The End of Spanish Jewry

In the 14th century, the bubonic plague, the Black Death, ravaged Europe – including the Jews who, on top of everything else, were blamed for causing it! The 14th century also marks the middle of the end for Spanish Jewry. The end of the end of Spanish Jewry will come in 1492, but the middle of the end is in 1391.

In 1391, James II of Aragon passed a law, under the pressure from the Roman Catholic Church, that they no longer would abide Jews in Spain, which was dominated by the kingdoms of Castile, Granada and Aragon. Jews living there were given the choice of conversion, death or emigration.

A number of pogroms followed that law. For 400 years, the Jewish community of Barcelona had served as the center of Judaism, and had been headed at various times by such luminaries as Nachmanides and Rabbi Solomon ben Aderet (Rashba). Yet, all of its 23 synagogues were burned to the ground. By 1394, the Jewish population ceased to exist there. Similarly, major Jewish communities such as Seville, Toledo, Perpignan (which is close to Provence) were all destroyed in 1391.

Nevertheless, the Jews still held enough power, wealth and influence to bribe the king and stay the order for 100 years.

Waves of Apostasy

At this time, Christianity mounted its most massive offensive in history to convert Jews. It became an obsession of the Church. At the head of this drive were apostate Jews.

Rabbi Solomon ha-Levi was a famous rabbi who was originally from Seville and who rose to prominence in the court of the king. He was a noted Talmudist, one of the great rabbis of his time and commanded the respect of the Jewish community.

After the pogroms of 1391, he converted to Roman Catholicism along with his wife and children. (Some say his wife did not convert and remained faithful to Judaism to the end of her life.) He converted publicly and took on the name, Paul of Burgos.

In 1394, he obtained an appointment to Cardinal Pedro de Luna, who later would be Pope Benedict XIII. He took it upon himself, as converts are wont to do, to explain the matter to his former brethren.

We can get a glimpse of the confusion of the times from situations and question posed to the rabbis: A husband remains Jewish, and his wife who remains Catholic takes him the Inquisition. Or a wife remains Jewish and she takes the husband who was becoming Catholic to the Jewish court to give her a divorce, or they wrangle over the children. Children brought their ancient parents in front of the Inquisition to force them to convert. These types of cases show us how heart-wrenching and pervasive the problem was.

Paul of Burgos made sizable inroads in the Jewish community of Spain. At the time, in the late 1300s to the early 1400s, one of the most famous rabbis in Spain was Hasdai Crescas. He stood in the breach as the main defender and protagonist of Judaism. He was the teacher of all of the great rabbis of his time, including Solomon ha-Levi before his apostasy.

A disciple of both Hasdai Crescas and Solomon ha-Levi, Joshua ha-Lorki, also converted to Christianity. These two apostates worked together and converted 50 leading Jewish intellectuals, who then proceeded to sign a document addressed to the fellow Jews which in effect said that it was nonsense to resist Christianity; the only way for the Jewish community to survive in Spain was to convert.

It created a wave of momentum toward conversion.

Opposing Apostasy

Hasdai Crescas attempted to reverse the momentum with a book called Ohr Hashem, “The Light of God.” This was actually the first of a new genre of books that defending Judaism and even attacked Christianity with greater audacity as time went on.

Shortly after Hasdai Crescas’ Ohr Hashem was published, a second influential book was penned by Rabbi Isaac ben Moses ha-Levi Duran (also known as Profiat Duran) called Ma’aseh Efod. Both books attacked Christianity. The more successful Christianity was in obtaining conversions the stronger the reaction of the Jews in mounting a counter-offensive against it. For about 100 years there was a no-hold-barred polemic between Jews and Christians, the Jews saying things they never dared say before or since about Christianity.

This book led to an even stronger book Kelimmat ha-Goyim, “The Shame of the Gentiles.” These books had a tremendous effect upon the Jews and almost turned the tide. He expressed things other Jews felt but were afraid to say living under Christian domination.

