Bringing Together and Educating Descendants of Sephardic Conversos
By Rabbi J.Bejarano-Gutierrez
The Religion of Spanish and Portuguese Crypto Jews
The history of the Jews of Spain spans more than a thousand years. It ended tragically in 1492 with the edict of expulsion issued by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Castile and Aragon shortly after their conquest of the Kingdom of Granada. The Jews of Portugal encountered a similar fate in 1497 with King Manuel I’s expulsion order. The edicts occurred after a tumultuous century of radical changes in Jewish life in the Iberian Peninsula. Beginning in 1391 and culminating with the expulsion decrees, large numbers of Jews converted to Christianity, many under physical coercion or duress.  Converted Jews were referred to by a number of terms including Conversos, New Christians, Hebrew Christians as well as derogatory terms such as Marranos, meaning swine.
The term Crypto Jews in this context refers to Spanish and Portuguese Jews who converted to Christianity, but continued to observe Jewish practices and maintain Jewish beliefs secretly. Such observances were labeled as Judaizing and subject to severe penalty including execution by Inquisitional authorities. The following article reviews beliefs and customs of Crypto Jews and their attempt to maintain Jewish identity in increasingly difficult and dangerous surroundings. The descendants of Crypto Jews exist to this day.
Defining Communal Identity
A community’s identity is comprised of a variety of components. Among these are a shared sense of common origins, a claim to a distinctive history, and a sense of unique cultural solidarity. These elements are often placed under the rubric of ethnicity. However, while the former are certainly applicable to openly practicing Jewish communities as well as Crypto-Jewish communities, most important for the subject of Jewish identity are those religious and theological elements that are markedly Jewish in nature. On a daily basis, Jewish identity is expressed via two concepts derived from classical Jewish religious texts. The first is embodied in the Hebrew word halakhah; the second is the concept of minhag. A third component, that of belief is reflected in practical fashion in the observance of the two previous concepts.
The word halakhah (or halakhot in the plural) is often translated as “Jewish Law,” but a more appropriate rendering of this term might be “the way or manner that one walks in.” Halakhah refers to the practical implementation and observance of the commandments as enumerated and explicated in the Written and Oral Law. Examples of halakhot are the laws of kashrut (i.e. the dietary laws permitting and prohibiting certain types of food, the manner in which acceptable animals are slaughtered, etc.).
Minhag (or Minhagim in the plural) refers to those customs or observances which while generally tied to the commandments, are often derived from the various ethnic, cultural, and even linguistic influences found in the diverse communities and regions in which Jews live or have lived in. As Abraham Chill notes:
“Jewish practice is an intricately woven texture of law and custom. While the law tends to be fixed in such way that local variations are minimal, patterns of custom are rich in their diversity.”
For example the minhagim of Jews living in or originating in North Africa are different from those living in or originating in Eastern Europe. Many of these customs have become a binding part of Jewish practice. In a broader sense, minhag is also used to indicate a community’s or an individual’s customary way of observance. An example of a minhag common to all Jewish communities is the practice of covering one’s head with a kippah or a skullcap as a sign of piety. While minhag may seem secondary to halakhah, its importance cannot be underestimated as the Talmud notes: “”the minhag of our fathers is [equivalent to] Torah.” A distinction nevertheless, remains between the two spheres of Jewish practice.
Halakhah and Minhag in Crypto Jewish Communities
In the context of Crypto Jewish communities, both in the Iberian Peninsula and in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies of the New World, the knowledge of and distinction between halakhah and minhag persisted. But as contact with established Jewish communities, with rabbis, and with Jewish texts lessened, the overall knowledge of Jewish practice and beliefs diminished. This is not to say that many individuals and in fact some communities of Crypto Jews did not retain sophisticated levels of Jewish knowledge. But the fact that an open expression of Jewish spirituality was impossible meant that individuals and communities generally practiced less detailed levels of observance as compared to their counterparts living in openly practicing Jewish communities. Those who were more observant and knowledgeable were often reinforced by contact with openly practicing Jews who were outside of their normal circles. This reflects the fact that a complete isolation on the part of Crypto Jews from the greater Jewish world did not exist as Seymour Leibman notes:
“The concept that the Jews in Spain were isolated from Jews in other nations is not true. The Spanish Jews and those in the New World were in contact with Jews all over Europe. Although there were no books to educate the crypto-Jews, ‘a seventeenth century Marrano…could, while reading non-Jewish books, and without danger to himself, glean much more Jewish information than might be suspected in a Spain devoid of open Jewish life since 1492.’”
