[Hebrew, Sfaradim, from Sfarad = Spain]
A culturally separate branch of Jews originating in the Iberian Peninsula (Spain, Portugal) and to some extent from Provence, where they had lived since the time of the Roman Empire.
The freedom that the Sephardim enjoyed under Muslim rule meant that they integrated with the surrounding population, and did not dress differently, for example.
In the Middle Ages, their culture was highly developed. Some were advisors to the Arab rulers and wrote court poetry; others were involved in philosophy, astronomy, mathematics and medicine. They created maps, navigational tables and precision instruments.
The philosophical thought of Spanish Jewry, along with Arab philosophy, helped bring about the intellectual rebirth of Christian Europe. The treatise Fons vitae [Source of Life], written by Shlomo ibn Gabirol (1021-1070) in Arabic and then translated into Latin, linked Jewish traditions and Neoplatonic philosophy. The works of Majmonides were an attempt to reconcile Judaism and Aristotelianism. As Spain was conquered by Catholic rulers, the Jews' situation worsened dramatically (Marranos).
After the kingdom was united (1492), the Jews were expelled. They scattered throughout the Muslim countries in North Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans. Groups of Sephardic Jews also settled in France, Italy and the Netherlands. They arrived in South America along with the first boats, and, in the seventeenth century, in North America as well. A small Sephardic group settled in Zamosc, where it assimilated quickly to the culture of the Ashkenazim who lived there.
Centuries of cultural isolation in the Muslim countries meant that the Sephardim and Ashkenazim differed, while maintaining a basic religious unity. Cultural borrowings also grew out of these contacts. The Sephardim spoke Ladino (Jewish languages), and their rituals did not differ much from those of the Ashkenazim (intonation of religious songs, pronunciation of Hebrew words, order of prayers during religious services, etc.). They also had strong kabbalistic traditions (Sabbathaism), and a less restrictive religiosity. There were much greater differences in dress, cuisine, folklore and musical traditions.