History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

Last Years in Portugal.

Toleration had lingered a little longer in Portugal. The badge had been imposed by Alphonso IV in 1325, but then his successor had removed it. While fanaticism raged in 1391 in Spain, there was still sanity and security in Portugal. John (or Joao), 1411, whose life had been saved by the high-minded David Negro, naturally befriended his savior's co-religionists. As in Spain they were singled out for royal distinction on the one hand, and had to run the gauntlet of ecclesiastical hate on the other.

The long and kindly reign of Alphonso V, from 1438 to 1481, mark the last favorable years for Israel in the Peninsula. The attack on the Juderia of Lisbon in 1449 did not meet with his approval. It was he who appointed Isaac Abarbanel State Treasurer. As long as the power was his, this last Jewish statesman showed himself a friend in need to his brethren. It was his energy and means that helped to free Jewish captives made slaves in Morocco.

But as soon as the crafty John II came to the throne, toleration's knell was rung. Only the timely warning of a friend enabled Abarbanel to escape to Spain with his life. Here his gifts were brought to the royal notice and Ferdinand found him valuable in financing the Moorish war and in provisioning the army. His attempt to stay the expulsion has already been told.

Spanish Refugees in Portugal.

The Portuguese king was a dissembler who assumed a friendly external to further unfriendly ends. At first he opened his land as an asylum for Spain's exiles, at least for eight months' respite. Rabhi Aboab arranged the terms of admission. When the months of grace were up, he broke many of the promises made to aid their departure. On the ships, tardily supplied, the men were robbed and the women outraged. The cruel sailors landed some on desolate coasts and left them to their fate. Some were seized by pirates. Many prevented from leaving Portugal by treacherous devices, were enslaved because they stayed. Their children were torn from their parents regardless of their heart rending cries, and taken to the island of St. Thomas, on the west coast of Africa. Those who did not die on the way were reared in the faith of their parents' foes.

John IIs successor, Manuel, styled the Great, began his reign in 1495 with a humane treatment of the Jews, freeing without payment those who had been enslaved. Abraham Zacuto, the Jewish astronomer, was taken into his service. Humane he might have continued, but desiring to marry Isabella of Spain, who inherited, with her name, all her mother's fanaticism, untempered by her mother's softness, he had to submit to her bigoted conditions—Jewish expulsion. Manuel the Great—but not great enough to resist that barbaric demand!

Portuguese Expulsion.

So, against the advice of many of his counselors, he reluctantly consented, though he indulgently put off the expulsion for a year, 1497. But once under his wife's fanatic dominance he went even further than his Spanish exemplars. All children between certain ages (the authorities differ as to the period) were to be left behind by their exiled parents, to be brought up in the Church.

The tragic episodes of the Crusades were here repeated, of which we have the unbiased testimony of a Christian bishop. Once more we see Jewish parents slaying their offspring and then slaying themselves. Some Christians, like the Egyptian midwives of old, took sides against their sovereigns, for they, too, were mothers and fathers. But the perfidious king went further yet. Some twenty thousand souls who, trusting to royal clemency, had lingered till the last day of grace, were informed that the time for departure had expired and the alternative of Christianity with honors or Judaism with slavery was proffered. As they remained invincibly loyal, conversion was literally forced upon them.

So Portugal now had its Maranos, or Neo-Christians, whose conformity to the Church was leniently overlooked. Still, many desiring to escape from this double life, emigrated to Barbary, Italy and Turkey, until further emigration was prevented.

In 1506 the Dominican friars incited a mob to heartlessly massacre these Neo-Christians. Drought and plague as well as heresy were ascribed to them. But this wanton cruelty created a reaction in the king's heart, whose fanaticism ceased with his wife's death. The persecutors were punished and full permission of emigration was granted.

Under Joao III, who came to the throne in 1521, Marano emigration was again restricted and conformity to Christian life strictly enforced. The climax of woe came in 1531 with the institution of the awful Inquisition.