Nevertheless, while Leibman’s views might apply to certain individuals, for most Conversos the challenges involved in living a secret Jewish life were substantial and the inability to practice openly without concern certainly affected the process of transmitting Jewish identity to one another or from one generation to the next was difficult. As David Gitlitz notes most recorded “conversations” regarding Judaism among Crypto Jews were not very profound, though exceptions do exist. Generations after the Expulsion, most Conversos were for all practical purposes incapable of viewing Judaism as a completely independent religious system, and most always referenced their Jewish understanding back to Christianity. The fact that some Crypto Jews were looking to anti-Jewish literature to inform them of Jewish practice, simply highlights the problem they faced in maintaining and transmitting their identity.
It is important to note that whatever practices or beliefs are enumerated whether in a “purely” Jewish fashion or as a synthesis of Jewish-Christian beliefs, the extent and scope of Crypto Jewish practices can only be understood collectively. That is to say that each Crypto Jew was individualistic in his or her personal observance of halakhot or minhagim and this was a product of their individual circumstances, their family background, childhood education, and exposure to other observant Conversos.
A Third Category of Observances and Beliefs
Before reviewing actual observances, it is important to note that a synthesis between Jewish and Christian beliefs and practices occurred and hence in speaking of Crypto Jews we must also understand that a third set of practices and beliefs should be taken into account when describing their identity. The extent of the challenges faced by even those Conversos who had escaped into areas where they could openly practice Judaism is captured by Byron Sherwin in his work, Finding Faith in Meaning:
“Despite their sincere desire to return to the Jewish faith and the Jewish fold, [who had fled the Iberian Peninsula] had many obstacles to overcome. Though they had left Spain and Portugal behind, though many had divested themselves of Christianity, though many had exchanged their Spanish names for Hebrew names, and though some had accepted harsh penances as the price of “return,” most “new Jews” retained the culture and the language of Spain and Portugal. They not only remained influenced by Christian doctrines but also intended to understand the nature of Jewish identity and Judaism through the prism of Spanish-Catholic teachings. As one of them put it, ‘It is truly difficult to desert a religion which one has known from the cradle.'”
Thinking about Judaism in Christian Categories
If this was the case for those who fled Spanish or Portuguese controlled areas, how much more was this the case for those living under the watchful eyes of the Inquisition? Highlighting their dilemma of maintaining Jewish observances under such circumstances, Conversos generally began to fuse Jewish practices and beliefs with Christian thought and practice. This fusion or synthesis often resulted in customs that lay outside the fold of either normative Catholic or Jewish experience. These folkways to borrow a term from Mordecai Kaplan were/are often as critical in identifying Crypto Jews as the observance of established halakhic practice or minhagim or through genealogical research. As David Gitlitz notes, “It is clear that within a generation after the Expulsion most Conversos had become more Christian than Jewish.” Generally speaking, despite Seymour Leibman’s statement, most Crypto Jews did not have access to Jewish works, teachers to instruct their children Hebrew, or rabbis to explicate the nature of Jewish observance.
The Variation of Observance among Crypto Jews
The variation of observances among Crypto Jews is extensive and again reflects a variety of factors which include the locale of those in question and the time in which these individuals or communities lived. This can be understood by a brief review of the events leading to the rise of the first Converso communities. The pogroms of 1391 in Spain were been followed by additional coerced conversions throughout the 15th century finally culminating in the last great conversion in 1492. Conversos living in Spain before the establishment of the Inquisition and even until the Expulsion lived rather complicated dual lives as did their colonial counterparts. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the case of Gonzalvo Ruiz. David Gitlitz, in his work Secrecy and Deceit notes the following:
“New Christians frequently contributed financially to the maintenance of Jewish institutions. The synagogue and the community of which was most important tangible symbol continued to be a significant magnet for Judaizing new Christians prior to the Expulsion. It was not unusual to find conversos like Gonzalvo Ruiz [Teruel 1487], who ‘had a bench in the synagogue and he defends it and allows his friends and relatives to sit on it and nobody else.”
