B'nei Anusim Center for Education

Bringing Together and Educating Descendants of Sephardic Conversos

Rabbi Maimon’s Response to Persecution

The rise of the Almohades (Al-Muwahhidun: those who assert the unity of G-d) in Northwest Africa and in Spain in the 12th century initiated a period of forced conversions. Many Jews were forced to give a public confession that Mohammad was the prophet of G-d. Others refused to do so and died as martyrs. A distinctive element of the Almohad persecution lay in the fact that the Almohades appear to have only required the recitation of the shahada, a statement testifying the prophethood of Mohammed. They did not actively alter behavior in private domains. Maimon’ own family was affected by the persecution. They traveled extensively in an attempt to escape the onslaught.

In the aftermath of the persecutions, controversy arose on how these forced converts should be received in the Jewish community as well as what they should do if they still lived in the lands subject to the Almohades. One rabbi had responded quite forcefully that in proclaiming Mohammed as a prophet, they had professed idolatry. He appealed to the Talmudic dictum that “Whoever professes idolatry is as if he denied the entire Torah.”[1] But some of the forced converts were continuing secretly in their Jewish observance. Despite this, the rabbi dismissed the validity or efficacy of any observance performed by these anusim by stating that any commandment they observed would actually be counted against them as a transgression.

“If one of the forced converts enters one of their houses and worship, even if he does not say a word, and he then goes home and offers his prayers, his prayer is charged against him as an added sin and transgression.”

Learning of the response given by the rabbi to one of the anusim in question, Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon angrily sought to dismiss what he saw as a foolish and disgraceful reply.  Rabbi Maimon began by arguing that the rabbi did not understand the difference between a willful transgressor and a forced one. Nowhere in the Torah argued Maimon, was there any indication that a forced individual was sentenced to any punishment, regardless of the severity of the transgression. The only individual who was subject to punishment was the intentional transgressor. Maimon appealed to the biblical verse which states “But the person …who acts defiantly…that soul shall be cut off.”[2] He also referenced the Talmud which states “The Torah rules that the forced individual is not culpable, for this case is like that of a man attacking another and murdering him [Deuteronomy 22:26].”[3] The Talmud also affirmed that the forced convert was not dubbed as a transgressor or wicked. The forced convert was also not disqualified from giving testimony, except in a case where the forced convert had committed an offense that made him ineligible from serving as a witness.[4]

Rabbi Maimon is especially critical of the attitude the rabbi had taken in condemning the forced converts for not having opted for martyrdom. Rabi Maimon appealed to various Scriptural as well as Midrashic sources to argue that the rabbi’s character assassination for lack of a better term of these forced converts was unacceptable. He appealed to the fact that before the Exodus, most Israelites with the exception of the tribe of Levi had failed to observe the commandment of circumcision and that many had even fallen into depravity. Referencing Ezekiel 23:2, the rabbis interpreted that Israel had even practiced incest. Despite their corruption, the rabbis argued that G-d rebuked Moses when he questioned “What if they do not believe in me? [Exodus 4:1].” G-d replied that the Israelites were “’…believers, children of believers…’ as Scripture reports: ‘…and the people… believed [Exodus 14:31]; sons of believers: because he believed, He reckoned it to his merit [Genesis 15:6].”[5] The same was the case during the prophet Elijah’s escape to Mount Sinai in the aftermath of the confrontation with the prophets of Baal and Asherah. In relating the fact that Israel had fallen into idolatry, Elijah is confronted with a retort by G-d that it would have been more reasonable to direct his accusations against the Gentiles.[6] Maimon’ point is clear that the rabbi’s attitude and critique of the forced converts, whatever their failure was wrong and misplaced.

