The greatest catastrophe of Jewry in exile during the Middle Ages was the series of persecutions and expulsions of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews towards the end of the fifteenth century. One of the great lights of Israel who was destined to pass through all the stages of this tragic drama was Rabbi Abraham Zacuto, the famous author of "Sefer Hayuhasin," the first real Jewish chronicle.
Rabbi Abraham Zacuto was born at Salamanca about the middle of the fifteenth century. The stage was then being set for the terrible tragedy which was to destroy the greatest Jewish cultural center in exile. An organized drive by the Catholic Church to exterminate Judaism was beginning to take shape. Salamanca, the seat of much Christian and Jewish learning, was relatively quiet, and the Jews were permitted to carry on their businesses and professions. The family of the Zacutos belonged to the Jewish nobility, and the young Abraham was given every opportunity to acquire a thorough Jewish education under the guidance of the famous Rabbi Isaac Aboab, with whom he later emigrated to Portugal. At the same time the brillant young Jewish nobleman received a secular education which made him an outstanding figure among the young Christian scholars of his day.
Zacuto soon became famous as an excellent mathematician and astronomer. Through the efforts of the Bishop of Salamanca, a great lover of astronomy, Rabbi Abraham Zacuto was given the chair of astronomy and mathematics at the ancient university of Salamanca. In gratitude, Rabbi Abraham Zacuto dedicated to him his first and most famous astronomical work, called "Biur Luhoth," written in excellent and scholarly Hebrew. It was immediately translated into Latin, as "Almanac Perpetuum," and it made an immense impression upon the scholarly world. This work was of great practical value, for it provided a vitally needed tool for discoverers and world travelers who were about to open up the new age of exploration.
Until then, anyone setting out on a voyage had to follow the ancient routes along the coasts of the Mediterranean, or other known sea routes, for there was nothing to guide any traveler on the high seas. Rabbi Abraham Zacuto's Almanac was a concise calendar of the constellations of the seven planets. After its publication, none of the famous discoverers set out without this Almanac of the Jewish astronomer. With the help of this Almanac, they were able to leave the customary routes and venture out into the unknown seas in search of new horizons. Rabbi Abraham Zacuto became famous for this important work. The great astronomers from all over the world corresponded with him and sought his advice and opinion.
After several years of successful teaching at the University of Salamanca, the young rabbi was called to the High University of Saragossa, where an even wider circle of scholars sat at his feet to listen to his lectures on mathematics and astronomy.
When the great tragedy of 1492, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, was decreed by the cruel Ferdinand and the even more cruel Isabella, Rabbi Abraham Zacuto was promised the highest honors and an abundance of wealth if he abandoned his Jewish faith. High dignitaries of the Church offered him their patronage.
Rabbi Abraham Zacuto, however, was a deeply pious Jew. Never before in his brilliant career had he given up an iota of his faith. He had always found much time for the study and teaching of Talmud among his Jewish brethren in Salamanca and Saragossa. He therefore spurned all offers of riches and honors for the betrayal of Judaism. Willingly Zacuto shared the fate of the hundreds of thousands of unfortunate Jews who had to leave everything behind in search of new shores.
More than a hundred thousand of the Spanish Jews had been granted permission to enter Portugal, at least temporarily, after paying large sums of gold to the greedy king John II. Not that this monarch was a greater lover of the Jews than his personal enemies, the rulers of Spain. But hopes for much of the wealth of the Spanish Jews had induced him to grant them a temporary haven.
Rabbi Abraham Zacuto was among those who crossed over into Portugal. He settled in Lisbon, where several famous Jewish astronomers and physicians had invited him to assist them at court.
Having barely set foot in Portugal, the impoverished Spanish immigrants were hard hit by epidemics which killed them by the thousand. The cruel King John used this occasion, and the protests of the fanatical population, to rid the country of the hated refugees. He provided ships for them to cross the seas for new countries. However, these unfortunate people were beset by the most distressing conditions. They had to set out to sea without sufficient food; they were not permitted to land at any harbor, or take on provisions. Thus many perished at sea. Only a small percentage came away with their bare lives and settled in Africa, or some other country.
Rabbi Abraham Zacuto felt a debt of gratitude to Portugal which offered him and many of his brethren a haven of refuge after the cruel expulsion from Spain. He looked forward to years of devoted service to the country of his refuge, and to his own people, which his position at the court would permit him to render.
At that time Vasco de Gama was working on his project of sailing to the fabulously rich India. King John had already toyed with this proposed expedition. King Manuel went about it seriously. Because Rabbi Abraham Zacuto supported it at the court with all his influence and persuasion, Vasco de Gama was finally commissioned to undertake his trip. For this long voyage Vasco de Gama, who had a Jewish captain by the name of Gaspar, made use of an astrolabe which had been constructed of metal instead of wood, at the suggestion of Rabbi Abrabam Zacuto. With this wise astronomer's tables and astrolabe, the world famous traveler was able to chart his trip across the ocean, guiding himself by the stars.
However, Rabbi Abraham Zacuto was poorly rewarded for his great services to the court and to the land. Fate struck another cruel blow at his persecuted brethren, and although Rabbi Abraham could have escaped it in the shelter of the court, he chose to share it with them.
