Shabbat and the Sephardim

Shabbat and the Sephardim

There are many highlights of the “Sephardic Diaspora” – the Sephardic Dispersion. Most people know that the Spanish Inquisition expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492 . . . Yes – in the same year that “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Before then, despite the power of the Inquisition, Jews were free to practice their religion openly without interference from the authorities. In 1492, however, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella issued the Edict of Expulsion: all Jews in their kingdom were expect to convert, or to leave Spain for ever. Thousands fled. Those who remained, however, converted to Christianity and were known as “New Christians.” Any who were caught practicing Judaism in secret, were tortured and executed. Many continued to practice their religion in secret, many didn’t – but they kept their identity as Jews locked in their hearts.

Over the generations, most Jews forgot about Jewish practice, and many no longer remembered that they had been, in fact, Jews. However when they finally could escape in the 1600s or even in the 1700s to Amsterdam (which had been a Protestant part of the Spanish Empire) or North Africa, or Turkey, or to the Land of Israel, they wanted to return to the religion of their ancestors. They might not have known much about their ancestral religion, but what they did know was that to them religion and music were inseparable. While pretending to be Christians, the spent Sundays, the Christian Sabbath, in church, and were accustomed to hearing exquisite music with choirs and soloists and accompanied by musical instruments. They couldn’t imagine returning to Jewish Shabbat services without that. However, according to traditional Judaism, no musical instruments were permitted.

Many of these exiles were mystics. Together they created the “Kabbalat Shabbat” Ceremony in which they welcomed the Sabbath Queen (or Bride). The idea of the Sabbath is a mystical idea created by the Sephardic mystics as a feminine mystical personification of the Sabbath. But . . . more importantly . . . the Kabbalat Shabbat Ceremony isn’t actually on the Sabbath. It’s part of an introduction to the Sabbath. And for that reason, they could play musical instruments. Typically, they would play and sing, welcoming the Sabbath, and as the sun set, they would put away their instruments and begin the evening service with voices alone.

Tonight, we will be reenacting such a service in cooperation with Congregation Sinai with music composed around 1600. At 6 pm, singers and instrumentalists who specialize in music of the period will reenact a Sabbath service featuring the music of the Italian composer Salamone Rossi and others. You should come! For more information, see the link below.

Shabbat Shalom.

Click here to learn more about our Shabbat in Old Tsfat program!