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Jewish Holidays Among the Crypto-Jews

We are blessed to be living in a time where an overwhelming number of Jews are able to celebrate Jewish holidays proudly and openly. With Purim over and preparations for Pesach looming on the horizon, this is an opportune time to remember the less known pages of Jewish history.

Professor Renée Levine Melammed takes us back to Spain post-1492, and looks at how the Crypto-Jews there celebrated the Jewish holidays.

Full transcript below.

When we think about the Jewish holidays, and as they approach, we think about the roles our mothers played. Among other things, about the wonderful foods they prepared. We also think about the time we spend in a synagogue. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot… What I want to ask is what happened during the time that the crypto-Jews in Spain were trying to [live Jewish lives] be crypto-Jews.

How could you observe the holidays? How could you go to synagogue when there was no synagogue anymore that you were allowed to go to you; you were now a Christian. After 1492, there were no synagogues left in Spain.

What would you do on Rosh Hashanah? What I found from inquisition documents was that the celebrations more or less fell by the wayside, because there wasn’t anyone to lead the service. The prayers were not well remembered and there were very few prayer books around. And what happened during Sukkot? Rather similarly, they did not go to synagogue and they could not possibly build a Sukkah because it would be noticed.

Well, what’s left? I skipped Yom Kippur in the middle of these two holidays. Yom Kippur was the holiday for the crypto-Jews. Yom Kippur was the day that for them, since they could fast. Yes, you should have gone to synagogue and you couldn’t go to synagogue, but by fasting, you were cleansing your soul. You did so by asking for forgiveness from your family members, and you were also asking for forgiveness from God. What were your problems and your sins for which you would ask to be forgiven?

Well, for many of them it was that they were not able to follow the Mitzvot. In order to observe the Mitzvot in their everyday lives. This was obviously a tremendous problem and a tremendous moral dilemma for the crypto-Jews.

But nevertheless, they managed not to wear leather, as is the custom, and to ask forgiveness of one another and to fast and for them, this was the raison d’être of being a crypto-Jew. This was the day that by virtue of Jewish law you were forgiven all your sins for all the year.

So, as a result, Yom Kippur observances are prominent in inquisition files, especially among the women and among the men as well. Yom Kippur was the most important Jewish holiday for the crypto-Jews – this day was incredibly important for them during the entire Jewish year.

Renée Levine Melammed, originally from Long Island, New York, received her degrees from Smith College and Brandeis University. Her dissertation and early research dealt with the lives of crypto-Jewish women in Spain and the way in which conversos coped with the issue of their identity; her current research is focused on women’s lives as reflected in the Cairo Geniza. She is an emeritus professor of Jewish history at Schechter, teaching courses in medieval Jewish history and gender studies as well as in Jews of Spain and Islamic lands.

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