Question: Are there differences in actual Torah laws among the Sephardic, Ashkenazi, and Yemenite customs? Why is it not possible to make a decision that Jews of all backgrounds should rule on Halacha in the same manner?
Answer: The Rambam (Chapter 9, Halacha 1 of Hilchot Yesodei Ha’Torah) writes: “Something written explicitly in the Torah, namely a Mitzvah, is everlasting and is not subject to change, subtraction from, or adding to it, as the verse states, ‘And the revealed ones will be for us and our children forever.’ Thus, we are commanded to observe the commandments of the Torah forever. Similarly, the verse states, ‘An everlasting tenet for all your generations.’ Indeed, the Torah states, ‘It is not in Heaven’ and we derive from here that a prophet may not institute anything new (from the moment the Torah was given). Thus, if an individual arises and performs a sign or a wonder and claims that Hashem has sent him to add or subtract a Mitzvah or if this person explains one of the Mitzvot in a way we have not received from Moshe or if he claims that the Mitzvot that the Jewish nation were commanded to observe are not for all generations and are merely temporary, this person is a false prophet, for he is contradicting the prophecy of Moshe Rabbeinu.”
Based on the above, it is impossible for there to be tangible differences in the actual laws and Mitzvot of the Torah between Sephardic and Ashkenazi customs, for there is only one Torah.
Nevertheless, since the Torah is extremely vast and its wisdom is endlessly deep, we find many disagreements between the Sages of Israel regarding laws contingent on how the Torah is expounded and passages of the Talmud. In general, Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jews have accepted upon themselves the rulings of the Rif, Rambam, and other great luminaries of the Sephardic lands. On the other hand, Ashkenazim have generally accepted upon themselves the rulings of Rabbeinu Tam, the Tosafists, Ra’avaya, Ra’avan, and the other great Rishonim from the regions of Germany and France. As a result, there are many differences among the Sephardic and Ashkenazi customs. Nonetheless, everyone agrees that both opinions are the word of Hashem and they are both correct. As we have discussed several times, this is indeed the will of Hashem and law of the Torah that many of the Torah’s laws should be subject to the decisions of the Torah leaders of the generation, for these laws can be interpreted in different ways and the final decision is in the hands of the Sages. However, Sephardic Jews are bound by the customs of their respective lands and Ashkenazim by theirs. This is especially true in the Land of Israel, the dwelling place of Maran Ha’Bet Yosef. Thus, the residents of Israel and all those who have emigrated there from Sephardic lands follow all his rulings, for he was the halachic authority of all of the Land of Israel.
There are other issues which are not actual Torah laws at all and are merely things which are contingent on customs, such as not consuming legumes on Pesach which according to all opinions is not something forbidden by Torah law or even by rabbinic enactment; rather, the Jews in Ashkenazi countries accepted upon themselves to act stringently and abstain from eating legumes because of a concern of Chametz mixtures. Thus, Ashkenazi Jews must observe this custom while Sephardic Jews do not for they have customarily never acted stringently regarding this issue.
Regarding such matters, there is usually not even a disagreement, for even according to the Sephardic sages, Ashkenazim must continue to act stringently regarding eating legumes and the like. Similarly, even according to the Ashkenazi sages, Sephardic Jews are obligated to eat only meat which is “Chalak/Glatt Bet Yosef,” for according to the Sephardic tradition, this is something one must be careful about.
Throughout thousands of years of exile, the Jewish nation has taken care that they not forget the Torah and although the Torah’s laws are very complex, there was nevertheless any deviance among the various exiles of Sephardic, Ashkenazi, and Yemenite lands, for when they all merited arriving in the Land of Israel, everyone realized that they all shared the same Torah. In any place where wayward people arose to alter some of the laws of the Torah, the sages of Israel always distanced them. This was the case when the Sages of the Talmud distanced the sects of Tzedokim and Baitosim and warned others not to stray after them. Similarly, in the exile of Babylon, the Geonim distanced the Jewish nation from the teachings of Chivi Ha’Balki and other such heretical sects that arose. Thankfully, this was continuously the case in every generation.
To conclude, once, when Maran zt”l visited Spain in Tevet 5739 (1979), he met with the King of Spain, Juan Carlos, who received him with great honor. During their meeting, the king asked Maran zt”l if there were different customs among Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews. Maran replied that we all share the same Torah and there are only slight differences regarding customs which are not fundamentals of Judaism. The king then asked Maran, “How many Sephardic Jews are there in Israel?” Maran replied, “Approximately half of Israel’s population is Sephardic, including immigrants from Middle Eastern countries, such as Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Morocco, and others.” The king then asked, “If so, why are they all called ‘Sephardim’ (literally translated as ‘Spanish’)?” Maran replied, “All of the customs of Sephardic Jews are based on the teachings of the great Rambam of Spain in his book ‘Yad Ha’Chazaka’ and he was the greatest halachic authority of all Middle Eastern Jews who accepted all of his rulings upon themselves. Since only our Torah makes us a nation, it is for this reason that we are all called ‘Sephardim’.” The king very much appreciated this explanation and he took it as a great compliment that the great Rambam originated from Spain and eventually whose greatness shone upon all of Middle Eastern Jewry.