Crypto Jewish Practices and Beliefs in the New World
On the other side of the spectrum, Crypto Jewish identity would not be so easily divulged to most people, particularly for those who Conversos who had immigrated illegally to the New World. These Crypto Jews retained a number of beliefs and practices. Some, such as circumcision or as the practice of endogamy were quite common, while others were reflected in certain individuals and communities. Endogamy was a method for maintaining Jewish identity and remains a key characteristic of many descendants of Crypto Jews.
In surveying the records of the Inquisition and the writings of the most famous Crypto Jew in the New World, Luis Carvajal El Mozo, Seymour Leibman provides a review of common observances of many Crypto Jews living in Mexico in the 16th and 17th centuries. The observances and beliefs are simply too many to fully enumerate and the following is only a sketch of the types of rituals observed, many of which are attested to by those claiming Crypto Jewish ancestry. They include belief that the Law of Moses was the true law and was better than the “law of Jesus.” Belief in the Law of Moses often included the idea that the Law was divinely revealed by God to Moses at Sinai. The Ten Commandments prohibition against venerating images was considered very important, though the application of this was much more complicated as we will see. Other practices include making beds neatly and bed coverings straight to prevent the souls of the dead from lying on them and tormenting the owner. A piece of matzah (unleavened bread) was suspended from the neck to serve as a good-luck amulet. A piece of matzah was also placed atop the head to cure headaches. Fingernails were to be cut in a certain order, placed in paper, and then burned. To insure good luck, only fowl that were either all black or brown without any feathers would be eaten. Other practices include the observance of modified ritual purity laws, forty days after the birth of a male, before returning to a “normalized” state.
Dietary restrictions largely connected to abstaining from pork, fish without scales, draining the blood from fowl, and slaughtering the former by decapitating them. Larger kosher animals are reported to have been ritually slaughtered by men. The meat was often soaked in warm water to draw out remaining blood. Additional practices such as Passover Matzah being baked or the practice of ritually separating dough (challah) is also recorded.
The Sabbath was observed from Friday evening until the appearance of three stars Saturday evening. The Sabbath was often honored by special clothing as well as a prohibition of work which at times included not handling money or collecting debts. Candle lighting on the Sabbath was observed in many homes. The detail of observance and understanding of halakhic minutia is impressive at times as in the case of Juana Enriquez who criticized another woman for brushing her teeth on the Sabbath because she considered this work. This issue is particularly interesting since this is connected to the melacha (i.e. work) of a category called memachek, a Sabbath prohibition derived from the Talmud. This shows a sophisticated level of familiarization with halakhic minutia for the Sabbath.
The observances of minor Jewish holidays such as Purim (Festival of Lots), Tisha B’Av (commemorating the destruction of the both Jerusalem Temples), and Chanukah (the Feast of Dedication) as well as major holidays such as Shavuot (the Festival of Weeks), Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and Succot (the Festival of Booths) are also known. Interestingly another other major holiday Rosh Hashanah (often referred to as the Jewish New Year) is largely unmentioned. Purim, the celebration recorded in the book of Esther involving the attempted extermination of the Jewish people by Haman, a courtier of King Ahaseuras, was particularly significant to many Crypto Jews as the Esther’s hidden Jewish identity resonated with the difficulty they found themselves in.
Mourning practices also appear as another major point of identifying Crypto Jews. Mirrors were turned to the wall at someone’s passing. Family members often observed a seven day period of mourning and sat on the floor or on low stools. Hard boiled eggs were eaten without salt by immediate mourners and jars of water in the house of the deceased were removed out of concern for evil spirits.
In terms of “synagogue protocol” or Jewish prayer, many Crypto Jews authored their own short versions, including references to the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, and to “lord” or “Ado-nai” as well as other Hebrew words. In some cases the extent of Jewish liturgy is rather impressive. Seymour Leibman notes two Crypto Jews, Jorge de Almeyda and Diego Diaz Nieto among others who knew the entire daily prayer referred to as the Amidah or the Shemoneh Esreh – a Hebrew prayer consisting of eighteen benedictions.
