The Decree of Expulsion

In January 1492, after a campaign of nearly 800 years, the Christians conquered Granada, the last Muslim outpost in Spain, bringing the reconquista to an end. Ironically, Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel, the famous Jewish scholar and Spanish finance minister, directed the war. Spain was finally united under one sovereign and one religion, and the Jews were no longer needed to help fight. On March 31,1492, Ferdinand and Isabella signed the Edict of Expulsion in the Alhambra Palace in Granada, giving Jews until the end of July to leave the country. Justification for the decree was that the “Jews are instructing them (conversos) in the ceremonies andFerdinand and Isabella signed the Edict of Expulsion observances of their religion, seeking to circumcise them and their children, giving them prayer books, supplying them with matzah on Passover, and kosher meat throughout the year.” Legend has it that Don Isaac Abarbanel offered his entire enormous fortune to the Catholic kings if they would rescind the decree. Ferdinand, who loved money above all else, was about to accept the proposal. Suddenly, Tomas de Torquemada burst into the room, waving a golden crucifix. He angrily threw it on the ground, screaming, "The Jews sold Yeshu for money, and you want to sell him again!" The pious Catholic Isabella told the Jews that the deal was off.

The Expulsion

A Catholic priest, Andres Bernaldez, vividly describes the Jews' departure: "Within the terms fixed by the edict of expulsion, the Jews sold and disposed of their property for a mere nothing. They went about asking Christians to buy and found no buyers. Fine houses and estates were sold for trifles; a house was exchanged for a mule, and a vineyard given for a little cloth or linen. The rich Jews paid the expenses of the departure of the poor, practicing toward each other the greatest charity, so that they would not become converts. In the first week of July they took the route for quitting their native land, great and small, old and young, on horses and in carts. They experienced great trouble; some falling, others rising; some dying and others being born; some being stricken with illness. Christians along the way persuaded them to be baptized, but those who converted were very few. The rabbis encouraged them and made the people sing and play instruments to enliven them and keep up their spirits."

Historians estimate that anywhere from 100,000-300,000 Jews departed. The last Jews left Spain on Thursday, August 2, 1492, Tisha B'Av. Christopher Columbus (who may have been a descendent of conversos) was supposed to leave for America that day, but could not because the harbor was full of fleeing Jews. Undaunted, he departed the next day, eventually discovering a continent that would prove hospitable for Jews in the future. Clearly, even when striking the Jewish people, G‑d lays the foundation for future salvation.

According to Rabbi Joseph Yaavetz, one of the exiles, many of the Jews leaving Spain were the humble folk who had a simple faith untainted by philosophical musings. A large number were women, who, as in the 40 years of wandering in the desert, professed unquestioning loyalty to the Torah. Among the great rabbis who left was Don Isaac Abarbanel, who departed despite assurances from the monarchy that he had permission to stay without converting to Christianity. He left behind nearly his entire fortune and settled in Italy, where he died in 1508.

The Trip

Finding a new home was not easy, and many Jews died from the rigors of the journey. Some ships were overloaded and sank;Finding a new home was not easy, and many Jews died from the rigors of the journey others caught fire on the high seas. Unscrupulous captains threw Jews overboard or robbed them of all their possessions. Jews were sold to pirates as slaves or dropped on uninhabited islands off the coast of Africa to attempt to survive. A number of Jews returned to Spain, where they were baptized immediately upon landing, and then closely watched by the Inquisition. Travelers on land were killed by robbers, attacked by wild animals, or wandered about until they died of hunger, disease, or exposure.

Where Jews Went

Many Jews went to Portugal, adjacent to Spain with a similar climate and culture. However, this was only a temporary haven, for in 1497 Portugal embarked on a program of forced conversion. Later, the Inquisition came to Portugal, as well, and the Jews either left the country or converted. Others left for North Africa, Italy, and Western Europe. Some even wound up in such Ashkenazic countries as Germany and Poland, becoming culturally Ashkenazic. A large number settled in Turkey, whose ruler extended a welcome to the Jews. The Turkish sultan was quoted as saying, "Can such a king be called wise and intelligent — one who impoverishes his country and enriches my kingdom?"

Reasons for the Tragedy

As the single greatest tragedy to strike the Jewish people since the Roman era, the Spanish Expulsion sent shock waves throughout the Jewish world. People searched for ways to understand such a harsh Divine decree. Rabbis who themselves had been expelled from Spain attempted to provide answers. Among the reasons given were lack of observance of some mitzvahs, particularly in the area of tznius, modesty between men and women; 17 excessive study of non-Jewish philosophy, which weakened Jewish faith in times of crisis; mass conversions, beginning in 1391, which had previously never happened on such a large scale; flaunting of wealth and power by upper-class Jews, arousing much jealousy among non-Jews and leading to widespread anti-Semitism; unfathomable Divine decree. 18

500 Years Later

On March 31, 1992, 500 years to the day after the Edict of Expulsion was signed, King Juan Carlos of Spain stood in the main synagogue of Madrid, wearing a skullcap, flanked by his wife, Queen Sofia, and the President of Israel, Chaim Herzog. What he said is very revealing: "May hate and intolerance never again cause desolation and exile. Let us be capable of building a prosperous and peaceful Spain based on concord and mutual respect. What is important is not an accounting of our errors[emphasis added] or successes, but the willingness to think about and analyze the past in terms of our future, and the willingness to work together to pursue a noble goal." 19 In other words, the king did not apologize for the Expulsion, for to do so would be unfaithful to Spanish history, which views uniting the country under Christian rule a most noble endeavor. However, the expulsion decree was legally rescinded, and Jews may now live freely in Spain.