Ashkenaz – History

Recently, the geographical origins of Ashkenazic Jews (AJs) and their native language Yiddish were investigated by applying the Geographic Population Structure (GPS) to a cohort of exclusively Yiddish-speaking and multilingual AJs. GPS localized most AJs along major ancient trade routes in northeastern Turkey adjacent to primeval villages with names that resemble the word “Ashkenaz.” These findings were compatible with the hypothesis of an Irano-Turko-Slavic origin for AJs and a Slavic origin for Yiddish and at odds with the Rhineland hypothesis advocating a Levantine origin for AJs and German origins for Yiddish. We discuss how these findings advance three ongoing debates concerning (1) the historical meaning of the term “Ashkenaz;” (2) the genetic structure of AJs and their geographical origins as inferred from multiple studies employing both modern and ancient DNA and original ancient DNA analyses; and (3) the development of Yiddish. We provide additional validation to the non-Levantine origin of AJs using ancient DNA from the Near East and the Levant. Due to the rising popularity of geo-localization tools to address questions of origin, we briefly discuss the advantages and limitations of popular tools with focus on the GPS approach. Our results reinforce the non-Levantine origins of AJs.

Background

The geographical origin of the Biblical “Ashkenaz,” Ashkenazic Jews (AJs), and Yiddish, are among the longest standing questions in history, genetics, and linguistics.

Uncertainties concerning the meaning of “Ashkenaz” arose in the Eleventh century when the term shifted from a designation of the Iranian Scythians to become that of Slavs and Germans and finally of “German” (Ashkenazic) Jews in the Eleventh to Thirteenth centuries (Wexler, 1993). The first known discussion of the origin of German Jews and Yiddish surfaced in the writings of the Hebrew grammarian Elia Baxur in the first half of the Sixteenth century (Wexler, 1993).

It is well established that history is also reflected in the DNA through relationships between genetics, geography, and language (e.g., Cavalli-Sforza, 1997; Weinreich, 2008). Max Weinreich, the doyen of the field of modern Yiddish linguistics, has already emphasized the truism that the history of Yiddish mirrors the history of its speakers. These relationships prompted Das et al. (2016) to address the question of Yiddish origin by analyzing the genomes of Yiddish-speaking AJs, multilingual AJs, and Sephardic Jews using the Geographical Population Structure (GPS), which localizes genomes to where they experienced the last major admixture event. GPS traced nearly all AJs to major ancient trade routes in northeastern Turkey adjacent to four primeval villages whose names resemble “Ashkenaz:” İşkenaz (or Eşkenaz), Eşkenez (or Eşkens), Aşhanas, and Aschuz. Evaluated in light of the Rhineland and Irano-Turko-Slavic hypotheses (Das et al., 2016) the findings supported the latter, implying that Yiddish was created by Slavo-Iranian Jewish merchants plying the Silk Roads. We discuss these findings from historical, genetic, and linguistic perspectives and calculate the genetic similarity of AJs and Middle Eastern populations to ancient genomes from Anatolia, Iran, and the Levant. We lastly review briefly the advantages and limitation of bio-localization tools and their application in genetic research.

The Historical Meaning of Ashkenaz

“Ashkenaz” is one of the most disputed Biblical placenames. It appears in the Hebrew Bible as the name of one of Noah’s descendants (Genesis 10:3) and as a reference to the kingdom of Ashkenaz, prophesied to be called together with Ararat and Minnai to wage war against Babylon (Jeremiah 51:27). In addition to tracing AJs to the ancient Iranian lands of Ashkenaz and uncovering the villages whose names may derive from “Ashkenaz,” the partial Iranian origin of AJs, inferred by Das et al. (2016), was further supported by the genetic similarity of AJs to Sephardic Mountain Jews and Iranian Jews as well as their similarity to Near Eastern populations and simulated “native” Turkish and Caucasus populations.

There are good grounds, therefore, for inferring that Jews who considered themselves Ashkenazic adopted this name and spoke of their lands as Ashkenaz, since they perceived themselves as of Iranian origin. That we find varied evidence of the knowledge of Iranian language among Moroccan and Andalusian Jews and Karaites prior to the Eleventh century is a compelling point of reference to assess the shared Iranian origins of Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews (Wexler, 1996). Moreover, Iranian-speaking Jews in the Caucasus (the so-called Juhuris) and Turkic-speaking Jews in the Crimea prior to World War II called themselves “Ashkenazim” (Weinreich, 2008).

The Rhineland hypothesis cannot explain why a name that denotes “Scythians” and was associated with the Near East became associated with German lands in the Eleventh to Thirteenth centuries (Wexler, 1993). Aptroot (2016) suggested that Jewish immigrants in Europe transferred Biblical names onto the regions in which they settled. This is unconvincing. Biblical names were used as place names only when they had similar sounds. Not only Germany and Ashkenaz do not share similar sounds, but Germany was already named “Germana,” or “Germamja” in the Iranian (“Babylonian”) Talmud (completed in the Fifth century A.D.) and, not surprisingly, was associated with Noah’s grandson Gomer (Talmud, Yoma 10a). Name adoption also occurred when the exact place names were in doubt as in the case of Sefarad (Spain). This is not the case here, as Aptroot too notes, since “Ashkenaz” had a known and clear geographical affiliation). Finally, Germany was known to French scholars like the RaDaK (1160–1235) as “Almania” (Sp. Alemania, Fr. Allemagne), after the Almani tribes, a term that was also adopted by Arab scholars. Had the French scholar Rashi (1040?-1105), interpreted aškenaz as “Germany,” it would have been known to the RaDaK who used Rashi’s symbols. Therefore, Wexler’s proposal that Rashi used aškenaz in the meaning of “Slavic” and that the term aškenaz assumed the solitary meaning “German lands” only after the Eleventh century in Western Europe as a result of the rise of Yiddish, is more reasonable (Wexler, 2011). This is also supported by Das et al.’s major findings of the only known primeval villages whose names derive from the word “Ashkenaz” located in the ancient lands of Ashkenaz. Our inference is therefore supported by historical, linguistic, and genetic evidence, which has more weight as a simple origin that can be easily explained than a more complex scenario that involves multiple translocations.

