Musta'arabi Jews

This article is about Arab Jews who lived in North Africa prior to the arrival and integration of Jews from Spain and Portugal. For Israeli security unit who assimilate among the local Arab population, see Mista'arvim.

Musta'arabi Jews (Musta'aribun in Arabic, Musta'arabim or Mista'arevim in Hebrew) are Arabic-speaking Jews, largely Mizrahi and Maghrebi Jews, who lived in the Middle East and North Africa prior to the arrival and integration of Ladino-speaking Sephardi Jews (Jews from Spain and Portugal; Ladino is the Judaeo-Spanish language) following their expulsion from Spain in 1492. Following the expulsion, Sephardi exiles moved into the Middle East (among other places around the world), and settled among their Musta'arabi co-religionists.

In many Arab countries, the Sephardi immigrants and the established Musta'arabi communities maintained separate synagogues and separate religious rituals, but often had a common Chief Rabbinate. The general tendency, however, was for both the communities and their customs to assimilate, adopting a mostly Sephardic liturgy and identity. This pattern was found in most Musta'arabi communities in Arab countries. A typical example is in the History of the Jews in Syria, described in more detail in the rest of this article.

In contrast, in Tunisia there was a strong and enduring social distinction between Tuansa (the established Tunisian Jews) and L'grana (immigrant Livornese Jews to Tunisia).


The word "Musta'arabi" itself, and its Hebrew equivalent mista'arevim, meaning "those who live among the Arabs",[1] are derived from the Arabic "musta'rib" (مستعرب), meaning “arabized”. Compare with the term "Mozarab" (mozárabe in Spanish, borrowed from Arabic) to refer to Arabized (but not Islamized) Christian Spaniards in Arab ruled Islamic Spain. "Musta'arabi" was also used by medieval Jewish authors to refer to Jews in North Africa, in what would become the modern states of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya[1] (which also underwent cultural and linguistic Arabization following the Muslim conquest there).

Following the Muslim conquest of Syria, Syria and the surrounding region was brought under Arab rule in the first half of the 7th century, and the Jews of the land, like the Christian majority at that time, became culturally Arabized, adopting many of the ways of the new foreign elite minority rulers, including the language.[2] Furthermore, some of the Jews, and the greater part of the Christians for that matter, were also Islamized, and these form the ancestors of the bulk of the "Arab Muslims" of the Levant.

Musta'arabim, in the Arabized Hebrew of the day, was used to refer to Arabic-speaking Jews native to Greater Syria who were, "like Arabs" or "culturally Arabic-oriented".[2][3][4][5] These Musta'arabim were also called Murishkes or Moriscos by the Sephardi immigrants.[6] This may be either a corruption of "Mashriqis" (Easterners) or a Ladino word meaning "like Moors" or "Moorish" (compare with the Spanish word Morisco).[2][7]

In Israel

The Musta'arabi Jews in Israel constituted one of the three main components of the Old Yishuv (Jewish community of Palestine), together with the Sephardi Jews, and Ashkenazi Jews.[8] The latter were a minority whose numbers shrank further due to intermarriage with Sephardim.[8] The Musta'arabi Jews in Israel were descendants of the ancient Hebrews, who never left the Land of Israel, instead remaining there from the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE to the First Aliyah in 1881, prior to the onset of Zionist immigration.[2]

Under the rule of the Ottoman Empire in the mid-16th century, there were no more than 10,000 Jews divided between numerous congregations in all of Israel.[3] Within the Jewish community at this time, there was some conflict between the Musta'arabim and Jews who had immigrated to Israel from Spain and Sicily. Later on, there was also conflict between Jewish citizens of the Ottoman Empire and those who held foreign passports. From 1839 onward, Jewish subjects of the Ottoman Empire, including the Mustarabim, were represented by a locally nominated rabbi, whose appointment to serve as a hakham rashi or "chief rabbi" required approval from the Ottoman authorities. This hierarchical system paralleled one previously established for Christian bishops in the empire.

Due the persecution of the rural Jewish population since the Islamic period into the Crusader, Mamluk and Ottoman periods, the Musta'arbim became turned from a majority of the Galilee's population to its smallest minority, many modern Muslims, Christian and Druze villages are built on the sites of an ancient Jewish villages, in many of them they managed to have indigenous Jewish villagers even until the Ottoman period, only in Peki'in there was a Musta'arabi population that has survived and due to the Arab revolt in the '30s they were forced to evacuate their ancestral historic village and to move to Hadera, where most of them are living today. The synagogues and cemeteries of Musta'arabi Jews are considered the oldest in the Jewish world and can be dated largely to the Talmudic period but also to Mishnaic and Second Temple period as in Peki'in.

