From Gold To Black: Sad Story of Spanish Jewry

This article was printed in the Kankan Journal Vol 2. Issue 17 Kislev 5781

The Fight of the Rabbis – Part 3

As part of our ongoing series on Great Fights in Jewish History, we will now explore a dark time in our nation’s experience: The exile of Spanish Jewry.  How did this glorious Jewish community come to such a tragic end? Let us delve into the story.

We will begin with a brief survey of Spanish Jewish history.  The earliest mention of Spain in Jewish sources reference several times in Tanach to a country called Tarshish, which is most famous as the place to which the prophet Yona fled.1“Tarshish”, Jewish Encyclopedia, Isidore Singer and M. Seligsohn. See our article “Yona’s Itinerary”, in Kankan issue 15.

According to the Abarbanel, the Jewish community of Spain began after the destruction of the First Temple, when under the reign of a Spanish King named Pirush, [who was an ally of Nevuchadnezzar], exiles from Jerusalem from the tribes of Yehuda, Binyomin, Shimon and Levi arrived by sea in Spain and settled in Lucena and Toledo.  These Jews did not return to Eretz Yisrael with Ezra, because they knew that the establishment of the Second Commonwealth did not herald a complete geulah and was destined to be destroyed.2Abarbanel, commentary on sefer Melachim, end of the sefer.

Roman control of the Iberian Peninsula began in 202 BCE after the Second Punic War.  It is speculated that as many as 80,000 Jews were brought there after the destruction of the Second Temple.3Graetz, p. 42.

The Coming of the Christians

With the Barbarian invasion, the rule of the Visigoths, and their conversion to Catholicism, the situation for the Jews in Spain became dire.  In 613, King Sisebut was the first of a long line of Spanish kings to give the Jewish community the choice of conversion or expulsion.4“Spain”, Encyclopedia Judaica, Second Edition, Volume 19, p. 68. Thus also began the phenomenon of Jews outwardly converting to Catholicism, while still practicing Judaism in the secrecy of their homes.  Such Jews became known as Marranos.  The exact etymology of the word is unclear.  Some explain that it is a pejorative, coming from the Spanish word for swine.  Others maintain that it is Portuguese in root, and means the ones who were forced.5Karen Primack, “That Word ‘Marrano’”. Chapter 8 (pp. 55-58) in Karen Primack (ed.) Jews in Places You Never Thought Of, KTAV Publishing House, Inc. (1998).

More tolerable Visigoths would moderate the decrees against the Jews, while more radical leaders would increase their severity.  This uneven relationship between the Jews and the Throne was to continue until the beginning of Muslim rule.

Under Muslim Rule

Title: The Moorish Castle
Desc.: The Moorish Castle’s Tower of Homage, a symbol of the Muslim rule in Gibraltar.
Date: 18 August 2007
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 711, when Tarik Ibn Ziyad disembarked at Gibraltar (later named for him – Jabal Tariq6Molina, L. (2000). “Tārik b. Ziyād”. In Bearman, P. J.; Bianquis, Th.; Bosworth, C. E.; van Donzel, E. & Heinrichs, W. P. (eds.). The Encyclopaedia of Islam, New Edition, Volume X: T–U. Leiden: E. J. Brill. ISBN 978-90-04-11211-7. or Mountain of Tarik) and overthrew the Christian Visigoths, the situation seemed to improve for the Jews.  At that time, there were no communities openly practicing Judaism, although many were still doing so in secret.  Welcoming the Muslims as their saviors, the secret Jews of Spain gave tactical aid wherever they could to the conquest.7Roth, Norman (1994), Jews, Visigoths and Muslims in medieval Spain: Cooperation and Conflict, pp.79–90, Leiden: Brill. The Muslims, in turn, would hand over towns to Jews wherever they could be found.  This happened in Cordoba, Granada, Toledo, and Seville.8“Spain” in the Encyclopedia Judaica, Second Edition, Volume 19, p. 68. Jews who had fled to North Africa returned to Spain and things looked promising.

The founding of the Umayyad Kingdom in 755 and then the Caliphate of Cordoba in the 10th Century is marked as starting points of the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry.  Chasdai Ibn Shaprut became the highest-ranking Jew to yet appear in the Spanish political arena when he became the Chief of Customs and Foreign Trade.  Shmuel HaNagid, Rabbeinu Bachaya, and Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra were active as well during this time.

In 1066, the Granada Massacre took place, in which a Muslim mob slaughtered 4,000 Jews, including Yosef HaNaggid, son of the illustrious Shmuel HaNaggid, and this would come to be seen as the beginning of the end of the Golden Age of the Jews of Spain.

The Reconquista

Desc.: Moors and Christian Battle of Marrakesh
Source: Cantigas de Santa Maria
Author: Alfonso X (1221–1284)
Date: 13th Century
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 1085, the Christian Reconquest of Spain began in earnest when Toledo fell to the Christians.  Initially, the Jews continued to fare well in Spain under Christian rule, with religious freedom existing in most places and Jews often still occupying political positions.

Under the rule of Ferdinand III and James I, the situation of the Jews in Spain took a turn for the worse – never again to rebound fully.  In 1263, the Great Disputation between the Ramban and apostate Jew Pablo Cristiani took place.  Although the Ramban handily bested his disputant,  he was eventually forced to leave Spain for Eretz Yisrael.  Pope Clement IV sought to destroy the influence of the Talmud, and subjected all Jewish books to the censorship of the Dominicans.9Popper, William (1889). The Censorship of Hebrew Books. Knickerbocker Press. pp. 13–14.