The Genetic Structure of Ashkenazic Jews

AJs were localized to modern-day Turkey and found to be genetically closest to Turkic, southern Caucasian, and Iranian populations, suggesting a common origin in Iranian “Ashkenaz” lands (Das et al., 2016). These findings were more compatible with an Irano-Turko-Slavic origin for AJs and a Slavic origin for Yiddish than with the Rhineland hypothesis, which lacks historical, genetic, and linguistic support (van Straten, 2004; Elhaik, 2013). The findings have also highlighted the strong social-cultural and genetic bonds of Ashkenazic and Iranian Judaism and their shared Iranian origins (Das et al., 2016).

Thus far, all analyses aimed to geo-localize AJs (Behar et al., 2013, Figure 2B; Elhaik, 2013; Das et al., 2016, identified Turkey as the predominant origin of AJs, although they used different approaches and datasets, in support of the Irano-Turko-Slavic hypothesis. The existence of both major Southern European and Near Eastern ancestries in AJ genomes are also strong indictors of the Irano-Turko-Slavic hypothesis provided the Greco-Roman history of the region southern to the Black Sea (Baron, 1937; Kraemer, 2010). Recently, Xue et al. (2017) applied GLOBETROTTER to a dataset of 2,540 AJs genotyped over 252,358 SNPs. The inferred ancestry profile for AJs was 5% Western Europe, 10% Eastern Europe, 30% Levant, and 55% Southern Europe (a Near East ancestry was not considered by the authors). Elhaik (2013) portrayed a similar profile for European Jews, consisting of 25–30% Middle East and large Near Eastern–Caucasus (32–38%) and West European (30%) ancestries. Remarkably, Xue et al. (2017) also inferred an “admixture time” of 960–1,416 AD (≈24–40 generations ago), which corresponds to the time AJs experienced major geographical shifts as the Judaized Khazar kingdom diminished and their trading networks collapsed forcing them to relocate to Europe (Das et al., 2016). The lower boundary of that date corresponds to the time Slavic Yiddish originated, to the best of our knowledge.

The non-Levantine origin of AJs is further supported by an ancient DNA analysis of six Natufians and a Levantine Neolithic (Lazaridis et al., 2016), some of the most likely Judaean progenitors (Finkelstein and Silberman, 2002; Frendo, 2004). In a principle component analysis (PCA), the ancient Levantines clustered predominantly with modern-day Palestinians and Bedouins and marginally overlapped with Arabian Jews, whereas AJs clustered away from Levantine individuals and adjacent to Neolithic Anatolians and Late Neolithic and Bronze Age Europeans. To evaluate these findings, we inferred the ancient ancestries of AJs using the admixture analysis described in Marshall et al. (2016). Briefly, we analyzed 18,757 autosomal SNPs genotyped in 46 Palestinians, 45 Bedouins, 16 Syrians, and eight Lebanese (Li et al., 2008) alongside 467 AJs [367 AJs previously analyzed and 100 individuals with AJ mother) (Das et al., 2016) that overlapped with both the GenoChip (Elhaik et al., 2013) and ancient DNA data (Lazaridis et al., 2016). We then carried out a supervised ADMIXTURE analysis (Alexander and Lange, 2011) using three East European Hunter Gatherers from Russia (EHGs) alongside six Epipaleolithic Levantines, 24 Neolithic Anatolians, and six Neolithic Iranians as reference populations. Remarkably, AJs exhibit a dominant Iranian (88%˜88%~) and residual Levantine (3%˜3%~) ancestries, as opposed to Bedouins (14%˜14%~ and 68%˜68%~, respectively) and Palestinians (18%˜18%~ and 58%˜58%~, respectively). Only two AJs exhibit Levantine ancestries typical to Levantine populations. Repeating the analysis with qpAdm (AdmixTools, version 4.1) (Patterson et al., 2012), we found that AJs admixture could be modeled using either three- (Neolithic Anatolians [46%], Neolithic Iranians [32%], and EHGs [22%]) or two-way (Neolithic Iranians [71%] and EHGs [29%]) migration waves (Supplementary Text). These findings should be reevaluated when Medieval DNA would become available. Overall, the combined results are in a strong agreement with the predictions of the Irano-Turko-Slavic hypothesis and rule out an ancient Levantine origin for AJs, which is predominant among modern-day Levantine populations (e.g., Bedouins and Palestinians). This is not surprising since Jews differed in cultural practices and norms (Sand, 2011) and tended to adopt local customs (Falk, 2006). Very little Palestinian Jewish culture survived outside of Palestine (Sand, 2009). For example, the folklore and folkways of the Jews in northern Europe is distinctly pre-Christian German (Patai, 1983) and Slavic in origin, which disappeared among the latter (Wexler, 1993, 2012).

