Clandestine Judaism in the Shadow of the Inquisition . DR.Rivka Shpak Lissak

unveils new findings about the lives of the Marranos in the New World. The remarkable steadfastness which the converted Jews displayed to their original faith attests to the vitality of the Jewish people

Dr. Rivka Shpak Lissak (12/17/2006)

The Spanish and Portuguese Empires on the American Continent

The New World, which was conquered by Spain and Portugal, was divided into colonies and sub colonies. Under the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, Portugal received the eastern portion of the South American continent, in other words Brazil, and the rest was given to Spain. The original Spanish colonies were "New Spain" and Peru. New Spain comprised Mexico, today's South Western United States, Central America and a number of islands in the Caribbean Sea. The Philippines in the Far East were also part of the colony. At first, Peru, Brazil, and Panama comprised all of Latin America. In 1717, part of Peru was severed and became "New Granada". It included what are today Columbia, Panama, Venezuela and Ecuador. In 1776 additional areas were taken from Peru and the new colony was called "Rio de la Plata", and comprised what are today Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.

The Immigration Policy of Spain and Portugal Regarding New Christians

Spain prohibited New Christians (who recently converted to Christianity, including many converted Jews) until the fourth generation from emigrating to the New World empire, whereas Portugal, which was interested in settling Brazil and did not have surplus population like Spain, permitted New Christians to emigrate, and even exiled New Christians who had been arrested and condemned by the Inquisition to Brazil.

In Spain, many New Christians found ways to circumvent the law, and the fact that the Spanish government kept reiterating the prohibition proves that the prohibition was flouted. Some New Christians forged documents and fled to Portugal or northwest Europe, and thence to the New World. Others arrived as sailors or stowaways. In any event, the fact is that many New Christians managed to emigrate to the New World. Brazilian historians estimate that about 10% of 180 million residents of Brazil are descendants of New Christians. Luis de Carbajal, who was burnt at the stake in Mexico City in December 1596, declared before the flames consumed him, that Mexico had more New Christians than old ones.

Clandestine Jewish Communal Life

From Inquisition and other documents it emerges that the New Christians (not all New Christians were Marranos) who remained faithful to Judaism, managed to preserve Jewish life in secret for over 200 years, in the framework of communities which gathered in private houses.

The Inquisition archives in the New World, in Spain and Portugal, shed light on the efforts by Marranos to preserve their Judaism in secret. The Inquisition kept precise records regarding the confessions of Marranos from which one can deduce this. It's important to note, that not only New Christians from Spain and Portugal emigrated to the New World. There were New Christians who originally emigrated to Europe, returned to Judaism, and subsequently emigrated to the New World. The New Christians in Portugal possessed inner Jewish resilience and were proficient in Jewish customs, because their adoption of Christianity took place on a single and collective basis, in October 1497. They not only continued to live in Jewish quarters, but the Portuguese king gave them a respite of 20 years during which they would not be sued for observing Jewish customs. The arrests only began in 1536, when the Inquisition was established in Portugal. The New Christians of Spain, in contradistinction, converted to Christianity, most of them under duress, but the act was a personal one, and the process continued over a hundred years. It was also accompanied by the terror of Christian gangs and pogroms, which led to a gradual weakening among the New Christians and made it difficult for them to observe their Judaism, especially after the expulsion of Spanish Jewry in 1492, and the severance of all contacts with Jews and Judaism. In short, there were various levels of knowledge and proficiency in Jewish customs among the emigrants.

New Christians established secret synagogues in private houses, and their congregations were organized in communities throughout the Spanish and Portuguese empires. There is testimony of three communities in Mexico City and communities in Guadalajara, Vera Cruz and Pueblo in New Spain and in a series of communities in New Granada, in Peru in La Plata and in the Caribbean Islands, which were under Spanish rule. Likewise, there were communities in Bahia and Rio de Janeiro, and in northeastern Brazil there was a concentration of communities in Recife, Natal, Pernambuco and others. From the confessions it emerges that there were rabbis and Jewish scholars in the communities and members of the communities gathered every afternoon for prayer. Some of the Marranos were circumcised. For example out of a group that was burnt at the stake in Mexico City in one of the auto da fe ceremonies, 57 were circumcised.

One of the most striking facts is the New World Marannos’ success in maintaining close ties with New Christians in Spain and Portugal, France, Italy and Belgium, and with New Jews - Marranos who returned to Judaism - in northwest Europe and even with Sephardic communities in the Ottoman Empire. These ties were facilitated by virtue of a ramified system of international commercial and family ties. For example, Anthony de Fonesca had brothers in the Canary Islands, Lisbon, France and Pernambuco, in northeast Brazil. Thanks to these ties, money was raised for various purposes: redemption of captives of Jewish origins, who were taken captive by barbarian pirates, transfer of money to Holland to finance its war against Spain, contributions to Jews in the Holy Land, bribing government officials and the Inquisition etc.

