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The Tragic History of the Jews of Spain

July 31, 2022 | by Rabbi Menachem Levine

A comprehensive overview of the persecution, scholarship and expulsion of the Jews of Spain.

The settlement of Jews in the Iberian Peninsula is very ancient. Don Isaac Abarbanel, the 15th-century leader of Spanish Jewry, wrote that Babylonian conqueror Nebuchadnezzar brought Jews to Spain as slaves after the First Temple’s destruction.

The earliest documented history of Spanish Jewry dates back at least 2,000 years to when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem and took tens of thousands of Jews with them back to Europe, some of whom settled in Spain. Very little is known regarding these early Jewish settlements.

What is known is that anti-Jewish sentiment existed early on. In 305 CE, the pre-Catholic Church convened at the Synod of Elvira, near Granada. There they issued 80 canonical decisions, several of which were intended to ostracize the Jews from the general Spanish community. Canon 16 prohibited the marriage of Christians with Jews. Canon 49 prohibited Jews from blessing their crops, and Canon 50 refused communion to any cleric or lay person that ate with a Jew.

Early Christian Persecutions

In 409 CE, the Vandals captured the Iberian Peninsula from the collapsing Roman Empire, and three years later, the Visigoths conquered the Peninsula. Under these Germanic Christians, laws were instituted that persecuted the Jews.

Following the conversion of King Recared to Catholicism in 587, and his declaration at the third Council of Toledo that his kingdom would be officially Catholic, the situation deteriorated for the Jews. Going forward, the Jews would be the only group that did not join in the religious unity of the country, and this distinction would repeatedly lead to their persecution.

King Recared

In 612 C.E., in a horrific declaration, Visigoth King Sisebut ordered that all Jews submit to baptism within the year or undergo “scourging, mutilation, banishment, and confiscation of goods.” As a result, many Jews emigrated, and many who remained became Christians outwardly to escape the danger but continued practicing Judaism secretly. It is also clear from history that not all the Jews who remained converted, as evidenced by the number of additional decrees directed against Jews during the 7th century. However, these decrees were enforced inconsistently, and bribes to the rules helped encourage ‘tolerance’ of the Jewish citizens, though the situation remained very dangerous for the Jews.

Muslim Rule and the Golden Age of Spain

In 711 C.E., Muslim soldiers known as Moors crossed over from North Africa to the Iberian Peninsula. They were led by General Tariq ibn Ziyad, who advanced his army of nearly ten thousand men across the strait and landed at a location he called Jabal Tariq (Mount Tarik), today known as Gibraltar. The Moors engaged in battle with the Christian Visigoth soldiers and eventually killed their monarch, King Roderick, thus beginning Muslim rule in Spain.

General Tariq ibn Ziyad

Since the Christians had persecuted the Jews so severely, the Jews welcomed the Muslim conquerors in the 8th century, so much so that it was said that the Jewish population of Toledo “opened the gates” of the city and welcomed the Muslim invaders. Incredibly, the conquered cities of Córdoba, Málaga, Granada, Seville, and Toledo were, for a time, even placed under the control of the Jewish inhabitants that the Moorish invaders had armed.

Although the Arabs had successfully conquered Spain, they did not have the skill sets to effectively form a government or social infrastructure for their new land. Therefore, they assigned the Jews leadership roles in governing, investment, and policymaking, conditional on the Jews recognizing their subservience to their Arab leaders. Some of the highest-ranking officials of Spain at this time were Jews.

The conditions in Spain improved so much under Muslim rule that Jews from Europe and North Africa came to live in Spain during this Jewish renaissance. It became the largest Jewish community in the world. Thus began the period known as the Golden Age of Spain.

In addition to their political success, Jews flourished economically. Due to the Jews’ connections with their fellow Jews worldwide, the Jews were a natural choice for developing Spain via trade. Additionally, since the Muslim and Christian worlds were engaged in war and were not communicating directly, the Jews served as the middlemen to foster trade throughout the Far East, Middle East, and Europe.

Artwork from the Barcelona Haggadah, from the 14th century

The Jews were outstanding doctors and served the medical needs of the non-Jews and Jews of Spain, including the leaders of the land. Among the most famous doctors were Maimonides, Nachmanides, Rabben Nissim of Gerona, and Rabbi Chasdai ibn Shaprut. The Jews of Spain also gained renown in astronomy, philosophy, math, and science.