Relationship with Christian Beliefs and Practices
A characteristic of many Crypto Jews was their tendency to define their Jewish identity negatively. That is as a repudiation of Christian beliefs. Christian beliefs including the sacrament were privately ridiculed at times. Nevertheless Crypto Jewish beliefs often assimilated Christian theological constructs. The emphasis in Catholicism on Saints was often adopted by Crypto Jews with the substitution of Jewish Biblical figures for Christian personages. Lighting candles to Christian saints was copied by lighting candles to Moses or the Apocryphal figure of Tobit, a Jewish figure found in the Septuagint – the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, and not in the Masoretic texts of the Hebrew Bible. The concept of personal salvation as opposed to communal salvation was adopted from Christianity. Belief that the Law of Moses would save one’s soul as opposed to belief in Jesus was also a common belief and reflects Byron Sherwin’s comments regarding the challenges faced by Conversos.
An Example of Crypto Jewish Faith: The Writings of Luis Carvajal
The writings of Luis Carvajal, El Mozo – the most well known Mexican Crypto Jew and martyr of the 16th century provide us with an amazing portrait of additional beliefs that were maintained by Crypto Jews. In his last will and testament, Carvajal includes a list of religious truths he held to. The list is interesting in that it not only expresses the principles of Jewish faith he maintained in a manner reminiscent of the Thirteen Principles of Faith penned by Moses Ben Maimon, but also highlights the constant references to and polemic against Christianity which were characteristic of Crypto Jewish belief.
Carvajal begins with an affirmation of his belief in the one and only God. He ends his first declaration by stating that he rejected the “devil and his lies.” His second declaration is the Shema (Deuteronomy 4:4) and the uniqueness of God. His third principle is belief in the Torah, which he describes as the “law that Christians called the dead Law of Moses.” He continues by noting that Christian views that Jewish law was dead violated one of their own gospels. His fourth principle is the prohibition against idolatry. His fifth statement affirms “the sacred sacrament” of circumcision as a binding commandment. His sixth declaration affirms the future coming of the Messiah. His seventh declaration focused on his apocalyptic view of Daniel and the rise of empires which would rule the earth. His last declaration is the view that King Antiochus of the Book of Maccabees fame represented the Spanish monarchs who arose to persecute Jews as Antiochus had done in his days. Carvajal’s writings show an in depth familiarity with the Hebrew Scripture as well as Jewish apocryphal literature maintained only in the canon of the Catholic Bible. Most importantly Carvajal provides us with an example of the complex emotional and theological struggle that existed in the lives and minds of Crypto Jews living in a hostile Christian environment.
Conclusion: An Enduring Legacy
The continued existence of Crypto Jewish practice is well attested to in a variety of locations in Spain and Portugal, in the Southwestern portions of the United States as well as throughout Latin America. Other individuals and families retain knowledge of their past origins or maintain genealogical sources demonstrating their connections to Converso families. While the particulars vary and the individuals claiming such a heritage are often dependent upon oral family traditions, practices of the type previously enumerated are generally maintained in differing levels of depth and understanding.
As Stanley Hordes notes in his work, To the Ends of the Earth, there are essentially three types of descendants of Crypto Jews existent today:
“At one extreme are individuals who are biological descendants of the original fifteenth-century Conversos, but retain neither an awareness of their ancestral faith nor any vestigial Jewish customs. The other extreme, very few in number, encompasses those who profess retention of a consciousness of the family’s Judaism and continue to observe Jewish practices, either openly as Jews or in secret under the cover of Catholicism or Protestantism. The majority, however, fall in a middle category: those Catholics or Protestants whose families display observances suggestive of Judaism, but without any specific knowledge about why they do so.”
The Crypto Jewish experience remains an enduring legacy and phenomenon well into the 21st century.
Michael Alpert, Crypto-Judaism and the Spanish Inquisition, (London: Palgrave, 2001).
Frederik Barth, ed., Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Cultural Difference (Bergen: Universitets Forlaget, 1969)
Shaye J. D. Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).
Stanley M. Hordes, To the Ends of the Earth: A History of Crypto-Jews of New Mexico, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).
David Gitlitz, Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of Crypto-Jews, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2009).
Kevin Ingram, Ed., The Conversos and Moriscos in Late Medieval Spain and Beyond: Volume One Departures and Changes, (Boston: Brill, 2009).
Seymour Leibman, New World Jewry 1493 -1825: Requiem for the Forgotten, (New York: Ktav Publishing, 1982).
