted many others.
The great Rav Chasdai Crescas was not spared this onslaught, despite his special standing in the royal court of Spain as well as the in the Jewish community. His only son was tragically murdered by Catholic extremists when he refused to convert. Yet despite this terrible loss, as well as his great efforts to secure permission from the royal family to rebuild Spanish Jewry and to help those forced to convert to move to North Africa where they could return to Jewish observance, Rav Crescas still found time to make a very significant contribution to Torah scholarship.
All this activity is in addition to raising prominent Talmidim, such as Rav Yosef Ibn Habib, the author of the authoritative Nimukei Yosef commentary to the Rif, and Rav Yosef Albo, the author of the Sefer Ikkarim. Despite all of these enormous demands on his time, Rav Chasdai Crescas authored a lasting philosophical masterpiece entitled Or Hashem, which is studied until this very day. Rav Crescas is most famous for his arguments with Rambam about two matters. Firstly, he argues that the introduction to the Aseret HaDibrot (Ten Commandments), “Anochi Hashem Elokecha Asher Hotzeiticha Mei’Eretz Mitzrayim,” “I am the Lord your God Who took you out of Egypt” (Shemot 20:2), cannot be regarded as a commandment; Emunah is a prerequisite to all other Mitzvot but cannot be categorized or counted as a Mitzvah. Moreover, Rav Crescas argues, Mitzvot involve a matter for which one has a choice. Rav Crescas argues that belief cannot constitute a Mitzvah, since belief in the existence of Hashem is obvious and hence not subject to choice.
Secondly, Rav Crescas famously minimizes the concept of Free Will. He stands in stark contrast to Rambam in this regard. Of course, Or Hashem contains far more than these two topics. These are just two examples regarding which students of Jewish Philosophy pay considerable attention to Rav Chasdai Crescas’ views until this day. What makes this Sefer so remarkable was that the author had both the time and presence of mind to author such a work for the ages despite living under such severe strain.
Rav David ben Zimra, known as Radbaz, was born in Spain in 1479 and was forced to leave Spain with his family in 1492. They resettled in Eretz Yisrael.
The trauma experienced by the Jewish exiles from Spain, such as the Radbaz and his family, was profound. The Catholic Church forbade Jews to leave Spain with gold and silver, and so Jews were left with no choice other than to sell their property for next to nothing. Homes, for example, were sold for as little as a donkey on which to leave Spain.
The impoverished Jewish refugees were extremely vulnerable at sea due to the combined dangers of stormy weather, murderous pirates, and slave traders eager to sell them into slavery. Moreover, the trauma did not end when for Jews when they arrived at their new countries. The difficulty of adjusting to an often hostile new society when the refugees had little or no resources is unfathomable.
Despite this horrific experience, the Radbaz flourished in his new home, learning with great rabbis in his adopted community of Tzefat and emerging as a great Torah scholar who was appointed as Hacham Bashi (chief rabbi) of the Egyptian Jewish community. While serving with distinction in this role for over forty years, the Radbaz published more than three thousand responsa that have had immeasurable impact on Mizrachi (and all other) Jews. For example, there is hardly a Teshuvah authored by Rav Ovadiah Yosef that does not quote the Radbaz! Moreover, he found time to compose his Teshuvot while he was raising great Talmidim, such as Rav Yitzchak Luria (the great Ari z”l), the author of the Shitah Mekubetzet, and the Maharikash (Rav Yaakov Castro).
Examples of Other Great Spanish Rabbis from the Pre- and Post- Expulsion Era
Many other examples abound. The oft-quoted Teshuvot of the Maharam Alashkar, who was born in 1466 and suffered terrible tribulations during his voyage from Spain to North Africa in 1492, is an excellent example. The Maharam Alashkar eventually resettled in Jerusalem and was one of the shapers of Minhag Yerushalayim, the practices of Sephardic Jewish residents of Jerusalem.
Rav Yaakov Beirav, Rav Yaakov Ibn Haviv, the Tashbeitz and Maharashdam
Rav Yaakov Beirav was born in Spain in 1474 and was expelled from Spain in 1492. He eventually made his way to Tzefat, where he served as the Rav of Rav Yosef Caro, and authored authoritative Teshuvot frequently cited until this day. Another Spanish Jewish refugee, Rav Yaakov Ibn Chaviv, wrote the classic work Ein Yaakov on the Aggadic portions of the Gemara. The Tashbeitz (Rav Shimon Duran) was forced to leave Spain during the violence of 1391 and wound up in Algeria. Rav Duran published more than eight hundred Teshuvot, which remain well used and often cited until this very day.
Finally, the Maharashdam (Rav Shmuel De Medina) published nearly one thousand Teshuvot that are often cited until this very day, despite his heavy burden as the leader of the large community of refugees from Portugal and Spain in Salonica (located in Greece).
We have not yet mentioned the extraordinary contribution made by Rav Yosef Caro in his Shulchan Aruch. As he writes in his introduction to the Shulchan Aruch, the aftermath of the Spanish inquisition left Jewish communities in Halachic turmoil around the known world. Rav Caro, a refuge from Spain of 1492, sought to, and succeeded in, stabilizing the Halachic practice of Jews with the publication of the Shulchan Aruch. Of course, this is the most lasting and impactful of all the contributions of the Spanish rabbis of the era which we are addressing.
Explaining the Extraordinary Literary Output of the Spanish Rabbis of the Expulsion Era
The accomplishments of the Spanish rabbis of the era of the Geirush (Expulsion) are beyond remarkable. It is an expression of the phenomenon describes in the Torah as “The more they tried to oppress them, the greater they became” (Shemot 1:12). These many great rabbis succeeded in taking all of the hideous negative energy unleashed upon them by the Catholic Inquisition and transforming it into extraordinary Torah productivity that lasts for all generations.
Jews marching to the gas chambers in the Concentration Camps chanted “we will outlive them” (referring, of course, to the Nazis). The Jewish expellees from Spain have certainly outlived the horrific leaders of the Inquisition, just as the Jews have outlasted the Nazis. The inquisition and its evil leaders are long gone and forgotten, while the works of the expulsion era Spanish rabbis dramatically transformed Mizrahi Judaism and our lovingly studied by hundreds of thousands of Jews until today.
I suggest that Mizrachi Jews refer to themselves as Sephardic not only due to the influence of Rambam and Rav Yosef Caro who were born in Spain. Rather it is because of the totality of the influence of the great Spanish rabbis, especially those of the Expulsion era, whose writings made an extraordinary impact on the practice of eastern Jews.