The turn of events came about when King Manuel of Portugal asked for the hand of the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, who was as cruel as her parents. Through this marriage, the two royal houses, so hostile in the past, sought to combine their countries into one mighty Catholic empire.
As a condition of this marriage, the rulers of Spain demanded that King Manuel follow their example in the persecution of the Jews, and that he join forces with them against the king of France.
The hope of inheriting the crown of Spain was too much of a temptation for the fickle king of Portugal. He deserted his friend, King Charles VII of France, and betrayed his loyal subjects, the Jews.
On the 30th of November, 1496, the marriage contract between the two royal houses was signed. Twenty-four days later, King Manuel signed the fatal decree that all Jews and Moors living in his land must either accept the Catholic faith or leave the country under penalty of death.
In order to ease his conscience somewhat, King Manuel set the date of the expulsion deadline for ten months later, that is, the following October. This would enable those Jews who were determined to choose expulsion rather than betray their faith to make preparations to leave the country by ship, since there was no other way out.
The decree, coming so soon after the expulsion from Spain, was a heartless blow for the helpless Jews. But the ten months' period of "grace" gave them hope that King Manuel might yet change his mind and leave them alone. In the meantime, their leaders, among them Rabbi Abraham Zacuto, tried their best to use their influence with the monarch, but it was in vain. On the contrary, King Manuel was angered by the fact that hardly any Jew took advantage of his "generous" offer which permitted any Jew to save his home and life at the expense of his religion.
King Manuel was further influenced by his personal physician Antonio, an apostate whose Jewish name had been Levi ben Shem-Tov. This traitor had written a treatise against his former brethren, and tried hard to force the Jews to betray their faith as he had done. He induced the king to take strong measures against the obstinate Jews.
The first step was to close all synagogues and schools. But the Jews continued to pray and study in their private homes, despite the dangers involved.
Then Manuel and Antonio issued a secret order to seize all Jewish children on Easter Sunday, drag them to the churches, and baptize them forcibly.
Rabbi Abraham Zacuto had some good friends among the State Counsellors. One of them told him about the shameful plan of the monarch. Immediately, the Jews made plans to hide their children and keep them off the streets.
The king became enraged that his plan failed, and ordered his troops to force their way into the Jewish homes and drag the children out. One of the few Christian Bishops who was opposed to this cruel method describes the horrible scenes that took place in the streets of Lisbon and other cities. There was such courage among the tortured Jewish parents that some of them took their own lives and those of their children. The heroism and loyalty to their faith of the Jewish people did not move the heartless king and queen. The soldiers showed great zeal in carrying out their assignment, and went beyond the call of duty, for they seized not small children only, but boys and girls up to the age of twenty. Those who resisted were killed.
The terrorized Jewish population sent a delegation to Pope Alexander VI, with costly presents, to plead with him to stop the cruel persecution. Pope Alexander asked King Manuel to act in a more humane manner towards the Jews. The situation of the Anussim (Marranos) who had been forcibly baptized did ease a little, but that was all.
As the date of the expulsion of the Jews approached, King Manuel increased the pressure upon them with all the means at his disposal. By all kinds of trickery, he prevented thousands of Jews from leaving the country. He allowed only Lisbon to be used as a port of departure, and caused various delays, until many were trapped by the deadline. According to his decree, these Jews were to become his slaves, to do with as he pleased. Of these, thousands upon thousands met cruel death. They refused to buy their freedom at the price of their religion.
By some miracle, Rabbi Abraham Zacuto and his son Samuel were among the more fortunate ones who saved themselves on board an old ship that was to take them to Africa.
Twice on the way they were caught by pirates and held for ransom. They were redeemed by kind Jews who paid the ransom. After many months of terrible suffering, Rabbi Abraham and his son landed in Tunis. There were not very many who survived the expulsion from Portugal.
There was a flourishing Jewish community in Tunis at that time, under the leadership of the pious and energetic Rabbi Shimon Duran. Rabbi Abraham Zacuto was welcomed with open arms. During the next few years of peace, Rabbi Abraham Zacuto wrote his famous "Sefer Hayuhasin," a chronological history of the Jews from the Creation of the world to his day. For a long time it was one of the few sources of post-Biblical Jewish history, covering the period from the Babylonian exile to the Middle Ages.
Before this, Rabbi Abraham Zacuto had written a supplement to Rabbi Nathan ben Jehiel's "Sefer Haaruch," a dictionary of the Aramaic language. He is also the author of "Arbaim L'Binah," a treatise on astrology.
His stay in North Africa did not last long. The ever increasing threat of a Spanish invasion of Algeria made him take up his wanderer's staff again. Wandering from place to place, Rabbi Abraham Zacuto finally found a haven in Turkey, where Rabbi Joseph Nassi and other influential Jews had provided a new home for many hundreds of the Spanish and Portuguese refugees.
Rabbi Abraham Zacuto died about the year 5275 (1515), without having seen his "Sefer Hayuhasin" published. Fifty years later, however, it was published by Rabbi David Arkish, a physician at the Turkish court, through the generosity of a rich Jewish lady. Thus this most important work of Rabbi Abraham Zacuto found its way into the classical Jewish literature, and won him a place as one of the great men of our people, whose life and work are an everlasting inspiration to us all.