The Linguistic Debate Concerning Formation of Yiddish

The hypothesis that Yiddish has a German origin ignores the mechanics of relexification, the linguistic process which produced Yiddish and other “Old Jewish” languages (i.e., those created by the Ninth to Tenth century). Understanding how relexification operates is essential to understanding the evolution of languages. This argument has a similar context to that of the evolution of powered flight. Rejecting the theory of evolution may lead one to conclude that birds and bats are close relatives. By disregarding the literature on relexification and Jewish history in the early Middle Ages, authors (e.g., Aptroot, 2016; Flegontov et al., 2016) reach conclusions that have weak historical support. The advantage of a geo-localization analysis is that it allows us to infer the geographical origin of the speakers of Yiddish, where they resided and with whom they intermingled, independently of historical controversies, which provides a data driven view on the question of geographical origins. This allows an objective review of potential linguistic influences on Yiddish, which exposes the dangers in adopting a “linguistic creationism” view in linguistics.

The historical evidence in favor of an Irano-Turko-Slavic origin for Yiddish is paramount (e.g., Wexler, 1993, 2010). Jews played a major role on the Silk Roads in the Ninth to Eleventh century. In the mid-Ninth century, in roughly the same years, Jewish merchants in both Mainz and at Xi’an received special trading privileges from the Holy Roman Empire and the Tang dynasty court (Robert, 2014). These roads linked Xi’an to Mainz and Andalusia, and further to sub-Saharan Africa and across to the Arabian Peninsula and India-Pakistan. The Silk Roads provided the motivation for Jewish settlement in Afro-Eurasia in the Ninth to Eleventh centuries since the Jews played a dominant role on these routes as a neutral trading guild with no political agendas (Gil, 1974; Cansdale, 1996, 1998). Hence, the Jewish traders had contact with a wealth of languages in the areas that they traversed (Hadj-Sadok, 1949; Khordadhbeh, 1889; Hansen, 2012; Wexler TBD), which they brought back to their communities nested in major trading hubs (Rabinowitz, 1945, 1948; Das et al., 2016). The central Eurasian Silk Roads were controlled by Iranian polities, which provided opportunities for Iranian-speaking Jews, who constituted the overwhelming bulk of the world’s Jews from the time of Christ to the Eleventh century (Baron, 1952). It should not come as a surprise to find that Yiddish (and other Old Jewish languages) contains components and rules from a large variety of languages, all of them spoken on the Silk Roads (Khordadhbeh, 1889; Wexler, 2011, 2012, 2017).

In addition to language contacts, the Silk Roads also provided the motivation for widespread conversion to Judaism by populations eager to participate in the extremely lucrative trade, which had become a Jewish quasi-monopoly along the trade routes (Rabinowitz, 1945, 1948; Baron, 1957). These conversions are discussed in Jewish literature between the Sixth and Eleventh centuries, both in Europe and Iraq (Sand, 2009; Kraemer, 2010). Yiddish and other Old Jewish languages were all created by the peripatetic merchants as secret languages that would isolate them from their customers and non-Jewish trading partners (Hadj-Sadok, 1949; Gil, 1974; Khordadhbeh, 1889; Cansdale, 1998; Robert, 2014). The study of Yiddish genesis, thereby, necessitates the study of all the Old Jewish languages of this time period.

There is also a quantifiable amount of Iranian and Turkic elements in Yiddish. The Babylonian Talmud, completed by the Sixth century A.D., is rich in Iranian linguistic, legalistic, and religious influences. From the Talmud, a large Iranian vocabulary has entered Hebrew and Judeo-Aramaic, and from there spread to Yiddish. This corpus has been known since the 1930s and is common knowledge to Talmud scholars (Telegdi, 1933). In the Khazar Empire, the Eurasian Jews, plying the Silk Roads, became speakers of Slavic—an important language because of the trading activities of the Rus’ (pre-Ukrainians) with whom the Jews were undoubtedly allied on the routes linking Baghdad and Bavaria. This is evident by the existence of newly invented Hebroidism, inspired by Slavic patterns of discourse in Yiddish (Wexler, 2010).

We advocate for implementing a more evolutionary understanding in linguistics. That includes giving more attention to the linguistic process that alter languages (e.g., relexification) and acquiring more competence in other languages and histories. When studying the origin of Ashkenazic Jews and Yiddish, such knowledge should include the history of the Silk Roads and Irano-Turkish languages.

Inference of Geographical Origins

Deciphering the origin of human populations is not a new challenge for geneticists, yet only in the past decade high-throughput genetic data were harnessed to answer these questions. Here, we briefly discuss the differences between the available tools based on identity by distance. Existing PCA or PCA-like approaches (e.g., Novembre et al., 2008; Yang et al., 2012) can localize Europeans to countries (understood as the last place where major admixture event took place or the place where the four ancestors of “unmixed” individuals came from) with less than 50% accuracy (Yang et al., 2012). The limitations of PCA (discussed in Novembre and Stephens, 2008) appear to be inherent in the framework where continental populations plotted along the two primary PCs cluster in the vertices of a triangle-like shape and the remaining populations cluster along or within the edges (e.g., Elhaik et al., 2013). There is therefore reason to question the applicability of ambitious PCA-based methods (Yang et al., 2012, 2014) aiming to infer multiple ancestral locations outside of Europe. Overall, accurate localization of worldwide individuals remains a significant challenge (Elhaik et al., 2014).

