Ashkenazi Jews, also known as Ashkenazic Jews or simply Ashkenazim (Hebrew: אַשְׁכְּנַזִּים , Ashkenazi Hebrew pronunciation: , singular: , Modern Hebrew: ; also יְהוּדֵי אַשְׁכֲּנַז Y'hudey Ashkenaz ), are a Jewish diaspora population who coalesced as a distinct community in the Holy Roman Empire around the end of the first millennium. The traditional diaspora language of Ashkenazi Jews is Yiddish (which incorporates several dialects), with Hebrew used only as a sacred language until relatively recently. Throughout their time in Europe, Ashkenazim have made many important contributions to philosophy, scholarship, literature, art, music, and science.
Ashkenazim originate from the Jews who settled along the Rhine River, in Western Germany and Northern France. There they became a distinct diaspora community with a unique way of life that adapted traditions from Babylon, The Land of Israel, and the Western Mediterranean to their new environment. The Ashkenazi religious rite developed in cities such as Mainz, Worms, and Troyes. The eminent French Rishon Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki (Rashi) would have a significant impact on the Jewish religion.
In the late Middle Ages, the majority of the Ashkenazi population shifted steadily eastward, moving out of the Holy Roman Empire into the Pale of Settlement (comprising parts of present-day Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine). In the course of the late 18th and 19th centuries, those Jews who remained in or returned to the German lands experienced a cultural reorientation; under the influence of the Haskalah and the struggle for emancipation, as well as the intellectual and cultural ferment in urban centers, they gradually abandoned the use of Yiddish, while developing new forms of Jewish religious life and cultural identity.
The genocidal impact of the Holocaust (the mass murder of approximately six million Jews during World War II) devastated the Ashkenazim and their culture, affecting almost every Jewish family. It is estimated that in the 11th century Ashkenazi Jews composed only three percent of the world's total Jewish population, while at their peak in 1931 they accounted for 92 percent of the world's Jews. Immediately prior to the Holocaust, the number of Jews in the world stood at approximately 16.7 million. Statistical figures vary for the contemporary demography of Ashkenazi Jews, oscillating between 10 million and 11.2 million. Sergio DellaPergola in a rough calculation of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, implies that Ashkenazi Jews make up less than 74% of Jews worldwide. Other estimates place Ashkenazi Jews as making up about 75% of Jews worldwide.
Genetic studies on Ashkenazim—researching both their paternal and maternal lineages—suggest a significant proportion of Middle Eastern ancestry. Those studies have arrived at diverging conclusions regarding both the degree and the sources of their European ancestry, and have generally focused on the extent of the European genetic origin observed in Ashkenazi maternal lineages. Ashkenazi Jews are popularly contrasted with Sephardi Jews (also called Sephardim), who are descendants of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula (though there are other groups as well). There are some differences in how the two groups pronounce certain Hebrew letters, and in points of ritual.
The name Ashkenazi derives from the biblical figure of Ashkenaz, the first son of Gomer, son of Khaphet, son of Noah, and a Japhetic patriarch in the Table of Nations (Genesis 10). The name of Gomer has often been linked to the ethnonym Cimmerians. Biblical Ashkenaz is usually derived from Assyrian Aškūza (cuneiform Aškuzai/Iškuzai), a people who expelled the Cimmerians from the Armenian area of the Upper Euphrates, whose name is usually associated with the name of the Scythians. The intrusive n in the Biblical name is likely due to a scribal error confusing a waw ו with a nun נ.
In Jeremiah 51:27, Ashkenaz figures as one of three kingdoms in the far north, the others being Minni and Ararat, perhaps corresponding to Urartu, called on by God to resist Babylon.
In the Yoma tractate of the Babylonian Talmud the name Gomer is rendered as Germania, which elsewhere in rabbinical literature was identified with Germanikia in northwestern Syria, but later became associated with Germania. Ashkenaz is linked to Scandza/Scanzia, viewed as the cradle of Germanic tribes, as early as a 6th-century gloss to the Historia Ecclesiastica of Eusebius. In the 10th-century History of Armenia of Yovhannes Drasxanakertc'i (1.15) Ashkenaz was associated with Armenia, as it was occasionally in Jewish usage, where its denotation extended at times to Adiabene, Khazaria, Crimea and areas to the east. His contemporary Saadia Gaon identified Ashkenaz with the Saquliba or Slavic territories, and such usage covered also the lands of tribes neighboring the Slavs, and Eastern and Central Europe. In modern times,