Sefarad — A Short History of the Crypto-Jews (Part I)

Netanel Miles-Yépez

Although many Sefardim think of themselves as descendants of Judean royalty—whose roots in Spain go back to the time of King Solomon—the historical origins of Jewish settlement in the Iberian peninsula are largely covered in the mists of time. Nevertheless, it is clear that the relationship between Jews and Spain is an ancient one, and from the 1st-century onward, the prophet Obadiah’s reference to the “exiles of Jerusalem in Sefarad” (1:20) in the Bible has been understood to refer to the Jewish community of Ispamia, or Spain.

Certainly, Jewish merchants had made their way along the coastlines of the entire Mediterranean very early, probably following Phoenician trade routes, and Jewish settlements probably existed in Spain as early as the 2nd-century B.C.E., following Roman expansion. The Greek historian Strabo also seems to have been speaking of these Jewish settlements and merchants when he said: “This people has already made its way into every city, and it is not easy to find a place in the habitable world which has not received this nation, and in which it has not made its power felt.”[1]

But the major development of a Jewish community in Spain probably didn’t actually begin until 135 C.E., after the Jewish Bar Kokhba revolt failed and the Romans laid waste to Judea. Having witnessed the death of 580,000 of their brothers and sisters in that war, the destruction of over 1,000 towns and villages, and seeing the practice of Judaism forbidden, the surviving Jews had little choice but to leave Judea and rebuild their lives elsewhere. This was the beginning of the Jewish diaspora, the exile of the Jews from their homeland, and their dispersion throughout the world. From that time forward, they seemed destined to be forever ‘strangers in a strange land.’

The archeological record suggests that the Jewish settlers of Ispamia quickly formed separate communities within the larger communities of non-Jews, re-creating Jewish communal life and systems of mutual support. But it also shows how they absorbed many parts of the surrounding culture and mixed freely with it. Indeed, this early tendency toward acculturation—while still preserving the essential features of Jewish identity—would set a precedent that would continue through the centuries, ultimately becoming the hallmark of the Sefardi Jews everywhere.  

The province of Ispamia was one of the wealthiest and most prosperous in the Roman Empire, being rich in mineral resources—gold and silver—as well as having a climate and soil that was ideal for breeding horses and growing grains. And the Jews of the province shared in its wealth, earning a living as farmers and merchants, thoroughly integrated into its society. In fact, it was their very integration and acceptance among the non-Jewish population that first caused alarm among the early Christian ecclesiastical authorities there.

In 306 C.E., an ecclesiastical council was convened in Elvira (later called Granada) to discuss the alarmingly close relationship between ordinary Christians and Jews and the esteem with which some rabbis were held by Christians. At the time, Judaism was still a proselytizing religion and was clearly considered a competitor to its younger sibling. Thus, the Council of Elvira set out to systematically separate Christians and Jews from one another, an action that would have lasting consequences for the Jews of Spain. Farmers were warned by priests not to permit their fruits, which they received from God as a gift of grace, to be blessed by Jews, “so that our blessing should not appear as worthless and despised.”[2] Priests who were friendly to Jews were censured for sitting down to a meal with them and were refused communion until they had atoned for their “sin.” With such sanctions in place, Jewish acquaintances and neighbors quickly became pariahs and everyday relations between Jews and Christians suffered.

In the 5th-century, when Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire, the status of Jews within the Empire became a matter of even greater importance, and attacks against Jews escalated. What had been merely verbal before, now became physical attacks upon their persons and property, and the former prohibitions against contact with them were now turned into restrictions against the Jews themselves. It is in this period that Jews first begin to be characterized as “demons,” and although violence and forced conversions were not encouraged by the Church, they were the inevitable consequence of characterizing Jews as evil to the general populace.

In this same period, wave after wave of Germanic tribes—Suevi, Alani, Vandals and Visigoths—began to overrun Ispamia, ravaging its towns and villages, and eventually establishing their own kingdoms. These German warriors were Arianists, followers of a non-Trinitarian Christianity, who now found themselves rulers over a large population of Catholic, Trinitarian Christians, and a well-organized community of Jews.