The GPS framework assumes that humans are mixed and that their genetic variation (admixture) can be modeled by the proportion of genotypes assigned to any number of fixed regional putative ancestral populations (Elhaik et al., 2014). GPS employs a supervised ADMIXTURE analysis where the admixture components are fixed, which allows evaluating both the test individuals and reference populations against the same putative ancestral populations. GPS infers the geographical coordinates of an individual by matching their admixture proportions with those of reference populationsReference populations are populations known to reside in a certain geographical region for a substantial period of time in a time frame of hundreds to a thousand years and can be predicted to their geographical locations while absent from the reference population panel (Das et al., 2016). The final geographic location of a test individual is determined by converting the genetic distance of the individual to m reference populations into geographic distances (Elhaik et al., 2014). Intuitively, the reference populations can be thought of as “pulling” the individual in their direction with a strength proportional to their genetic similarity until a consensus is reached (Figure S1). Interpreting the results, particularly when the predicted location differs from the contemporary location of the studied population, demands cautious.

Population structure is affected by biological and demographic processes like genetic drift, which can act rapidly on small, relatively isolated populations, as opposed to large non-isolated populations, and migration, which occurs more frequently (Jobling et al., 2013). Understanding the geography-admixture relationships necessitates knowing how relative isolation and migration history affected the allele frequencies of populations. Unfortunately, oftentimes we lack information about both processes. GPS addresses this problem by analyzing the relative proportions of admixture in a global network of reference populations that provide us with different “snapshots” of historical admixture events. These global admixture events occurred at different times through different biological and demographic processes, and their long-lasting effect is related to our ability to associate an individual with their matching admixture event.

In relatively isolated populations the admixture event is likely old, and GPS would localize a test individual with their parental population more accurately. By contrast, if the admixture event was recent and the population did not maintain relative isolation, GPS prediction would be erroneous (Figure S2). This is the case of Caribbean populations, whose admixture proportions still reflect the massive Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries’ mixture events involving Native Americans, West Europeans, and Africans (Elhaik et al., 2014). While the original level of isolation remains unknown, these two scenarios can be distinguished by comparing the admixture proportions of the test individual and adjacent populations. If this similarity is high, we can conclude that we have inferred the likely location of the admixture event that shaped the admixture proportion of the test individual. If the opposite is true, the individual is either mixed and thereby violates the assumptions of the GPS model or the parental populations do not exist either in GPS’s reference panel or in reality. Most of the time (83%) GPS predicted unmixed individuals to their true locations with most of the remaining individuals predicted to neighboring countries (Elhaik et al., 2014).

To understand how migration modifies the admixture proportions of the migratory and host populations, we can consider two simple cases of point or massive migration followed by assimilation and a third case of migration followed by isolation. Point migration events have little effect on the admixture proportions of the host population, particularly when it absorbs a paucity of migrants, in which case the migrants’ admixture proportions would resemble those of the host population within a few generations and their resting place would represent that of the host population. Massive demographic movements, such as large-scale invasion or migration that affect a large part of the population are rare and create temporal shifts in the admixture proportions of the host population. The host population would temporarily appear as a two-way mixed population, reflecting the components of the host and invading populations (e.g., European and Native American, in the case of Puerto Ricans) until the admixture proportions would homogenize population-wise. If this process is completed, the admixture signature of this region may be altered and the geographical placement of the host population would represent again the last place where the admixture event took place for both the host and invading populations. GPS would, thereby, predict the host population’s location for both populations. Populations that migrate from A to B and maintain genetic isolation would be predicted to point A in the leave-one-out population analysis. While human migrations are not uncommon, maintaining a perfect genetic isolation over a long period of time is very difficult (e.g., Veeramah et al., 2011; Behar et al., 2012; Elhaik, 2016; Hellenthal et al., 2016), and GPS predictions for the vast majority of worldwide populations indicate that these cases are indeed exceptional (Elhaik et al., 2014). Despite of its advantages, GPS has several limitations. First, it yields the most accurate predictions for unmixed individuals. Second, using migratory or highly mixed populations (both are detectable through the leave-one-out population analysis) as reference populations may bias the predictions. Further developments are necessary to overcome these limitations and make GPS applicable to mixed population groups (e.g., African Americans).

Conclusion

The meaning of the term “Ashkenaz” and the geographical origins of AJs and Yiddish are some of the longest standing questions in history, genetics, and linguistics. In our previous work we have identified “ancient Ashkenaz,” a region in northeastern Turkey that harbors four primeval villages whose names resemble Ashkenaz. Here, we elaborate on the meaning of this term and argue that it acquired its modern meaning only after a critical mass of Ashkenazic Jews arrived in Germany. We show that all bio-localization analyses have localized AJs to Turkey and that the non-Levantine origins of AJs are supported by ancient genome analyses. Overall, these findings are compatible with the hypothesis of an Irano-Turko-Slavic origin for AJs and a Slavic origin for Yiddish and contradict the predictions of Rhineland hypothesis that lacks historical, genetic, and linguistic support.