In order to dismiss the rabbi’s argument that forced converts living publically as Gentiles, despite their secret Jewish observance, were, in fact, Gentiles, Rabbi Maimon appealed to the account of no less a scholar such as Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Eliezer practicing dissimulation to survive persecution. Rabbi Maimon states:

“It is common knowledge that in the course of a persecution during which Jewish sages were executed, Rabbi Meir was arrested. Some who knew him said: ‘You are Meir, aren’t you?’ and he replied: ‘I am not.’ Pointing to ham they ordered: ‘eat this if you are not Jewish.’ He responded: ‘I shall readily eat it,’ and he pretended he was eating, but did not in fact.”[7]

In Rabbi Eliezer’s case, he was accused of heresy, which Maimon claimed was even worse than idolatry. When asked how an accomplished man of science could believe in religion, Rabbi Eliezer answered in a manner which appeared to give credence to the critique of his inquisitors. Rabbi Maimon notes that while his answer seemed to support their views, Rabbi Eliezer was in fact “thinking of the true religion and no other.” The issue is clear that Rabbi Eliezer pretended to be a heretic while retaining his genuine belief in G-d. Maimon sought to demonstrate that despite their seeming failure when faced with persecution, repentance was always available to the sincere individual. To illustrate this, Maimon noted that even the wicked King Ahab had humbled himself and G-d was merciful to him.

“It is explicitly reported in the Bible that Ahab, son of Omri who denied G-d and worshiped idols, as G-d attests: ‘Indeed there never was anyone like Ahab [I Kings 21:25], had the decree against him rescinded after he fasted two and a half hours. The Bible informs us: ‘Then the word of the L-RD came to Elijah the Tishbite: ‘Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before Me. Because He has humbled himself before Me, I will not bring the disaster in his lifetime; I will bring the disaster upon his house in his son’s time [I Kings 21:28-29].’”[8]

Rabbi Maimon argued that G-d rewarded every individual for the good deeds they performed, as well as punishing those who continued to commit transgressions. To buttress his view that forced converts who continued to observe the commandments would be rewarded. If G-d rewarded someone as wicked as Ahab after repenting, honored King Eglon of Moab for having risen to hear the word of the L-RD, and granted Esau dominion until the Messianic era, because he paid homage to his father, G-d would certainly honor those who endeavored to keep the commandments despite their forced conversions.[9]

Rabbi Maimon though was aware that the situation facing Jews under the Almohad persecution was unique since all they required was a “profession of faith.” In his letter, Maimon noted that Rabbi Dime ruled in the name of Rabbi Yochanan that even if it was not a time of persecution, an individual should only transgress instead of undergoing martyrdom in private. In public, Rabbi Dimi ruled that even violating a minor rabbinic enactment was prohibited. A widespread violation was defined as in front of ten Israelites.[10]  Profanation of G-d’s name was a grave sin for which unintentional sinners and premeditated sinners were evenly punished. Maimon sought to encourage those facing persecutions, to flee as soon as possible to avoid profaning G-d’s name. Yet the realities of life and the likelihood of not everyone being able to meet that were not lost on him.  Rabbi Maimon declared the following.

“Anyone who cannot leave because of his attachments, or because of the dangers of a sea voyage, and stays where he is, must look upon himself as one who profanes G-d’s name, not exactly willingly, but almost so [emphasis mine]. At the same time he must bear in mind that if he fulfills a precept, G-d will reward him doubly, because he acted so for G-d only, and to show off or be accepted as an observant individual. The reward is much greater for a person who fulfills the Law and knows that if he is caught, he and all he has will perish. It is he who is meant in G-d’s qualification: ‘If only you seek Him with all your heart and soul [Deuteronomy 4:29]’. Nevertheless, no one should stop to plan to leave the provinces that G-d is wroth with, and to exert every effort to achieve it.”[11]

Rabbi Maimon extolled the virtues of martyrdom by noting the sacrifice that Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were willing to endure when compelled worship the Nebuchadnezzar’s idol. He also noted the case of Daniel, the apocryphal story of Hannah, and the case of the Ten Martyrs. A person, whom Rabbi Maimon described as meriting the privilege of ascending to this rank, even if they had been wicked, would surely merit the world to come. Nevertheless, Maimon was quite aware of the realities of most individual’s spiritual levels. For those who failed the test of martyrdom and opted to transgress to preserve their lives, Rabbi Maimon stated the following:

“Now if he did not surrender himself to death but transgressed under duress and did not die, he did not act properly and under compulsion, he profaned G-d’s name. However, he is not to be punished by any of the seven means of retribution. Not a single instance is found in the Torah in which a forced individual is sentenced to any of the punishments, whether the transgression was light or grave…”[12]