At first, the new German rulers seem to have treated the Jews in much the same way as the rest of the conquered; but after the Visigothic king, Reccared I, converted to Catholic Christianity in 587 C.E., a new persecution and repression of the Jews began. Very quickly—perhaps to curry favor with the Christian authorities in his realm—King Riccared convened the Council of Toledo to “regulate” relations between Christians and Jews. He wished to limit Jewish influence on Christians. Thus, by order of the council, Jews were restricted from certain types of commerce and were absolutely forbidden to proselytize or exercise any authority over a Christian whatsoever.

In 613, King Sisebut convened the third Council of Toledo and himself called for the forced conversion of the Jews of Ispamia. Those who refused would be given 100 lashes, and if they did not then convert, they would be expelled from the kingdom and have all of their property confiscated. Again, though the Christian authorities did not endorse the idea of forced conversions—which could not reasonably produce sincere believers—they raised no strong objection to the king’s brutal tactics and watched as he compelled as many as 90,000 Jews to be baptized by force. As these were obviously pro forma conversions, such measures only succeeded in driving Jewish observance underground, in effect, creating the first known crypto-Jews. That is to say, they continued to practice their religion secretly, always hoping for the return of freedom when they might do so openly.

Nevertheless, the converts could not win for losing. Because their conversions could not be anything but suspect in the eyes of the Christian authorities and population, they were continually looked upon as devious pretenders, as something rotten fouling the practice of ‘true Christianity.’ Thus, the distinctions between ‘Old’ and ‘New Christians,’ ‘baptized’ and ‘un-baptized Jews,’ entered the lexicon of Spain for the first time.

However, the recurrence of different forms of the same anti-Jewish legislation through the centuries of Visigothic rule suggests that these measures were only partially successful, and that Jews continually managed to reassert themselves and integrate back into Spanish society. Nevertheless, the brutality of these coercive laws should not be underestimated. In many cases, the forced converts were required to repudiate Judaism with elaborate and sadistic oaths, often disparaging their former religion in the most lurid terms.

But things were soon to take a turn for the better. Between 711 and 718, most of the territory of Ispamia was conquered by generals of the Muslim Umayyad Caliphate, which had risen to power in Damascus in the 7th-century. The first of these generals was Tariq ibn Ziyad who led a largely North African Berber army into the Iberian Peninsula on the orders of Caliph Al-Walid I, taking the severely weakened Christian Visigothic Kingdom by storm. In 712, after a decisive battle on the Guadalete River, the Visigothic kingdom collapsed. Soon after, Ibn Zayid’s forces were replaced by those of his superior, the Emir Musa ibn Nusair who went on to subdue most of the rest of the Iberian Peninsula. By 718, only the mountain regions of the north remained in Christian hands.

According to Muslim historians, the Umayyad forces actually met with little resistance. This was probably because Ispamia was in a shambles—both agriculturally and politically—after years of natural disasters and despotic rulers. Often, Christians simply abandoned whole towns and villages, leaving the Jews and poorer elements of their population behind to greet the Muslim invaders. It is likely that the Jews who had been so long oppressed by the Christian Visigoths saw the Muslim forces as liberators. Indeed, Muslim accounts testify to this fact, speaking of how these Jews were often deputized by the Muslim soldiers and left as a rear guard while the army continued its advance.

This newly conquered territory would be called in Arabic, al-Andalus, or Andalusia, and would survive for nearly 800 years. Under Muslim rule, the status of Jews was considerably improved, for Muslim law sees both Jews and Christians as ‘People of the Book,’ fellow monotheists whose rights are to be respected. And though there were occasional instances of religious discrimination, most Muslim rulers in Andalusia tended to look upon Jews pragmatically, as potentially valuable contributors to the economy, as well as helpful administrators in the government. This acceptance was enough to create a new atmosphere of hope and creativity among the Jews of Andalusia and quickly led to the flowering of Sefardi Jewish culture. Indeed, it is worth remembering today—when so much of the political dialogue around Islam has become polarized and fallen into caricature—that the first ‘Golden Age’ of Spain, as well as the ideal of Sefarad and La Convivencia, the fruitful co-existence of the three Abrahamic faiths, all took place under a Muslim flag.  

