by Yair Davidy

Beginnings: Tarshish

An area on the West Coast of Spain is referred to in the Bible as Tarshish. Some say that the name Tarshish could also be applied to the Atlantic Ocean region in general. King Solomon together with the Phoenician King Hiram of Tyre sent ships to Tarshish. The prophet Yonah attempted to flee to Tarshish. Spain at that time was relatively sparsely populated. After ca. 700 BCE a population of people of Phoenician culture came to Spain. They bore Hebraic-like names and were pushed from the southeast coast to the northwest and from there moved to the British Isles and Gaul. They had arrived after the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (in ca. 720 BCE) and Irish legends and other factors suggest that they may have been of Israelite descent. At all events their religious practices were largely pagan and in that sense they were not Jewish. These people had brought with them the knowledge of iron processing. After the Phoenicians there was an upsurge in the cultural level of native Spanish peoples as well as invasions of groups such as the Carthaginians from North Africa.  The Carthaginians believed themselves to be descended from the ancient Canaanites whom the Israelites had driven out of the Promised Land.  The presence of this element in Spain could partly explain the vicious anti-Semitism and outright sadism later displayed by a portion of the Spanish population. In the north and west of Spain there later emerged a people of Celtic culture.

The Romans and Christianity

The Romans first entered Spain in 218 BCE and after about a hundred years had gained control of the whole country. In 312 CE the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and much of Spain followed in his stead. Jewish influence in Spain at this stage is shown by the Church Council of Elvira in 305 CE forbidding the Christians of Spain to live in Jewish houses, or to eat with them, or for Jews to bless the produce of Christian fields.

The Goths Arrive

In 409 CE the Vandals, Suebi, and Alans invaded Spain. They were followed by the Goths  or Visigoths who subdued the country by 585 CE.  The Visigoths at first belonged to the Arian Church that disagreed with the Roman Catholic one. They were pro-Jewish in many ways.  Many Goths (of whom the Visigoths were a section) converted to Judaism. The Goths also ruled over southeast France in which area as well as in Spain the terms "Goth" and "Jew" were for a time interchangeable.

Spain in the Bible and Descendants of David

Spain is mentioned in the Biblical Book of Obadiah 1:20: "The exiled of Jerusalem who are in Sepharad": Targum Yehonathan translates "Sepharad" as "Aspamiah" meaning Spain. Rashi says, "These are the descendants of Judah who were exiled to Sepharad…the translation of Sepharad is Aspamiah" [i.e. Spain]. Rabbi Abraham Iben Ezra says that this is referring to the exile by Titus (the Roman Emperor who destroyed the Temple) of Jews to Spain. The Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi) says the same.  The Abarbanel says that whole settlements in Spain were founded by exiles from Jerusalem who included families descended from King David.


In 587 Recared, the Visigoth king in Spain, converted to Roman Catholicism and at once began a persecution of the Jews. The persecution of the Jews was partly due to a power struggle against the Visigoth nobility who protected the Jews and used them as their agents. The king, the Church, and the common Spaniards were all against the nobility and by getting at the Jews they were weakening the Visigoth aristocracy. A frontal attack on the Visigoths was difficult since these already had a reputation for assassinating their monarchs and were not happy with the change of religion.

The Muslim Invasion

In 711 the Moslems from North Africa invaded Spain and conquered most of it. The Muslims consisted of Arabs and Berbers. In some areas they employed Jews to help them garrison conquered areas. The Muslims were defeated in France by Charles Martell whose son, Pepin, took a Jewish woman as one of his wives. This woman was apparently the mother of Charles the Great (Charlemagne) who became the first Holy Roman Emperor and founded the Carolingian dynasty.  In Spain the Christians from the north began to slowly reconquer the country. In places where the Spaniards were under French Carolingian influence they were pro-Jewish. Elsewhere they were initially hostile but soon saw the economic value of Jews in helping them repopulate and stabilize regions that had been reconquered from the Muslims. Under the Muslims the Jews in Spain were relatively well treated but there were periodic persecutions. Life with the Arabs was always volatile and unpredictable. In the 1000s Bachya Ibn Pakuda wrote "Chovot HaLavovot" ("Duties of the Heart") which is one of the great Classics of moral and spiritual contemplation. Shmuel haNagid was vizier and commander of the army of Granada 1030-1056.  Jealous Arabs murdered his son. In 1146 the Almohads (who were Berbers from Morocco) in the south of Spain forced their Jewish subjects to become Muslims so many fled to the Christian areas though some remained and were faithful to Judaism in secret.

