Introduction to the Marranos

The Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions began in the 15th Century and continued until the mid-1800s, as hundreds of thousands of Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism and then were later tortured and executed for continuing to practice Judaism in secret. Here is a variety of articles on the B’nei Anusim, the descendants of the Jews who were forcibly converted, also known more pejoratively as “Marranos,” “Conversos,” or “New Christians”. Here we prefer the Hebrew term “Anusim,” “those who were forced or compelled” to describe these, our unfortunate brethren.

Why it is necessary to dredge through the depths of Jewish history when we have plenty of tragedies happening today in our world? First of all, there is great value in honoring the memory and the lives of the martyrs of history, and understanding how the mixture of militant religion and politics brought about their victimization is imperative if we wish to prevent anything like it from happening again.

We also hope with this teaching to clarify some common misunderstandings about the Inquisition and to put it in its proper political-socio-religious-historical context for our readers. We have no desire to pity ourselves or to cast blame on the descendants of our ancestors’ persecutors, but we do pray somehow to redeem part of the hidden suffering of the Marranos by bringing the truth of their persecution to light and honoring their attempts to remain faithful to the God of Israel.

Columbus before the queen - marranos
Columbus before the Queen.

We are well aware that since most of our readers are Protestants or Messianic Jews that there is a tendency to blame the Inquisition on “those Catholics” and to therefore try to absolve ourselves and our ancestors of responsibility. The truth of the matter is, however, that if any of us as believers had lived in the 15th Century in Spain, we too would probably have been one of the Church members who persecuted its Jewish flock. The Reformation had not even occurred yet, and no matter what we tell ourselves, likely none of us would have been “an earlier Martin Luther who reformed the Church all by ourselves.”

Furthermore, even the Messianic Jews of today cannot ignore the fact that back in those days, it was often the Jews who believed in Jesus who became the most extreme persecutors of the Marranos. Those Jews who had converted to the Church in the period of the Inquisition worked most tirelessly to persecute their brothers and became the most hated foes of Judaism.

With these truths in mind then, we must all unite together as Catholics, Protestants, and Messianic Jews to repent before God for our ancestors’ sins and to beg Him to send his renewed blessing and restoration on the House of Israel and the Church. There are many simple sociological or political lessons we could learn from the Inquisition, such as understanding why traditional Jews so greatly fear missionaries and Messianic Jews, why American Jews fear the Christian Religious Right, what the dangers of mixing politics with religion are, or how it is that in a war between Christians and Muslims, Jews always lose more than any other party.

However, we have greater goals here than simply illuminating a few ideas such as these. We desire rather to unite our forces to repent now and to do everything we can to save the descendants of the Marranos, who after centuries of retaining their Jewish identities in secret are now beginning to forget it altogether with the advent of technology and globalization. This is the last generation in which it will be possible to redeem the B’nei Anusim, and it is our great hope that soon Israel will open its arms and its doors to these, our long lost but not forgotten, brothers.

This page contains articles on different aspects of the Inquisition, its victims, and their descendants all over the world in the past and up until today. Although this tragic period of Jewish history is not a happy one to remember, we believe it is important for both our Jewish and non-Jewish readers to understand. Their suffering calls out from the darkness of history and begs us to lighten the load of their descendants while there is still time to restore them to the House of Israel.

Taken from Teaching from Zion 28 - November 2010

Recollections of a First Trip among the Marranos of Portugal

by Victor Escroignard

“And there I will give her her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.” - Hosea 2:15

One day in the summer of 1984 as I was reading the newsletter of the Jewish telegraphic agency, my eyes stopped on a few lines that said, “There are still Jews in Portugal - in Pinhel, Guarda, Beira, Villa Nova de Fox Coa, and Belmonte.” As I read those lines, I felt a strong internal urging that refused to leave me alone and even gave me insomnia. Although I felt that I absolutely had to go there, I soon lost my job, and my car died.

I was still living in France then and went weekly to the house of Mr. Leijb Feldman for Bible study, prayer, and sharing about spiritual questions. When I told him about my burden, he listened to me, got up from his chair, went to his room, came back, gave me the documents and keys to his car with a bit of money, and told me “Go!”

As I left his place, I ran into a brother in the faith in the street. We exchanged a few words, and I told him about my plan to go to Portugal. He told me, “Come and see me before you leave.” Two days later, I went to his home where we prayed together, and he gave me 70 Bibles in Portuguese and some money for the trip.

The next day at dawn I began my journey, making a stop in the Pyrenees Mountains, arriving at 3 AM in Guarda the following day. During the morning as I was looking for a room to rent, I saw a sign entitled “amidad [friendship] Portugal-Israel.” I immediately tried to contact the organizer of this meeting, who turned out to be the journalist José Domingos.

I visited the Judéria of Guarda and the municipal library, where I discovered a few documents on local Jewish history and on the Marranos. José introduced me to his grandparents in a small mountain village, where I discovered that the Marranos keep a wine carafe that they only use on Friday night, but on this occasion, they took it out of the cupboard and offered the customary Friday night toast: “To Jerusalem!”

I met the mayor of Vila de Meda, and on the way to the town hall, I noticed that many houses had crosses chiseled in the granite of their doorposts. I later learned that this was a distinctive sign used to designate the homes of “New Christians,” in other words, Marranos.

These signs were used as much by the Inquisitors to identify and watch them, as by the Marranos themselves to recognize each other. Later during my travels in the provinces of Beira and Trás-os-Montes in Portugal, but also in Spain in the provinces of Léon and Estramadura, I found this distinctive sign on many houses.

I came to Vila Nova de Fox Coa, where a teacher by the name of Pissaro showed a particular interest in local Jewish history and claimed himself to be Jewish. I learned that I was in a region commonly called “Pais dos Judéos” – the country of Jews. I was shown the ancient synagogue of the small town, and I asked unsuccessfully how they knew its identity.

When I asked them if they were of Jewish descent, the inhabitants seemed embarrassed. They looked at one another uncertainly, mumbling “No sé... No sé...” – “we don’t know,” and being frankly disturbed by the insistent question, they changed the subject.

I drove towards Beira, a small medieval city surrounded by ramparts. In order to enter the city, I had to leave the car and walk up a small rocky path to cross through the city gate. I went into the main street and walked into a kind of inn where I decided to eat.

The city seemed almost deserted, and the innkeeper told me that many inhabitants had emigrated. When I asked him if there were any Jews in the city, he immediately answered “yes.” When I asked him if it was possible to meet some of them, he lowered his head. I repeated the question, but he remained deaf.

As soon as I crossed the doorstep to exit, a man on a terrace greeted me, and seeing that I spoke French, invited me to share a glass of Porto with him and to chat a little bit because he had worked in France. Suddenly I saw the innkeeper below us, leaning near his door, straight against the wall with his hands behind his back and his eyes fixed on me with an expression full of anxiety.

I then understood that I had to avoid asking that fateful question concerning the Jews. I understood how heavily the original “Jewish stain” weighed on these poor people, a stain from which they could not free themselves, like the atavism of a defect or a sort of shameful illness, the disgrace of belonging to a people who, like Cain, carries inexorably an indelible mark of belonging to the people who “killed God” in popular Christian imagination. In my later travels, I often saw this feeling of shame that had been inculcated for centuries.

I arrived at Trancoso, where I met with the younger brother of the recently elected young mayor, Mr. Lévi Sarmento, and I noted that the city was also heavily marked by a tragic past of Judeo-Marrano history.

In Belmonte, while I was buying bread, I asked the baker if there were any Jews in the area. With a movement of his chin, he pointed to a child in front of the shelves and said, “his father.” I followed the child and greeted his father, telling him that I had something to share with him.

When I asked him if he was Jewish, he jumped sideways in fright and looked at me from head to toe as if taken aback. I tried to reassure him that I came from France, that he had nothing to fear, and that I had a message to share with him.

As he regained his composure, he showed me his house and told me to meet him there in the evening at 5 PM. At the appointed time I arrived at his home. Discreetly seated in front of the hearth of the large chimney was a frail old woman completely dressed in black, and further away from the large central table sat the child, another woman, and a pre-adolescent girl.

They invited me to sit at the table, upon which I placed two Bibles, one in French and one in Portuguese. To my surprise, no one knew how to read except the young girl. I gave her a letter of introduction which she read aloud while standing.

When the grandmother mumbled something, the mother went out discreetly and came back almost immediately with three women. They whispered together, and one of them went out and came back. Eight men then entered, then more, and in no time the room was full. They were attentive and silent in great respect as I told the young girl to read some texts in various prophetic books.

She read with great care, and the listeners were seized with emotion. Quoting Isaiah 49, I told them that the time had come when God would end their disgrace, and that the Lord would open their graves and bring them back to life. I saw tears streaming down some of their faces.

As soon as I had finished speaking, young and old alike threw themselves at the Bible to kiss it; many even tried to kiss my hands. I was overwhelmed with emotion, too. Each one wanted a Bible, and when I told them that I had a few with me, a compact flock followed me to the car. As soon as I had opened the trunk, the 70 Portuguese Bibles disappeared. Some, frustrated not to have received one, gave me pieces of paper upon which they had written their names and addresses so that I could send them copies of the Bible when I got home.