Although this ‘golden’ depiction of Andalusia is often idealized, it is not merely a nostalgic sigh over a mythical ‘Camelot’ in the early history of Islam; it is also reflected in contemporary accounts from the time, especially of those who traveled to its majestic capital. Córdoba, by the 10th-century, was a city without equal, filled with people of all nationalities. Visitors who walked its paved and illuminated streets were awed by its architecture and gardens, and overwhelmed by its amenities; for the city boasted of over 700 mosques, 300 public baths, and 70 libraries. The finer homes in Córdoba even had indoor plumbing. Nowhere else in Europe could one find such splendor and luxury.

An interesting legend from the time deals with both the ideals and the realities of this seeming paradise:

When God was preparing to create the world, Andalusia came as a supplicant and made five requests: clear skies, a sea full of fish, trees filled with every kind of fruit, beautiful women, and a just government. God agreed to each of the first four, but denied them the last request; for if Andalusia had justice as well, it would rival even Paradise! [3]

Nevertheless, there was enough justice to create opportunity for its Jewish inhabitants, and they took advantage of it. Those first ‘deputies’ of the Umayyad invaders set a precedent that would be followed and built-upon for generations to come. Indeed, Jewish courtiers and physicians would become fixtures in Muslim courts, sometimes achieving powerful positions as advisors and administrators. Occasionally, the power and influence of Jewish viziers or prime ministers in Muslim courts was such that some wondered who was actually ruling the kingdom, often arousing dangerous jealousies.

These were makers of Sefardi civilization. That is not to discount the contributions of Jewish rabbis, artisans and merchants, who were the life-blood of their communities, but to say that these courtiers and physicians had access to the citadels of power and privilege, and often used them to improve the situation of their fellow Jews. They also provided their brothers and sisters with an opportunity to participate in a Muslim culture that was reaching its zenith, allowing them to explore new discoveries in science and mathematics, new thinking in philosophy and theology, and new forms of poetry and music, all of which were used to enhance traditional Jewish knowledge and culture. In many ways, Sefarad was a pearl cultivated within the shell of Andalusia, a parallel Jewish civilization growing in the sun of an Islamic empire then at its height.

However, its accomplishments were its own, and there was hardly a field of endeavor in which Sefardim did not excel and make their mark. Indeed, many of the most celebrated personalities in Sefarad were distinguished in more than one in field. Most of them had become accomplished Jewish scholars in their youths, mastered several languages along the way, and had learned to compose poetry on almost every imaginable subject. Over the flesh and bone of this education, they wrapped themselves in the robes of rabbis, physicians, philosophers, astronomers and ministers of state, some of them becoming legends in their own time. It was a world in which religion and art, science and politics were all woven together in one exquisite tapestry.

But Sefarad was not self-sustaining. It was dependant on Andalusian sovereignty. Thus, even as Sefardi culture was reaching its peak, the Muslim star in Spain was about to fall. Indeed, some believe it had started a slow descent shortly after the armies of Umayyad Caliphate had entered the Iberian peninsula in 711.

In 722, the advance of the Muslim forces was stopped at the Battle of Covadonga by Pelayo of Asturias who established a Christian kingdom in the north of Spain. For Christians, this victory marked the symbolic beginning of the Reconquista, or ‘re-conquest’ of Spain for Christianity. By the year 801, the whole of the north had been reclaimed, and although the northwest was briefly retaken by Muslims, by 914 it was permanently occupied by Christians. However, it would take them more than 270 years to secure central Spain and to conquer its jewel, Toledo. But once this was accomplished, around 1250, only the small southern Muslim kingdom of Granada remained, all that was left of once proud Andalusia.