The Christian Reconquest

By the 1250s CE most of Spain had been reconquered by the Christians. The Muslims retained control of the Kingdom of Granada in the Southeast. There was a blood libel in Saragossa in 1250 and a series of persecutions and anti-Jewish measures. In 1263 there was a Disputation in which the Jews were not allowed to speak freely and as a result of which the great scholar Nachmanides left Spain. In 1267 Nachmanides settled in Jerusalem and helped re-establish Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel. Despite many difficulties Jews often lived well in Christian Spain and in 1294 it was recorded that 22% of the total revenue of the Kingdom of Castille was derived from the Jews. In the decade1280-1290 the Zohar was made public. This period evidenced a flowering of Kabalistic (Spiritual Mysticism based on the Bible) studies. In 1340 a great halachic work, "The Turim," was published. Hasdia Iben Crescas (a major Jewish philosopher) in the 1370s taught in Barcelona in the northeast of Spain.  In the 1390s there were riots and persecutions against the Jews and many became Christians out of fear or due to coercion. Some of those who became Christian remained Jewishin secret. Other Jews however adopted Christianity with great fanaticism and helped persecute their former brethren. In 1413 there was another Disputation as a result of which the Talmud was censured and Jews persecuted. In this Disputation, Joseph Albo (who wrote an important work on the Articles of Faith) defended the Jewish cause. In 1479 the Christian Kingdoms of Aragon and Castille united when their rulers, Ferdinand and Isabella, married each other.

The Expulsion

In 1492 Granada surrendered to Ferdinand and Isabella, the new Spanish Monarchs. One of the conditions of surrender was that the status and rights of the Jews should be respected but this agreement was broken and the Jews expelled. Not only that but in 1492 all of the Jews were expelled from Spain. Altogether possibly more than 200,000 Jews were exiled. About 100,000 of the exiled Spanish Jews then went to Portugal from which they were expelled in 1496-97 after their children had been taken away from them. The expulsion from Spain was accompanied by great hardship. Those who were expelled lost most of their possessions and many of them were later robbed, raped, and sold into slavery or murdered in the course of their enforced wanderings. Great names of Spanish Jewry included some of the greatest and most original thinkers that have ever existed. Some of them were veritable geniuses, and truly holy men. They included writers of religious and philosophical works whose written word is often the best possible expression of literacy known to the annals of humanity.  A very small sampling of luminaries of Spanish Jewry include names such as Alfasi, Yehudah HaLevi, Iben Ezra, Maimonides, Solomon Iben Gabirol,  Kimchi, Ibn Tibbon, Iben Gikatilla, Abudarham, Albo, Crescas, Nachmanides.

The Conversos

 Jews who did not wish to be expelled could convert to Christianity and many did. These are known as "Conversos," "Marranos", or "Anusim." There were about 300,000 (or more) of them. Some of these "converts" attempted to maintain Jewish customs and beliefs. This was an offence against Catholicism. The Inquisition had been introduced into Spain in 1481. Jewish converts to Christianity tended to intermarry with remnants of the old Visigothic nobility. They were hated by the common people and by elements within the Church. The monarchy used the Inquisition as an additional tool in its relentless struggle to curb and control the aristocracy. It was often required to demonstrate a "purity of blood" meaning proof that one had no Jewish ancestors. Hundreds of thousands of people were questioned bythe Inquisition that tortured and burned alive many of them. A great number of those executed were of Jewish descent.  The activities of the Inquisition had ethnic as well as religious implications. The Conversos were often pro-English. Amongst the conversos were Christopher Columbus who discovered America as well as the three men who financed the voyage of Columbus, a good portion of the crew on the ship of Columbus, and the first known white man in that era to set foot on American soil.

  B. Netanyahu (father of Benjamin Netanyahu, former Prime Minister of Israel) is one of the foremost world authorities on the history and study of the Conversos. Many Conversos later settled in the New World and it has been claimed that a good portion of the people of southern USA and Mexico bearing Spanish names may have Converso blood. There is history of Jews in New Mexico as far back as the early 1500's (closer to 1540's). These were the Marranos, Jews who fled Spain, Portugal and Mexico, during the Inquisition that began in Spain, under Tomas de Torquemada.  Conversos also went to France where they intermarried with the Hugeonots or to Britain and Holland where they often returned to the Jewish fold. By the Statute of Limpieza in 1547 purity of ancestry from the "taint" of converso blood was required as well as freedom from any accusations of heresy by the Inquisition was made a condition of all future ecclesiastical appointments. In 1556 Philip II gave his royal approval to the statute on the grounds that "all the heresies in Germany, France and Spain have been sown by descendants of Jews." As far as Germany and France were concerned, this remark was sheer fantasy, and it is especially ironic that, just at this time, Pope Paul IV, at war with Spain, described Philip II himself quite correctly as a Marrano, or descendant of Jews [E.Brittanica].


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