Later, with a few elders, I was able to address some of their deeper questions pertaining to faith. They told me about some of their customs and prayers, but also about the feelings of suspicion if not hostility that they experienced from the “Old Christians.” They questioned me about my faith and about my affirmation that Yeshua is the Messiah of the Scriptures, after which some noted that this is not accepted by all Jews.

Visibly this is a disturbing question because they feel and know that they are Jews. Manifestly they seem to have integrated faith in Yeshua, like the Catholics around them, but they reject what they perceive as idolatry in the Church. Although they submit to the life of the Church, before crossing its doorstep, they often pronounce the following words: “O my Lord Adonai, do not consider anything that I will say or do in this place.”

As soon as the freshly baptized newborn is brought back from the church, he is immediately washed off from his baptism. Before engaged couples go to the church to proceed with the marriage ceremony, the elders pronounce the ritual blessings over them at home. When a “Judéo” kneels next to an “Old Christian” and makes the sign of the cross, he does not say “in the name of the Father” but “no to stone” (the pronunciation is almost the same in Portuguese), and the same for the following words: “in the name of the Son” becomes “no to wood,” “and the Holy Spirit” becomes “no to plaster.”

These Marranos led me into the cemetery, to the tombs of close relatives. Nothing distinguished their tombs from the others, except that they were not adorned with images. These Marranos also did not have crosses in their homes.

One family invited me to a meal for which the woman of the house had set the table in a room on the upper floor. Someone drew my attention to an image on the wall in a golden frame, which contained the portrait of a man with his head covered with a veil, who had a majestic beard and a peaceful face resting on two tablets of stone, which he held tightly in his right hand; in his other hand he held a staff.

With pride and a sparkle in their eyes, they said, “Mosès! Mosès!” I then understood that we were in a privileged place, a kind of upper room in the intimate universe of these Marranos, far from the outside world, yet so close. By the grace of God, they had preserved the torch of Israel’s hope despite centuries of oppression and threats. Around the table, and for the length of the meal, conversation centered around Israel and biblical prophecies in an attentive and respectful atmosphere.

As I crossed arid Spain on my return from this first trip, the strong images that I had just experienced completely overwhelmed me. I had discovered the previously unsuspected field that had unveiled before me, and these facts would be confirmed upon my subsequent trips in these regions, which still were isolated at that time in the provinces of Trás-os-Montes and Beira, and later in the Alentéjo.

I became aware of the enormous Messianic potential that hides under the ashes among these survivors of the Inquisition, whose hope is as the burning bush by Mount Horeb, which although burning, was not consumed. God has not finished confounding the nations!

Taken from Teaching from Zion 28 - November 2010

Political and Religious Factors in the Spanish Inquisition1

by Elizabeth Wakefield

“Comfort, comfort my people… Speak tenderly to Jerusalem… and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.” - Isaiah 40:1-2

Jews have lived in the Iberian Peninsula since ancient times, perhaps even since the First Exile in 586 BCE. Yet we know very little about their existence there before 418 CE, from which we have a record of a pogrom and the forced conversion to Christianity of the Jews of the island of Minorca.

After the Visigoths (German tribes who embraced heretical Arian Christianity) toppled the Western Roman Empire in 476, they soon also invaded and conquered Iberia, which had been a Roman province. The Arian Christian rulers temporarily lived in relative peace with the Jews, putting what had become the “normal” Jewish restrictions on them, including special taxes.

When the Visigoth king converted to Roman Catholicism in 589, however, he began persecuting the Jews to force them to convert or emigrate, something which was also happening in neighboring France and North Africa. Many Jews were forcibly converted, but a number of others were sheltered from persecution by the still Arian nobility, who needed the Jews to help them run their estates. Yet, in 634, the Visigothic Code enacted harsh restrictions prohibiting much of Jewish religious observance and property ownership.


Meanwhile, in Arabia in 610, Mohammed began preaching Islam, a militant religion that spread rapidly throughout the Middle East and Africa. In 711, they invaded Iberia and quickly toppled the Visigoths from power in nearly the entire peninsula, establishing a caliphate in Cordoba, and ruling the land with the Islamic custom of those days of toleration for Christians and Jews, as long as they submitted to Muslim rule.

Although the Spanish Jews had long been accused of trying to topple the Christian government, little is known about their role in this war. One could easily imagine, however, that the Muslim conquest, with its policy of relative toleration, was a relief to the Jews after 100 years of severe Visigothic persecution.

In 750, the even more moderate Muslim Umayyad Dynasty gained control of most of Iberia, and they granted the Jews nearly equal rights. The alien Muslim rulers of the indigenous Spanish population used the Jews as intermediaries between them and their subjects in matters of taxation and government, and many Jews rose to great wealth and power in Islamic Iberia.  

The Visigoths did not give up so easily, however, and launched counterattacks against the Muslims, leading to the establishment of small Christian kingdoms in various cities around Castille. Because they needed Jewish support in these battles and in order to run their kingdoms, they ceased persecuting the Jews in their areas and granted them rights and government positions. Internal Muslim religious and political rivalries soon broke up their Spanish empire into many small kingdoms, making it easier for the Christians to re-conquer their land, one city or small kingdom at a time.

In the endless battles that followed, both the Muslim and Christian rulers competed for Jewish support and loyalty by granting them power and rights, leading to a great improvement in Spanish Jewish life and scholarship. Jews served in the courts as doctors, writers, treasurers, tax-farmers, diplomats, foreign ministers, and even “prime ministers” of sorts.

Despite occasional outbreaks of persecution and riots in various towns, Iberia quickly became the best place in Europe for Jews, giving rise to tremendous population growth, literature, scholarship, wealth, and a flourishing religious and political life. Some of the greatest Jewish scholars, including the Rambam, the Ramban, Ibn Ezra, and Judah Halevi lived in Spain in this Golden Era, which some Jews even hailed as the fulfillment of the Messianic Age.

Not all was peaceful and prosperous for the Jews, however. Faced with Islamic conquests all over the world, Christianity also became increasingly militant, and the Church launched the First Crusade in 1096, which perpetrated many atrocities against all the Jews and Muslims in its path to the Holy Land. Likewise, during this time the Spanish Christian kingdoms began trying to permanently reconquer Iberia, working from north to south.

This “Reconquista” continued for hundreds of years of fighting, retreating, and advancing, leaving the people never certain from one day to the next which government would rule them. Most of the time the new Muslim or Christian rulers kept the Jews in their court positions to stabilize the government, but occasionally there were still anti-Jewish riots, pillaging, and murders carried out by both sides of the conflict, since the peasants viewed the Jews as agents of whichever government they were rebelling against. This violent turmoil led many Jews to seek refuge in Kabbala, messianic pretenders, and apocalyptic expectations that this war would be the “birth pangs of the Messiah,” and culminate in the Messianic Age.

The Muslims imported more fighters from North Africa to retake their positions, the Almorivides and the Almohades, the latter of which were a more fanatical sect of Islam. When they invaded southern Iberia around 1140, they killed any Jews and Christians who refused conversion to Islam. Even Rambam’s family had to temporarily convert to Islam to save their lives before they managed to flee northeast.

This fanaticism led most of the Jews to flee northward into the Christian kingdoms, in which they were considered the personal property of the kings whose whims determined the fate of their lives and fortunes. Each ruler pursued his own contradictory policy towards the Jews, some writing highly restrictive laws but not enforcing them, others leaving them alone completely, and still others engaging in severe persecution.

In 1182, France became the first country to expel all its Jews, and although it let them return a few years later, it set a precedent of expulsion. Contemporaneously, anti-Jewish actions and sentiment increased all over Europe, with France putting the Talmud on public trial and burning it in the streets before expelling all its Jews again in 1254. Many antisemitic Frenchmen moved into Northern Iberia, and popular sentiment against the Jews kept growing.

The Christian rulers sought to solve their “Jewish problem” through forcing the Jews to listen to sermons about the superiority of Christianity, and through public disputations. They hoped to keep the Jews, with their money and scholarship, in the country, and to simply convince them to convert through these missionary endeavors.

Some did convert for various economic and occasionally religious reasons, but many of them became virulent antisemites who collaborated with the Church hierarchy to denounce Jews, and used their skills in Bible and Talmud to attack Judaism. They also wrote apologetic books and tracts to prove the Messiah had already come by using passages in the Bible and Talmud.

In 1263, a Jewish convert renamed Pablo Christiani convinced King Jaime I to force the Jews to publicly debate him in Barcelona. Nachmanides was chosen as the Jewish champion, and the Jews were compelled to listen to the debate. The king guaranteed the right to free speech in this now infamous Barcelona Disputation, and in the end both sides naturally claimed victory.

The Jews who did convert quickly found out that being “Christians” still did not guarantee their safety, as they then became subject to suspicions and accusations of mixed loyalties, a lack of true Christian zeal and belief, and the secret practice of Jewish rites. Some were tried by the Inquisition, the Papal commission to investigate and eliminate heresies within the Church.