For half a century the Jews had fought its introduction. But all opposition was finally quelled and the "Holy Office" completely installed. But the postponement and final enforcement were largely affected by a series of romantic circumstances entirely unforeseen, recalling the story of David Alroy.

David Reubeni and Solomon Molcho.

A Jewish adventurer calling himself David Reubeni, and hailing from Arabia, startled the Moslem and the Christian world with the story of a Jewish kingdom in the East. He was favorably received by Pope Clement VII in Rome, and by Joao III in Portugal, who half believed in his mission to lead a Jewish crusade against the Turks in the Holy Land. The Portuguese king at the same time saw here a political opportunity to win back the spice trade which had been taken by the Turk. So for a time there was a friendly attitude towards the secret Jews who in their turn looked upon Reubeni almost as a Messiah.

The incident took a new turn when the high-born Diego Pirez of Marano ancestry, became a convert to Judaism through Reubeni and took the name of Solomon Molcho. He was a scholar, courtier and a Messianic visionary. Bar Cochba had not in Rabbi Akiba a more devoted ally than Reubeni found in Molcho. In both instances, too, the disciple was of purer and loftier character than the man he humbly followed.

Sailing to Turkey, Molcho made a sensation there and inspired audiences by his preaching the speedy coming of the Messiah. Next he turned to Rome and donning a beggar's rags he indulged in visions of the Messiah he half believed himself to be. Fearlessly he appeared in the presence of the impressionable Clement VII, who gave him welcome while the Pope's subordinates were seeking to put him to death. Heedless of danger, for he courted martyrdom, we next find him preaching publicly in the synagogue and indulging in prophetic ecstasies. Condemned to death as a traducer of the Church, he was snatched from the burning by his friend, the Pope.

His last dramatic act was an appeal made jointly with Reubeni to the Emperor Charles V of Spain to lead a Jewish army against the Turks. The less impressionable Emperor handed them both over to the Inquisition. Reubeni probably died in one of its dungeons. Molcho before the fires were kindled to consume him at Mantua was promised his freedom if he returned to the Church. He replied that he preferred death as a Jew to life as a Christian and rejoiced to die for the cause of the Faith he loved.

So passed a noble soul whose fantastic imagination, while it won him a famous career, prevented his becoming of any real service to the Synagogue.

Portuguese Inquisition, 1531.

Indeed, the momentary friendhness towards the Maranos occasioned by Reubeni's appearance and promise was followed by severe reaction after his bubble had burst. The Inquisition long planned, but postponed, was now inaugurated in 1531. It needed but a slanderous charge of image desecration to bring the climax. The steady emigration of Maranos was now stopped by the Inquisitors eager for victims. In Spain, the Inquisition preceded the Expulsion; in Portugal, it followed it.

We need hardly recite the details of the sad chronicle. Its abortive methods and its strange mingling of bigotry and avarice have been told in the story of the Inquisition in Spain—its precedent and counterpart. Its tortures were just as fiendish. It was but a change of background. Gratefully we record that the Franciscan Da Silva opposed its introduction and declined the position of Inquisitor. Alas, there were many eager to take it. The Maranos still kept up their fight against it, with its forced conversions and its confiscations, for a year or two. But in 1541 we find the auto-da-fe, with accompanying human burnings in Lisbon, Evora and Cambria. Soon it spread like a pestilence over all Portugal. One Inquisitor did not hesitate to resort to forgery to force confessions and even hired criminals to testify.

Owing to tremendous opposition that its scandals created, some Maranos were permitted to return to Judaism unmolested and were released from the overcrowded prisons. But as soon as the outcry had died down, the old tyranny was resumed. Thus it continued with ebb and How. Said an English consul who witnessed some burnings in the presence of the Queen, "their crime is their possession of wealth."

Finally in 1557, the remaining Maranos, on the payment of an enormous indemnity, were allowed to depart. Retribution came earlier to Portugal than to Spain. For in 1578 this very indemnity was utilized to undertake a war in Africa against the Moslem. From the disastrous defeat that followed, Portugal never quite recovered.

