The Fascinating and Tragic Story of Pesach Observance by the Anusim
Pesach was perhaps the holiday that was most widely kept by the Anusim. With great mesiras nefesh, despite hearts pounding with fear of an impending dreaded knock of the Inquisition, the Anusim were somehow able to conduct the Seder and eat matzah and maror. Certain Pesach customs have been kept and passed down the generations of Anusim right up until our times. The years of deception and hiding, however, has initiated many strange adaptations of Jewish customs. In addition, as the years passed, the Anusim lost track of the Jewish calendar and, even when they were still aware of the exact time when Pesach fell, they often had to celebrate the yom tov several days later for fear of their zealous Christian neighbors who also kept track of the Jewish calendar. Their descendants are still alive today.
It was a palatial mansion in Spain. From its spiral roof, there is a Catholic religious symbol blowing in the air. The members of the household walk around with golden crosses hanging from their necklaces. The beautiful, opulent dining room is shrouded in darkness. Yet, deep down in a subterranean tunnel beneath the house, the seder table is set, adorned with golden wine decanters filled with deep red wine, ornate silver goblets, matzos and Pesach greens. The guests arrive through underground passageways. There is a special knock in code on the door as the creaking, rusty door is opened. The arriving guests remove their Catholic religious symbols and take their places by the table. Every creak, every little nuance causes their hearts to skip a beat. Everybody is afraid that those sudden sounds heralding the arrival of the ominously ruthless Inquisition, who knew about Pesach and were on special alert that night. Many previous Pesachs had ended with Jews being yanked from the seder table into the bowels of the Inquisition dungeons and eventually fed to the fires of the auto-da-fe.
In the heavy shadow of this fear, the Anusim would gather each year with mesiras nefesh, to sing avodim hoyinu, “Today we are here, next year in the land of Israel…”
The Anusim in Spain and Portugal lived double lives. Many of them held very high office in the government and in the business world and even in the Catholic Church. They never missed Sunday services at the local Church, but they still tried to conduct themselves as Jews and to fulfill as many mitzvos as possible.
Their situation caused them to be constantly vigilant and suspect everybody and anything. If someone would remind them of their Jewish ancestry, they suspected that the person was after them. If was not uncommon for one family member to blow the cover of his family for money or for the sake of achieving “salvation.” Also, many people who were caught were tortured into divulging the names of those in their families who still practiced Judaism. One of the most common “proofs” that the Inquisition used to incriminate Jews, was if they caught someone eating matzos or buying large amounts of vegetables on erev Pesach.
It is important to note that the Inquisition did not punish without an “official trial” complete with prosecutors, judges, etc. The court proceedings were all transcribed and a number of years ago, some of the musty old volumes containing manuscripts of those trials, were translated into Hebrew. The following are a few excerpts:
This is the story of the Catholic priest, Andre Gonzalez. He served as a priest in the Church of St. Martin Talbira. The indictment against him contains a whole list of “transgressions” that proved his Jewishness. 11 witnesses, including himself, admit to his conducting himself as a Jew and fulfilling Jewish commandments. In addition, he accepted Jews in his confessional booth and absolved them of their sins. One of the primary sins of which he is accused is conducting the seder and eating karpas and moror and distributing matzos to fellow Anusim. In addition, he was seen immersing on erev Yom Kippur and fasting on Yom Kippur. He was convicted in 1487 and was formally expelled from the priesthood and subsequently burnt at the stake.
Similar indictments are found in virtually all of the documents although in some cases there were other charges too. The records show non-Jewish servants testifying that they found three books in Hebrew under the well in the yard of the accused. Another had been heard reciting the words “Shema Yisroel.” A protocol from the “Court of Faith” in Lisbon, Portugal, has a list of questions that a woman named Britas Henriks who was accused of being Jewish was asked. “Did you keep Shabbos? Did you put raw meat in water and salt? Did you throw a piece of the raw dough that you were kneading into the fire? Did you keep Pesach and eat matzos?”
Rav Shlomo Ibn Virga, one of those who was driven from Spain and who wrote about the difficulties that the Anusim underwent, wrote, “There was a Converso who ate unleavened bread for the entire year so that he would be able to eat matzos on Pesach. He claimed that his stomach could not handle regular bread… They have underground shuls deep beneath their houses where they daven and serve Hashem with their hearts and souls… They keep the halachos of Pesach.”