Contrary to popular misconceptions about the Inquisition, it had little to no power over Jews, and in fact only had jurisdiction to try Jews who had converted to Christianity. Other victims of this early Inquisition were French Jews who had been forcibly converted to Catholicism while still in France, fled to Spain, and with new identities tried to return to Judaism in their new communities. Jews who helped their former co-religionists return to Judaism were punished with high fines and property confiscation.

At this stage of the Reconquista, the Muslims retreated to the southern end of Iberia, in the area of Granada, with the Christian kings consolidating their small holdings into several larger kingdoms - Aragon, Castille, Catalonia, Navarre, and Portugal. By the end of the 13th Century, the whims of the Christian kings became more consistently negative toward the Jews, although there were still occasional cases of indispensable Jewish government officials.

As the Christian kingdoms established themselves more securely, the populace successfully lobbied for their removal, and the reduction of Jewish privileges, and the kings began to use them as a source of tax revenue at a very high rate instead. The missionary campaigns continued, with Jews being forced to listen to apologetic sermons, often followed by riots in which peasant mobs killed or baptized any Jews they found on the streets, and looted their property, in what was just a small foreshadowing of what was to come.

Historian Yitzhak Baer says of this era, “The war of Reconquest was virtually ended, and existing borders were being carefully guarded. The Spanish rulers now began to bring their treatment of the Jews in line with the prevailing nationalist and religious mood of Christian Europe… It was directed, consciously or unconsciously, toward the assimilation and absorption of the Jews into the Christian society or, failing that, their expulsion from the land.”2

“There is no doubt but that status of the Jews of Spain in the 13th Century was superior to that of their brethren in the rest of Europe, who were exposed to constant plunder and violence. Yet even in Spain they felt a sense of insecurity and a consciousness of a state of internal war. The Jews sat on the crater of a volcano seething with religious and nationalist tensions.”3

This state of affairs continued, until in the mid-1300s a civil war broke out in Castille over who was the legitimate king. Each rival fined the Jews huge sums to finance the war, and imported English and French mercenary troops, who frequently massacred the Jewish communities of the towns they conquered. Blood libels, hostile informers, and host (Eucharist bread) desecration charges popped up and spread all over the peninsula in the decades following the war, and brought many sorrows.

By the end of the 1300s, many young Jews became discouraged with their restrictions and persecutions and began converting to Christianity for their own social benefit.

“A new type of apostate now emerged. Previously, Jewish apostates had entered their new faith as penitents, become monks, and appeared in public chiefly as persecutors of and missionaries to their former co-religionists. Now, change of religion was prompted by political considerations, serving as an ‘administrative ticket’ to a world that was wholly secular and to a career in the civil and political bureaucracy.”4

In 1378, Archbishop Ferrant Martinez began preaching sermons urging violence against the Jews in Seville. Action did not follow immediately, but the king feared to try to stop him, and when the king died in 1390, leaving the crown prince still a minor, the cataclysm began.

On June 4, 1391, Martinez incited anti-Jewish riots in Seville, which spread to nearly every city and town in Castille within a month. Whole Jewish communities were wiped out by murder and conversion, some by force and some by choice, with synagogues torn down and property looted. In July and August these riots spread to Aragon, Valencia, the islands, and Catalonia, with only Navarre remaining relatively unscathed.

In some cases, the rulers attempted to save their Jews by granting them temporary refuge in their castles, sending a few troops to quell the rioters, and punishing a handful of the ringleaders. For the most part, however, the rulers waited until the storm was over and then contented themselves with launching weak investigations into what had happened, and confiscating for themselves the property of the Jewish martyrs.

A few Jews, such as Rabbi Hasdai Crescas, managed to hide or flee until the riots ended, and so preserve their lives and religion, but scholars estimate that only a third of Spain’s Jewish population survived the summer of 1391, and did their best to rebuild their shattered communities. Even many of the community leaders and rabbis converted to Christianity in this period and the decades that followed, making restoration very difficult.  

These riots were the source of Spain’s converso problem. “Moderate Christians felt that compulsory baptism was not pleasing in the sight of G-d; but, once they were baptized, the converts were regarded by canon law as Christians, and those who reverted to their former religion, as well as those who encouraged them to do so, were considered heretics… The public, whether Christian by birth or conversion, voluntarily maintained a close watch upon the behavior of the conversos.”5

Some of these Marranos eventually managed to flee to Israel or other countries under Muslim rule where they re-adopted Judaism, but the majority stayed in their homes in hopes they could outlast the persecutions and return to their faith when times became more favorable to Jews.

Then, in the early 1400s, a preacher named Vincent Ferrer began to stir up anti-Jewish riots in Castille, and convinced the king to enact severely restrictive laws in 1412, in hopes the Jews would convert to avoid them. He also propagated similar laws in Aragon, and then convinced the Pope to force the Jews of Aragon and Catalonia to supply spokesmen for and attend a disputation in Tortosa against the prominent convert Joshua Halorki.

The Tortosa Disputation continued for 14 long months in 1413-1414, ending with a self-proclaimed Christian victory. It led to many conversions, due to the lower scholarship and lack of freedom of speech granted the Jewish defendants, the absence of the Jewish leaders from their communities since they were required in Tortosa, and the hostile tactics of the Christian accusers.

Next, the Church demanded that the Jews defend the Talmud in another disputation in San Mateo for the rest of 1414, which the Jewish scholars escaped by saying that they were too ignorant to respond to the charges, and begging to return home. Riots, forced conversions, and more restrictive anti-Jewish laws followed the Disputations, which nearly decimated the community, until a political accident set milder kings on the thrones of Castille and Aragon, and a milder Pope in Rome, who granted the remaining Jews a few of their former rights.

The Jewish community of Castille underwent a brief revival in the 15th century with the eased restrictions, and many of the Marranos returned to Judaism as best they could, or at least kept Jewish traditions in secret while officially being Christians. They visited and contributed to synagogues, asked rabbis for halachic opinions, and practiced Jewish rituals.

Most of the Marranos failed to integrate into Christian society, which differed from them greatly, and always regarded them with suspicion. Most of these Jews were too wealthy and educated to fit in with the Christian peasants, but not wealthy, educated, or “pure-blooded” enough to be accepted by the Christian upper classes. A few conversos rose to great heights of power in the Church and the government, since they were now unrestricted by anti-Jewish laws, became targets of Jewish contempt, and in turn ridiculed and made Jewish life more difficult in an attempt to deny their connection to them.

From 1449 onward, however, race riots broke out in several cities between the “Old Christians” and the “New Christians,” with the former claiming that these Jews had converted in order to destroy the Church from within and to dilute the “pure Spanish blood” with their Jewish descent. It was not long before the Inquisition resumed, dragging many of the Marranos to trial, torturing them, and forcing them to confess to being secret Jews before their execution. Despite these dangers, many of them still participated in the Jewish community whenever they could, and the Jews tried to aid their brothers’ return to Judaism.

In 1469, when Isabella, the heiress of the throne of Castile, married Ferdinand, the prince of Aragon, both Jews and Marranos alike were still being slaughtered in all of the peninsula. In 1479, the couple inherited their respective crowns, united the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile into “Spain,” and proceeded to reorganize their kingdom politically, socially, and religiously in their goal to establish a state of “law, justice, and religious unity.”

At first, they remained relatively tolerant of the Jews and Marranos, many of whom served as their close advisors. Yet by 1480, Ferdinand and Isabella decided to purify the Spanish Church by forcibly separating the Jews from the Marranos. They therefore decreed that Christians, Muslims, and Jews live in separate districts and minimize contact with one another in order to prevent the Jews from influencing their brothers to return to Judaism, and they hand-picked their own Church officials to run the Spanish Inquisition. Within only twelve years, thousands of Marranos had been burned at the stake and many more forced to repent in public and return to the Church after torture and trials that ignored all principles of justice.

Several Marranos personally traveled to Rome in 1483 to request Papal intervention, and he shortly afterward demanded legal trials, the right to appeal, and the removal of some of the worst inquisitors. Ferdinand and Isabella were infuriated at the Pope’s attempt to reduce their power and redoubled their efforts, as they appointed their own new chief inquisitor, Thomas Torquemada, and effectively “nationalized the Inquisition” in order to bypass the Pope’s leniencies.

The Spanish Inquisition “thereby became a political institution even though it’s purely religious character was not obscured.”6 In that same year, they decided to solve the converso problem in one province by expelling all the Jews from it, a solution they were to pursue en masse in the future.

As the Inquisition moved from city to city, its usual method was to first proclaim a “period of grace” in which any converso had a month to come to the court, confess his Jewish practices, repent, receive mild penalties, and be received back into the Church. After this grace period finished, however, the court encouraged anonymous denunciations of Marranos by “Old Christians,” fellow converts, servants, family members, and even Jews.

There is no space here to recount all the travesties of justice that occurred in these “trials,” which spared no one, regardless of class, position, or wealth. As the Inquisition approached each city in succession, many Marranos fled, and so succeeded in only being burned in effigy.