Seymour Leibman, The Enlightened: The Writings of Luis De Carvajal, El Mozo, (Miami, University of Miami Press, 1967).
Seymour Leibman, The Jews in New Spain: Faith, Flame, and The Inquisition, (Coral Gables: University of Miami Press, 1970), 76.
Byron Sherwin, Finding Faith in Meaning: A Theology of Judaism, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
Anthony D. Smith, The Ethnic Revival, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).
Yechiel Michel Stern, The Book of Shabbos, (Jerusalem: Ezrat Torah, 1995).
Anthony D. Smith, The Ethnic Revival, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 66. See also Shaye J. D. Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 3, 7. See also Frederik Barth, ed., Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Cultural Difference (Bergen: Universitets Forlaget, 1969), 14.
 Abraham Chill, The Minhagim: The Customs and Ceremonies of Judaism, Their Origins and Rationale, (New York: Sepher-Hermon Press, 1979), vii.
 Tosafot to Menahot 20b
 Seymour Leibman, New World Jewry 1493 -1825: Requiem for the Forgotten, (New York: Ktav Publishing, 1982), 42.
 David Gitlitz, Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of Crypto-Jews, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996), 99.
 Ibid., 99.
 Ibid., 123.
 Byron Sherwin, Finding Faith in Meaning: A Theology of Judaism, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 6.
 David Gitlitz, Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of Crypto-Jews, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996), 99.
 David Gitlitz, Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of Crypto-Jews, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society), 507.
 Michael Alpert, Crypto-Judaism and the Spanish Inquisition, (London: Palgrave, 2001), 170. See also Seymour Leibman, The Jews in New Spain: Faith, Flame, and The Inquisition, (Coral Gables: University of Miami Press, 1970), 76.
 Seymour Leibman, New World Jewry 1493 -1825: Requiem for the Forgotten, (New York: Ktav Publishing, 1982), 13, 15, 57.
 Ibid., 106.
 Ibid., 106.
 Ibid., 106.
 Seymour Leibman, The Enlightened: The Writings of Luis De Carvajal, El Mozo, (Miami, University of Miami Press, 1967), 44.
 Ibid., 44.
 Ibid., 44.
 Ibid., 44.
 Ibid., 44.
 Michael Alpert, Crypto-Judaism and the Spanish Inquisition, (London: Palgrave, 2001), 195.
 Seymour Leibman, New World Jewry 1493 -1825: Requiem for the Forgotten, (New York: Ktav Publishing, 1982), 119.
 Ibid., 119.
 Ibid., 121.
 Ibid., 106.
 Ibid., 106-107.
 Ibid., 119.
 Mishnah Shabbat 73A.
 Yechiel Michel Stern, The Book of Shabbos, (Jerusalem: Ezrat Torah, 1995), 219.
 Seymour Leibman, New World Jewry 1493 -1825: Requiem for the Forgotten, (New York: Ktav Publishing, 1982), 106-107.
 Seymour Leibman, New World Jewry 1493 -1825: Requiem for the Forgotten, (New York: Ktav Publishing, 1982), 121-122.
 David Gitlitz, Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of Crypto-Jews, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996), 297.
 Ibid., 296.
 Seymour Leibman, New World Jewry 1493 -1825: Requiem for the Forgotten, (New York: Ktav Publishing, 1982), 124.
 Ibid., 111.
 David Gitlitz, Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of Crypto-Jews, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996), 135.
 Kevin Ingram, Ed., The Conversos and Moriscos in Late Medieval Spain and Beyond: Volume One Departures and Changes, (Boston: Brill, 2009), 162.
 David Gitlitz, Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of Crypto-Jews, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996), 137, 138-139, 159.
 Ibid., 116-117.
 Kevin Ingram, Ed., The Conversos and Moriscos in Late Medieval Spain and Beyond: Volume One Departures and Changes, (Boston: Brill, 2009), 183.
 Seymour Leibman, The Enlightened: The Writings of Luis De Carvajal, El Mozo, (Miami, University of Miami Press, 1967), 126.
 Ibid., 126.
 Ibid., 126.
 Ibid., 127.
 Ibid., 127.
 Ibid., 128.
 Ibid., 128.
 Stanley M. Hordes, To the Ends of the Earth: A History of Crypto-Jews of New Mexico, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), xvii.