During this process of reclamation, the Jews of Sefarad were caught between the hammer and anvil. On the one hand, they weren’t sure they wanted to live under Christian rule; but, on the other, life under the Muslims was becoming increasingly difficult. As the Muslim rulers were driven back year after year, the Muslim populace began to cling all the more fiercely to their identity as Muslims, and unfortunately, became less tolerant of the Jews in their territories.

In the 12th-century, there were numerous outbreaks of violence against Jews in Andalusia. And when the zealous and religiously intolerant Almohad Muslim forces swept into Iberia from North Africa to stem the Christian advance, things only got worse for the Jews. For the Almohads were not inclined to treat the Jews as a ‘protected people,’ as Muslim law dictated, but put severe sanctions on them and even forced conversions to Islam. So, once again, a religion wedded to political power had created crypto-Jews on Spanish soil.

Under these conditions, the Jews of Iberia had only three choices: to bear with these conditions until they eventually changed; to flee to other, more liberally ruled Muslim lands; or to cross the border into the Christian controlled north of Spain. For many, the latter option became increasingly attractive. The new Christian rulers needed to colonize these recently conquered territories, and in places like Toledo, Saragossa and Valencia, Jews were offered special inducements to settle—land grants, tax exemptions, and the promised protection of the king. As Christians pressed the war on the southern front, once again, Jews were assigned military responsibilities and left as a rear-guard, just as they had been by Muslim forces. They were also given the responsibility of developing the economies of these newly Christian territories, and in some cases, were even given charge over the finances of Catholic religious orders.

So, for a time, Sefarad continued under Christian rule, and the pearl that had matured in Muslim Andalusia was still considered valuable in Christian Spain. After all, Jewish courtiers had been intermediaries between Muslim and Christian kingdoms for centuries and were trusted by both sides precisely because they had no kingdom of their own to serve. Thus, they quickly resumed their traditional roles as courtiers and physicians, only now in Christian courts, and Jewish scholarship and achievement continued along the old lines, though a new flower of Sefardi civilization was emerging—kabbalah.

Kabbalah, or ‘that which is received,’ is the name given to the rich and varied tradition of Jewish mysticism that began to take shape all over Spain at this time. On reflection, it is interesting to note just how much the symbolism of this secret tradition seems to have been influenced by the sunlight and intricate patterns of Spain and its culture in this period. When discussing the origins of the kabbalistic tradition in Spain, some scholars have suggested that, as their world began to destabilize in the 12th-century, the Sefardim began to embrace a more impassioned spiritual outlook and rejected their former rationalism, exemplified by the brilliant philosophy of Moses Maimonides. But others are quick to point out just how influential the thought of Maimonides was on these early kabbalists, introducing them to more refined and sophisticated notions of God and spiritual practice. Whatever the case may have been, it is in 13th-century Spain, with its mix of extreme rationalism and religious fervor, that we first see the emergence of the Zohar, arguably the most important work of Jewish mystical thought, and numerous other classic texts of esoteric wisdom.

Nevertheless, it was becoming clear, even as this new jewel of Sefardi culture was forming, that the fortunes of Sefarad were in decline, having only outlasted those of Andalusia because they were more portable. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the old anti-Jewish legislation was reinstated in many major Spanish cities as anti-Jewish resentment became more and more prominent. This was followed by numerous anti-Jewish riots and forced conversions, creating a new incarnation of crypto-Judaism and yet another reason for despising the Jews. Soon, Spanish rulers were talking about the “Jewish problem” and how they might solve it. Eventually, it was decided—early in 1492—that the only lasting solution was their expulsion from Spain. Thus, the Jews of Sefarad were divided, part being exiled and fated to find new homes—in Morocco, Italy, Turkey and elsewhere—and another part exiled within Spain itself, their Jewish identities hidden under a guise of Christianity, ever hoping to be reunited with their brothers and sisters abroad.


[1] Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, 14:115.

[2] Council of Elvira, Canon 49, quoted in Jane S. Gerber, The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sefardic Experience, New York: The Free Press, 1992: 6.

[3] Ibid., 28.