The current three-week period on the Jewish calendar carries with it many sad and bitter memories for the Jewish people. The destruction of both the first and second Temples occurred on the 9th of the Jewish month of Av, so we are in a mourning period that will culminate with a fast on that date. However, over the long centuries of Jewish exile other tragic events occurred during this season, and their importance and effect on Jewish history should not be overlooked. One of those events was the final expulsion of the Jews from Christian Spain in 1492.
Faced with the choice of converting to Christianity or leaving Spain, the Jewish community divided. About half left Spain searching for new homes in the Mediterranean basin, Asia Minor, the Middle East and Europe. The remainder accepted Christianity as their faith, mostly in a pro forma manner, attempting to retain their Jewish identity and faith in the secrecy of their cellars. Eventually, most of these crypto-Jews became Christians and were thus lost to the Jewish story and people. Even today a significant number of Christian Spaniards are descendants of Jews whose Jewishness was lost after the trauma of the decree of 1492.
There was a significant and vital Jewish community for almost nine hundred years in Spain before the decree of expulsion. Under Moslem rule, the Jews enjoyed a “golden age.” There were Jewish courtiers and even prime ministers, financiers and army generals. Jews excelled in medicine, philosophy, poetry, astronomy, diplomacy, finance, and naturally in Torah study and creativity. The advent of the rise to power of the fanatical Almohad sect of Islam in much of Spain in the twelfth century signaled the end of the “golden age.” The gradual Christian reconquest of Spain by the Christian armies of the north culminated in total victory in the fifteenth century, putting even greater pressure on Spanish Jewish life. Yet Jews were still better off than their Ashkenazic brethren in the rest of Europe who were expelled from England and France and faced continuing and unrelenting pogroms and persecution in Germany and Central Europe, eventually driving them eastwards to Poland and Lithuania. The Christian rulers of Spain exploited the skills of their Jewish subjects and a thin layer of upper class Jews remained wealthy and influential. The Jewish population of Spain generally still felt comfortable there. After all, they had lived as Spaniards for many centuries. Why should the situation change now?
However, the pressures of the Spanish Catholic Church against the Jews mounted. Frustrated by the Christian inability to defeat the Moslems in the Crusader wars, the Spanish Jews were to serve as a convenient outlet for Christian fanaticism. Radical priests, some of them apostate Jews, preached against the Jewish presence in Spain and demanded the forcible conversion of Spanish Jews to Christianity. A furious demagogic preacher by the name of Ferrer instigated a countrywide pogrom against the Jews in 1391. Thousands of Jews were slain, maimed and/or forcibly dragged to the baptismal fount. Don Isaac Abarbanel’s grandfather was forced to convert to Christianity, though he managed to send the rest of his family out of Spain to then safer haven of Portugal. The Catholic Church created the Inquisition to make certain that the newly converted former Jews behaved like true Christian believers and not as secret crypto-Jews. In fact, most of the Inquisition’s attention was directed towards the New Christians, as the former Jews were called, and not directly against openly practicing Jews who had never converted even under duress. But the last century of Spanish Jewry, from 1391 to 1492, was hardly a happy time for the Spanish Jews.
Approximately fifty years before the expulsion, the Church forced the rabbis of Spain to debate theological issues with it before a less than impartial tribunal. The Jews were led by the great Rabbi Yosef Albo, but all arguments and evasions advanced by him were to be of no avail. When King Ferdinand married Queen Isabella, thus uniting Aragon and Castille, the Christian reconquest of Spain was complete, with the last Moslem territories in the south of Spain overrun by the Christians. The Jews were next on the list. By midsummer 1492 (on the 9th of Av) all Jews who refused to convert to Christianity had to leave Spain. So many Jews left port that day that the explorer Columbus was delayed a day before embarking on his historic journey. Meanwhile, thousands of Jews died trying to make their way to new homes and climes. The glory of Spanish Jewry came to a sad end. For this reason, the story of Spain and its Jews should be part of our 9th of Av remembrances.