Conversos in Bayonne: Circumcision, Mitzvot, and Dissimulation

Declining knowledge of Jewish practices increased the importance of circumcision among Conversos. Conversos attributed the same special role to circumcision that Christians credited to baptism. The Conversos of the city of Bayonne in France highlight this. In 1663, Conversos there corresponded with Rabbi Moses Raphael D’Aguilar of Amsterdam.

Living an openly Jewish life was still prohibited in France. These Conversos were troubled by the arrival of Dr. Isaac de Avila from Amsterdam. He circulated a letter he claimed was authored by Rabbi Isaac Aboab, which condemned Conversos living in Southern France. The letter stated:

“Those members of the Nation who keep the commandments of the Torah before being circumcised have no part in divine grace, and they are condemned to eternal damnation. Hence, every converso who arrives from the Iberian Peninsula must be circumcised within three months of his arrival. If not, he will be excommunicated.”[1]


The Conversos of Bayonne were stunned by the severity of these words. One of the Conversos, David Manuel Isidro wrote to Rabbi Moses Raphael D’Aguilar hoping to understand the ramifications of the letter. Isidro asked whether the Conversos of France, who by law were not allowed to practice Judaism openly, would be forgiven for foregoing the commandment of circumcision. Isidro asked whether uncircumcised males were prohibited from keeping any other commandments. He also inquired about the eternal state of someone who had been buried according to Christian burial rites. Isidro questioned if it were prohibited for uncircumcised males to enter a synagogue. Lastly, he asked about the fate of those who returned to the Peninsula because of financial necessity. Isidro understood the limitations of the “Judaism” that Conversos in France observed and was cognizant that they were failing to fulfill their responsibilities. Isidro pleaded with Rabbi D’Aguilar to allow them to continue praying to the G-d of Israel.[2]

Rabbi D’Aguilar dismissed the letter as a forgery and also addressed the near sacramental status that circumcision had attained among Conversos.  Rabbi D’Aguilar explained that circumcision could not purify or redeem. It could not bring salvation or transform Conversos into pure Jews. Circumcision did not bring salvation, particularly to those who still pretended to be Christians. It could not atone for the sin of idolatry. Conversos were baptized as Christians, ate non-kosher foods, neglected the laws of niddah, violated the Sabbath, and even lent money at interest.

Despite their failings, uncircumcised Conversos were not exempt from the observance of the commandments.[3] Rabbi D’Aguilar did not view the Conversos of France as forced converts since he argued they could leave whenever they wanted. This fact compounded the gravity of their sins. D’Aguilar then provided conflicting advice. Even though those who lived in idolatrous lands had no hope of salvation in the World to Come, they were still obligated to keep the commandments. Observing the commandments could take them to the right path one day. D’Aguilar sought to encourage the Conversos of France to flee. He ended his letter with “…you are our brethren, and we do not wish to cut you off from the body of Israel!”[4]

In another case of Conversos in France, an ecclesiastical and royal investigation into crypto-Jewish activity in Rouen in France, two Jews from Amsterdam Eliahu Montalto and Rafael Buendia visited Rouen in 1631. While there, they conducted a Passover Seder for Conversos in the area. In 1633, another report regarding Rouen related that Jao (Moses) Pinto Delgado had learned Hebrew from two rabbis who had visited the area. The report also claimed that Delgado had received aid from the Jewish communities in the Netherlands, Livorno, and Venice among others. In the end, the investigation was dropped thanks in large part to large financial inducement. In 1673, an inquisitorial report suggested that Conversos in Bayonne and Peyrehorade traveled to Spain on business or for the purpose of instructing other Conversos in Jewish observance.[5]

For another related article, please see Conversos and Circumcision.

By Rabbi Juan Bejarano-Gutierrez the director of the B’nei Anusim Center for Education and author of What is Kosher?

[1] Yosef Kaplan, “Wayward New Christians and Stubborn New Jews: The Shaping of a Jewish Identity,” Jewish History, Vol. 8, No. ½ The Rober Cohen Memorial Volume (1994): 31-32.

[2] Ibid., 33.

[3] A rabbi of Pisa in Italy was asked about a former Converso who had returned to Judaism. The former Converso was devout.  He prayed three times a day, wore a tallit, and observed the mitzvoth, but was not circumcised.   The reason was his need to return to the lands of idolatry to secure his fortune. A controversy erupted over whether a Converso was permitted to observe mitzvot and to hold a Torah scroll if he was not circumcised and had not immersed himself. The rabbi was inclined to allow him. He even leaned towards allowing him to wear tefillin. His position was rejected by the sages of Livorno. The sages did not argue against the merits of allowing this specific individual from doing so. They acknowledged that the law permitted this, but believed that making the former Converso equal to a full Jew without undergoing circumcision undermined the return of other Conversos. They believed they would put off circumcision indefinitely. The rabbis acknowledged that this former Converso was in effect still an anus in the literal sense, in that, even though he was outside the Peninsula, he was still subject to duress and could not be circumcised yet. They recognized that his whole heart was directed with Heaven, and he was scrupulous regarding all the other mitzvoth. Regarding this type of forced convert, they made no distinction apart from the matter of tefillin. Regarding those who postponed circumcision not out of duress, but because of lethargy were to refrain from wearing tzitzit and even attend synagogue services until they repented. Responsa Mayim Rabim, Rabbi Rafael Mildula (Amsterdam, 5497 [=1737], Pt. 10, §§51, 52; quoted in El Libro de los Acuerdos (Oxford, 1931).  Translation provided by Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman. Also see David Graizbord, “Religion and Ethnicity among “Men of the Nation”: Toward a Realistic Interpretation,” Jewish Social Studies: History, Culture, Society. n.s. 15 (2008): 54-55.

[4] Yosef Kaplan, “Wayward New Christians and Stubborn New Jews: The Shaping of a Jewish Identity,” Jewish History, Vol. 8, No. ½ The Rober Cohen Memorial Volume (1994): 33.

[5] Miriam Bodian, Hebrews of the Portuguese Nation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), 143, 145.

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