The Jews have been organized as a social unit and a distinct people for thousands of years, the earliest such unit being the ancient Hebrew clan. As they changed from a nomadic to an agrarian life style and began to settle in towns, their leadership tended to become urbanized. The Elders are identified as leaders of the various towns, especially for the administration of justice. In ancient Israel, towns were also organized in larger territorial or tribal units.
It was during the period of the Babylonian Exile that the foundations seem to have been laid for self-governing institutions, including the Synagogue. Other lands of the Diaspora (Galut) developed similar patterns of autonomy. These institutions combined concepts taken from the experience of sovereignty in Erets Israel with the social structures and ideologies of the Diaspora environment. The synagogue or bet ha-keneset (“assembly hall”) was not only a house of prayer but also the focus of communal activities; it accommodated the children’s school and the study hall (Bet Midrash) for adults. As early as the second century BCE, Jews living in Alexandria were entitled to their own corporation with a council (gerousia) empowered to conduct its affairs according to Jewish law, to build synagogues, and to send to Jerusalem taxes collected for the Temple. In the Roman Empire, Jews could be judged by their own courts and according to their own laws, a system which laid the foundations of a unique legal autonomy that was to characterize Jewish life for almost 20 centuries and to play a major role in Jewish continuity.
The end of the Second Temple period (70 CE) brought about major changes in Jewish communal organization. The two great centers of Jewish life, Erets Israel and (later) Babylonia, were headed by central authorities. The patriarchate, together with the Sanhedrin, enjoyed this prerogative in Erets Israel. In Babylonia, the Exilarch, traditionally of Davidic descent, was accorded the highest honor after the Muslim conquest, being close to the Caliph himself. The religious head of the Babylonian community was the Gaon and, in their daily life, Jews were bound by halakhah. The local community established a way of life that was totally Jewish: synagogues, law courts, schools, philanthropic institutions, and ritual baths formed part of a centralized complex under the control of the exilarch or the gaon. In North African communities and in Spain, the head of the community was the nagid, a title which in Egypt was retained hereditarily by descendants of Maimonides for over two centuries.
Jews in the Middle Ages
Persecution and dispersion of the Jews from the Land of Israel increased in the period following the Jewish revolts against the Romans in the 1st and the 2nd centuries. Judaism was legally never forbidden but being a Jew eventually became very difficult especially after the victory of Christianity in the Roman Empire in 396. About the same time occurred the perception that the Jews were responsible for the death of the Jesus which resulted in the deep hatred towards the Jews among the adherents of Christianity.
Jewish settlements from the Late Antiquity managed to survive until the Early Middle Ages only in Northern Italian cities, while Jewish settlements elsewhere in Europe were newly-founded. The Jews in Palestine became oppressed when latter fell under Byzantine authority but the living conditions of the Jews in the Middle East generally improved after the Muslim Conquest of Africa, Levant and the Iberian Peninsula in the 7th and 8th centuries. Many Jews settled in the Iberian Peninsula where they gained great influence and became the strongest Jewish Diaspora in Europe by the Late Middle Ages. The Jews of the Iberian Peninsula also known as the Sephardi Jews developed their own religious ceremonies and a special Hebrew-Spanish language called Ladino.
Jewish settlement elsewhere in Europe, especially in the Holy Roman Empire depended on the agreement between the authorities and Northern Italian Jewish communities. The oldest Jewish settlements in the Holy Roman Empire were founded in the Rhineland, Magdeburg, Regensburg and Prague. The medieval Jewish communities in the Holy Roman Empire eventually developed in two main distinct customs,(1) special judeo-spanish language or Sephardim and (2) special Germanic Jewish language – Yiddish and came to be known as the Ashkenazi Jews.
Medieval Jewish communities
Jewish settlements in France existed already before the 9th century, while first Jews moved to England in the 11th century. At the same time Jewish settlements also emerged in Eastern Slavic countries (Poland and Russia) as well as in the Balkan Peninsula and Byzantine Empire.