Of those who remained, some were let off with various penalties or imprisonment, but the majority was condemned and burned at the stake. This process culminated in a huge show trial in 1491, which had the goal of “uncovering the Judaizing tendencies within the conversos and with the influence wielded on the latter by the Jewish community itself.”7  

During Ferdinand and Isabella’s reign, they renewed the Reconquista against the Muslims in their last Iberian stronghold, Granada. After a ten-year war, on January 2, 1492, they finally drove the last Muslim armies out of Spain, entered Granada, and officially united the entire peninsula under Christian rule.

Now that they had accomplished their goal of reunification, and the absolute political power of the Church in Spain, they made new plans for the Jews whom they no longer needed to help them win the war. “It was the politics of the Reconquista which had originally established the peculiar status of the Jews in the Christian states of the Iberian Peninsula. With the consummation of the great scheme of unifying all Spain under Christian rule, the political foundation of the Spanish Jewish community was undermined.”8

The Inquisition had clearly revealed that, as long as a Jewish community existed in Spain, the Marranos would be drawn to return to it, since all other methods of separation had failed. Therefore, on March 31, 1492, (the same year “Columbus sailed the ocean blue”) the monarchs signed the Edict of Expulsion, which ordered all the Jews to leave Spain before the 9th of Av (in July) of that same year, and forbade them to take most of their wealth with them.

At the same time, the Church promoted conversion as an alternative to expulsion, and thousands flocked to be baptized. Beginning in May, the government seized the Jewish quarters and property, with all those who were able to do so (about 50,000) boarding ships and sailing to Muslim countries for refuge. France forbade the entry of Jews, so the only land emigration options were Portugal, which allowed 120,000 of them (at a high head tax) to enter its domain temporarily, and the small kingdom of Navarre, which allowed 12,000 immigrants.

Those who could not flee were forcibly baptized and soon terrorized by the Inquisition, and many of these “Christians” fled the country and “re-converted” to Judaism in the coming years. There is no space to tell of the many horrors the exiled Spanish Jews met on their journeys to find new homes and religious freedom, but many of them met death from starvation, exposure, drowning, and violence in lands far from their homes.

For the Jews who fled to Portugal, the trauma had only just begun, however. Conditions for Portuguese Jews had been mostly favorable for many centuries, although they never reached the heights of the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry. Unfortunately, King John II’s good treatment of his own Jews did not extend to the new immigrants, whom he enslaved if they stayed longer than 8 months in Portugal. He stole their children, forcibly baptized them, and then sent them to an island to be raised as Christians by strangers.

A brief respite occurred in 1495, when King Emanuel took the Portuguese throne, freed the slaves, and tried to convert them with kindness instead of cruelty. This relief lasted only one year, until Emanuel desired to marry the Spanish princess. Ferdinand and Isabella made the marriage conditional upon Emanuel expelling all the Jews from Portugal as well.

He reluctantly issued an Edict of Expulsion, giving the Jews three months to leave or convert, but he in fact had no intention of allowing their wealth and talents to escape. He therefore stole and baptized as many Jewish children as he could find and ordered all those Jews who intended to emigrate to report to Lisbon in 1497, where he promised to furnish them ships for the journey.

Once there, they were crowded into a small area and deprived of food and water for several days until many of them accepted baptism just to escape the torment. Those who remained were driven into Rossio square in Lisbon, where dozens of priests infiltrated the crowd and sprinkled holy water on the heads of everyone within reach.

The Alhambra Palace, the last Muslim stronghold in Granada, Andalusia, Spain. Photo by Vicente Villamón.

The confused Jews were then informed that they had been baptized for their own sakes and also by proxy as representatives of every Jew in Portugal, and that as Christians they were now forbidden to leave. They were promised a 20-year respite from the Inquisition, as long as they kept their Jewish practices strictly private, and sent back to their homes, with the entire Jewish community of Portugal neatly eliminated in a single day by this unique baptism by proxy. In what was to his eyes an ingenious plan, Emanuel got to keep the money and talents of his Jews, marry the princess, and still solve all his religious problems on a technicality.

This ended the greatest Jewish communities of the Middle Ages in a long, multi-act tragedy of religious and political factors which conspired together for their destruction. Baer summarizes the situation with these words, “History brought one of the most creative Jewish communities of the Diaspora into collaboration with one of the most gifted peoples of Christian Europe, the Spaniards. Far-reaching historical developments, affecting both groups, carried this association to dramatic heights and brought it to a tragic end. The war against their Moslem neighbors caused the Spaniards to become at once the most tolerant and the most fanatical people in medieval Christendom. The political objectives of the Reconquest opened up to the Jews broad opportunities for outwardly directed growth, but its religious motivation aroused the zeal of the Christians and subjected the internal religio-ethnic existence of the Jews to a severe trial.”9

The long and bitter exile exacted its terrible price, which only in our generation finally has a chance for redemption. May we be quick to seize this, our first and last opportunity to release our brothers in captivity.

Taken from Teaching from Zion 28 - November 2010

Birds, Lions, and Elephants: Memories of a Secret Past in Trás-os-Montes, Portugal

by Joseph Shulam

In many of the ancient cities and villages of Portugal there still exists the Juderia, the Street of the Jews, which is to this day lined with old gray granite doorways that still carry the scars of the mezuzahs that at one time adorned the doors of these Jewish homes. In some cities, the old synagogues that the Jewish communities used before the Inquisition are now being discovered, excavated, and restored.

Crosses carved on the doorways are not-so-silent witnesses of the horrors of the Inquisition. These crosses were carved on the doors of the “New Christians” (Marranos), those Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism, to mark their homes as places that needed to be watched and observed to see if they were still practicing any semblance of their old faith, Judaism. The old Jewish buildings at times were also decorated with symbols particular to the Jewish community: birds, strange crosses, crosses with ladders, Hebrew letters, and at times even lions or elephants. The meaning of these symbols was essentially a mystery that the Jews did not want to share with their Christian neighbors for fear of the Inquisition.

Recently, on a visit to the village of Carçao in the area of Trás-os-Montes, I saw a big, old stone lintel resting on two ancient walls. The lintel was turned on its side so that the first visible image was a cross deeply carved into the face of the stone. Upon closer inspection, however, one could also see a bird-like figure and even another cross flanked by two birds.


The underside of the stone had an animal figure that at first appeared to be a lion, but after a more careful examination, it actually looked much more like an elephant. My curiosity peaked immediately to find out more about this lintel and the meaning of the symbols carved on it. The size, age, and unique carvings on this stone make it peculiar and significant.

These symbols have a special meaning meant to be understood only by the Marranos and no one else. For this reason, they are enigmatic symbols that need a special explanation. By the Middle Ages it was common for both Jews and Christians to use animals in their art as religious symbols, and to tell fables and allegories about animals with moral lessons.

There are some important differences in the interpretation and symbolism that Jews and Christians assigned to the various animals in their art and fables, however, even if they did start with many of the same basic plot lines and characters. Marc Epstein, a scholar of Jewish medieval art, says that when one notes these differences carefully, “A rich and fascinating tapestry unfurls itself before us, a tapestry depicting a territory of the imagination where lions carve stones, hares triumph over hunters, elephants herald the reappropriation of cultural treasures, all-powerful dragons become tamed playthings, and the horn of salvation is raised from the dust; where the breath of every living thing praises God and speaks for Israel.”10

First we will deal with the birds, because many medieval Jewish documents and architecture depict birds, some of which have bird heads on top of human bodies. This figure, wearing a Jewish hat, in a detail of a medieval Hebrew calendar, reminded Jews of the palm branch (lulav), the myrtle twigs, the willow branches, and the citron (etrog) which Jews wave on Sukkot. The face of this Jew is a bird’s head with a beak.


Why are bird representations popular in Jewish medieval and synagogue art? The most common scholarly explanation is that the birds’ heads on the human bodies were supposed to distort the image enough to make it clear that the artist was not violating the Second Commandment against making graven images. Some Jewish manuscripts portrayed full male figures but gave the female figures birds’ heads, which was probably supposed to be for the sake of modesty. These bird heads on human figures up until now have almost exclusively been found in Ashkenazi Jewish art, especially manuscripts from Germany,11 so their discovery in Portugal as well is a very interesting development.

I would like to suggest another possible explanation that stems from a word play between Portuguese and Hebrew. The birds on the Carçao lintel are very likely cranes/storks or herons, called “garcera” in Spanish and “garça” in Portuguese, which is derived from the Spanish/Latin word “gracia,” which means grace. In Hebrew grace is “hessed,” and one of the largest birds that passes over the land of Israel is a type of “garça” (in Portuguese) or “hassida” (in Hebrew), i.e. the stork/crane. In Hebrew, a righteous and Godfearing person is called a “hasid,” which is from the same root as “hassida,” the crane or stork.

To summarize all this multi-lingual confusion, “garça” (stork) reminds us of “gracia” (grace), which is “hessed” in Hebrew, which also gives us the Hebrew word for a righteous person, “hasid,” leading us back to the stork, “hassida” in Hebrew. Word plays like this are an important way of connecting and identifying ideas with one another in Jewish interpretation.