Unlike the majority of the Jewish communities, Musta'arabi Jews of Israel remained mostly rural farmers as in the ancient periods of Israel.

Syrian Musta'arabi rite

Old Aleppo rite

The Aleppo Musta'arabim in Syria originally had a distinct way of worship, set out in a distinct prayer book called Maḥzor Aram Soba. This ritual is thought[9] to reflect Eretz Yisrael rather than Babylonian traditions in certain respects, in particular in the prominence of piyyut (see below).[10] In a broad sense, it falls within the "Sephardi" rather than the "Ashkenazi" family of rituals, but has resemblances to non-standard Sephardi rites such as the Catalonian[11] rather than to the normative Castilian rite. It also contains some archaic features which it shares with the Siddur of Saadia Gaon and Maimonides' laws of prayer.

The following are some of the differences that stand out in the Aram Soba Maḥzor.

On March 9, 2009, the Sephardic Pizmonim Project posted a scanned PDF of the 1560 Venetian edition of the "Maḥzor Aram Soba" to the "Archives" section of its site. A mirror of the work is also available. For further links to both the 1527 and 1560 editions, see below. In addition, a weekday version of Maḥzor Aram Soba 1560 can be found here.

A facsimile edition has recently been published by Yad HaRav Nissim, using pages from the best surviving copies of the 1527 edition.

Influence of the Sephardic rite

After the immigration of Jews from Spain following the expulsion, a compromise liturgy evolved containing elements from the customs of both communities, but with the Sephardic element taking an ever larger share. One reason for this was the influence of the Shulchan Aruch, and of the Kabbalistic usages of Isaac Luria, both of which presupposed a Sephardic (and specifically Castilian) prayer text; for this reason a basically "Sephardic" type of text replaced many of the local Near and Middle Eastern rites over the course of the 16th to 19th centuries, subject to a few characteristic local customs retained in each country. (See Sephardic law and customs#Liturgy for more detail.)

In Syria, as in North African countries, there was no attempt to print a Siddur containing the actual usages of the community, as this would not generally be commercially viable. Major publishing centres, principally Livorno, and later Vienna, would produce standard "Sephardic" prayer books suitable for use in all communities, and particular communities such as the Syrians would order these in bulk, preserving any special usages by oral tradition. (For example, Ḥacham Abraham Hamaoui of Aleppo commissioned a series of prayer-books from Livorno, which were printed in 1878: these were "pan-Sephardic" in character, with some notes referring to "minhag Aram Soba".)

As details of the oral tradition faded from memory, the liturgy in use came still nearer to the "Livorno" standard. Nevertheless, a distinction persisted between the "Sephardic" rite (based on the Livorno siddurim) and the "Musta'arabi" rite (basically similar, but retaining some features derived from the older tradition).

In the early years of the twentieth century, the "Sephardic" rite was almost universal in Syria. The only exception (in Aleppo) was a "Musta'arabi" minyan at the Central Synagogue of Aleppo, but even their liturgy differed from the "Sephardic" in only a few details such as the order of the hymns on Rosh Hashanah. Some differences between the two main prayer books published in Aleppo in the early twentieth century may reflect Sephardi/Musta'arabi differences, but this is not certain: current Syrian rite prayer books are based on both books.

Use of Piyyut

Approximately 30% of the Mahzor Aram Soba is composed of piyyutim.

The use of piyyutim, which was very prominent on the holidays and Shabbat, was not limited to the Syrian Musta'arabi community, but occurred in most Jewish communities. The earliest piyyutim however, were “overwhelmingly [from] [Eretz Israel] or its neighbor Syria, [because] only there was the Hebrew language sufficiently cultivated that it could be managed with stylistic correctness, and only there could it be made to speak so expressively.” [13] The earliest Eretz Yisrael prayer manuscripts, found in the Cairo Genizah, often consist of piyyutim, as these were the parts of the liturgy that required to be written down: the wording of the basic prayers was generally known by heart. The use of piyyut was always considered an Eretz Yisrael speciality: the Babylonian Geonim made every effort to discourage it and restore what they regarded as the statutory wording of the prayers, holding that "any [hazzan] who uses piyyut thereby gives evidence that he is no scholar".[14] Accordingly, scholars classifying the liturgies of later periods usually hold that, the more a given liturgy makes use of piyyutim, the more likely it is to reflect Eretz Yisrael as opposed to Babylonian influence. This, if correct, would put the Mahzor Aram Soba firmly in the Eretz Yisrael camp. However, the piyyutim in the Mahzor Aram Soba resemble those of the Spanish school rather than the work of early Eretz Yisrael payyetanim such as Eleazar Kalir: for example, they are in strict Arabic metres and make little use of Midrash. Also, they are generally placed in a block at the beginning of the service, like today's Baqashot, rather than expanding on and partially replacing core parts of the prayers.[15] Accordingly, the prevalence of piyut does not of itself establish a link with the old Palestinian rite, though such a link may be argued for on other grounds.