Most importantly, Jews excelled in Torah study, and many of the outstanding Torah leaders of the time resided in Spain.

Great scholars who lived and taught in Spain and whose works are studied until today included Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi, Ri Migash, Rambam, Ramban, Rashba, Ritva, Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Pakuda and Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi.

Indeed, things were so good for Jews in Spain there that to our very day, a large portion of the Jewish world is known as Sephardi, meaning “Spanish.” The other major group would later become known as Ashkenazi, meaning “German.” In the Introduction to Chovos ha-Levavos, (Duties of the Heart), the primary work of the 11th-century Jewish scholar, Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda, defines Sephardim as Jews from Muslim lands and Ashkenazim as Jews that come from Christian lands. Despite the numerous Muslim lands that existed, Spain was chosen as the identifying one due to its prominence as the leading and most significant Jewish community.

Thanks to the Jews, within a century of their conquest of Spain, the Moors had developed a civilization based in Cordoba that surpassed any in Europe. At the end of the eighth century, it was the most populous, cultured, and industrious land of all Europe and remained so for centuries.

The Jewish Leaders of Spain

Around 912, Abd-ar-Rahman III chose as his court physician and minister Rabbi Chasdai ben Isaac ibn Shaprut. Rabbi Chasdai was renowned for his brilliant diplomacy and unsurpassed medical skills and knowledge. In addition to his role in the government, Rabbi Chasdai was a Torah scholar who built and supported the Torah learning academies in Spain. He also had a fascinating correspondence with the King of Khazar and was a patron of Rabbi Menahem ben Saruq, Rabbi Dunash ben Labrat, and other Jewish scholars.

Rabbi Chasdai ben Isaac ibn Shaprut

Rabbi Shmuel HaNagid was a student of the great Rabbi Chanoch, who had been brought to Cordova as a child among the legendary “Four Captives” during the lifetime of Rabbi Chasdai Ibn Shaprut. Rabbi Shmuel’s brilliance and fluent mastery of Arabic language, grammar, and literature eventually propelled him to the office of vizier. Despite his involvement in government affairs, Rabbi Shmuel also served as the rabbi of his flourishing community, the director of the Yeshiva of Granada, and a supporter of Jewish scholars. Rabbi Shmuel Hanagid died in Granada in 1055 and was mourned by both the Jewish and Arab populations. He was succeeded by his son Rabbi Yosef Hanagid.

The End of the Golden Age

Notwithstanding the Jews’ success and prosperity under Muslim rule, the Golden Age of Spain began to decline as the Muslims battled the Christians for control of the Iberian Peninsula and Spanish kingdoms. Although Islamic rule continued in large parts of Spain, the Peninsula was divided into numerous small Muslim kingdoms, each with its own ruler, and these small kingdoms began fighting among themselves. Once the Muslims were no longer united, the Christian armies gained a foothold on the Peninsula, eventually leading to the collapse of Moorish supremacy.

The Granada Massacre

With the weakening of Muslim authority, there was a simultaneous rise in antisemitism even in areas that had been tolerant and respectful of the Jews. In 1066 - only 11 years after Rabbi Shmuel Hanagid’s passing - a Muslim mob stormed the royal palace in Granada and murdered his son, the vizier Rabbi Yosef Hanagid. They also massacred most of the city’s Jewish population. Accounts of the Granada Massacre state that more than 1,500 Jewish families were murdered in just one day.

In 1090 the situation deteriorated further in the Muslim-controlled areas with the invasion of the Almoravids, a Muslim sect from Morocco. Even under the Almoravids, things were somewhat bearable for the Jews. However, in 1148, when the more extreme Almohads invaded Spain, Jews were forced to flee, be killed, or accept Islam. The Almohads confiscated Jewish property in Spain, closed the famous Jewish educational institutions, and destroyed synagogues throughout the land. Among the Jews who fled from the Almohads were the Rambam (Maimonides) and his family.

Early Christian Rule in Spain - Tolerant but Short-Lived

With the increasing Christian control over Spain, things began to look up for the Jews. Alfonso VI, the conqueror of Toledo (1085), was tolerant and benevolent toward them. He even offered the Jews full equality with Christians and the rights granted to the nobility, hoping to draw the wealthy and industrious Jews away from the Moors.

