ashkenazi jewish – What is the source of the Ashkenazim?

The Genealogy and Modern-day Significance of Ashkenaz in Jewish Culture

In the Hebrew Bible, Ashkenaz was a descendant of Noah, the patriarch who built the ark when floods of water covered the earth. By tracing the family line of Ashkenaz, you can get to the roots of some European territories and the family of Jews known as the Ashkenazi.

In this article, you can explore and learn more about the family tree of Ashkenaz:

  • Biblical genealogy of Ashkenaz
  • Medieval roots
  • Ashkenazi Jews

Biblical Genealogy of Ashkenaz

In Jewish culture, as in many other cultures from around the world, family trees and genealogies are significant. These are traced back for thousands of years and form part of the identity and culture of every Jew. Jews today honor the patriarchs from biblical times for the role they played in the Israelite journey to be what the nation is today.

Ashkenaz was one of Noah’s descendants. His name is related to a tribe of people known as the Assyrian Aškūza. They were responsible for driving the Cimmerians from the highlands of the Upper Euphrates. He was the eldest son of Gomer, who was the eldest son of Japheth. Japheth himself was one of Noah’s three sons and part of the one family that survived the great flood. His brothers were Riphath and Togarmah, according to the biblical texts from Genesis 10:3 and 1 Chronicles 1:6. For these reasons, Ashkenaz is considered a Japhetic patriarch in the Table of Nations, which is also known as the Generations of Noah. This genealogy maps the sons of Noah, their descendants, and their dispersion to the different parts of the world to repopulate the earth. 

The Encyclopaedia Biblica describes the people of Ashkenaz as a migratory tribe who lived during the time of Esar-haddon. They are believed to have moved into the northern provinces of Asia Minor and Armenia. 

Medieval Roots

Since biblical times to medieval times, the migration of the Ashkenaz led them to parts of Europes. In rabbinic literature, the Ashkenaz kingdom started to be associated with the Scythian region. Later on, this kingdom was related to Slavic territories. As of the 11th century, the primary association has been with Germany and northern Europe.

The Jews from medieval times associated the term Ashkenaz with the geographical area centered on the Rhineland of western Germany and the Palatinate, although how this happened is not completely clear. This area is now the westernmost part of Germany. There was no overlap in the geographic area covered between this group and the German Christian peoples of the time. The geographic area also included northern France. There developed a Jewish culture in that area, and this was called Ashkenazi. This term is the only form of Ashkenaz used to this day.

Ashkenazi Jews

The Ashkenazi Jews, or Ashkenazic Jews, are a population of the Jewish diaspora population who set up base in the Holy Roman Empire. This movement happened around the end of the first millennium. Their traditional language is Yiddish. Yiddish is a Germanic language and has elements from other languages, including Aramaic Hebrew and Slavic languages. This language developed after the Ashkenazi Jews had moved into Germany and then France during the Middle Ages. This language was the main one spoken there.

With the primary Jewish language, Hebrew, only used as a sacred language. Later, however, the Hebrew language was revived to become the main language of all of Israel once again. The Ashkenazi Jews also made contributions in Europe that extended to literature, art, music, philosophy, scholarship, and science. 

The Ashkenazi started as Jewish settlers along the Rhine River in Western Germany and in Northern France. As they established their communities there in the Middle Ages, they started to adapt some of their old traditions from the Holy Land, the Western Mediterranean, and from Babylon to suit the new environment where they found themselves.

The Ashkenazi Jews experienced religious persecution in the late Middle Ages. Most of them decided to move towards the East and away from the Holy Roman Empire because of this. The areas they moved into were in Eastern Europe and what is modern Estonia, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Poland, Slovakia, and Ukraine.

The Haskalah or Jewish Enlightenment was an intellectual movement involving the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe.  There was also some influence of the Jews from Western Europe and the Muslim world. It lasts from around the 1770s to the early 1880s. It was marked by an ideological worldview and the rise of Jewish nationalism.

When the 18th and 19th centuries came around, the Ashkenazi Jews either remained in the German lands or returned to them. They experienced a cultural reorientation and soon adapted and evolved in language and religious practices. Much of this was from the influence of the Jewish Enlightenment. Other contributors were the struggle for emancipation and the cultural and intellectual mix in the urban centers. 

In time, the Ashkenazi Jews in German regions adopted the German language and abandoned their traditional tongue of Yiddish. They also developed new ways to experience and live out their Jewish religion and their cultural identity.

The Ashkenazi Jews were the most affected Jews during the Holocaust of the Second World War.  Most families were affected as the Ashkenazim population was decimated. An estimated three percent of the world’s Jewish population was Ashkenazi Jews in the 11th century, and that percentage had increased significantly to 92 percent in 1930 when they reached their peak. Right before the Holocaust, there were around 16.7 million Jews worldwide, with between 10 and 11.2 million of them being Ashkenazi Jews. After the systematic attempted annihilation of the Jews during the Holocaust, an estimated 6 million of the 8.8 million Jews living in Europe were killed, and most of them were Ashkenazi Jews. 

The Ashkenazi Jews have had a long journey from their origins in the lands where Noah’s descendants first dispersed. Their migration to Germany and Eastern parts of Europe has been well-documented, as have been the changes in the definition of their borders.

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