Following the dominance in Syria of the Sephardic rite, which took the Geonic disapproval of piyyut seriously, most of these piyyutim were eliminated from the prayer book. Some of them survive as pizmonim, used extra-liturgically.


The Syrian Musta'arabim have completely assimilated with the Sephardic Jews and are no longer a distinct entity. Certain families identify as "Sephardim" in the narrower sense, and are distinguished by their practice of lighting an extra candle on Hanukkah. (This is said to be in gratitude for their acceptance by the older community. It is not shared with Sephardim in other countries.)

According to Mr. Joey Mosseri, a Sephardic historian living in the Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn (USA), the last time the Musta'arabi liturgy was officially used was during the 1930s. Shelomo Salem Zafrani, of Aleppo, held daily services in the Musta'arabi Jewish rite, until his departure to the British Mandate of Palestine in the early 1930s. After his departure, there is no known public usage of this liturgy even in Aleppo itself. Today, Syrian Jews, with the exception of a few individuals living in Damascus, live outside of Syria, and do not distinguish between Musta'arabi and Sephardic Jews.

See also


  1. 1 2 Landman (2009). Volume 2, The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia. Varda Books. p. 81. |first1= missing |last1= in Authors list (help)
  2. 1 2 3 4 The New Israel Atlas: Bible to Present Day, Zev Vilnay, Karṭa, Israel Universities Press, 1968, p. 91
  3. 1 2 Peters, Francis E. (2005). The Monotheists: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Conflict and Competition, Volume II: The Words and Will of God. Princeton University Press. p. 287. ISBN 9780691123738.
  4. Barnett, Richard David; Schwab, Walter M. (1989). The Western Sephardim: the history of some of the communities formed in Europe, the Mediterranean, and the New World after the expulsion of 1492. Gibraltar Books. p. 315. ISBN 9780948466113.
  5. Geyer, Michael; Lehmann, Hartmut (2004). Religion und Nation, Nation und Religion: Beiträge zu einer unbewältigten Geschichte. Wallstein Verlag. p. 279. ISBN 9783892446682.
  6. A description of the Murishkes is cited in וזה שער השמים from שאלי שלום ירושלים, whose author participated in the "Hasid's" Aliyah. Rabbi Shlomo Suzen, from the times of the Beth Yoseph, was known as a descendent of the Murishkes.
  7. Dobrinsky, Herbert C. (1986). A treasury of Sephardic laws and customs: the ritual practices of Syrian, Moroccan, Judeo-Spanish and Spanish and Portuguese Jews of North America (3rd, revised ed.). Ktav. p. 369. ISBN 9780881250312.
  8. 1 2 Abraham P. Bloch, One a day: an anthology of Jewish historical anniversaries for every day of the year, KTAV Publishing House, 1987, ISBN 978-0-88125-108-1, M1 Google Print, p. 278.
  9. Ezra Fleischer, Eretz-Israel Prayer and Prayer Rituals: as portrayed in the Geniza documents (Jerusalem 1988) pp 202ff.
  10. Other shared features are the practice of reciting Psalm 8 at the beginning of the evening service on Shabbat and festivals (Fleischer, above) and the wording of the Modim blessing of the Amidah (B Outhwaite and S Bhayro (eds), From a Sacred Source: Genizah Studies in Honour of Professor Stefan C Reif (Leiden 2011), pp 132 and 135.
  11. For this, see Maḥzor le-nosaḥ Barcelona minhag Catalonia, Salonica 1527.
  12. This is thought to have been a feature of the Palestinian minhag: Fleischer, above.
  13. Goldschmidt, D, "Machzor for Rosh Hashana" p.xxxi. Leo Baeck Institute, 1970.
  14. R. Nahshon, cited in R. Johanan's commentary on the Sheeltot (B. M. Lewin, Otzar ha-Geonim, Berachot no. 179).
  15. For example, the Mahzor Aram Soba does not contain the Tefillat Tal or poetic expansion of the second Amidah blessing, used by Spanish and Portuguese Jews on the first day of Pesach and on Shemini Atzeret.

Prayer books


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