Alfonso VI, the conqueror of Toledo

To show their gratitude to the king for the rights granted them and their enmity towards the Almohads, the Jews volunteered to serve in the king’s army. There were 40,000 Jews who served, distinguished from the other combatants by their black-and-yellow turbans. The king’s favoritism toward the Jews became so apparent that Pope Gregory VII warned him not to permit Jews to rule over Christians.

At the beginning of the thirteenth century, the condition of the Jews once again worsened. Catholics started antisemitic riots in Toledo in 1212, which spread with attacks against Jews across Spain.

The Church became increasingly and openly antagonistic towards the Jews. A papal bull issued by Pope Innocent IV in April 1250 further prohibited Jews in Spain from building new synagogues without special permission, outlawed conversion to Judaism and forbade many forms of contact between Jews and Christians. Jews were also forced to live separately in the Juderia (Jewish ghettos).

Disputation of Barcelona-1263

During the rule of King James of Aragon, the Spanish monarchy started to take an interest in Jewish philosophy and religion, likely to understand the Jews better and convince them to convert. In 1263, King James convened a special council of Dominican and Jewish clergymen to debate three key theological issues: whether the Messiah had already appeared, whether the Messiah was divine or human, and which religion was the true faith.

Ramban (Nachmanides), a tremendous scholar and leader of the community, was required to represent the Jews, while Pablo Christiani, an apostate Jew, represented the Church. Ramban kept a record of the debate, which is still studied today. After the debate, King James gave the Ramban 300 gold coins and stated that he had never heard anyone so wrong defend his case so well. Yet, Ramban realized he could no longer remain in Spain and immigrated to the Land of Israel, where he died in 1270.

Conditions Worsen -Massacres and Forced Conversions

When Henry II ascended the throne in 1369, a new era began for the Jews of suffering and persecution. Henry II instituted decrees that weakened the Jews politically, financially, and physically. He decreed that Jews be kept far from palaces, were forbidden to hold public office, could not ride on mules, and must wear distinct badges to indicate that they were Jewish and were forbidden to bear arms and sell weapons.

Under the rule of John I in 1379, the situation deteriorated even further for the Jews, as the government began making demands regarding Judaism itself. The Jews were forced to change prayers deemed offensive to the Church, and non-Jews were forbidden to convert to Judaism.

In 1390, riots spread across the country, synagogues were destroyed, and tens of thousands of Jews were murdered.

After the death of King John I in 1390, chaos spread in Spain, which led to many attacks on the Jewish community. The riots spread across the country, synagogues were destroyed, and tens of thousands of Jews were murdered. On June 6, the mob attacked the Juderia in Seville from all sides and murdered 4,000 Jews. Many Jews chose to convert to Christianity as the only way to escape death.

On the legislative front, antisemitic laws were passed to impoverish and subjugate the Jews and, it was assumed, lead them to convert to Christianity out of desperation. Under these laws, Jews were forbidden to practice medicine; forbidden to sell bread, wine, flour, or meat; prohibited from engaging in handicraft or any form of trade; forbidden to hold public office or act as a money-broker; prohibited from carrying arms or hire Christian servants or give presents or visit Christians; forbidden to trim their beards or cut their hair. Finally, they were also absolutely forbidden to leave the country and seek an end to their plight.

Although these laws aimed to humiliate the Jews, the entire kingdom of Spain was negatively impacted in the extreme. The rules had unwittingly stopped nearly all commerce and industry and shook the country’s finances to their foundation.

The Great Disputation of Tortosa: The End is in Sight

In 1413, a virulently antisemitic preacher, Vincent Ferrer, the Spanish anti-pope Benedict XIII, and a Jewish apostate Yehoshua HaLorki devised a plan they were sure would lead to the conversion of the remaining Jews of Spain. They would hold a massive debate between the Jews and the Christians, with the pope presiding. According to their plan, the Christian representatives would undoubtedly emerge triumphant and compel the defeated Jews to accept Christianity.

Unlike the disputation in which Nachmanides successfully defended the Jews of Spain, the Disputation of Tortosa was set up with a clear bias toward the Christians. The Christian side always had the final word, and the king that served as the judge was negatively disposed toward the Jews and not open to an honest debate.

The debate lasted over a year, and the Jewish presentation became more persuasive as time progressed. The Christians began to pressure the Jewish representatives to limit their arguments, and the Jews realized it was not to their benefit to continue. Benedict claimed victory at the end of the debate, and copies of the Talmud were confiscated and burned.