Ashkenaz is often identified with the Scyths. One of the names given the Scythians in Assyrian scripts was Ashguz or Ashkuz which could easily have been pronounced similarly to Ashkenaz.
Ashkenaz was attributed “Asia” (Genesis Rabah 37) meaning an area by Sardes in Lydia (Western Turkey by Phrygia), as well possibly as a region in Cilicia (Southeast Turkey), and to part of Afghanistan. The name Ashkenaz was also given (Targum Jehonathan on Ezekiel 27;23) to Haydayb (i.e. Adiabene) in Northern Syria which in the Talmud (Yebamot 17) is equated with Habor whereto part of the Exiled Israelites were taken (2-Kings 17;6). The Targum Jerushalemi identifies Ashkenaz with the BARBARI which is an ethnic connotation for the so called “Germanic” peoples who attacked and invaded the Roman Empire ca.200-500 c.e. Elsewhere both the Barbari and the Germans are identified with Edom. In ancient times the term BARBAR was used synonymously with the term for Hebrew. Adiabene, which one source ascribed to Ashkenaz, is also attributed (Genesis Rabah 37) to Riphah brother of Ashkenaz.

Ashkenaz is often identified with the Scythians and Sarmatians, due in part to the use of the name “Ashkuz” (Saka) for the Scythians in Assyrian Akkadian inscriptions. It may also refer to the Phrygians, who according to Homer’s Iliad settled around Lake Ascania. The Assyrian Gimirri and Hebrew Gomer have likewise been associated with the Cimmerians.

Ashkenazi Jews have little in common with the real Ashkenazim of Germany other than the name.
Ashkenaz was the name given in Jewish writings to Northern France and to the Rhineland of Germany and  and then later to all Germany. 

Ashkenazi Jews, also known as Ashkenazic Jews or simply Ashkenazim… are a Jewish ethnic division that coalesced in the Holy Roman Empire around the end of the 1st millennium. The traditional language of Ashkenazi Jews consisted of various dialects of Yiddish.

In rabbinic literature, the kingdom of Ashkenaz was first associated with the Scythian region, then later with the Slavic territories, and, from the 11th century onwards, with northern Europe and Germany. The region of Ashkenaz was centred on the Rhineland and the Palatinate (notably Worms and Speyer), in what is now the westernmost part of Germany. Its geographic extent did not coincide with the German Christian principalities of the time, and it included northern France.

Hebrew Bible

In the genealogies of the Hebrew Bible, Ashkenaz (Hebrew: אַשְׁכְּנַז, ’Aškănaz; Greek: Ασχανάζ, romanized: Askhanáz) was a descendant of Noah. He was the first son of Gomer and brother of Riphath and Togarmah (Genesis 10:3, 1 Chronicles 1:6), with Gomer being the grandson of Noah through Japheth.

According to Jeremiah 51:27, a kingdom of Ashkenaz was to be called together with Ararat and Minni against Babylon, which reads:

Set ye up a standard in the land, blow the trumpet among the nations, prepare the nations against her [ie. Babylon], call together against her the kingdoms of Ararat, Minni, and Ashchenaz; appoint a captain against her; cause the horses to come up as the rough caterpillars.

According to the Encyclopaedia Biblica, “Ashkenaz must have been one of the migratory peoples which in the time of Esar-haddon, burst upon the northern provinces of Asia Minor, and upon Armenia. One branch of this great migration appears to have reached Lake Urumiyeh; for in the revolt which Esar-haddon chastised, the Mannai, who lived to the SW of that lake, sought the help of Ispakai ‘of the land of Asguza,’ a name (originally perhaps Asgunza) which the skepticism of Dillmann need not hinder us from identifying with Ashkenaz, and from considering as that of a horde from the north, of Indo-Germanic origin, which settled on the south of Lake Urumiyeh.”

Medieval reception

Rabbinic Judaism

In rabbinic literature, the kingdom of Ashkenaz was first associated with the Scythian region, then later with the Slavic territories, and, from the 11th century onwards, with northern Europe and Germany. The region of Ashkenaz was centred on the Rhineland and the Palatinate (notably Worms and Speyer), in what is now the westernmost part of Germany. Its geographic extent did not coincide with the German Christian principalities of the time, and it included northern France.

How the name of Ashkenaz came to be associated in the rabbinic literature with the Rhineland is a subject of speculation.

In rabbinic literature from the 11th century, Ashkenaz was considered the ruler of a kingdom in the North and of the Northern and Germanic people.

Ashkenazi Jews

Sometime in the post Biblical early medieval period, the Jews of central and south central Europe came to be called by the name Ashkenazim, in conformity with the custom of designating areas of Jewish settlement with biblical names, Spain being identified as Sefarad (Obadiah 1:20), France as Tsarefat (1 Kings 17:9), and Bohemia as Land of Canaan. By the high medieval period, Talmudic commentators like Rashi began to use Ashkenaz/Eretz Ashkenaz to designate Germany, earlier known as Loter, where, especially in the Rhineland communities of Speyer, Worms and Mainz, the most important Jewish communities arose. Rashi uses leshon Ashkenaz (Ashkenazi language) to describe the German language, and Byzantium and Syrian Jewish letters referred to the Crusaders as Ashkenazim. Given the close links between the Jewish communities of France and Germany following the Carolingian unification, the term Ashkenazi came to refer to both the Jews of medieval Germany and France. Ashkenazi Jewish culture later spread in the 16th Century into Eastern Europe, where their rite replaced that of existing Jewish communities whom some scholars believe to have been larger in demographics than the Ashkenazi Jews themselves, and then to all parts of the world with the migrations of Jews who identified as “Ashkenazi Jews”.