Every year around Pesach time, the Anusim suffered great anxiety. How could they hide the fact that they did not eat chometz? One of the Anusim somehow managed to smuggle out a halachic query to one of the great poskim of the time, Rav Shlomo Doran, known as the “Rashbash,” later printed in the Teshuvos HaRashbash. “How should the Anusim whose hearts are very loyal to Hashem, eat on Pesach so that they do not transgress the issur kores of eating leaven? Even if they eat just rice the entire Pesach, the Christians will jump on them saying, “you are still holding the customs of your forefathers to eat rice on Pesach, for all of the Jews of the time ate cooked rice (on Pesach)… some of these, our pitiful Jews sought a halachic approach that would allow them to be lenient…”
The Rashbash, in his response, decides that they should be considered like people suffering from a life-threatening illness (choleh sheyesh bo sakona) because ‘they cannot survive for eight days by only eating water and fruit.’ Therefore, he proposes a few leniencies specifically for Anusim, like eating “matza Ashira” – matza that was kneaded in milk or other liquids and then baking it in the shape of regular bread so that it looks exactly like bread. He also proposes making matza meal and then cooking bread from it that looks identical to real bread. “All of these proposals,” he writes, “are only for the Anusim because of the danger in which they find themselves.”
Many Jews accepted positions of power in Spain and therefore, had to be extremely vigilant about who was allowed to come to the seder and maintaining a strong veil of secrecy. Avrohom Gabizon, one of those driven out of Spain, writes in the sefer, “Omer Hashikcha”, “There was a Converso named Moshe Aprengi… when his father was on his deathbed, he commanded Moshe to try to return to the religion of his forefathers… Moshe wandered from city to city until, on the fourteenth of Nissan, he arrived at the city of Tulitula. Although he did not know anybody there, he made his way to the market where vegetables were sold. As he was standing there, he saw a maid servant come and buy a large amount of green vegetables. The thought dawned on him, ‘today is the fourteenth day of Nissan. The custom I learned from my fathers is that Jews buy green vegetables on erev Pesach. Perhaps this is a sign from heaven. He then stealthily followed the woman and watched as she entered the home of one of the most distinguished citizens of the city, who held high political position. He knocked on the door and stated that he had a very urgent, top secret matter to speak about with the master of the house. After he was ushered into the private room of the owner, he told him, ‘you should know that I am a Jew, the son of a Jew and I am trying to fulfill my obligations as a Jew and return to the religion of my forefathers as my father commanded me on his deathbed. You also seem to be a Jew. If you will accept me and let me celebrate Pesach with you, all will be well. If not, I will reveal your secret and mine to the authorities and we will both die at the hands of the Inquisition.’ The master of the house denied everything, but Reb Moshe persisted until the owner recognized his sincerity and true desire to return to Jewish observance. He finally invited him, but queried, ‘how did you know I was Jewish?’ In response Reb Moshe told him that the vegetables had given the secret away.”
Kidnapping on the Night of Bedikas Chometz
The plight of the Anusim began in about 1391, just about one hundred years before the massive exile of Jews from Spain in 1492. During those hundred years, intense pressure was brought upon Jews to convert to Christianity and many were simply unable to withstand the pressure and temptation. Once they converted, however, they were subject to the long arm of the Inquisition if they were caught practicing Judaism.
With the Spanish exile the situation worsened. Although more than 300,000 Jews picked up and left their lives of relative comfort for the unknown, many simply could not bring themselves to leave their peaceful existence. They stayed, officially converted and often tried to secretly retain their Judaism. Many of the exiles made their way to Portugal, however, the Inquisition soon followed them there. In 1494, King Don Emanuel became King of Portugal and one of the first laws he enacted was that every child up until the age of 14, would be forcibly taken to the Church and baptized. Rav Eliyahu Kopshali writes, “On the night of the 14th of Nissan, the government came to Jewish homes, not to check for chometz, but to check if there were any Jewish children. Whichever children they found, they would grab and take away to a place from which there was no return. Instead of matzah and moror, cries of pain were heard. Instead of the recitation of Hallel, mournful lamentations were heard…”
Eventually, Don Emanuel decreed that all Jews had to convert and did not even let them leave the country. Thus, the curtain closed on the entire body of Portuguese Jewry.
Over the Next Centuries
Hundreds of thousands of Jewish Anusim slowly assimilated into Portuguese society. There were those that maintained that a full third of Portuguese inhabitants had Jewish blood in them. There was a famous joke in Portugal that when the king wanted to obligate the former Jews, now converts to Christianity, “New Christians” to wear a green hat on their heads identifying them as New Christians as opposed to the “pure old Christians.” His oldest advisor came running in with three green hats in hand. The king asked, “Who are these for?” The advisor answered, “The first one is for me, and the second one is for the Chief Inquisitor and the third is for His Majesty the King.” This was the extent to which the Jews, over the years, blended in with the general population. Indeed, by the third and fourth generations, almost all semblances of their Jewish roots were lost. Still, there was a small minority of those with Jewish ancestry, that stubbornly held on to their Jewish customs and laws. Over the last century, efforts have been made to uncover those Jews who have become known to their Portuguese neighbors as Judeaos.