The debate was a demoralizing experience for Jewish Spain. By the middle of the 15th century, many Spanish Jews recognized that a Jewish community was no longer viable in their homeland. Looking for alternatives, in 1473, the Jews offered to buy Gibraltar from the king as a haven for their community, but the offer was refused.

Ferdinand and Isabella

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella are remembered as the monarchs who backed Christopher Columbus in his discovery of America. However, in Jewish history, they are remembered as the rulers that expelled the entire Jewish community.

The marriage of Ferdinand V of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile in 1469 unified Spain and transformed it from a combination of provinces into a mighty kingdom. Ironically, the royal marriage had been arranged by a wealthy and learned Jewish leader, Abraham Senior, who tragically converted to Catholicism in 1492 rather than being expelled from Spain.

Isabella was a fervent Christian and, in partnership with the pope, set up an Inquisition in 1478 to find and fight heresy in the Christian world. The royal decree that founded the Inquisition explicitly stated that the Inquisition was instituted to search out and punish converts from Judaism who transgressed against Christianity by secretly adhering to Jewish beliefs and observing Jewish laws. No other group was mentioned, making it clear that Jews were the primary target of this decree.

“A Expulsão dos Judeus” (The Expulsion of the Jews), by Roque Gameiro (Quadros da História de Portugal, 1917).

The primary goal of the Inquisition was to expose Jews that were not genuine converts to Christianity but were still secretly practicing Judaism. In fact, this often was the case. It came to the point that the Christians would call converted Jews “New Christians” to distinguish them from the “Old (authentic) Christians.” Derogatorily, Jewish converts to Christianity were also called conversos meaning “converts,” or worse yet, Marranos, which means “filthy pigs.”

In 1483, Tomas de Torquemada was appointed Grand Inquisitor. From this point onward, the Inquisition became infamous for its brutality. Torquemada established procedures for the Inquisition, where a court would be installed in a new area, and residents were encouraged to report information regarding Jews observing Jewish practices.

The primary goal of the Inquisition was to expose Jews that were not genuine converts to Christianity but were still secretly practicing Judaism.

Evidence accepted included the absence of chimney smoke on Saturdays (a sign the family might secretly be honoring the Sabbath), buying many vegetables before Passover, or purchasing meat from a converso butcher. Then the court would employ physical torture to extract confessions and burn those who would not submit at the stake.

The Expulsion

The year 1492 marked the fall of Granada, the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian Peninsula, and the year Ferdinand and Isabella decided to expel all Jews from Spain. The infamous Alhambra Decree, which ordered the expulsion, was issued in January 1492. This time, the monarchs did not target Jewish converts to Christianity but Jews who had never converted.

The main reason stated in the Edict of Expulsion was to prevent Jews from re-Judaizing the conversos. Another factor that certainly played a significant role was that Jewish money was needed to rebuild the kingdom after the costly war against the Muslims. The simplest way to acquire the funds was to expel the Jews and confiscate the wealth and property they would leave behind. (This was a method repeated numerous times during the Middle Ages in Europe, as European countries would expel the Jews in order to remove their debts and take the money from the Jews that were forced out of their country.)

The Jews, led by Don Isaac Abarbanel, tried to get the edict revoked. Abarbanel was a great Torah scholar and leading rabbi and had also served as the treasurer of Spain. As the most influential Jew in Spain then, he tried hard to rescind the expulsion order and even offered the monarchs 300,000 ducats for a reprieve.

Don Isaac Abarbanel

He almost succeeded in getting the monarchs to rescind the edict, but Grand Inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada thwarted his attempt.

According to the legend, Torquemada, who had an enormous influence over Queen Isabella, entered the room where Abarbanel was pleading his cause. Enraged, he threw the cross at the Queen, hitting her in the head, and yelled: “Judas sold his master (Jesus) for 30 pieces of silver. Now you would sell him anew!” With that, Abarbanel’s pleas were dismissed, and the edict remained.

Yet, Don Isaac Abarbanel was so crucial to the monarchs that they offered him a special dispensation to remain in Spain without converting, including a caveat that another nine Jews could stay with him so he could pray with a minyan. He refused their offer and led the Jews of Spain as they went into exile.

The Spanish Jewish community went into exile on August 2, 1492, corresponding to the 9th of Av.

