History of the Sephardic Jews

The Origins

Jews settled in the land of Sepharad (or Sefarad), as Spain was called in Hebrew language, very early. It was often claimed that their arrival to Spain happened soon after the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in 586 BC. There was a legend among the Sephardim (i.e. the Spanish Jews) that Toletum (Toledo), the capital city of Spain, was founded by Jewish refugees from Jerusalem. A popular etymology explained its name (pronounced by the Jews Tolaitola) to be derived from the Hebrew word "tolatola" exile, or, according to another explanation, from "toledoth" generations. The Sephardim considered this city a second Jerusalem and recreated a virtually new Palestine around it: the towns of Escaluna, Maqueda, Jopez and Azeque were erected in the adjacent lands in memory of the Palestinian Ashkalon, Makedda, Joppa (Yafo) and Azeka; the Ibn-Daud and Abrabanel (Abravanel) families were proud to claim their descendency from the house of king David, the Solomon's father. Jewish communities were founded also in Carthago Nova (Cartagena), Córdoba, Granada, Saragosse, Taragona and all over the Iberian peninsula.

The Early Christian Period (till A.D. 711)

The Sephardim prospered for centuries under the Roman empire, being preeminent in trade, especially with slaves, crafts and finances. The rise of Christianity in Roman Spain (3rd - 4th c. AD) put their positions at stake. They were blamed for having murdered the Messiah and practicing the mortal sin of usury. The Church Council of Iliberis (Elvira), held in 306, sanctionned for the first time a policy of segregating the Jews from the rest of society. For long time such measures had but a little effect. The situation, however, worsenned dramatically when the Ostrogothic kings of Spain embraced the Catholic faith in the late 6th century. Since then the Jews were put under permanent persecution for practicing their religion and had to face several times the dilemma of either converting to Christianity, or leaving Spain. In such circumstances it is understandable that when the Moors of North Africa crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and invaded the peninsula, the Jews met them like liberators and often opened the towns' gates to their victorious armies. Later the Christians used to accuse the Sephardim for calling the Moors, but this is to be an exageration.

The Muslim Period (711-1492)

In the first three centuries of the Muslim domination the Jews enjoyed great influence and prosperity. Jews frequently served the government in official capacities and plkayed  an active role in political and financial affairs. Hasdai ibn Shaprut (fl. 915-975) was counsellor to the caliphs of Córdoba, the Ibn Nagrelas were viziers of Granada, the Ibn Ezras, Ibn Megashs, and Ibn Albalias were high officials in Granada and Seville. The Sephardim were also engaged in considerable social and intellectual intercourse with influential circles of the Muslim population. Solomon ibn Gabirol, Moses ibn Ezra, and Judah ha-Levi were but the acknowledged supreme geniuses of a form of expression. The period 1000-1148 disserved to be named the Golden Age of Hebrew literature.

The situation, however, deteriorated again when soon after 1008 the Caliphate of Córdoba disintegrated into a lot of petty statelets (taifas), whih were unable to oppose the pressure of the northern Christian kingdoms. When Toledo fell to the Castilians (1085), the taifa kings had to call the Almoravids, a militarist Moorish sect from Morocco. The Almoravids believed that Jews must accept Islam if 500 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad their Messiah had not come. A campaign to convert the Sephardim by force was launched in al-Andalus (the Muslim part of Spain), but the matters were arranged after a great ransom was paid. The Almoravids' intervention could stop only temporarily the Christians. In 1147 the Muslims of Spain had to appeal for help to the Almohads, Berber Muslim reformers of Northern Africa. Their arrival saved for once more time the Islam in Spain, but the Almohads attacked not only the Christians, but the Sephardim also. The Jewish communities of al-Andalus were destroyed and thousands of Jews were driven either to northern Spain and Provence or, as in the case of Maimonides' family, to North Africa and Egypt.

The Alliance with the Christian kings

It is to be said that this time the Christians, facing the rise of a superior Muslim force, received the Jews with some kind of compassion, because considered them useful allies. As a result, the Jews switched the side, giving their support to the Christian kingdoms. There they formed a special social group, depending and protected by the kings who used them as tax collectors, financial ministers (almoxarifes), treasurers, state bankers, personal physicians, astronomers... In the cities the Jews acquired predominant positions in trade and crafts. It became usual practice for the nobles to marry to Jewish women in order to receive the financial support of the rich Jewish families. Even the kings had Jewish favorites. In this manner the Sephardim exerciced great influence on the policy and economy of the Christian kingdoms.

The Catholic reaction

The Church always disapproved the favoring of the Jews by the authorities, viewing in them potential instigators of heresy and apostasy. The Christian middle class, for its part, envied the Jews' high social status and wealth. After the decisive victory of the Christians against the plain of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212) and the conquest of Córdoba (1236) the Moors were not anymore serious opponents and the support of the Jews against them was not yet as important as before. In 1391 a series of pogroms was organized by phanatical monks against the Jewish quarters in the towns of the Christian kngdoms; the authorities tried to stop it, but in vain. The Jews were forced to convert or to die, their property was seized; in Seville only there were massacred 4000 Jews and much more accepted to be baptized. The Spansh historians of the 19th century called these events La Guerra Sagrada contra los Judíos The Holy War aganst the Jews; it played the role of social revolution, replacing in fact the Jewish traders and shopkeepers with Christian holders.

