The Early European Communities
The group of scholars who comprised the “Early Authorities” lived during the ninth through the fifteenth centuries of the Common Era. Historians refer to this period as the Dark Ages, when there was little scholarly development in Western thought. This same period of time, however, was incredibly fruitful in terms of Jewish scholarship. Not only was literacy among Jewish commoners much more prevalent than the European norm, but the leading Rabbis of the time produced voluminous works that are still studied avidly.
By the end of the eighth century, clear differences in customs and prayers had developed between the Sephardic Jews of Spain and Northern Africa, who came largely from Babylonia, and the Ashkenazic Jews of France, Germany, and Italy, who came from the Land of Israel. Each group had its own leading authorities, and for this reason a number of legal decisions and Rabbinic decrees made by the Rabbis of each side were not adopted by the other. Nonetheless, the ongoing correspondence and discussion between the scholars of each group indicate that an environment of mutual respect and admiration prevailed.
Even within these groups, minor differences developed, reflected today in the different practices of Syrian versus Moroccan Sephardim, or German versus Italian Ashkenazim. Only in our day do we find joint projects between researchers thousands of miles apart. In the Middle Ages, new developments in one community might have no impact upon others until decades, if not centuries, later. During the period under discussion, there were four (or by some counts, five) different regional groups, each with its own unique strengths.