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Did you know that the name of Spain in Hebrew is Sefarad?

Sefarad (ספרד in Hebrew) refers to a biblical term that the Jewish culture has identified with the Iberian Peninsula. Today, this word, Sefarad, also relates to millions of Jews, Sephardics, descendants of those expelled in 1492 which can opt for Spanish nationality.

However, most experts agree that initially, Sefarad was not only Spain. That is to say that the identification between the two words comes from a simple error, license or reinterpretation in a prestigious biblical translation made over two millennia ago. Over the centuries, this misinterpretation has ended up becoming a reality without turning back.

 

The Origin of Sefarad

Sefarad is what experts denominate a Hápax Legómenon, a particular word that only appears once in a language, author or text. In this case, this biblical toponym is mentioned only once in the Book of the days, the Abdías, a prophecy about a divine punishment that constitutes the shortest book in the Old Testament. It was written in Hebrew around the 6th century BC and contains the following phrase: The multitude of the deportees of Israel, it will occupy Canaan until Zarephath, and the deportees of Jerusalem who are in Sefarad, they will occupy the cities of the Negueb. The only clue, then, is that a group of Jews had been expelled in the Babylonian period to a place called Sefarad, whose location is not clearly specified. It seems like it was a common practice in the eastern kingdoms following a military victory to deport, not the entire population, but the elites.

Centuries later, in the I of our era and for reasons on which most linguists do not agree, Sefarad was translated as Aspamia, which was one of the pseudonyms that the Jews back then gave to the Iberian Peninsula in the Aramaic Targum Jonathan, the translation of a section of the Old Testament.

That’s where it all started. The Targum Jonathan was like the canonical text and was used by the Jewish diaspora, says Ricardo Muñoz Solla, professor of Hispanic Hebrew at the University of Salamanca. The common use among the Jews of the word Sefarad to name the Iberian Peninsula began to appear in writings during the famous Golden Age of the Andalusian Judaism, the Middle Ages. When he was abroad, the Cordoban philosopher Maimonides signed his letters with the tagline The Sephardic. However, the massive use of the term as an identity element did not befall until the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. Sefarad is a polysemic term that slowly evolves over centuries, adapting to changing political and geographical realities. According to each period, it has been used as Hebraic equivalent of Al Andalus (and also Hispania, Old Spain) or event refering to the whole Iberian peninsula and, more recently, only to Spain.

 

The furthest place in Jerusalem

What led the original translator to identify Sefarad with Spain? Many experts believe that it is not a simple mistake, but a voluntary adaptation like those that experienced other terms from the Bible. He uses the word to reflect the end of the known world, the furthest place in Jerusalem. And that was back then the Iberian Peninsula.

So where was the biblical Sefarad actually? There are four scenarios, but the one that generates more academic consensus is that this probably was Sardes, a lost city belonging to the Old Babylon and current Turkey. Sardes was the capital of Lidia, an empire that existed in Asia Minor during the first millennium BC. In some archeological diggings, an engraving was found with the name of the city in Aramaic letters: S-P-R-D, the same four consonants as in the biblical text in Hebrew. In Semitic languages, such as Hebrew or Aramaic, vowels are not usually written. Besides, remains of a great synagogue of the second century have been found, which could indicate the arrival of Jews to the zone centuries before.

But maybe Sefarad was Spain. This argument was defended half a century ago by American researcher David Neiman in an article in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies. His thesis was that the Tirreno, one of the so-called peoples of the Sea, managed to reach the Iberian Peninsula thanks to the control they exercised on the west of the Mediterranean from its bases in Italy, Sardinia, and Corsica. There, in this particular region of Catalonia near the current Tarragona, they founded a town mentioned by Strabo as the land of Sparta. Sparta, according to Neiman, might as well be an evolution of Sfarda. The Jews who settled in Spain at the time of the Roman Empire were indeed very familiar with the country, especially with their Mediterranean harbors. For some reason still unknown, they used the name of a particular town to designate the whole area. It is not an exceptional process: Asia receives its name from a small region of Anatolia, and Greece as well from the settlement of Magna Graecia in Italy.

 

 

Although there is no evidence of Jewish presence in the Iberian Peninsula until Roman times, the idea that the Sefarad mentioned in the Old Testament corresponded with Spain was promoted by Jews themselves living in the area. First, as a sign of distinction and also to become independent of Babylon, another high center of the Hebrew community at that time. They insisted on the idea that they arrived from Jerusalem, straight from the house of King David, and therefore from a higher status, with a much more important culture. Then, the term was used during the last days of persecution before the expulsion, merely to try to save their life. The debate was that as rightful descendants already residing in Sefarad before the arrival of Jesus, they could not then be accused of being condemned to die on the cross, a common accusation that persecuted the Jews until the II Vatican Council.

 

Once the largest Jewish populations in Europe, Spain offers a rich holiday destination for Jewish Cultural Travel and Private Tours. Please contact us in order to request your own private Jewish travel tour to in Spain and Portugal or continue browsing our selected Jewish Iberia, The Light of Sefarad, a tailored sample itinerary in Barcelona, Girona, Andalucia, Extremadura, Toledo…