Subsequently there appeared a lot of Christianized Jews (in Hebrew anusim) called euphemistically by the Church authorities Cristianos Nuevos (in Portuguese Cristãos Novos) New Christians, or, by a more vulgar expression, maranos (marãos) swine. The majority of the New Christians, though really separated from the Jewish community, kept on observing secretly the Judaic rites (they were Crypto-Jews). To fight against their practices, the Church introduced the instituton of the Holy Inquisition.

The Expulsion

Under its permanent pressure over the government was reached the final solution of the Jewish question in Spain: the Royal Edict of 1492 for their Expulsion from the recently unified kingdom. An Italian Jew described vividly the tragedy of this exodus in a text written in the spring of 1495 (the original is in Hebrew):
And in the year 5252 [1492], in the days of King Ferdinand, the Lord visited the remnant of his people a second time [note], and exiled them. After the King had captured the city of Granada from the Moors, and it had surrendered to him on the 7th [2d] of January of the year just mentioned, he ordered the expulsion of all the Jews in all parts of his kingdom -- in the kingdoms of Castile, Catalonia, Aragon, Galicia, Majorca, Minorca, the Basque provinces, the islands of Sardinia and Sicily, and the kingdom of Valencia. Even before that the Queen had expelled them from the kingdom of Andalusia [1483].

The King gave them three months' time in which to leave. . .

About their number there is no agreement, but, after many inquiries, I found that the most generally accepted estimate is 50,000 families, or, as others say, 53,000- [note] They had houses, fields, vineyards, and cattle, and most of them were artisans. At that time there existed many [Talmudic] academies in Spain. . .

In the course of the three months' respite granted them they endeavoured to effect an arrangement permitting them to stay on in the country, and they felt confident of success. . .

The agreement permitting them to remain in the country on the payment of a large sum of money was almost completed when it was frustrated by the interference of a prior who was called the Prior of Santa Cruz [Tomaso de Torquemada]. Then the Queen gave an answer to the representatives of the Jews, similar to the saying of King Solomon [Proverbs 2 1: 1]: "The king's heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water. God turneth it withersoever He will." She said furthermore: "Do you believe that this comes upon you from us? The Lord hath put this thing into the heart of the king."

Then they saw that there was evil determined against them by the King, and they gave up the hope of remaining. But the time had become short, and they had to hasten their exodus from Spain. They sold their houses, their landed estates, and their cattle for very small prices, to save themselves. The King did not allow them to carry silver and gold out of his country, so that they were compelled to exchange their silver and gold for merchandise of cloths and skins and other things.

One hundred and twenty thousand of them went to Portugal, according to a compact which a prominent man, Don Vidal bar Benveniste del Cavalleria, had made with the King of Portugal, and they paid one ducat for every soul, and the fourth part of all the merchandise they had carried thither; and he allowed them to stay in his country six months. This King acted much worse toward them than the King of Spain, and after the six months had elapsed he made slaves of all those that remained in his country. . . He also ordered the congregation of Lisbon, his capital, not to raise their voice in their prayers, that the Lord might not hear their complaining about the violence that was done unto them.

Many of the exiled Spaniards went to Mohammedan countries, to Fez, Tlemçen, and the Berber provinces, under the King of Tunis. On account of their large numbers the Moors did not allow them into their cities, and many of them died in the fields from hunger, thirst, and lack of everything. The lions and bears, which are numerous in this country, killed some of them while they lay starving outside of the cities. A Jew in the kingdom of Tlemçen, named Abraham, the viceroy who ruled the kingdom, made part of them come to this kingdom, and he spent a large amount of money to help them. The Jews of Northern Africa were very charitable toward them. A part of those who went to Northern Africa, as they found no rest and no place that would receive them, returned to Spain, and became converts. . .

When the edict of expulsion became known in the other countries, vessels came from Genoa to the Spanish harbors to carry away the Jews. The crews of these vessels, too, acted maliciously and meanly toward the Jews, robbed them, and delivered some of them to the famous pirate of that time who was called the Corsair of Genoa. To those who escaped and arrived at Genoa the people of the city showed themselves merciless, and oppressed and robbed them, and the cruelty of their wicked hearts went so far that they took the infants from the mothers' breasts.

Many ships with Jews, especially from Sicily, went to the city of Naples on the coast. The King of this country was friendly to the Jews, received them all, and was merciful towards them, and he helped them with money. The Jews that were at Naples supplied them with food as much as they could, and sent around to the other parts of Italy to collect money to sustain them. The Marranos in this city lent them money on pledges without interest; even the. Dominican Brotherhood acted mercifully toward them. [note] On account of their very large number, all this was not enough. Some of them died by famine, others sold their children to Christians to sustain their life. Finally, a plague broke out among them, spread to Naples, and very many of them died, so that the living wearied of burying the dead.

Part of the exiled Spaniards went over sea to Turkey. Some of them were thrown into the sea and drowned, but those who arrived, there the King of Turkey received kindly, as they were artisans. He lent them money and settled many of them on an island, and gave them fields and estates. [note]

A few of the exiles were dispersed in the countries of Italy, in the city of Ferrara, in the [papal] countries of Romagna, the March, and Patrimonium, and in Rome. . . .


§. The first Spanish visitation was in 1391. =>
§. This would be about 250,000 persons. Other estimates run from 100,000 to 800,000. =>
§. The Dominican monks were normally bitterly opposed to Jews. =>
§. The Turks needed smiths and makers of munitions for the war against Christian Europe. =>

History of the Sephardic Jews Main Page
Judeo-Spanish Language Main Page

Modern Romance Languages Main Page
Orbis Latinus Main Page

This page is part of Orbis Latinus
© Zdravko Batzarov