Armenian tradition

In Armenian tradition, Ashkenaz, along with Togarmah, was considered among the ancestors of the Armenians. Koriun, the earliest Armenian historian, calls the Armenians an “Askanazian (i.e., Ashkenazi) nation”. He starts the “Life of Mashtots” with these words:

I had been thinking of the God-given alphabet of the Azkanazian nation and of the land of Armenia – when, in what time, and through what kind of man that new divine gift had been bestowed…

Later Armenian authors concur with this. Hovhannes Draskhanakerttsi (10th century) writes:

…The sixth son was Tiras from whom were born our very own Ashkenaz [Ask’anaz] and Togarmah [T’orgom] who named the country that he possessed Thrace after himself, as well as Chittim [K’itiim] who brought under his sway the Macedonians. 7. The sons of Tiras were Ashkenaz, from whom descended the Sarmatians, Riphath, whence the Sauromatians [Soramatk’], and Togarmah, who according to Jeremiah subjugated the Ashkenazian army and called it the House of Togarmah; for at first Ashkenaz had named our people after himself in accord with the law of seniority, as we shall explain in its proper place.

Because of this tradition, Askanaz is a male given name still used today by Armenians.

German royal genealogy

In 1498, a monk named Annio da Viterbo published fragments known as “Pseudo-Berossus”, now considered a forgery, claiming that Babylonian records had shown that Noah had more sons than the three sons of his listed in the Bible. Specifically, Tuiscon or Tuisto is given as the fourth son of Noah, who had been the first ruler of Scythia and Germany following the dispersion of peoples, with him being succeeded by his son Mannus as the second king.

Later historians (e.g. Johannes Aventinus and Johann Hübner) managed to furnish numerous further details, including the assertion by James Anderson in the early 18th century that this Tuiscon was in fact none other than the biblical Ashkenaz, son of Gomer. James Anderson’s 1732 tome Royal genealogies reports a significant number of antiquarian or mythographic traditions regarding Askenaz as the first king of ancient Germany, for example the following entry:

Askenaz, or Askanes, called by Aventinus Tuisco the Giant, and by others Tuisto or Tuizo (whom Aventinus makes the 4th son of Noah, and that he was born after the flood, but without authority) was sent by Noah into Europe, after the flood 131 years, with 20 Captains, and made a settlement near the Tanais, on the West coast of the Euxin sea (by some called Asken from him) and there founded the kingdom of the Germans and the Sarmatians… when Askenaz himself was 24 years old, for he lived above 200 years, and reigned 176.

In the vocables of Saxony and Hessia, there are some villages of the name Askenaz, and from him the Jews call the Germans Askenaz, but in the Saxonic and Italian, they are called Tuiscones, from Tuisco his other name. In the 25th year of his reign, he partitioned the kingdom into Toparchies, Tetrarchies, and Governments, and brought colonies from diverse parts to increase it. He built the city Duisburg, made a body of laws in verse, and invented letters, which Kadmos later imitated, for the Greek and High Dutch are alike in many words.

The 20 captains or dukes that came with Askenaz are: Sarmata, from whom Sarmatia; Dacus or Danus – Dania or Denmark; Geta from whom the Getae; Gotha from whom the Goths; Tibiscus, people on the river Tibiscus; Mocia – Mysia; Phrygus or Brigus – Phrygia; Thynus – Bithynia; Dalmata – Dalmatia; Jader – Jadera Colonia; Albanus from whom Albania; Zavus – the river Save; Pannus – Pannonia; Salon – the town Sale, Azalus – the Azali; Hister – Istria; Adulas, Dietas, Ibalus – people that of old dwelt between the rivers Oenus and Rhenus; Epirus, from whom Epirus.

Askenaz had a brother called Scytha (say the Germans) the father of the Scythians, for which the Germans have of old been called Scythians too (very justly, for they came mostly from old Scythia) and Germany had several ancient names; for that part next to the Euxin was called Scythia, and the country of the Getes, but the parts east of the Vistule or Weyssel were called Sarmatia Europaea, and westward it was called Gallia, Celtica, Allemania, Francia and Teutonia; for old Germany comprehended the greater part of Europe; and those called Gauls were all old Germans; who by ancient authors were called Celts, Gauls and Galatians, which is confirmed by the historians Strabo and Aventinus, and by Alstedius in his Chronology, p. 201 etc. Askenaz, or Tuisco, after his death, was worshipped as the ambassador and interpreter of the gods, and from thence called the first German Mercury, from Tuitseben to interpret.

In the 19th century, the German theologian August Wilhelm Knobel again equated Ashkenaz with the Germans, deriving the name of the Aesir from Ashkenaz.

Turkey – at least the fifth century BCE

The history of the Jews in Turkey (Turkish: Türkiye Yahudileri; Hebrew: יהודים טורקים‎ Yehudim Turkim, Ladino: Djudios Turkos) covers the 2400 years that Jews have lived in what is now Turkey. There have been Jewish communities in Anatolia since at least the fifth century BCE and many Spanish and Portuguese Jews expelled from Spain by the Alhambra Decree were welcomed into the Ottoman Empire in the late 15th century, including regions now part of Turkey, centuries later, forming the bulk of the Ottoman Jews.

