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Notes from Limmud 2004

Defying the Spanish Inquisition: The Crypto-Jewish women of Castile

Renee Melammed

[Oh boy; I've written this for my own eyes. <goes through and annotates the Hebrew words>]

[This talk covered the marranos in their early years, when they remained knowledgeable about Judaism, as distinct from the scanty knowledge they possessed by the twentieth century.]

Dr Melammed's first point was that this is a crypto religion -- there are big lacunae in what is known about it. ברית מילה [circumcision] and other obvious things were the first to go.

The converso community was founded in 1391 as the result of pogroms and riots, but it was not monitored by the Spanish until 1481 when the Inquisition was founded by Papal Bull. Until 1492 the Inquisition did not have much to do with Jews, but with baptised Jews and their descendants.

In 1492 the Jews were expelled from Spain because they were setting a bad example to the converted Jews. The marranos were known to the Inquisition as "Judaisers". The accusations were mainly made against women: You were preparing the food, as against the man, to whom accusation were generally more passive (you were earing the food your wife prepared).

From 1492 the conversos had no source of Jewish knowledge. The religion was passed on by oral tradition; and, with no Talmud or Torah to consult, Chinese whispers set in. Also no institutions - shul or בית מדרש. The one institution remaning was the home - but even that was not safe, given that all conversos had domestic servants, who might report anything that seemed off to them, no matter how innocent in actuality, because the Church was exhorting them to. So, in the home, the women took on the main roles, including teaching, because there were no rabbis. The Inquisition realised this was important and by 1500 they was asking defendants, "Who taught you?"

A continual problem they had was how to pass on their Jewish knowledge to their children. If they told them too young they would blurt it out and give them away. But if they waited too long the children, who will have had a Catholic education, might not be able to deal with it, and might turn their parents in.

Though this did happen, in practice it was not that common to be turned in by immediate family. People weren't so sure about their in-laws, though. In early days, the newly-concerted Christians all knew who each other were and did not have difficulty marrying each other - there was a high degree of endogamy - but further down the line this was a problem.

The examples given in the talk come from the case files of the Archbishop of Toledo and Castile in the sixteenth century. Most testimony was not under torture, contrary to popular myth, but was what witnesses came forward and reported. Dr Melammed also pointed out that what went on in English courts at the time was far worse than what went on in the Inquisitional courts.

What people remembered best is what they observed best: שבת and כשרות.

שבת [the Sabbath]

For שבת, evidence consisted of such things as preparing by bathing beforehand. For a culture which bathed once a week, doing so on Friday could be a giveaway, especially when it's the servants who will be drawing the water, etc.

Another giveaway preparatory activity on a Friday: cleaning the house. Or wearing good or clean clothes. These people - the Spanish middle class - would have had only two or three sets of clothes. (A servant's information tells us washing took place over three days - washing the clothes the first day, drying the second and ironing the third.)

Other ways in which the marranos kept שבת: Making חלה [challah], preparing food beforehand, keeping things hot into שבת. Candle-lighting - which at this time meant oil lamps, not candles. Letting the lamps burn out when during the week they would be careful to snuff them and preserve the wick. People would tell the servants they were staying up and dismiss them for the evening, so they did not have to go without telling the servants as normal to snuff the lamps. Yet if this happened every Friday it was suspicious.

Also some examples found of blessing the children.

There was a word in Spanish sabadear meaning genuflecting in the עמידה, which the Spaniards didn't realised didn't take place only on שבת.

Avoiding מלאכה [categories of work forbidden on the Sabbath]. Each woman developed her own system for covering for herself, e.g. acting up her rheumatism, or sitting near the spinning wheel but not doing any work unless someone came near. Or not doing heavy work, just light work. Amongst women who actually worked for a living, excuses included a shopkeeper complaining they were out of everything on שבת.

Shabbos recipes. (Recipes from the case-files of the Inquisition are now available in The Crypto-Jewish Cookbook, published 1999.)

כשרות [Kashrus -- food laws]

Women slaughtering birds (from their back yards) halachically. Extensive excuses for כשרות - people pleading health reasons, such as not eating pork due to gout (a valid medical reason); or claiming that the cat got the sciatic nerve. Avoiding eating נבלות [animals which had died naturally and not been shechted]. Separate dairy and meat dishes are not found, but they did separate between dishes which had come into contact with pork (bought by the servants for their own consumption) and those which had not. Sometimes they also separated the dishes used by their husbands. There would be big arguments if the servants treifed the dishes.

Fasts and Holidays

Yom Kippur was observed - it had special significance with the marranos' guilt conscience and their wanting to identify with the people of Israel. There was ignorance - women told their daughters if they fasted, the Lord would give them riches and a good husband, etc. Many went barefoot so as not to wear leather.

There were also other, voluntary, sunrise-to-sunset fasts which people took upon themselves. There was a messianic movement amongst the conversos of Extremadura, led by a woman called Iniza Herrera who prophesied the advent of Elijah the Prophet and told people to fast on Mondays and Thursdays. Many people did fast because they believed Elijah would come and free them from oppression by the Catholics.

On פסח [Passover], people ate מצה [matzah] and observed the סדר nights. They also used new vessels, as a means of having separate פסח dishes. One woman would accidentally on purpose drop dishes from פורים onwards in order to achieve this - though this was an expensive way of having separate פסח dishes!

There are very few references to other holidays - without books or מגילות [the books of Esther, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Ruth, read on the various holidays], or ארבע מינים [the Four Species waved on Succos] it was difficult to do anything.

There is a myth that they made a special effort to keep פורים [Purim] and the Fast of Esther, because she too was a Jew pretending not to be. A nice idea, said Dr Melammed, but there is no evidence for it in Castile.


Birth and purity rites, and death and mourning rites. There were also additions to normal Judaism. Hadas (from the Latin fata (fate)) was a party celebrated for babies of both sexes on the eighth night after birth. It was done by Jews and non-Jews alike in the ninth and tenth centuries in Spain. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the non-Jews stopped doing this but the Jews continued. (Indeed, the practice was found amongst Jews of Sephardi origin in Salonika in the twentieth century.) The practice was used as an allegation against Jews by Inquisition.

The debaptising ceremony. Baptism was of course something the marranos had no choice in. After the baptism of their children they came home and poured water over the baby's head to wash off the baptismal water. This had no significance in either religion, but it made them feel better.

Women's bathing

Death and mourning rites: Pouring water from all of the utensils in the house, some said to announce the death, others said to warn כהנים [priests, who are covered by strict laws about coming into contact with the dead] not to set foot in the house. There were chevra kadishas [burial societies] formed by the women. Covering wells to prevent the souls of the dead from drinking from them. Sitting Shiva [initial period of mourning involving sitting on low stools for a week]. Eating round foods. Barbiera, a bandage around the mouth - done for both the deceased and the mourners! Cojuerso - the first meal after the death. Leaving a door open so people could come for Shiva without knocking.

See also The Spanish Inquisition: Fact and Fiction, also by Dr Melammed.

Date: 2005-01-08 08:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] snjstar.livejournal.com
Very good account of the session. (I was their also for other people's information.


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