Sephardim: medieval Spanish and Portuguese Jews
It is believed that Jews have lived in Spain since the era of King Solomon (c.965-930 B.C.E.). Little information can be found on these Jews until the beginning of the first century. We do know that in 305 C.E., the Council of Toledo passed an edict forbidding Jews from blessing the crops of non-Jews and prohibiting Jews and non-Jews from eating together.
Jews lived separately in aljamas (Jewish quarters). They were given administrative control over their communities and managed their own communal affairs. Jews had their own court system, known as the Bet Din. Rabbis served as judges and rendered both religious and civil legal opinions.
The era of Muslim rule in Spain (8th-11th century) was considered the “Golden Age” for Spanish Jewry. Jewish intellectual and spiritual life flourished and many Jews served in Spanish courts. Jewish economic expansion was unparalleled. In Toledo, Jews were involved in translating Arabic texts to the romance languages, as well as translating Greek and Hebrew texts into Arabic. Jews also contributed to botany, geography, medicine, mathematics, poetry and philosophy.
Islamic culture also influenced the Jews. Muslim and Jewish customs and practices became intertwined. For example, Arabic was used for prayers rather than Hebrew or Spanish. Before entering the synagogue, Jews washed their hands and feet, which is a practice done before entering a mosque. Arab melodies were used for Jewish songs. Jews wore the clothing style of their Moorish neighbors, although they were not allowed to wear silk or furs.
Jews lived relatively in peacefully conditions in Al-Andulus for 400 years. The so called Golden Age for Jewry in Muslim Spain, but it declined after the Almovarids bebers extremist gained power in 1055 and continued to deteriorate after the Almohads came to power in 1147. Jews continued to work as moneylenders, jewelers, cobblers, tailors and tanners, however, they had to wear distinguishing clothing, such as a yellow turban.
Then Catholics Ruled, and started and developed the Inquisition and their Expulsion of Spain in 1492.
Many Spanish Jews then settled in Portugal, which allowed the practice of Judaism. In 1497, however, Portugal also expelled its Jews. King Manuel of Portugal agreed to marry the daughter of Spain’s monarchs. One of the conditions for the marriage was the expulsion of Portugal’s Jewish community. In actuality only eight Jews were exiled from Portugal and the rest converted, under duress, to Catholiscism.
In the first Sephardi Diaspora, a large number of Jews settled in North Africa and in the Ottoman Empire, especially, Turkey and Greece. Spanish exiles brought with them a unique culture, language (Ladino) and traditions. Many of these immigrants continued to speak Ladino until the 20th century.
Large Sephardic communities were founded in Venice, Leghorn, London, Bordeaux, Bayonne and Hamburg. These immigrants spoke Portugese and Spanish and many adapted mainstream Western European culture. Successful business enterprises were started by the Sephardim and their trade networks became famous worldwide.
A Marrano or Sephardic Diaspora took place a century later. Some Marranos had settled in Portugal and eventually moved to Holland, where they were allowed to outwardly practice Judaism. Many settled in Western Europe and moved to the Americas. By the 1500s there were fully functioning Jewish Communities in Brasil, Suriname, Curaçao, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Barbados.
Marranos who settled in Latin America continued practicing crypto-Judaism for many years because Spain began an inquisition in its New World colonies. Fear of persecution led Crypto-Jews to settle in remote villages. Today, descendants of crypto-Jews can be found all over Latin America but mostly in Colorado and New Mexico, USA.
There are thriving traditional jewish communities, lots of history and wonderful synagogues to visit in Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico, rest of the Caribbean, Panama, Curazao, Jamaica, St Thomas, Guyana, Brasil, Ecuador, Mexico etc.
There are Sephardic communities in the Arab world which traditionally were more receptive to modernity than their Ashkenazi counterparts in Europe, very distintive as the Ethiopian ; Yemenites Jewry or the Bukharan Jews from Central Asia. The Zionist movement became popular among Sephardic Jews in North Africa. Many Sephardic rabbis in the Ottoman Empire supported Zionism and the Zionist movement spread to many Muslim countries in North Africa, such as in Egypt and Tunisia.
Ashkenaz:medieval Centro-Eastern Europe or German region Jews.