Germany – at least the year 321

The history of the Jews in Germany goes back at least to the year 321, and continued through the Early Middle Ages (5th to 10th centuries CE) and High Middle Ages (circa 1000–1299 CE) when Jewish immigrants founded the Ashkenazi Jewish community. The community survived under Charlemagne, but suffered during the Crusades. Accusations of well poisoning during the Black Death (1346–53) led to mass slaughter of German Jews and they fled in large numbers to Poland. The Jewish communities of the cities of Mainz, Speyer and Worms became the center of Jewish life during medieval times. “This was a golden age as area bishops protected the Jews resulting in increased trade and prosperity.”

Russia – at least 1,500 years

The history of the Jews in Russia and areas historically connected with it goes back at least 1,500 years. Jews in Russia have historically constituted a large religious and ethnic diaspora; the Russian Empire at one time hosted the largest population of Jews in the world. Within these territories the primarily Ashkenazi Jewish communities of many different areas flourished and developed many of modern Judaism’s most distinctive theological and cultural traditions, while also facing periods of anti-Semitic discriminatory policies and persecutions. Some have described a ‘renaissance’ in the Jewish community inside Russia since the beginning of the 21st century. And today, Russia’s Jewish population is still among the largest in Europe.

Iran – mid-1st millennium BC

The beginnings of Jewish history in Iran date back to late biblical times (mid-1st millennium BC). The biblical books of Isaiah, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, contain references to the life and experiences of Jews in Persia. In the book of Ezra, the Persian kings are credited with permitting and enabling the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple; its reconstruction was carried out “according to the decree of Cyrus, and Darius, and Artaxerxes king of Persia” (Ezra 6:14). This great event in Jewish history took place in the late 6th century BC, by which time there was a well-established and influential Jewish community in Persia.

Iraq – c. 586 BC

The history of the Jews in Iraq (Hebrew: יְהוּדִים בָּבְלִים‎, Babylonian Jews, Yehudim Bavlim, Arabic: اليهود العراقيون‎ al-Yahūd al-ʿIrāqiyyūn) is documented from the time of the Babylonian captivity c. 586 BC. Iraqi Jews constitute one of the world’s oldest and most historically significant Jewish communities.

The Jewish community of what is termed in Jewish sources “Babylon” or “Babylonia” included Ezra the scribe, whose return to Judea in the late 6th century BC is associated with significant changes in Jewish ritual observance and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Babylonian Talmud was compiled in “Babylonia”, identified with modern Iraq.

China – 8th century CE

Jews and Judaism in China are predominantly composed of Sephardi Jews and their descendants. Other Jewish ethnic divisions are also represented, including Ashkenazi Jews, Mizrahi Jews and a number of converts.

The Jewish Chinese community manifests a wide range of Jewish cultural traditions and it also encompasses the full spectrum of Jewish religious observance. Though a small minority, Chinese Jews have had an open presence in the country since the arrival of the first Jewish immigrants during the 8th century CE. Relatively isolated communities of Jews developed from ancient all the way to modern China, most notably the Kaifeng Jews (the term “Chinese Jews” is often used in a restricted sense in order to refer to these communities).

United States – since colonial times

There have been Jewish communities in the United States since colonial times. Early Jewish communities were primarily Sephardi (Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent), composed of immigrants from Brazil and merchants who settled in cities. Until the 1830s, the Jewish community of Charleston, South Carolina, was the largest in North America. In the late 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s, many Jewish immigrants arrived from Europe. For example, many German Jews arrived in the middle of the 19th century, established clothing stores in towns across the country, formed Reform synagogues, and were active in banking in New York. Immigration of Eastern Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews, in 1880–1914, brought a large, poor, traditional element to New York City. They were Orthodox or Conservative in religion. They founded the Zionist movement in the United States, and were active supporters of the Socialist party and labor unions. Economically, they concentrated in the garment industry.

England – 1070

The history of the Jews in England goes back to the reign of William the Conqueror. Although it is likely that there had been some Jewish presence in the Roman period, there is no definitive evidence, and no reason to suppose that there was any community during Anglo-Saxon times. The first written record of Jewish settlement in England dates from 1070. The Jewish settlement continued until King Edward I’s Edict of Expulsion in 1290. After the expulsion, there was no overt Jewish community (as opposed to individuals practising Judaism secretly) until the rule of Oliver Cromwell. While Cromwell never officially readmitted Jews to the Commonwealth of England, a small colony of Sephardic Jews living in London was identified in 1656 and allowed to remain.

France – at least the early Middle Ages

The history of the Jews in France deals with Jews and Jewish communities in France since at least the early Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages, France was a center of Jewish learning, but over time, persecution increased, including multiple expulsions and returns. During the French Revolution in the late 18th century, on the other hand, France was the first country in Europe to emancipate its Jewish population. Antisemitism still occurred in cycles, reaching a high level in the 1890s, as shown during the Dreyfus affair, and in the 1940s, under German occupation and the Vichy regime.

Syria – c. 1000 BCE

Syrian Jews had predominantly two origins: those who inhabited Syria from early times and the Sephardim who fled to Syria after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 CE. There were large Jewish communities in Aleppo, Damascus, and Qamishli for centuries. In the early 20th century, a large percentage of Syrian Jews emigrated to Israel, the U.S., and Latin America. The largest Syrian-Jewish community is now located in Israel and is estimated to number 80,000.