The New Christians also had a secret code, which they used to preserve the secrecy of their correspondence. Preserved in the archives of the British Museum are the documents of Mendes da Costa, written in a secret code. New Christians identified each other throughout the world by placing the right-hand on their heads, in the course of conversation. There was also a question, used as a means of identifying a person of Marrano stock by to the answer. They provided mutual assistance, when someone had to escape the Inquisition. New World had secret harbors, where one could board a vessel belonging to a New Christian who observed Judaism and escape to Europe. For example, the two brothers of Luis de Carbajal, who was burnt at the stake in Mexico City in December 1596, managed to reach Europe in a vessel, which took them on at a secret location near Campiza. Marranos arriving from Madrid or Seville at the port of Veracruz in New Spain knew that they had to go to the home of Fernando Rodriguez. They stayed in his home for several days, and only then proceeded to Mexico City to the home of Simon Vajiz, one of the leaders of the city's Jewish community.

Camouflage Measures

The need to preserve their Judaism in secret from the Inquisition led the Marranos to adopt different camouflage measures:

Circumcision-accordingto Jewish law the foreskin was removed. But since the Inquisition was aware of the obligation of circumcision and its nature, and was accustomed to strip the prisoners in order to check if they underwent circumcision, there were Marranos who tried to trick the Inquisition by making a longitudinal cut instead of removing the foreskin. But there were those who were willing to take the risk and were circumcised.

Outward Fulfillment of Church Obligations - Marranos visited church and attended mass and communion - eating the sacred bread and drinking wine - but only a few went to confession. Those who went to confession obviously did not confess their Judaism. While visiting church, Marranos refrained from looking at the holy bread when they received it, and hastened to spit it out immediately upon leaving church.

Smiting Images of the Saints and Concealing Their Faces - One of the accepted ceremonies in the secret gatherings of the Marranos for the purpose of prayer was smiting the statues of the Christian saints. On January 21, 1639, 12 Marranos were burned at the stake in Lima the capital of Peru for smiting statues. Since maintaining the statues of the saints in the home was a common practice amongst Christians, the Marranos were accustomed to retaining statues of saints in their houses for security purposes, but their faces were turned to the wall. Only when Christians visited the house would the statues be turned to face the room.

The First Born to the Church - Generally young people were apprised of their origin when they reached bar mitzvah age (13), but they were sworn to secrecy. They did not reveal the secrets to the first born and intended him to fill a post in the church, as a security measure, as well as to ferret out the current moods in the church.

Festivals and Customs in the Shadow of the Inquisition

From Inquisition documents, we also learn about the Jewish customs of the Marannos in the New World:

Candle lighting on the Sabbath and Festivals - Failure to light candles was considered a sin divinely punishable by death. The wives of the Marranos were accustomed to hide the candles under the table or to cover the windows with a black cloth. However, there were families who had candles burning everyday of the week in order to observe the commandments of lighting candles on the sabbath and festivals without being caught.

Gathering for Prayer - The Marranos met secretly to pray. The custom of the prayer quorum was scrupulously observed. When there was a need to invite the worshipers for a special meeting, they were accustomed to send a Negro dressed in red and playing on the tambourine, to circulate through the streets. This was a secret sign to come to synagogue. They were accustomed to fast in groups and gather in groups to read the Torah. Since Bibles were rare, the Marranos used psalms from the Dominican Psalm Book. The prayers were in Spanish and Portuguese, but there were a number of words that were recited in Hebrew, such as Adoshem, Shma Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Ehad. There were a few who knew additional words such as: talit, tefilla, teref and treifa. There were also isolated individuals who knew the Shmona Esreh prayer. During prayers there was no separation between men and women. They were accustomed to reciting the Shma Yisrael prayer by raising their arms or by crossing them on their chest. Likewise they were accustomed to cover their eyes with the left hand, while placing the right-hand on their hearts, when the direction of the prayer was towards Jerusalem.

Kashrut Observance - Marranos observed the customs of Jewish ritual slaughter. They had a special knife for slaughtering and they hung the animal by its hoofs after slaughter, so the blood could drain out. They salted the meat, did not eat fish without scales, did not use animal fat for cooking, but only olive oil, made their own wine for kiddush, or used a liquid produced from cocoa beans. They did not have separate utensils for meat and dairy, but pig derivatives did not enter their homes.

Sabbath Observance - They were accustomed to prepare hot food on Friday and it was retained on the stove during the Sabbath. Towards the Sabbath eve they changed clothes and everybody wore clean clothing. They opened their stores on the Sabbath, but refrained from using sales stratagems.