These descendants of the Anusim were first uncovered by Shmuel Schwartz, a Jew of Polish origin, who was an engineer by profession. Mr. Schwartz went to work in the lead mining industry in Eastern Portugal. He was quite surprised to hear some of the local Portuguese derisively calling their neighbors “Judeao.” Amazingly, hundreds of years after the Inquisition, they still lived in fear of the neighbors. “Those people of Jewish origin,” Schwartz writes, “still conducted secret groups and were extremely suspicious of everybody, even those who claimed to be Jews.”
One day a merchant who sought to sell food to Schwartz’s company came to Schwartz and warned him not to buy from his competitor because he “really is a Judeao.” The merchant had no idea that “the European” Schwartz was also a Jew.
As for Schwartz, he began to do business with the competitor. Nevertheless, with all his good intentions, he could not elicit any reaction out of the merchant with regard to his Jewish ancestry. Once, Schwartz made a trip to Lisbon, the capital of Portugal and went to daven in the shul there. While there he met the “Judeao” merchant, who had also stepped in to daven. Only then did the merchant start believing Schwartz that he was a Jew. The merchant then introduced Schwartz to his relatives in the city of Belmonte, where there was a relatively large group of Jews of Converso extraction. They were extremely wary of Schwartz, particularly the elder women who served as the teachers and passed down the customs and prayers to the next generation. Once Schwartz was telling them how there are practicing Jews throughout the entire world and how the customs and prayers of Jews world over differ from their customs. One of the elder woman asked him to recite a tefillah in the real Hebrew. Schwartz then proceeded to say “Shema Yisroel”. As soon as he said the name of Hashem, the woman clapped her head and finished the posuk. Only then did she too, truly believe that he was Jewish. Despite the hundreds of years of persecution, the Anusim had managed to pass down the proper pronunciation of the name of Hashem.
Once, they began to trust Schwartz, they mentioned to him the amazing fact that in Belmonte, Borgenca, Kubilon and Pundis, there were entire kehillos of Converso descendants who still retained their Jewish customs punctiliously. They only married among themselves and they sought to keep their customs and laws in the way that they had learned through the generations of deception. When they would visit a Church, they would whisper, “I thank you (Hashem) that I have not come here to pray to wood and stone, but rather to the Elokei Yisroel that rules all.” They celebrated Yom Kippur on the 11th of Tishrei, not the 10th. The reason being that the Inquisition was on the lookout for Jews adhering to Yom Kippur on the 10th of Tishrei. Over the years, it was pushed off to the 11th to avoid the wrath of the Inquisition. They kept whatever of dinnim of Shabbos that they knew and the mitzvah of lighting candles on Shabbos was especially dear to them.
Without a doubt, the holiday that was practiced the most by the Anusim was Pesach. One of those who studied the customs of the Converso community of the descendants of the Anusim of Belmonte, writes, “They clean the house and freshly plaster the walls and have new utensils. Others have special utensils that they keep from year to year. They also prepare special wine and flour for matzah baking. They did not, however, conduct a seder on the first night. Apparently this was because of the inherent fear that the Inquisition knew when Pesach fell and would catch them. These communities had the custom to have the seder on the third night of Pesach. All of this is obviously the response to the persecution of the Inquisition, which looked for Jews conducting the seder on the first two nights. On the third day of Pesach they had a custom to bake the “holy bread.” During the baking they would throw a separate piece of dough into the fire, apparently, the remains of the mitzvah of separating challa. The one who got that piece as his matza was considered to have gotten an omen for good luck.
The Halachic Status of the Anusim
The halachic status of the Anusim is unclear. Do we assume that they are Jews or do we have to suspect that in the course of the exile they have inadvertently married gentile women and therefore they should be treated as non-Jews?
The Rivosh makes a distinction between those Anusim that remained of their own accord and the ones that could not flee for any number of reasons. Those that remained even though they could have fled, should be treated as mumrim – those that have turned their back on their faith. Those however, that remained because they were forced to or due to an extenuating circumstance that made it difficult or impossible to avail themselves of the chance to leave, should be treated as Anusim – forced ones. The Shulchan Aruch, (yora deah 119) also seems to rule this way, “The Anusim – forced ones that have remained in their lands, if they conduct themselves with kashrus secretly and cannot flee to a place where they can serve Hashem openly, one can rely on their shechita and wine does not become prohibited when they touch it.”
We see from here that not taking the opportunity to flee transforms the ones, the one who was forced without choice, to rotzon, to one that has remained and therefore transgressed of his own volition. In addition, the Rema, (Yora Deah 124) rules that somebody who has become so accustomed to transgressing certain aveiros that he even does them privately when not being forced, “Even though initially he transgressed only because he was forced, now that he does it of his own volition, he takes on the status of a non-Jew.”
Indeed, it seems that today too, the tefillah that the Jews of Rome davened on behalf of the Anusim still is meaningful. “Our brothers the forced ones of Israel that are delivered into distress and captivity may the omnipresent one have mercy on them and remove them from distress to relief, from darkness to light.”