The tradition of the community ascribes its founding to the time of King David in c. 1000 BCE, whose general Joab occupied the area of Syria, described in the Bible as Aram Zoba: this name is taken by later tradition as referring to Aleppo. (Modern scholarship locates Aram Zoba in Lebanon and the far south of Syria: the identification with Aleppo is not found in rabbinic literature prior to the 11th century.) Whether or not Jewish settlement goes back to a time as early as King David, both Aleppo and Damascus certainly had Jewish communities early in the Christian era.

Egypt – c. 1000 BCE

Egyptian Jews constitute both one of the oldest and youngest Jewish communities in the world. The historic core of the Jewish community in Egypt consisted mainly of Arabic-speaking Rabbanites and Karaites. After their expulsion from Spain, more Sephardi and Karaite Jews began to emigrate to Egypt and their numbers increased significantly with the growth of trading prospects after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. As a result, Jews from all over the territories of the Ottoman Empire as well as Italy and Greece started to settle in the main cities of Egypt, where they thrived. The Ashkenazi community, mainly confined to Cairo’s Darb al-Barabira quarter, began to arrive in the aftermath of the waves of pogroms that hit Europe in the latter part of the 19th century.

Lebanon – biblical times

The history of the Jews in Lebanon encompasses the presence of Jews in present-day Lebanon stretching back to biblical times. Following large-scale emigration following the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, and much more importantly the Lebanese Civil War, the vast majority of Lebanese Jews now live in Western countries and many live in Israel. As the latest census in Lebanon was conducted in 1932, there are virtually no statistics available.

India – back to ancient history

The history of the Jews in India reaches back to ancient history. Judaism was one of the first foreign religions to arrive in India in recorded history. Indian Jews are a religious minority in India who have historically lived there without any instances of anti-Semitism from the local non-jewish majority. The better-established ancient Jewish communities have assimilated many of the local traditions through cultural diffusion. While some Indian Jews state that their ancestors arrived in India during the time of the Ancient Kingdom of Judah, others identify themselves as descendants of Ancient Israel’s Ten Lost Tribes who arrived earlier. Some claim descent particularly from Ancient Israel’s tribe of Menashe and are referred as the Bnei Menashe. It is estimated that India’s Jewish population peaked at around 20,000 in the mid-1940s, and began to rapidly decline due to their emigration to Israel after its creation in 1948.

Belgium – back to the 1st century CE

The history of the Jews in Belgium goes back to the 1st century CE until today. The Jewish community numbered 66,000 on the eve of the Second World War but, after the war and the Holocaust, is now less than half that number.

Poland – back at least 1,000 years

The history of Jews in Poland dates back at least 1,000 years. For centuries, Poland was home to the largest and most significant Jewish community in the world. Poland was a principal center of Jewish culture, because of the long period of statutory religious tolerance and social autonomy which ended after the Partitions of Poland in the 18th century. During World War II there was a nearly complete genocidal destruction of the Polish Jewish community by Nazi Germany and its collaborators, during the German occupation of Poland between 1939 and 1945, called the Holocaust. Since the fall of communism in Poland, there has been a renewed interest in Jewish culture, featuring an annual Jewish Culture Festival, new study programs at Polish secondary schools and universities, and the opening of Warsaw’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

From the founding of the Kingdom of Poland in 1025 until the early years of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth created in 1569, Poland was the most tolerant country in Europe. Historians have used the label paradisus iudaeorum (Latin for “Paradise of the Jews”). Poland became a shelter for Jews persecuted and expelled from various European countries and the home to the world’s largest Jewish community of the time. According to some sources, about three-quarters of the world’s Jews lived in Poland by the middle of the 16th century.

Belarus – as early as the 8th century

The history of the Jews in Belarus begins as early as the 8th century. Jews lived in all parts of the lands of modern Belarus. Jews were the third largest ethnic group in the country in the first half of the 20th century. In 1897, the Jewish population of Belarus reached 910,900, or 14.2% of the total population. Following the Polish-Soviet War (1919-1920), under the terms of the Treaty of Riga, Belarus was split into Eastern Belorussia (under Soviet occupation) and Western Belorussia (under Polish occupation), and causing 350,000-450,000 of the Jews to be governed by Poland. Prior to World War II, Jews remained the third largest ethnic groups in Belarus and comprised more than 40% of the population in cities and towns. The population of cities such as Minsk, Pinsk, Mahiliou, Babrujsk, Viciebsk, and Homiel was more than 50% Jewish. In 1926 and 1939 there were between 375,000 and 407,000 Jews in Belarus (Eastern Belorussia) or 6.7-8.2% of the total population. Following the Soviet annexation of Eastern Poland in 1939, including Western Belorussia, Belarus would again have 1,175,000 Jews within its borders, including 275,000 Jews from Poland, Ukraine, and elsewhere. It is estimated 800,000 of 900,000 — 90% of the Jews of Belarus —were killed during the Holocaust. According to the 2019 national census, there were 13,705 self-identifying Jews in Belarus. The Jewish Agency estimates the community of Jews in Belarus at 20,000. However, the number of Belarusians with Jewish descent is assumed to be higher.

1 Comment

  1. Pretty awesome history lesson. One question though, why no mention of Latvia & Livonian’s aka Halycia-Volhynia and later as Galicja. Halycia-Volhynia is known to have been a principality region. Furthermore, this area is well documented as being heavily influenced by Ashkenasi Jewish people.
    Otherwise interesting article.

    Thanks for sharing.

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