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Sephardic Customs

Sephardic Jews immigrating to the United States often found adaptation to their new environment difficult.

“Jewish” to many in America held a connotation of Eastern European, Yiddish culture. Sephardic newcomers saw some of their customs diluted or lost. Those they loved most were retained and nourished.


Modern Sephardic ketubot often use traditional designs from the lands Sephardic Jews left behind. 

Traditional Sephardic ketubot listed the bride's dowry. Some specified an amount to be paid to the bride in case of the couple's divorce. 


In the ancient world amulets were meant to ward off evil influences.  Their survival in the modern world has much to do with cultural identity; they are also a source f inspiration for artists and designers. 

Some sephardim, embedded as they were in Muslim environments, adopted the use of amulets, customizing their design wth Hebrew lettering and symbols to set them apart from Islamic beliefs.  They might be placed near the baby at his brit milah, or on the pillow of an expectant mother.  Modern usage is no longer tied to protection, but to decoration.  The hamsa is the most popular amulet in modern use. 


Many Sephardic communities still prohibit women from attending funeral services at the cemetery (this prohibition does not apply at MDSC). Even those who cannot go to the cemetery, however, are encouraged to walk at least a short distance behind the vehicle that carries the body of the deceased. Accompanying the dead is a custom held in such high regard that the all-important command to study Torah, the most important aspect of Jewish life, may be canceled for the performance of this mitzvah. 


Hespedim are offered in trubute to the deceased. At the funeral of a Sephardic tsaddik, the casket may be laid on the ground and circled seven times. In some Sephardic communities, mourners (except those disabled) stand the entire time the body is being moved. It is considered a great act of kindness to take part in shoveling dirt onto the grave. Members do not pass the shovel, but lay in down or stick it into the nearby pile of soil to have it taken up by the next mourner.

The zayara (from the Arabic ziar, to visit) is a ceremonial pilgrimage made annually to the grave of a loved one. Zayara visits are also made to the graves of tsaddikim. Whole families typically take part in this custom. Multigenerational commitment emphasizes the cyclical aspect of life. Sephardim are thus engaged wholeheartedly in the life cycle at its very base. 


The most exuberant and persistent expression of Sephardic custom is Sephardic cuisine. Because Sephardic cooks historicaly enjoyed year-round access to fresh vegetables and fruits, fish, spices, and olive oil, Sephardic cuisine is light, colorful -- and healthy.

In addition to the savory dishes at the core of daily meals, Sephardic cooks take pride in their halawayaat (desserts and sweets). No celebration is complete without, for example, baklava, briouats, and meskouta.

At the hugely popular MDSC Mimouna, a lavish celebration that each year marks the end of Passover, the centerpiece is often sweet couscous made with dried fruits and nuts. 

But Mimouna celebrants also look forward to skillfully shaped cookies, cakes, and other sweets forbidden to them during the eight days of Passover.


Interested in learning to cook Sephardic or polishing your already near-perfect skills? These well regarded Sephardic cookbooks (far from a complete list)may inspire you:

Saffron Shores: Jewish Cooking of the Southern Mediterranean  by Joyce Goldstein

The Book of Jewish Food  by Claudia Roden

The New Mediterranean Jewish Table  by Joyce Goldstein

The Sephardic Table  by Pamela Grau Twena

A Fistful of Lentils  by Jennifer Abadi

Aromas of Aleppo  by Poopa Dweck

Mouthwatering Sephardic recipes can also be found at  www.MoroccanMommy.comThis is the province of our own member-blogger, Naomi Elimelech, Moroccan cook extraordinaire.

Thu, June 13 2024 7 Sivan 5784