The calendar date on which the Spanish Jewish community ended and went into exile was August 2, 1492. The original date was intended to be July 31, but Torquemada extended it by a few days, unwittingly switching it to the date corresponding to the 9th of Av, Tisha B’Av. This was the day of the destruction of both the First and Second Temple in Jerusalem, a message the Jews understood as a reminder that their exile was but a continuation of the original exile hundreds of years earlier. As the Jews left Spain, Abarbanel directed that music be played, even though it was Tisha B’Av, to raise the spirits of the Jews and provide comfort and hope for the future.

Tens of thousands of Jews chose to remain by agreeing to convert, at least in name. The number of Jews who left Spain is not even approximately known. Historians of the period give incredibly high figures: Historian Juan de Mariana speaks of 800,000 people, and Don Isaac Abarbanel of 300,000.

Most of the Jews that fled Spain made their way across the border to Portugal. However, only five years later, Portugal forced the choice of conversion or death upon the Jews in its country, and Jews who could get out were on the run again.

Thousands of Jews who were exiled from Spain chose to go to Turkey. The Sultan of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, Bayezid II, welcomed them and observed, “They tell me that Ferdinand of Spain is a wise man, but he is a fool. For he takes his treasure and sends it all to me.”

Many Jews also chose to go to Italy, Holland, and the New World.

Christopher Columbus

On August 3, 1492, the day after the expulsion, Christopher Columbus left on his famed voyage of discovery. His diary begins: “In the same month in which their Majesties issued the edict that all Jews should be driven out of the kingdom and its territories, in the same month, they gave me the order to undertake with sufficient men my expedition of discovery of the Indies.”

With the 20-20 hindsight that history gives us, we can see the deeper connection between Columbus’s voyage to America and the expulsion. Precisely as one of the most vibrant Jewish communities of Medieval Europe was ending, God prepared for the founding of a place for Jews seeking freedom from persecution - America.

After hundreds of years, in 1834, the Inquisition was abolished, and Jews could return to Spain. However, the edict of expulsion was only repealed in 1968. This meant that from 1868 until 1968, Jews were allowed to live in Spain as individuals but not to practice Judaism as a community.

Spain During the Holocaust

When the Second World War broke out, Spain declared neutrality but supported the Nazis in the initial stages. Yet, Spain chose not to deport Jews and, in fact, allowed 25,600 Jews to use Spain as an escape route from the Nazis. Spanish diplomats protected approximately 4,000 Sephardic Jews in France and the Balkans, although this was against the will of their superiors. Also, in 1944, the Spanish Embassy in Hungary aided in the rescue of Budapest’s Jews by accepting 2,750 refugees.

Legend has it that General Franco refused to hand over the Jews to the Nazis despite their unofficial alliance because so many in Spain had “Jewish” blood, including Franco himself, and the Nazis would have included them in their decrees.

Contemporary Antisemitism

Remnants of antisemitism continue to exist in Spain, although at times is the “new antisemitism” of anti-Zionism. Spain did not even recognize the state of Israel until 1986 when it did so as a condition for entering the European Union. Furthermore, according to research by the Anti-Defamation League and the Pew Polls, the Spanish public still harbors many antisemitic stereotypes, more so than in other Western European countries.

Instead of “cheers,” a local drinking phrase is “We are going to kill the Jews.”

Even within the culture of Spain, antisemitism going back centuries can be heard. For example, In León, they drink lemonade mixed with a red wine called matar judíos (“kill Jews”). Instead of “cheers,” a local drinking phrase is “We are going to kill the Jews.” For hundreds of years, a village in northern Spain was named Castrillo Matajudios (“Castrillo Kill the Jews”). The residents finally voted to change the name—in 2014.

Spain Today and The Lesson that Remains

Approximately 45,000 Jews live in Spain today. The majority live in Madrid, Barcelona, and South Spain.

The Spanish Parliament approved a measure on June 11, 2015, to restore citizenship to descendants of Sephardic Jewish individuals who were expelled during the Inquisition. The law allows relatives of individuals who were expelled in 1492 to apply for dual citizenship. To date, 36,000 Jews have been granted citizenship.

Nevertheless, for Jews, the tragic history of Spain is a reminder that a Jew’s home is never in exile.

There was indeed a Golden Age of Spain, but for the Jews, it was always a bit tarnished. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, who lived at the time of the Golden Age, wrote, “Although I am in the West, my heart is in the East.”




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