Still the Inquisition went on all through the seventeenth century; it continued while Portugal became subject to Spain and also after its subsequent independence. Its havoc even extended to the Portuguese colonies in the New World. So in distant Brazil its long arm reached out to Israelites once more and brought some back as victims to Lisbon.

More even than in Spain, the Portuguese Inquisition is a story of intrigue and counter-intrigue; a bull would be bought from one Pope to sanction it, then from another to restrict it.

It will carry us beyond the epoch covered by this volume to trace its bloody trail through the eighteenth century, till its power was broken through the exposure of its infamies by King Joseph. The moment its victims were given a civilized trial, where the accused could be informed of the charges against him and of the names of his accusers and could also choose his own counsel, the Inquisition rapidly collapsed. It could flourish only in the dark; like noisome insects, it shunned the light. It hardly needed the earthquake of 1750 to destroy its tribunal building. Still not till after the nineteenth century had dawned, not till 1821, was it officially abolished and the nation awoke from its nightmare.

Later Fortunes of the Sephardim.

The expulsion from the Peninsula of Spain and Portugal closes an epoch in Jewish history. The disaster affected materially and sympathetically the whole Jewish world. Once more Zion was laid low; another centre of Jewish life and learning erased from the map. The bulk of Spanish Israel was now lost to Jewry by baptism or death; lost, too, the bulk of their wealth, estimated at thirty million ducats.

But exiled and impoverished the Sephardim (Spanish and Portuguese Jews), lost naught of their dignity of bearing or their cultured manners, which centuries of distinction had given them. Their fallen state even exaggerated their pride. The Peninsula had exploited and expelled them, but it had not broken their spirit. In their fine bearing through it all they stood in strong contrast with their cowed and somewhat shiftless Ashkenazim (German, chiefly) brethren. So they held themselves aloof, keeping up their Spanish and Portuguese languages which they spoke with purity, as half sacred tongues. They maintained, too, their distinct synagogue ritual, that almost singled them out as a separate Jewish sect. As such they came to regard themselves and scorned union with the Tedesco (Spanish for German, slightingly used).

In spite of the barbaric treatment that marked the later years of the Jews in Spain, they never got over their attachment to it. Like no other country, outside of the Holy Land, it had the spell of Fatherland to them.

We have recounted the woes and the losses, yet some flotsam and jetsam was saved from the wreckage. Their wondrous recuperative powers were again exemplified. As in the earlier dispersion, here likewise there resulted some compensating good to Israel at large.

Wherever they came they were singled out for leadership. In Turkey they became the citizen class as merchants and artisans as well as physicians, linguists and teachers. Their advent in Constantinople increased the Jewish community there to 30,000. They formed the majority of the Jewish community of Salonica, making its language Spanish. They furnished its philosophers and astronomers and were largely instrumental in making it a Kabalistic centre.

They not only re-enforced the Jewish community of Jerusalem, but raised its whole status. This was true also of Safet in Galilee, where Joseph Saragossa became teacher and Dayan of his brethren. They established new congregations in Damascus. Here, as elsewhere, fitness placed leadership ia their hands.

One Spanish Jew leads a Moorish brigade in Fez, and another founds a college there. Many, like their illustrious predecessor Maimonides (an earlier fugitive from Spain) became rabbis and teachers in Egypt. One Spanish rabbi abolished the obsolete Selucidaean era, still maintained by Egyptian Jews from pre-Maccabaean days, and introduced the traditional era of the world's creation—our custom now.

So the Jewish centre of gravity in learning and leadership was shifting East again—but only for a while.


Shephardic Ritual:—The Sephardim still maintain distinct and separate synagogues in the nations of the world to-day. Their liturgy varies slightly as well as their pronunciation of Hebrew. Read Chapter on Safet in Schechter's Studies in Judaism, Second Series.

Theme for Discussion:—Compare the modern Jewish method of time measurement of the Jews with that of the Christians and the Mohammedans.