At the same time, the book unleashed a wave of anti-Semitism. In the medieval world it was not merely risky to ridicule Christianity, but a crime punishable by death. The fact that the book appeared at all made the entire Jewish community in Spain culpable in Christian eyes, and justified the harshest persecutions. One leader of the Jew-baiters claimed to have initiated pogroms that converted 20,000 Jews and slew 10,000. In his eyes, that was his ticket to Heaven.

New Anti-Jewish Laws

Beginning in 1412, anti-Jewish laws began to appear in northern Spain. The Jews were:

  • to be confined into separate quarters in all cities and villages
  • to differentiate themselves from Christians by their more modest mode of dress
  • to not wear garments of either silk or satin, or have “feathers in their heads”
  • to let their beards grow long and not be perfumed
  • to not be called by Christian names or addressed by any title
  • to not engage in farming, hold posts in the government or to be physicians, pharmacists, blacksmiths, tailors or shoemakers
  • to not serve Christian customers (for example, if one was a Jewish artisan)
  • to not act as brokers or money-changers on behalf of Christians.

What were the Jews permitted to do?  Be “hewers of wood and drawers of water.”

This system of laws struck at every aspect of Jewish life. Consequently, 1412 marks the beginning of large-scale emigration of Jews from Spain begins. Over the next 80 years a quarter of a million Jews would leave Spain.

Debate at Tortosa

The two Jewish apostates, Solomon ha-Levi and Joshua ha-Lorki, spoke to Pope Benedict and convinced him to force a debate between the leading Jews of Spain and themselves – with pope as the referee (to make it “fair”). If the Christians won, then all the Jews would have to convert; if the Jews, then they could remain Jews.

It was a great idea to the Pope. To the Jews, it was a disaster, but they had no choice. It was not really a debate because the Jews were not allowed to present a case; to do so would be insulting the Church.

This debate took place at Tortosa in 1413, and lasted almost three years. In total, at one time or another over 300 rabbis participated in the debate. Over 100 of the rabbis, one third of those who participated, converted to Christianity. It was debacle for the Jews. It is hard to have a handle on the times, but it is obvious that the Jews were subjected to such a hounding, such shameful behavior and pressures, that only the very strong could withstand it.

When the debate ended it was clear that the Jewish community in Spain was coming to an end. When you add it that the Black Death came to Spain as well, and it came twice, you realize the position of the Jews held no hope. Many of the Jews in Spain realized it and got out now.

The Inquisition

The Inquisition took on full force to Spain now. There were Jews who had converted to Christianity and reverted to Judaism. It was against them that the Inquisition took out its vengeance and committed its worst excesses. People, under torture, testified that they had seen others light candles on Friday night or eat unleavened bread (matzah) on Passover. Everyone informed on everyone else.

The trials of the Inquisition were called “Acts of Faith,” but the cruelty of these acts was just unspeakable. After the tortures, the guilty were publicly burned at the stake.

Over time, the Inquisition grew in cruelty as well as in the numbers of Jews who were involved. At the same time, it became counter-productive toward Christian purposes, because many Jews who might have considered converting did not do so now for fear that the Inquisition might get to them one day too. The Christian who was suspected of being Jewish was far worse off than the Jew who never converted.

Don Isaac Abarbanel

By the late 1400s, the Inquisition was headed by a man named Tomás de Torquemada. He had an almost mystical hold over the royal household in Spain, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, both of whom were fervent and fanatical Catholics. Torquemada was their personal confessor. He was convinced that only through the conversion of the Jewish people in Spain would he, Ferdinand and Isabella fulfill the task that God had set before them.

Paradoxically, Ferdinand’s and Isabella’s kingdom, Castile, had Jews highly placed in the government. The three leading Jews in their government were Don Abraham Senior, Don Meir Melamed (his son-in-law) and Don Isaac Abarbanel (also spelled Abravanel and commonly referred to as The Abarbanel). Among his accomplishments, The Abarbanel was a noted warrior, a general in the Spanish army.

Having seen the excesses of Spain, he and his father fled to Portugal in the 1480s and rose to a very high office. But then there was a rebellion of noblemen against the king and they accused The Abarbanel and his father of being part of the rebellion. Forced to flee, they returned to Spain where they were employed in the court of Ferdinand and Isabella. The Abarbanel was again employed as a general in the army and as the Minister of Finance.

