Q. How did the Ashkenazi-Sephardi divergence in nus’cha’ot (versions of the prayers) originate?
A. A Jewish prayer liturgy began evolving during the period of the Second Temple. However, following the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE, divergent prayer texts grew, especially between the rites of Babylon and the Land of Israel. Travellers from one centre to the other brought their own customs and liturgical emphases with them. Differences included variants in the concluding phrases of certain blessings and the preference for one version of a prayer over another.
In time, the two communities developed different Hebrew pronunciations, systems of vocalization and accentuation, and even divergent scriptural texts. Almost every sizeable community in Asia Minor and the Mediterranean lands had separate synagogues catering to the two rites. The diverging liturgies alarmed the geonim to the extent that Sa’adia Ga’on (10th century) feared that Jewish worship would become fragmented and forgotten and Judaism itself would disintegrate.
The basis of the Ashkenazi liturgy was lain in Vitry, in northern France, where Simchah ben Shmu’el, a contemporary of Rashi (11th century) compiled the Machzor Vitry.
In time, a link was suggested between the Babylonian/Land of Israel dichotomy and the Ashkenazi (“German”)/Sephardi (“Spanish”) rift. Though “Ashkenaz” (Genesis 10:3) had come to be identified with Germany and “Sephard” (Obadiah 1:20) with Spain, the two groupings roughly denoted the Jews of Christian Europe and those of Mediterranean countries.
Their different traditions led in the 19th century to Leopold Zunz, Solomon JL Rapoport, and others arguing that the Israeli usage in liturgy, religious practice, Hebrew pronunciation, and hymnody survived in Italy and migrated across Europe to become the Ashkenazi tradition, whereas the Babylonian usage, dominant around the Mediterranean, became the Sephardi rite. This explains why some groups (eg Egypt, Syria, Iran, Iraq and Yemen) who adopted a Sephardi form of liturgy had no intrinsic connection with Spain.