May 26, 2024
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May 26, 2024
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The prestigious and erudite Da’at Mikra Tanach commentary (to Yonah 3:9) compares the statement of the king of Nineveh to that which “we” say in Selichot “Ulai yechus am ani v’evyon, ulai yerucheim.” While this is a fine comparison, there is a glaring problem in this statement. The phrase quoted by Da’at Mikra is part of the Ashkenazic version of Selichot but is not included in the Sephardic ritual. Unfortunately, such a myopic vision of who “we” are is fairly common in the Jewish community.

Another example: Rav Yitzchak Yosef recounts about how when Shemirat Shabbat KeHilchata was first published, the cover page stated: “Hilchot Shabbat L’Bayit Yehudi” (Shabbat laws for the Jewish home), but the entire work was purely Ashkenazi halacha! He wrote a letter complaining to the author, Rav Neuwirth, “What, Sephardim aren’t Jews?!” and in subsequent editions the words were changed to those who follow the Rama (Rav Moshe Isserles, the primary Ashkenazic halachic authority). Many Sephardic Jews will affirm that they have encountered such statements numerous times.

The situation is somewhat better among the younger generation of Torah educators who are more aware and sensitized to Sephardic practice. Yet even among such leaders, inaccurate statements such as “Sephardic Jews do not recite a bracha on Hallel,” “Sephardic women recite the bracha before lighting Shabbat candles” and “Sephardic Jews respond ‘Baruch Hu u’varuch Shemo’ even to birkot hamitzvah” persist. While these leaders are aware of some of the better-known rulings of Rav Ovadia Yosef, they are completely unaware of the dissenting opinions of other leading Sephardic lights such as Rav Shalom Messas, Hacham Ben Zion Abba Sha’ul and Rav Mordechai Eliyahu.

Thus, a major objective of this column is to broaden the “we” by raising awareness of where Sephardic Jews’ practice differs from Ashkenazic Jews. In addition, our intention is to open the eyes of Torah scholars to the wide world of Sephardic halacha, which is exceedingly rich, diverse and vibrant.

Sephardic readers as well would do well to broaden their horizons beyond the customs of their specific group. Maintaining the entire and broad Sephardic sub-communities on one’s halachic radar serves to enhance rather than detract from appreciation of one’s specific community’s customs.

The divine orchestra of the Jewish people and the Torah is missing some of its crucial musicians when one limits the scope of his halachic perspective. Moreover, each of the musicians must be included to produce the highest quality of music. We hope that our column encourages a fuller activation and implementation of the complete Torah orchestra in the repertoire of every Torah educator and Torah-educated Jew. All Torah scholars and Jewish communities should be included in one’s “we.”

This is an especially needed change in mindset nowadays as the Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities are closer than they have been in a thousand years. Most Ashkenazic families (at least in the Religious Zionist and Modern Orthodox community) by now have at least one relative who has married a Sephardic Jew and vice versa. More than ever we are am echad, one nation, and there is a pressing need to familiarize ourselves with the full range of Torah practice. No longer is a Sephardic Jew a rarity in an Ashkenazic community. Nearly every major Jewish community worldwide boasts both a Sephardic and Ashkenazic minyan. Moreover, it is reasonable to assert that at this point, approximately half of the world’s observant Jews are Sephardic.

My dear friend and neighbor Aryeh Glatter related to me that as a youngster when he and his other Ashkenazic friends visited a Sephardic synagogue, they reacted, “How interesting!” When his Sephardic friends would visit an Ashkenazic shul, the reaction was the same: “How interesting!” We hope our readers, as they delve into our work and begin to learn and grasp the basis for the practices of the various sections of our Jewish community, react similarly by proclaiming “how interesting!”

By Rabbi Haim Jachter


Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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