This metaphor of storks and righteousness in the medieval European Jewish mindset was connected with Jeremiah 8:5-7:

“Why has this people slidden back, Jerusalem, in a perpetual backsliding? They hold fast to deceit; they refuse to return. I listened and heard, but they do not speak aright. No man repented of his wickedness, saying, ‘What have I done?’ Everyone turned to his own course, as the horse rushes into the battle. Even the stork in the heavens knows her appointed times; and the turtledove, the swift, and the swallow observe the time of their coming. But My people do not know the judgment of the Lord.”

Another important text along these same lines appears in Deuteronomy 33:8-9,

“And of Levi he said: ‘Let Your Thummim and Your Urim be with Your righteous ones [“hasidecha”, interpreted as “the Levites”] whom You tested at Massah, and with whom You contended at the waters of Meribah, who says of his father and mother, “I have not seen them.” Nor did he acknowledge his brothers, or know his own children; for they have observed Your word and kept Your covenant.’”

These birds on the lintel stone in Carçao are a statement of resistance, symbolizing both hope for deliverance from Catholicism and Christian oppression and an acknowledgement of their brotherhood and common destiny with the rest of the Jewish people. Another important matter concerns the relationship of these birds to the cross on the lintel. The picture carved into the stone shows their heads down, and they are posed in an attitude of submission or conformity.

One could hypothesize that these birds are worshipping the cross and are submitted to it, but it is also possible that they are kneeling to the cross under compulsion and are unhappy about their state. One must also note that the stand upon which the cross is set in this carving looks like a menorah stand, which could possibly convey a message that although the cross is a symbol of oppression, it too is Jewish in origin. This might sound far-fetched, but under oppressive conditions people often have ambivalent attitudes, even toward their oppressors.

Turning now to the lion or elephant, we must note that many ancient and medieval synagogues traditionally had bird and lion symbols on or around the Holy Ark. Medieval Jewish midrash associated the birds around the Ark both with the Levites who transported the Ark of the Covenant and the two Cherubim figures that stood on top of the Ark of the Covenant in the Tabernacle.12

As for lions, they commonly symbolize royalty, strength, power, justice, guardianship, dominion, and courage. “In addition to being a symbol of physical strength, the lion represents spiritual strength, especially scholarship.”13 Most importantly for Jews, however, lions symbolize the tribe of Judah and the Davidic Kingdom.

Archaeologists have found lions adorning synagogues from as early as the Third Century synagogue of Dura Europus in Syria. The synagogue of Hammat Tiberia (circa 1380 CE), south of the city of Tiberias on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, contains several mosaics of lions. In fact, lions appear in Byzantine (and slightly earlier) synagogues all over the Land of Israel, including Bar-Am, Beit Alfa, Korazin, Beit Shean, Ein Samsum, and Jericho, as well as in the Diaspora, because lions had a particular importance to the Jewish people over the ages.

Lions were a symbol of the hope of Israel and the revival of the Davidic/Messianic Kingdom promised by the prophets. Lions also connected with the story of Daniel in the lion’s den, as a symbol of resistance and survival during the challenges of oppression.14 This motif becomes very important when used in a situation of oppression, discrimination, and persecution such as the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions.

On the other hand, the carved animal on the bottom of the Carçao lintel stone might not be a lion at all. At first glance it appeared to be a lion, but when I looked at the picture again it looked much more like an elephant, because of its long nose and elephant-like head. Elephants are not very common in synagogue decorations and have not been commonly recognized as Jewish symbols.

The Hebrew word for elephant, “pil,” never even occurs in the Bible, although it seems that 1 Kings 10:22 and 2 Chronicles 9:21 indirectly mention them in discussing the ivory that Solomon imported.15 1 Maccabees recounts the story of a battle in which the Greek army used elephants (sort of like an ancient tank) against the Jews in Israel.

When I started researching this idea, I was surprised at how many times elephants appear in rabbinic literature, usually as a metaphor for the largest possible animal, “from the elephant to the gnat.”16 There are a few medieval synagogues in which elephants appear in a very prominent position right next to the holy ark. Among other Jewish manuscript decorations containing elephants, the Worms Machzor, a festival prayer book completed in 1272 and now housed in the Hebrew University Library in Jerusalem, has a color plate (number VII) of a magnificent elephant right on the opening page.

A ceiling painting in a Seventeenth Century synagogue at Hordova, Ukraine.

A mosaic floor in the Sixth Century synagogue of Ma’on at Nirin, Israel.

An early example of an elephant in a Jewish context is a mosaic floor in the Sixth Century synagogue of Ma’on at Nirin, Israel. Domesticated elephants wearing saddles are featured among other familiar symbols from the natural world and Jewish ceremonial symbols like a menorah, a lulav and etrog, lions, palm trees, and free and caged birds. In an 18th Century synagogue in what was formerly Poland, now Lithuania, and in a 17th Century synagogue at Hordova (Ukraine), elephants are paired next to a depiction of the ark of the Torah.

The paired animal motif is common but usually features birds or lions. It is difficult to explain the presence of the elephants, since they are so far from the cultural or geographic context of European Jews. Therefore, we need to seek possible allegorical or mystical reasons for their use. Elephants were better known as Christian symbols than Jewish ones, but it seems that when used in a Jewish context the elephant symbolizes the Torah and its strength, power, and greatness.17

Here is one interesting medieval Christian parable from the Cambridge Bestiary about an elephant, in which the elephant symbolizes the weakness and sinful nature of humanity:

“The elephant’s nature is that if he tumbles down he cannot get up again. Hence it comes that he leans against a tree when he wants to go to sleep, for he has no joints in his knees. This is the reason why a hunter partly saws through a tree, so that the elephant, when he leans against it, may fall down at the same time as the tree. As he falls, he calls out loudly; and immediately a large elephant appears, but it is not able to lift him up. At this they both cry out, and twelve more elephants arrive upon the scene: but even they cannot lift up the one who has fallen down. Then they all shout for help, and at once there comes a very Insignificant Elephant, and he puts his mouth with the proboscis under the big one, and lifts him up… When the Big Elephant arrives, i.e. the Hebrew Law, and fails to lift up the fallen, it is the same as when the Pharisee failed with the fellow who had fallen among thieves. Nor could the Twelve Elephants, i.e. the Band of Prophets, lift him up, just as the Levite did not lift up the men we mentioned. But it means that Our Lord Jesus Christ, although he was the greatest, was made the Most Insignificant of All the Elephants. He humiliated himself and was made obedient even unto death, in order that he might raise men up.”18

The 12th Century Karaite scholar Yehudah Hadassi took this Christian parable and rewrote it in a way which polemicized against rabbinic Jews, with the fallen elephant symbolizing those who followed the Oral Law. Then in the 13th Century, Rabbi Berechiah HaNakdan adapted this story further in his book Mishlei Shualim (Fables of Foxes).

In this version, when the elephant hunter cannot succeed alone, he captures the beast with the help of friends, covers the elephant’s head with his coat, and rides it into villages in order to terrify the inhabitants into fleeing the “demon,” leaving all their treasures behind for him and his friends to rob and pillage. This clever thief then offers to “exorcise” the demon from the terrified towns in exchange for half of their riches. The people agree to pay the price, and their fate changes.

After an extended and complex analysis of this fable, Epstein proposes this interpretation:

“Christianity, personified by Esau the hunter, at first attempts to combat and destroy the Torah. When this fails, the Church enlists the aid of many scholars and interpreters (the people of the town) to ‘master the Law’ and triumphalistically [sic] terrify the opponents of Christianity (the Jews), gathering up their intellectual treasures - even those which were most secretly hidden - and lording it over them… Ultimately, the Christians reject half of their newfound wealth (the teachings of the Oral Law), but the riches they have gained through their corrupt use of the Torah (the exegesis of the Written Law), they keep for themselves.”19

In all of these tales, the elephant is symbolic of the Torah.

Whether or not the carving on the underside of the Carçao lintel is an elephant or a lion, it had a special Jewish meaning to the Marranos who carved it. By making these symbols, they were expressing their identity as Jews in hiding, who had been forced to submit to the cross physically, but who would never forget who they were, or their hope for a time when they could freely choose their religious acts and beliefs. These carvings expressed their pain, while simultaneously giving them strength and hope for a future of freedom and joy.

Taken from Teaching from Zion 28 - November 2010

Traditions and Customs of the Marranos from Minas Gerais, Brazil

by Marcelo Miranda Guimaraes

The gold, emerald, and diamond mines of the State of Minas Gerais in Brazil attracted Jews and New Christians who came from the Northern states of Brazil, Portugal, and other countries such as Spain and Italy during the 16th and 18th Centuries. This Jewish element left an important legacy in the ethnic mix of colonial Brazil. The ethnic origin of Brazil is rich and can be considered an interesting example of the mixing of races and habits.