In medieval Ashkenaz (the Franco-German region), communal leadership was exercised by outstanding rabbinical authorities. The community or congregation (Kehillah) often occupied a defined quarter of the town, sometimes near the castle of the ruler, who afforded the Jews protection. Within the Ashkenazi community, life was also regulated by halakhah. As in Babylonia, a multitude of institutions dealt with every aspect of life. The community was responsible for all taxes, both those demanded by the secular authorities and those required for the community chest. Special societies were organized and funds collected for such purposes as the ransoming of Captives, providing Hospitality to Jewish visitors from other communities, visiting the Sick and caring for the Aged, collecting the Dowry for a poor bride, caring for the Widow, and supervising Jewish Burial. The focus of Jewish life was the synagogue with its own many-faceted functions; it was not only the center of worship and religious ceremonies but also the venue of communal assemblies, the law court, and the school, ritual baths, and even a “dance hall” for community functions.
Special communal statutes (takkanot ha-kahal) established down the community’s constitution, which might be amplified by special ordinances and enactments for everyday life (see Takkanah), ranging from economic procedure to sumptuary laws governing dress. Responsible for their enforcement was the court (Bet Din), a panel of religious judges (dayyanim) who, in exceptional cases, would issue bans of Excommunication (Ḥerem) and who—in even rarer instances (e.g., with regard to “informers” who had endangered the community)—might pass sentences of death. The community’s president (Parnas) was recognized by the secular or Church authorities as the official representative of the Jews; he or the local rabbi (see also Chief Rabbinate) usually received an official title such as “Master of the Jews” (Magister Judaeorum) or “Bishop of the Jews” (Judenbischof).
From the 14th century onward, the center of gravity of European Jewry began shifting to Poland, where the community was to gain its most effective autonomy and power. This sometimes took the form of a structure in which a Jewish community in one central town exercised authority over all the smaller communities in the region and became responsible for serving them. It was in Poland-Lithuania that the centralized and powerful Council of the (Four) Lands (Va’ad Arba ha-Aratsot) functioned as a sort of Jewish parliament.
In the Ottoman Empire, central authority was vested in a Chief Rabbi, the ḥakham Bashi, who was recognized by the Sublime Porte as the Jewish community’s representative. Each province of the Empire had its own Chief Rabbi, and in Egypt the ḥakham bashi’s office replaced that of the nagid.
This traditional pattern underwent a radical change with the advent of Emancipation. Up to that time, Jews had no way of opting out of the Jewish community (unless they abandoned their faith). Once the Jew was granted civil rights, however, he became a full member of the larger community and his membership in the Jewish communal organization was no longer compulsory but voluntary. A new type of Jewish organizational framework was imposed by Napoleon, who secured the agreement of a “Grand Sanhedrin” in Paris (1807) to far-reaching enactments that destroyed French Jewry’s autonomous existence and made it a subservient “religious community.” In return for the granting of civic rights and responsibilities, certain new Jewish bodies willingly confined themselves to religious functions which they—not the State—were often charged with maintaining (see Consistory).
In the modern world, Jews adjusted their communal life to changing circumstances. In the United States, for example, new forms of association have emerged, but the bold attempt to establish a New York City “Kehillah” (1908-22) eventually failed. Many Jewish organizations, growing out of individual aspects of the traditional community, are structured on a nationwide basis and often display a zealous independence that makes them unwilling to cooperate effectively with other bodies. Thus, the functions of rabbis in the United States and Canada are supervised by national rabbinical associations, while synagogue “roof organizations” exist throughout the world (including Israel). Different bodies take charge of education and the modern equivalent of philanthropy. In some countries (e.g., Britain and Scandinavia), the welfare state has taken over many of the functions that were basic to the traditional community (e.g., care of the sick and the aged). The general pluralism of American life is also reflected in the pluralism of American Jewish life, where each synagogue or Jewish community center operates as a kind of mini-community.
World War II – Present
The organized Jewish community or kehillah has undergone many changes and vicissitudes over the centuries, but its basic vitality and adaptability in the face of challenges—both external and internal—have been determining factors in the social and religious development of the Jewish people.