Project Genesis

Jewish History

Post-Biblical History

The Meaning of Ashkenaz

Question: I was told that over 5000 years ago there was a reservation of people that were led by a man named Ashkenazi, and his people were named “Ashkenazi” after him. These people accepted Judaism. Is this true?

Answer: I think the story you heard might be a composite of three separate stories: One about the great grandson of Noah, another about the King of the Khazars and his subjects, and one about Jews called “Ashkenazim.”

In Genesis 10:13, the Torah records that Noah’s son, Yefes, had a son Gomer—whose son was Ashkenaz. You could say he lived a bit over 5000 years ago. No one at that time could convert to Judaism because the founders of the Jewish nation were not yet born!

Then there’s the story of the Khazars. There’s much discussion over whether the story is true, but this is how the legend is told: There was a tribe of people called the Khazars who had a king. The king had a recurring dream, in which an angel told him, “Your intention is pleasing to God, but your actions are not.” This bothered the king, and he began to explore different religions. He interviewed experts of Islam, Christianity, Philosophy, and Judaism. He eventually decided that Judaism is the best for him, and he converted along with his whole tribe. Those who claim the story is true say the story took place around the year 700 of the common era.

By the way, the great medieval scholar, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, wrote a classic work of Jewish thought entitled “The Kuzari”. In it, he expresses many fundamental concepts in Jewish philosophy by creating (or recreating) the dialog between the king of the Khazars and representatives of the main religions of his day (although the book focuses on Judaism).

Finally, there’s the large section of the Jewish people called Ashkenazim – those who follow the traditions of Ashkenaz. In medieval times, the bulk of the Jewish world was divided between two areas: Europe and North Africa. Jews referred to Europe as Ashkenaz (Hebrew for Germany), and North Africa as Sefard (Hebrew for Spain). Today, most Jews can trace their ancestry and traditions to either Sefard or Ashkenaz. Also of note is that the terms Ashkenaz and Sefard  are often used to refer to the prayer text and traditions of Ashkenazic and Sefardic Jews.

Thank you for your question. If you have need further clarification please feel free to write back.

Best Regards,

Rabbi Mordechai Dixler

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