Manuel Junior Diegues writes in his book, Regiões Culturais do Brasil (Cultural Regions of Brazil), the following:

“To these groups of Portuguese new immigrants, joined the foreigners that were in large numbers in Minas Gerais.  Although not being large in number, reports Professor Manuel Cardoso, foreigners have made a significant influence on the economy and social life of the Minas Gerais region. Everything seems to indicate that these foreigners (most of them merchants), were Jews or Israelites from Portugal, Spain, and Holland. History confirms that many Jews came and settled in Minas Gerais. Augusto de Lima Junior, in his study of Minas Gerais located the major settlements of Jews in the following cities: Paracatu, Serro Frio, Sabara, Pitangui, Ouro Preto, and Mariana. Jews have formed ghettos, still recognized today by the absence of chapels on their ruins. These New-Christian Jews only inter-married with other New-Christian families, and weddings between first degree cousins are, to this day, common practice among them.”

According to another Brazilian scholar, Dr. Neuza Fernandes, who did research in registry offices, old documents, and family documents, thousands of New-Christian families from Portugal and Spain established themselves in Minas Gerais from 1712 to 1763. 
I will simply mention the towns and surnames that were most frequent:

  • In Brumado: Family Azevedo.
  • In Cachoeira: Pereira da Cunha, Fernandes de Matos, Robinson, Moreira, Henriques, Nunes, and Sanches.
  • In Caeté: Nunes Ribeiro, Bicudo, Barros, and Fonseca.
  • In Catas Altas: Isidro, Ferreira (Isidore), Pereira, Chaves.
  • In Congonhas do Campo: Moraes and Oliveira.
  • In Córredo do Pau das Minas de Arasualhy: Pereira, Ávila, Fernandes, and Pereira.
  • In Curralinho: Miranda, Roiz, Rodrigues, Nunes, Henriques, Lopes, Álvares, Mendes, and Mendonça.
  • In Diamantina (former Tijuco): Ribeiro Furtado, Fernandes, Dias, Correa, Rodrigues, and Nunes.
  • In Fornos: Rodrigues and Cardoso.
  • In Itaperava: Sá Tinoco.
  • In Minas de Arassuahi: Fernandes, Pereira, Costa, Silva, and Henriques.
  • In Minas Novas de Fanados: Lara, Fonseca da Costa, and Ferreira.
  • In Minas Novas de Paracatu: Ribeiro Sanches, Henriques, Nunes, Britto, and Ferreira.
  • In Ouro Branco: Lopes.
  • In Ouro Preto (former vila Rica): Miranda, Fernandes, Pereira, Nunes, Gomes, Fróes, Rodrigues, Moraes, Costa, Cruz, Mendes, Almeida, Vale, Roiz, and Martins.
  • In Parapanema: Afonso and Miguel.
  • In Pitangui: Pereira da Cunha, Rodrigues, Roiz, Nogueira, Silveira, Bicudo, and Henriques.
  • In Ribeirão do Carmo (Mariana): Miranda, Almeida de Sá, Dias, Fernandes, Rodrigues Pinto, Roiz, Cardoso, Pereira, Chaves, Oliveira, Mattos, Pereira da Cunha, and Mendes.
  • In Rio das Mortes: Miranda, Azevedo, Vale, Machado Coelho, Pereira de Araújo, Lara, Nunes, Alves, Benar, and Vizeu
  • In Sabará: Miranda, Oliveira, Matos Henriques, Lucena, Montarroio, Rodrigues, Pinto, Nunes de Almeida, Henriques, Ferreira, Costa, Mendes de Sá, Ferreira, and Isidoro.
  • In São Caetano: Rodrigues.
  • In São Jerônimo: Rodrigues de Faria.
  • In Serro Frio: Cunha, Medanha, Sottomaior, Sá de Almeida, Fernandes, Pereira, Ribeiro, Furtado, Gomes, Nunes, Costa, Pereira, Lopes de Mesquita, Paes, and Barreto.
  • In Sumidouro: Fróis

The relationship of cities and surnames above is just one of the most obvious examples, and does not necessarily mean that there are no other surnames for Marranos or other locations. Likewise, it does not mean that every surname mentioned here originated with the Marranos, but the Jews of Portugal used these names after they were forced to convert to Catholicism.

The Jewish poet Süßkind von Trimberg wearing a Jewish hat (Codex Manesse, 14th century.)

It is not difficult to identify in the inhabitants of Minas Gerais many cultural similarities with typical Sephardic Jewish families. Among other traditions, I remember even from my own ancestors who lived in Minas Gerais, the following:

  • Marriage within the family over many generations. Parents commonly choose the bride or groom from their own families (usually first cousins).
  • Following the lunar calendar and intercalating it with the agricultural cycle. 
  • Leaving grain in the fields for the poor to harvest.
  • Not throwing anything away, and taking the most of everything without wasting a bit.
  • Many of them were merchants of precious stones and metals, such as gold and silver. This was one of the reasons why they came to Minas Gerais.
  • Compared to their neighbors, they stood out by overwork, and for their intelligence.
  • They were concerned to stay united, inheriting the tradition of celebrating festivals in the family. Their children are educated in the best colleges, usually in Catholic schools. This custom is very old, since the time of the Inquisition in Portugal, when they placed their children in Catholic schools in order to hide their Jewish identity.
  • Even when working as merchants and farmers, they retained certain traits of fine education and culture. It was the habit of the time also to hire teachers for children's education. They liked to be well dressed, and bought their clothes in large shopping malls in Rio de Janeiro or imported them. 
  • No one can deny their religion. Most Marranos were never really Catholics. They were a people of faith who refused to bow down to saints or images. Some traditions, like asking a blessing from the parents at the time of departure and arrival at home, were until recently a common tradition.
  • Laying hands over the children to bless them.
  • Sweeping the house towards the inside.
  • Killing animals by letting them bleed and then draining all the blood. Unlike Portuguese and Brazilian traditions, New Christians abstained from eating blood.
  • Washing the dead.
  • Throwing a handful of earth on the coffin when it is lowered into the grave.
  • Spilling part of the wine before drinking it. The act of pouring a portion out of the drink is called a libation.
  • Wearing beards has always been a Jewish custom, although it was also very common in the colonial period.
  • Avoiding work on Saturday. It was a day to bathe and to wear new clothes.
  • The expression “que massada!” (“what a massada!”) to explain a tragedy or surprise, in allusion to the fall of the fortress of Masada near the Dead Sea.
  • Popular use of the verb “Judiar” (to “Judaize” or “bring suffering”) comes from the time of the Inquisition when Jews were persecuted and mistreated.
  • Touching the doorpost of their houses when they enter or leave, in allusion to the custom of the mezuzah. Once they could not have a mezuzah on their doorposts, they kept the tradition of kissing the plain doorpost.
  • The expression “a carapuça serviu” (something like “the hood fits you!”) comes from the time of the Inquisition. In the Middle Ages Jews wore elongated hats or hats with three tips to distinguish themselves from non-Jews.
  • Testing the knife edge on the nail of the animal before slaughtering it.
  • Washing hands before meals.

All of these customs are clear evidence of the Jewish influence brought by the Marranos who lived in Minas Gerais, and nobody can deny or ignore these historical facts.

Taken from Teaching from Zion 28 - November 2010

The Phenomena of the Marranos in Brazil

by Matheus Zandona Guimaraes

“But their children and grandchildren, who, misguided by their parents… and trained in their views, are like children taken captive by them and raised in the laws of the gentiles, whose status is that of an ‘anus’ (one who abjures Jewish law under duress), who, although he later learns that he is a Jew, meets Jews, observes them practice their laws, is nevertheless to be regarded as an ‘anus’, since he was reared in the erroneous ways of his parents… Therefore, efforts should be made to bring them back in repentance, to draw them near by friendly relations, so that they may return to the strength-giving source, i.e., the Torah.” - Mishneh Torah, Sefer Shofetim, Hilkhót Mumarím 3:2

History shows that more than 120,000 Spanish Jews immigrated to Portugal after the Spanish Inquisition expulsion decreed in 1492. But after 1496, the Inquisition laws against the Jews became valid also in Portugal, with the political wedding of Portugal's king Dom Manoel to Queen Elizabeth, daughter of the Spanish kings. From this year on, Portuguese Jews were obligated to convert to Catholicism under the penalty of expulsion, confiscation of properties and possessions, and even death on the Inquisition stakes, also called “auto de fé”.

The Catholic priests gave the name of “Cristianos Nuevos” (New Christians) to those Jews who were converted by force. But even after conversion, high taxes, prejudice, and persecution made life in Portugal a great challenge for these New-Christian Jews.

Hired by the Portuguese king, a Portuguese navigator called Pedro Alvares Cabral and his team of New-Christian captains found new land below the equator in the year of 1500. It was the “opening of the Red Sea” for these Portuguese Jews, who finally had the chance to start a new life in this New World, far from the intolerance of the Inquisition.

Together with thousands of other Portuguese, these New Christians received the right to immigrate to Brazil in the beginning of 1503, under the leadership of another New-Christian Jewish man called Fernando de Noronha. This was the beginning of Brazil’s history.