We do not know for certain, but many say that the idea of the trip of Christopher Columbus, which was financed by Ferdinand and Isabella, was at the behest of The Abarbanel. It certainly went through him technically as the Minister of Finance. It would be one of the great ironies in history if it was.

The Expulsion

In 1491, the king proclaimed that the 100 year stay on the decree against the Jews was officially over. All Jews would have to convert or be killed. However, Don Abraham Senior, Don Meir Melamed and Don Isaac Abarbanel, as the king’s Jews, were exempt from the decree.

The Abarbanel attempted to have the edict of expulsion cancelled and told the king that economically and socially it was a very foolish step to expel the Jews. Spain was beginning its struggle with England for world dominance. It was the wrong time for such an upheaval, he told the king.

All these reasons began slowly to sink in.

According to legend, at least, King Ferdinand was ready to give in. At that moment, however, Torquemada rushed into the room holding a crucifix, and said, “Will you crucify him a second time for 30 pieces of silver?”

The ploy worked and Ferdinand said that under no circumstances would he stay the decree.

The Abarbanel refused the king’s exemption, saying that he would share their fate of his people. Unfortunately, the other Court Jews did not follow him. They and their family lines disappeared from the Jewish people.

The decree was set for the ninth day of the month of Av (Tisha B’Av), August 9, 1492. That, in God’s irony, was the day Christopher Columbus set sail to discover the New World. Columbus wrote in his log that his ships had a very hard time clearing the harbor because all the ships had been hired by the Jews who had to leave Spain that day.

Jewish Blood in Spain

Overall, 250,000 Jews left Spain while about that same number remained and converted to Christianity.

Many of the 250,000 who remained tried to practice Judaism in secret and would be called Marranos, the “secret” Jews. Nevertheless, within 60 years they were all gone. First, they were persecuted fiercely by the Inquisition. Second, Judaism is almost impossible to keep in secret.

It is not surprising that many historians and social scientists say that almost everyone in Spain has Jewish blood somewhere along the line. It is said that the late General Francisco Franco, the dictator in Spain during World War II – a firm and almost fanatical Roman Catholic — was of Jewish blood. That is why he never turned over one Jew to his erstwhile ally, Hitler, and never entered the war.

The End

The end of Spanish Jewry was a blow unequaled until the Holocaust. It raised all of the terrible questions of the exile, all the “whys” for which there are no answers.

They had no homes. Wherever they came they were not welcome. Many of their ships were captured and destroyed by pirates. It is estimated that another 25,000 died leaving Spain.

Where did they go? Most stayed in the Mediterranean basin, among their Sephardic Jewish brethren. Many returned to North Africa: Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Many went to Italy.

The Abarbanel returned to Portugal, but in 1496 the Inquisition forced the king there to also expel all the Jews. He then moved to Italy and there wrote many of his major books. In a bitter aside, he made the comment what a waste it was that he spent all that time and effort making contributions to Spain and Portugal. If only he could have put all those efforts into Torah. What a personal tragedy it was, he wrote.

Today, The Abarbanel is remembered among the Jewish people for his classical works in Torah. His monument is in the schools of learning and hearts and minds of the Jewish people who study his works and comment upon them. He himself realized that. It was his final epitaph. In that regard, he is a symbol for all Spanish Jewry and what it meant.

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Crash Course
Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor

2 Responses to “The End of Spanish Jewry”

  1. Ann says:

    I thank you for this article. This time in history is very important to me. I am deeply attracted to Sephardic Judaism as I find Ashkenazic Judaism too filled with racism against Jews-of-Colour. I desire to become Orthodox only under Sephardic auspices. As a Jew of a Mainstream denomination, I am beginning to understand that truly living a Jewish life is of the utmost important.

  2. LR says:

    Half the Jews in Spain stayed there and converted, nearly all of them becoming lost to the Jewish people? and 10% of the Jews leaving Spain died? Why do most people talk about the “expulsion” and never emphasize the worst parts of the tragedy? These aspects of 1492 should be better publicized!

    Small nitpick- I thought Columbus left on August 2, not August 9. And the decree was set for July 30, according to a number of sources.