In this particular case as well as in Rabbi Maimon’ letter to the community of Yemen who underwent a similar persecution, the fact that Islam was generally not considered as idolatrous was certainly helpful in applying this lenient view to the subject at hand. In addition, since the conversion to Islam under the Almohades only required the recitation of the shahada and not more extensive actions typical of Christian practices, leniency could be more readily extended. Islamic practice was also much closer to Judaism than Christianity was which allowed for a greater degree of obscurity when practicing Jewish customs in the case of Maimon’ letters to affected communities. Mark Cohen states:

“Jews could accept Islam outwardly, demonstrating their conversion by attending Friday prayer and avoiding acts disapproved of in Islam, while secretly adhering to Judaism in the privacy of their homes.”[13]

In addition, at least one Islamic source of the 10th century upholds the view that the forced conversion is not binding unless the convert has overcome their fear. [14] Rabbi Maimon rejected the view that if a Jew could not observe all the commandments,  then partial observance has no significance.[15]  Rabbi Maimon believed that G-d valued every commandment performed by a repentant individual.[16]

“Maimonides addressed the Jewish status of these individuals by first noting the fact the Bible’s own depiction of Israel’s history.  For Maimon the argument was simple. If the generation that had experienced the exodus from Egypt as well as the associated miracles had fallen into idolatry, but were still called Israel, the same approach should be extended to individuals that had yielded to a violent persecution and transgressed unwillingly.”

Rabbi Maimon noted that in ancient Israel when Jews were condemned by the prophets it was because they worshiped Baal voluntarily. David Hartman relates:

“Had the Almohads required Jews to participate in Islamic rituals and practices, and had they forbidden Jewish observances in private, then the consequences of such behavioral conditioning would constitute a much greater threat to the community than the simple recitation of a faith formula.” [17]

In a most striking passage of his letter, Rabbi Maimon actually argued that martyrdom was unnecessary in this case since it only concerned a verbal acceptance and not actual change in religious practice. The Almohades for all their zeal were purportedly not determined to investigate behavior outside of the public domain.  Rabbi Maimon stated:

“But if anyone comes to ask me whether to surrender his life or acknowledge, I tell him to confess and not choose death. However, he should not continue to live in the domain of that ruler. He should stay home and not go out, and if he is dependent on his work let him be the Jew in private. There has never been a persecution as remarkable as this one where the only coercion is to say something.”[18]

Rabbi Maimon continues his letter by “counseling” his readers to make every effort to leave the land of persecution. Rabbi Maimon urged his readers to leave these lands and journey to a place where they could practice Judaism freely. Maimon however, even advocated his readers to leave their family and home and all their possessions if necessary. This position appears at odds with his earlier statement regarding those who stayed because of their livelihoods. It seems that Rabbi Maimon was engaged in a tough balancing act attempting to assuage those who remained while simultaneously challenging them not to be complacent in their situation. To note the seriousness of not escaping, he referred to the Talmudic statement regarding those who dwelt outside the land of Israel as equivalent to those who denied the existence of G-d. His own exile notwithstanding he referred to the prophets to prove his point. “Indeed, the prophets have spelled out that a person who resides among nonbelievers is one of them.” [19]

Yet despite the critical nature of the passage, it is also evident that the halakhic status of the individual did not change by their failure to depart. Failing to flee rendered the forced convert a transgressor, a profaner of G-d’s name, and “almost a presumptuous sinner.” Yet they were not to be turned away. To illustrate this, Maimon referred to the case of the Shabbat desecrator. He stated that it was not correct to alienate, scorn, or hate those who violated the Shabbat. It was the duty of faithful Jews to make friends with and encourage them to fulfill the commandments.  Maimon states: “The rabbis regulate explicitly that when an evil-doer who sinned by choice comes to the synagogue, he is to be welcomed and not insulted.”[20] If a willful sinner was to be accepted without reservation, the forced convert, despite their failure to immediately comply with the directive to flee the land of persecution was also to be received without impediment.