But unfortunately, in 1591, Portugal decides to extend the Laws of the “Santo Ofício” to its newly discovered colony, sending the first Inquisitors to many cities in Brazil. The only place in Brazil where the New-Christian Jews had a temporary time of religious freedom was in the region of “Pernambuco” (northeast of Brazil), taken from the Portuguese by the Dutch from 1630 to 1654. In the city of Recife, Portuguese/Brazilian Jews returned to Judaism, and in the year 1636 they established what became the first Synagogue of the Americas: Kahal Tzur Israel.

After 1654, Portuguese armies were able to expel the Dutch, and the laws against the Jews were once more active all over the region. Part of these Brazilian Jews were able to flee to the North, reaching the city of “New Amsterdam” (later called New York). They were the first Jewish people to arrive in North America and to establish there a Jewish Community, in the 17th Century.

But most of the Brazilian Jews were persecuted and arrested by the Inquisition. Hundreds were sent to Lisbon to die as “heretic New Christians”. Whole families were arrested in the countryside of Brazil and executed in the squares of Portugal.

The Inquisition Tribunal. By Francisco Goya, circa 1815

To protect their families, and to assure that their descendants will have the right to live in the land of Brazil, thousands of Jews and New Christians converted to Catholicism, many of them for the second time. They did everything they could to keep Jewish traditions, customs, and culture - teaching their children and celebrating the Jewish holidays in secret, in the basements of their houses. Only in 1824 was the Inquisition period officially ended in Brazil, as well as the persecution of the Jews and the “New Christians”.

Today, as a result of centuries of persecution, Brazil has thousands of people who are direct descendants from the “New-Christian” Jews, or “Anusim”. The majority has lost completely all traces of Jewish ancestry, but a small part of them know, by tradition, customs, and by keeping remembrance, that they are Jews.

But there is still in the air a great fear, and they are afraid to let other people know of their origin. Almost 200 years after the inquisition ended in Brazil, one can easily feel the trauma that the Inquisition planted in the minds and in the hearts of these descendants.

They were able to keep their traditions and remembrance because they were very closed, only marrying with first cousins, by this making sure that they would only marry with other New Christians. They go to mass or to church on Sunday, but they still remember when their grandmother used to celebrate Shabbat with wine, bread, and two candles. They still know the songs, brought by Sephardic Jews to Brazil 500 years ago. Old tunes clothed with a terrible history of intolerance.

In the last 20 and 30 years, descendants of these New-Christian Jews who have kept some sort of remembrance and tradition, have tried to restore their roots and their identity. They have looked for help in traditional Jewish circles, but unless they convert back to Judaism, and abide by an ultra-orthodox Jewish halakha, they will never be considered Jews.

Those descendants who are Christians have also tried to look for help in their circles (Catholics and evangelicals), but they are always told the same by both of them: once you became a Christian, you are no longer a Jew! Therefore, there is no space in their current religion for such a restoration. These descendants are being rejected not only by the Christian community, but mostly by their fellow Jews, who consider them “meshumadim” (traitors), not deservers of a return to the household of Israel.

Their ancestors were forced to convert, and they did it because they dreamed of a day where their descendants would not have to hide who they really are, in what they really believe. They dreamed of a day where they would be able to worship their God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, with no fear of persecution.

Now that this day is at hand, their Jewish brothers and sisters want to do to with them what the Inquisition did, that is, force them to convert. Besides, it must be understood that most of this problem is created because these descendants believe in Yeshua (Jesus) as the Messiah, and any rabbinate would never accept as a Jew a person who believes that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel.

In any case, to force these Jewish descendants to go through a formal orthodox conversion procedure is denying their very Jewish origin and struggle for centuries to survive. This is a public denial of their blood right to be Jews and to be accepted as Jews by the State of Israel.

Therefore, a special organization, called Inquisition Jewish Descendants Brazilian Association (ABRADJIN), was founded in Brazil by Marcelo Miranda Guimarães, with the primary goal of helping these Jewish descendants to know and to restore their identity. Marcelo is an engineer, and has worked for decades as a CFO of an important German company in Brazil. After his retirement, he took on the task of working and researching extensively about the Marranos and their present situation.

Marcelo is a direct descendent of Portuguese Jews who came to Brazil escaping the Inquisition in Portugal. The goal ABRADJIN has is to provide historical research to help these Jewish descendants to rediscover their past, opening for them new doors for the future.

ABRADJIN works in conjunction with Netivyah Bible Instruction Ministry, located in Israel and led by Joseph Shulam. ABRADJIN tries to achieve two main objectives: First, to equip and bring knowledge of the “Marranos” phenomena to Jewish and non-Jewish circles, as well as academic circles. Second, ABRADJIN fights for the recognition, by Jewish and Israeli immigration authorities, that the Marranos should be fully accepted as Jews, without the need of a formal two-year orthodox conversion. Nevertheless, ABRADJIN does stand for a proper return to the Jewish faith by the Marranos, with a Jewish lifestyle and profound learning of the Torah and traditions, but without forcing these Jewish descendants to deny once more their identity.

ABRADJIN has a museum located in the city of Belo Horizonte which displays images, documents, and important information about the great contribution shared by Portuguese Jews in Brazilian history, from the 16th to the 19th Centuries. ABRADJIN also has a library and opens up its facilities for people interested in researching and learning more about the history of persecuted Jews in Brazil.

These Portuguese Jewish descendants can be found in almost every region of Brazil, and a great number of them is seeking to restore and re-attach themselves to Israel and the Jewish community. Israeli and rabbinical authorities should provide a fair and sincere way to have these hundreds of thousands of Jewish descendants to come back to their faith, without forcing them to do the very thing the Inquisition made them do in the past.

Taken from Teaching from Zion 28 - November 2010

Marranos from Portugal and Spain

by Jared Seltzer

The terror of the Catholic Inquisition still reverberates throughout once-thriving Jewish communities of the Iberian Peninsula. By threat of death, hundreds of thousands of Jewish souls fled to other regions, or else reluctantly donned a cloak of Catholicism. All the while, thousands of their kin were deprived of their rights as civilians and were sold into slavery, or they endured torture, fire, and martyrdom under the suspicion of living a Jewish life incognito. These people from the 15th Century were the Marranos (or in Hebrew, Anusim).

While most of the descendants of these Marranos were born into Catholicism, or at least superficial Catholicism, they still recite various Jewish prayers and practice numerous Jewish traditions which their parents preserved in strict secrecy. Until World War II, the Marranos and their descendants remained chiefly secluded from and ostracized by their Catholic neighbors.

Today these descendants dust the globe in exile, and their interest in their Jewish ancestry is spiking. They are embracing their Jewish heritage in increasing numbers; however the Israeli government forbids them immigration to their ancient home without undergoing orthodox Jewish conversion. Don’t miss the irony: their parents suffered persecution and death lest they convert to Catholicism, and now these Jewish descendants are deprived of entry into their ancestral homeland except by an ultimatum of orthodox conversion.

The Marranos suffered every bit as much as Jews in the holocaust. In Spain and Portugal, a simple suspicion started the legal proceedings. Maybe a mother changed the bedsheets on a Friday, or a family member abstained from eating pork. Maybe a chimney did not flicker with flames throughout a winter Sabbath, or even suspicion of lighting too many candles on Friday was cause enough to initiate an investigation.

Such a soul was summoned before judges, and was afforded three opportunities to admit guilt in consecutive hearings, but after that was left in isolated seclusion for up to a solid year. If the defendant still refused to admit guilt after the solitude, then he or she was submitted to hideous torture; even pregnant women were not exempt. Throughout the proceeding, defendants were of course assigned an attorney, albeit one paid by and loyal to the state-run Inquisition. By all standards, it was a kangaroo court.

The records of incidents of torture and riots throughout the Inquisition that ended in stretching, breaking, ravishing, and burning suspected insincere “conversos” are numerous, various, meticulous, and nauseating. The hearings were all but certain death sentences; in Portugal three-quarters of all hearings ended in convictions, and in Spain only about two per year ended in acquittal.

One new convert in Portugal offered a rational explanation as to why a crucifix appeared miraculously brighter than usual, and his peers reacted in outrage by dragging him outside and mercilessly butchering him for blasphemy. Another woman changed her linens on Friday and abstained from eating pork because of how it made her sick, and the poor lady ended up on a stretching machine wound so tightly despite her cries for mercy that the ropes finally snapped, leaving her body in a helpless and dislocated condition before being subjected to the subsequent bout of torture. There is no more perfect phrase that describes the anguish that these myriads of Marranos underwent other than a living hell.

Those that could, fled the Iberian Peninsula, and they were driven into the uttermost parts of the earth, such as Africa and South America, at the hand of their persecutors. Their synagogues have remained abandoned and vandalized for centuries, or else converted to cathedrals, and nevertheless the right of return to Israel is not available to them because they were born into force-converted Catholic homes.

A sizable portion of these descendants have embraced Protestantism, and the irony is stupefying that their allegiance to a First Century Jewish rabbi that preached unconditional love (and in whose name the Inquisition’s pogroms were egregiously executed) is precisely the stigma that prevents their return to Israel. Only with great difficulty could one refrain from suggesting that perhaps a modern Inquisition continues to plague these sons of Jacob; coming from within the Jewish homeland, a vendetta against a suffering and selfless Jewish rabbi whom malevolent sadists have redefined.