Yom Kippur - was fixed on the tenth of September. They fasted on Yom Kippur, which was called "The Day of Forgiveness" or "The Day of the Great Fast". On Yom Kippur eve they customarily asked forgiveness from members of the family and friends in case that they had offended them during the year. Likewise, it was customary, following the concluding meal before the fast, which included fish and vegetables, to go down on bended knee in chronological order before the mother of the family and a grandmother in order to receive a blessing. The boys were blessed that they should be like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whereas girls were blessed to be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. On Yom Kippur they were accustomed to pray all day in a secret synagogue and in order to avoid suspicion, it was customary to take an afternoon break when the worshipers went out walking through town.

Passover - Before Passover they would customarily purchase new dishes. This did not arouse suspicion because people used earthenware dishes, which were broken easily. The women would customarily bake the matzos by themselves. They were round and called "tortas". Prior to the meal they ate lettuce, bitter herbs and radish. They did not have Haggado (Order of the Passover Night celebration) and they read from the Latin translation of the Bible about the Exodus from Egypt. The person conducting the Seder wore white clothing. The festival lasted seven to eight days.

Purim - was not considered a happy festival in the New World. The Marranos felt a sense of identification with Esther and Mordechai and the Jews of Persia and Medea, who suffered persecution at the hands of Haman. The king of Persia did not know that Esther was a Jewess, and she fasted three days before she approached him to intercede on behalf of the Jews. The Marannos observed the "Fast of Esther", and used the Latin version of the Book of Esther for the purpose of reading the Book of Esther.

The Ninth Day of Av - In July, the Marranos were accustomed to observe the Fast of the Ninth Day of Av, which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples. They refrained from eating meat and fowl for three weeks prior to the fast.

Tabernacles - From the middle of the seventeenth century they stopped celebrating the festival, for fear of exposure.

Rosh Hashanah - was not observed.

Hanukkah - They were accustomed to lighting candles in a Hanukah candelabrum for the eight days of the festival, to commemorate the victory of the Maccabees and the purification of the temple.

Marriage - Mothers and grandmothers were responsible for arranging marriages. The first preference - even prior to love - was marriage into a Marrano family. However, there were many marriages within the family to guarantee the religion was preserved. For quite a few years, there was a permanent connection, via an emissary, with Italy and other parts of Europe and even the Ottoman Empire, in order to provide grooms and brides for Marranos in the New World. Some of the grooms were circumcised, as emerges from the Inquisition documents. After the wedding night it was customary to abstain from sexual relations, until hymeneal bleeding stopped. Husbands and wives did not bear the same family name. There was a custom which originated in Spain in 1480, to adopt the family name of the grandfather or grandmother of one of the parents. The menu of the wedding meal included honey cake among other things.

Customs of Burial and Bereavement - When a person died, they turned his face to the wall, washed him in warm water and wrapped him in imported linen fabric, originally produce in Rouen, France and subsequently in Holland. The cloth was woven in factories that belonged to people of Jewish origin. The custom of tearing one's clothes was common amongst the Marranos. After the burial of the dead they ate hard-boiled eggs without salt. The egg symbolized the cycle of life, and the absence of salt came to emphasize the bitterness of the loss. Marannos observed the custom of shiva, and during the seven days they were accustomed to turn the mirrors towards the wall and empty water vessels, in order to get rid of evil spirits. During the shiva, friends and relatives would customarily bring food. They would recite the Kaddish three times a day for 11 months in the framework of a prayer quorum.

Belief in the Advent of the Messiah - Of course they did not believe in the Holy Trinity or Jesus as the Messiah. They were firm in their belief that when the Messiah of David's seed would arrive they would be saved and would live in peace and tranquility in accordance with their faith.

Fast and Prayers for Forgiveness - Marannos bore a heavy sense of guilt for betraying Judaism. They were accustomed to fast frequently and composed a special prayer to ask forgiveness and absolution from the Lord God of Israel.

What Caused the Disintegration of the Clandestine Communities?

It emerges that the persecutions of the Inquisition failed to liquidate Jewish life in the New World. However, two primary factors account for the disintegration of the communities. The first factor was the lack of the rabbis, scholars, and teachers who were sufficiently learned in Judaism to be able to preserve Judaism in a communal framework over generations. In the fourth generation, the ties between the Old World and the New were severed, due to a lack of family and commercial ties. The knowledge that was transmitted within the framework of the family dwindled appreciably. The second factor was the decline in scope of Inquisition activities. Persecution had reinforced adherence to Judaism and it was precisely the decline in persecutions that weakened devotion to Judaism. In the absence of pressure by the Inquisition, the assimilation of New Christians within Christian society increased, and the financial success of many turned them into desirable matches. Mixed marriages became more common and conversely the link to Judaism became attenuated. But, as has become clear in recent years from the reawakening of descendants of the Marranos, which has prompted them to explore their Jewish roots, there were families that continued to cleave to Jewish customs for over 500 years.

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