The differences between Christianity and Islam bring up issues in the applicability of the positions indirectly applying the letter to the case of Conversos in the 14th and 15th centuries.[21] Yet as a review of selected rabbinic responsa will show, some Conversos did face circumstances in which a superficial acquiescence to Christianity was all was required or even expected. This particularly true in the period following the initial violence of 1391 and I believe many Conversos knew that the vigilance of the authorities varied greatly. Open expressions of Jewish observance were certainly problematic, but discrete or private if not public associations were not as difficult until the intensification and redirection of the Inquisitions towards Judaizing and relapsing converts was made.

In addition, I believe that knowing that Rabbi Maimon had essentially justified the actions of those who had converted to Islam may have influenced Jews in the 14th and 15th centuries. This view was applied by Rabbi Isaac ben Sheshet in his responum on the matter of anusim. There were without questions significant disparities between Christianity and Islam. Unlike Islam, Christianity was wrought with religious imagery which for most Jews constituted idolatry. Yet the fact that at least in the early years, many Conversos could continue Jewish observances in their homes undisturbed, does bear similarity. Maimon’ letter would also be referenced in later rabbinic responsa regarding Conversos which shows that the rabbis did apply the letter’s views to the present day occurrences.  Whether in fact, Conversos retained fidelity to Judaism in “their hearts” is what Benzion Netanyahu and Norman Roth argue against. While I believe we cannot know the personal reasons that Jews opted for conversion, the individual Converso may have gambled that an eventual allowance of religious behavior may have been allowed to return sometime in the future.


[1] Nedarim 28a; Kiddushin 40a.

[2] Numbers 15:30.

[3] Nedarim 27a.

[4] Bavli Bava Kamma 72b and Bavli Sanhedrin 27a.

[5] Bavli Shabbat 97a and Exodus Rabbah 3:12.

[6] David Hartman, Crisis and Leadership: Epistles of Maimonides, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1985), p. 18.

[7] David Hartman, Crisis and Leadership: Epistles of Maimonides, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1985), p.20.

[8] David Hartman, Crisis and Leadership: Epistles of Maimonides, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1985), 22.

[9] David Hartman, Crisis and Leadership: Epistles of Maimonides, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1985), 23.

[10] Bavli Sanhedrin 74a.

[11] David Hartman, Crisis and Leadership: Epistles of Maimonides, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1985), p. 33.

[12] David Hartman, Crisis and Leadership: Epistles of Maimonides, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1985), p. 29.

[13] Mark R. Cohen, Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 176.

[14] Ibid. 176.

[15] David Hartman, Crisis and leadership: Epistles of Maimonides, (Jewish Publication Society, 1985), p. 95.

[16]  “A Jew always remains responsible to Halakhah and obligated to perform mitzvoth, regardless of his past sins.” David Hartman, Crisis and leadership: Epistles of Maimonides, (Jewish Publication Society, 1985), p.  95.

[17] David Hartman, Crisis and Leadership: Epistles of Maimonides (Jewish Publication Society, 1985), p.  85.

[18] Ibid. 30.

[19] Bavli Ketubot 110b.

[20] David Hartman,  Crisis and Leadership: Epistles of Maimonides (Jewish Publication Society, 1985), p. 33.

[21] MT Hilchot Teshuvah 3:5 states : Maimonides relates the severity of idolatry when he states: “A Jew who commits idolatry is considered as a gentile in all respects, and not like a Jew who has committed some other sin which carries a penalty of stoning. A convert to [the ways of] idolatry is considered as an apostate. Similarly, a Jewish infidel is not considered as a Jew in all respects, and is never accepted in repentance, for it is written, “None that go to her return, nor do they regain the paths of life”. Infidels are those who follow the impulses of their hearts with respect to the aforementioned matters, so much so that they transgress the key commandments of the Torah in contempt and brazenness, and they will say that they are not sinning. It is forbidden to converse with them or make them repent at all, for it is written, “…and don’t approach the door of her house”. The thoughts of a heretic are keyed to idolatry.”


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

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This entry was posted on September 22, 2016 by in Crypto-Jewish History and tagged , , , , , , .
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