The fact of the matter is simple: Jesus is not a Gentile that abolished Moses or invented a new religion. He is Yeshua, sent by God as the living Word of God. He was a faithful Jewish rabbi that taught atypical love for others and faithful obedience to God’s instructions, but then died mercilessly at the hands of corrupt Second-Temple leadership whom he repeatedly admonished.

After his incontrovertible resurrection, Yeshua and his message rapidly spread beyond Israel’s borders until it ultimately intermingled with pagan ideologies and lost its purely Jewish momentum. But the time is approaching when the true Jewish Yeshua will reveal himself as did Joseph to his brothers, and faith in Him will be the quintessence of Jewish piety, instead of its antithesis.

A prophecy in Obadiah 1:20 assures the ultimate return of this group to Israel. The exegete Rashi and the Targum of Yonathan agree from this passage that the exiles that lived in France and Spain would return and inherit the southern lands of Israel, the Negev desert and the mountains of Esau. However, there is a temporary block that is keeping this group from fulfilling this part of God’s word, and we should unite and redouble our efforts in prayer and in campaigns to pave the way for their return.

Please pray with Netivyah, and implore the Father for the eventual and soon acceptance of this ostracized group and for their unity. Pray that the Lord would rekindle in them a seeking spirit into their Jewish heritage, and that He would open a door for them to return finally to the Holy Land that God promised their forefathers. May they rejoin the nation which God chose to lead the world into His blessings, instruction, and righteousness.

Information drawn principally from Cecil Roth, A History of the Marranos (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1947).

Next Year in Jerusalem: A Call for the Marranos to Come Home

by Yehuda Bachana

When I briefly studied the subject of the Inquisition in school, it was to me a very distant subject, like ancient and irrelevant history. And that’s how we, most of the Israeli public, feel about the Marranos of Spain and Portugal.

A few years ago, I participated in a tour of Portugal, a tour of the Marranos, that opened up my eyes to the pain and suffering of the Portuguese Jews. And by the way, it's not over yet!

Imagine that you live in a world where you must not be Jewish. A world in which it's forbidden to celebrate Passover, to be circumcised, or to eat kosher. A world without synagogues, Shabbat, or the Hebrew language. A world in which you believe that you are the last remaining Jews on Earth.

This is exactly how Portuguese Jews lived from the 16th century to the 20th century! They kept the tradition of the elders for about 400 years. Only a hundred years ago did a Jew from Poland discover them, and he went and told others that they could stop dressing up as Christians.

This was the way of life of the Jews. At home they observed a few Jewish customs, a few unique prayers, and outside of the home they disguised themselves as Christians, for fear of the Inquisition.

The expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal was a traumatic event in the lives of the Jewish people. We can see its impact to this day. Many of the deportees from Spain emigrated to Portugal.

At the time of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, the population of Portugal numbered about one million inhabitants, about 30,000 of whom were Jews. After the expulsion, the Jewish community in Portugal grew to about 10% of the Portuguese population.

A few years after they were absorbed in Portugal, the situation of the Jews in Portugal worsened following the marriage of King Manuel I of Spain to Isabel, the daughter of the king and queen of Spain. The marriage between the king and queen was conditional upon the expulsion of all the Jews from Portugal, and the King of Portugal had fulfilled the condition, and issued an order for the expulsion of the Jews of his kingdom that year.

Despite the deportation order, the King of Portugal understood the value of the Jews and desired their abilities, connections, and money. And he did his best to ensure that the Jews did not leave Portugal.

Instead of deportation, he tried to force them to be baptised into Christianity. The Jews were invited to the city centers, while being promised that ships were waiting for them in the ports to take them out of Portugal, but instead they were forcibly baptized there.

They were sprayed with drops of water, and then the Jews of Portugal were recognized by the state as Christians. The forced baptisms caused a formality that essentially said that there were no Jews left in Portugal, all of them were assimilated into the Christian population and were legally bound by all Christian obligations.

And therefore many of the Jews disguised themselves as “New Christians” and lived as Marranos, or Crypto-Jews (Jews in secret). They observed the customs, celebrated Christmas, baptized their children, and dressed as good Catholics, although within themselves they maintained their affinity for the Jewish faith.

It was the woman of the house who secretly passed on the Jewish tradition to the children and the next generations. She kept the laws and customs passed down to her orally by her mother and grandmother before her.

In 2005, the Jewish Museum opened in Belmonte. In the museum, you can find items and paintings from the life of Marranos in the town, for example, a secret installation made up of a pair of tiles on which matzos were baked, pocket mezuzahs, and other objects from Jewish tradition.

When you walk through the alleys of Belmonte, Trancoso, and Castelo de Vide, as you pass between the little houses and the tiny shops, a thought comes to mind: Is it possible that Jews once lived here?

Here and there one of the door frames is visible, and on the upper right you notice a niche for a mezuzah that no longer exists. Instead of mezuzahs, the Marranos carved crosses to mark the “new religion,” so that the Inquisition would move on to its next target.

The Inquisition stood against the continuation of the Jewish tradition that the Marranos maintained. Under the direction of the Church in Portugal, it was active between 1536 and 1821. The Inquisition functioned as judge, jury, and executioner.

The main target of the Inquisition was the “New Christians”, who were perceived as a dangerous group that undermined the foundations of the Catholic church, and corrupted the loyalty of the faithful. Those suspected of not being good Christians were immediately interrogated, tortured, and of course their “sinful souls” were “purged,” so the Jews were forced to adopt a way of life in which they tried to deceive the inquisitors who ambushed and visited their homes.

For example, they baked matzos in the basement of the house on the third day of Passover, and not before Passover, they gathered for Yom Kippur service under the guise of playing cards, and they lit Shabbat candles in a cupboard or a small tub, or they lit one candle in front of a mirror. However, it was difficult to hold the reins for years, and many of those interrogated admitted, under torture, that the traditions were being kept in secret.

It is estimated that the number of victims of the Inquisition during its 300 years of rule in Portugal exceeded 40,000, of whom 1,175 were burnt alive at the stake.

After generations of life as Marranos, when there are no holy books, or a rabbi who guides and teaches, in a world where there is no Judaism, over time, tradition was forgotten. With the end of the Inquisition, on May 31, 1821, the Christian customs and ways of life almost completely took root in the Crypto-Jews.

There was a Jew who discovered Portuguese Jewry. This was Samuel Schwartz (1880-1953), a Polish-Jewish mining engineer who came with a delegation of engineers to Belmonte for work, and by chance discovered the town's Jews. A Christian merchant who wanted to provide food for the delegation warned Schwarz and his friends not to go to his rival, Balthazar Pereira de Sosa, “because he is a Jew.”

Until then, it was not known in the world that a remnant of Portuguese Jewry remained. But Schwartz was intrigued and decided to locate those Jews hidden in Belmonte. He asked, inquired, and found the community of some 200 families, but they refused to admit their Jewishness.

With time, Schwartz acquired the trust of some of these Marranos and began to collect information. Finally, the elder woman of the community was brought and said that if he was a Jew, he was to quote a Jewish prayer or blessing. When Schwartz began to say Shema Yisrael and reached the word “Adonai”, the old woman recognized the word, since it was one of the few words preserved in the community. She said to those around him, “He said ‘Adonai’, he is one of us.”

Later (1925) Schwartz wrote his book “New Christians in Portugal in the 20th century,” in which he recounted the story of the existence of the lost Jews of Portugal, and in doing so exposed their history to public consciousness. But the Jews of Portugal continued to live in secret and emerged from the religious closet only in 1970. However, to this day fear is deeply rooted in the DNA of the descendants of the Marranos.  

These Marranos, who lived through such a difficult period of the Jewish people, who kept the tradition of our ancestors in secret, they actually kept the Jewish spark throughout history. A spark which refuses to fade.  

And here we are now, we live in a very special period in history, the time in which God re-established the State of Israel and brought the people of Israel back home from the four corners of the earth. Now is the time, now is the opportunity to bring our brothers home. Perhaps the greatest expectation among every Jew is the desire to return home, to the land of his forefathers, to the Land of Israel.  

Every Passover, which is the holiday of freedom, and every Yom Kippur, which is the most solemn day in Judaism, we end by saying “next year in Jerusalem.” This saying is to show that every Jew wants to immigrate to Israel, and to go up to Jerusalem, and if he still has not made it, he hopes to reach it in the next year.

And as for myself, someone who lives in Jerusalem? As the son of a father who was also born in Jerusalem? This saying requires me to find and encourage my brothers who have not tasted Israel, the Land of Promise, and allow them to go up.

These Marranos and B’nei Anusim, have for 400 years lived in fear, behind a mask, and after many years, this mask has become part of their face. Our duty is to find these people, and to show them that you can live without the mask. To bring these lost people back home. This has always been the hope. This is the right and just thing to do.  

We can and we need to fix this terrible wrong done to our brothers, we need to find them, under all their masks, and lead them home.

“Next year in Jerusalem.”