In 1367, Peter of Castile took the throne.  He displayed a favorable disposition towards the Jews, which earned him the moniker of Peter the Apostate.  Whatever favor he showed to the Jews was undone, however, after he waged a civil war with his illegitimate half-brother Henry II, which ended with Henry victorious and Peter beheaded.

Things continued to spiral out of control for the Jews when in 1378, Archdeacon Ferrand Martínez began delivering fiery sermons against them.  His ascension as the leader of the diocese in 1391 set off a wave of massacres and forced conversions of Jews.  Although it is very difficult to ascertain the exact numbers of victims, it is estimated that the number of martyred Jews was around 10,000, with approximately another 50,000 subjected to coerced conversion.10Zacuto, Avraham Sefer Yuchsin, third edition p. 225 puts the figure at 200,000, though many believe this to be exaggerated. Spanish historian Juan de Mariana maintains the number was closer to 35,000 at this point. For the purposes of this article, we have used a compromise number of 50,000.

The persecution of Jews in Spain was systematic at this point, with the Church and the government working in concert.  The Disputation of Tortosa took place over the course of 19 months in 1413–14, in which rabbis were forced to participate with no opportunity to truly defend the Talmud, and it became merely a pretext for the baptism of thousands of more Jews.

The End

Desc.: Woodcut carved by Johann von Armssheim. Portrays a disputation between Christian and Jewish scholars.
Author: Johann von Armssheim
Date: 1483
Source: Soncino Blaetter, Berlin, 1929
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The situation of the Jews in Spain would wax and wane until the marriage of Isabella I of Castile to Ferdinand II of Aragon in 1469, which resulted in those two kingdoms formally uniting in 1479.  Even though Jews remained in the employ of the King (Don Avraham Senior and Don Isaac Abarbanel of particular note), the new government wasted no time in dealing with the problem of conversos.  They saw this as a problem of national unity, and established the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition in 1478 to preserve Spain’s Catholic character.  The tribunal reached its height in 1483 under the guidance of Tomás de Torquemada, confessor to the queen, who was appointed inquisitor-general.11“Spain” in Jewish Encyclopedia, By: Richard Gottheil, Meyer Kayserling, Joseph Jacobs.

After the fall of Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in Spain, on January 2, 1492, there was a huge push towards complete religious unity in the Kingdom.  The prevailing sentiment became that no Jew could be trusted, and on March 31, 1492, the Alhambra Decree was issued, stating that every single Jew who remained true to his or her religion, and every suspected converso, must leave Spain, be baptized, or face the penalty of death.  The decree was to be carried out by the last day of July of that year, corresponding to the 7th of Av.12“Spain” in the Encyclopedia Judaica, Second Edition, volume 19, p. 79.

Various historians offer differing estimates of the numbers of Jews affected by this decree.  By some accounts, there were 235,000 Jews in Spain at the time of the expulsion, of which 165,000 chose to leave, 20,000 of whom died on the treacherous journey, and another 50,000 choosing baptism.

The Aftermath

Desc.: The Grand Inquisitor friar Tomás de Torquemada in 1492 offers to the Catholic Monarchs the Edict of expulsion of the Jews from Spain for their signature.
Author: Emilio Sala y Francés (1850–1910)
Date: 1889
Source: Soncino Blaetter, Berlin, 1929
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Many of the Jewish refugees migrated to neighboring Portugal, whose King Manuel was thought to be more tolerant.  Yet, succumbing to pressure from Spain, he issued an edict of compulsory conversion in 1497.  With very few options left for the Jews, many more began posing openly as Christians while practicing Judaism in hiding.  On April 17, 1506, in Lisbon, several such Jews were caught preparing for Pesach, and arrested, but were released a few days later.  The locals had expected these ‘fake Christians’ to be persecuted and decided to take matters into their own hands with a pogrom in which 2,000 converso Jews were slaughtered.  The King punished the ringleaders with a vengeance and granted the conversos 20 years of religious freedom.

While there was a trickle of converso Jews that later left Spain and Portugal, the vast majority remained in place and were subject to the continued barrage of the Inquisition.13Henry Kamen: The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision. 1999. Those who later attempted to leave did not have an easy time assimilating back into Jewish communities.  While the halacha seems to state that they should be accepted,14Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer 44:9, Igros Moshe, Even HaEzer 4:83. there was much animosity towards the conversos on the part of those who had migrated due to the decree of expulsion.15Kamen, Henry (1985), Inquisition and Society in Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p. 27.

The Inquisition continued in full force for several more centuries, even following converso Jews to the New World, with 59 persons burned at the stake and 18 in effigy between 1581 and 1776.  In total, the Inquisition is thought to have prosecuted around 150,000 people with 3-5,000 being executed16Data for executions for witchcraft: Levack, Brian P. (1995). The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe (Second Edition). and an indeterminate amount of wealth being confiscated.  Although the Inquisition was formally abolished on March 31, 1821,17“Inquisition” in the Jewish Encyclopedia By: Richard Gottheil, Meyer Kayserling. the Alhambra Decree was not rescinded until December 16, 1968, when the Jews were officially welcomed back to Spain.181492 Ban on Jews Is Voided by Spain – The New York Times, 17 December 1968.