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Sepharad and the Jews

The first Jews arrived in Spain at the time of the Roman emperors of Hispanic origin: Trajan and Hadrian. They would come as slaves, artisans and peasants. The relationship of the Hispanic-Romans with them was friendly. Over time, the Christian religious authorities feared that the new Christians, coming from paganism, did not know how to distinguish between Jew and Christian, and begin to enact measures of separation.

The barbarian invasions brought the Visigoths, who as Arians, looked at the Jews with some sympathy, but after the conversion to Catholicism of King Recaredo –in 589- that sympathy eventually disappeared, and King Sisebuto (616) ordered the forced conversion of Jews to Catholicism or their expulsion. King Egica (687-702) suspends the compulsory baptism, but when he learns that some Jews and converted are seeking support from Muslims invaders of North Africa, asks the Toledo Council XVII (694) that Jews and converted are declared slaves. Egica himself in 696 proclaims the “Liber Iudiciorum” as a legal rule under which a Jew can be a witness in a trial and the injury or death of a Jew is punished; also their property and lives are safeguarded.

During the Muslim invasion of Spain, in 711, the Jews are used by Muslims as auxiliary forces to maintain order in the rear. They were mainly artisans and farmers, and were gathered in the cities, which made easier to proceed to commercial business and liberal profession and, due to their relationship with other Jews of the vast Islamic empire, become international traders, who write in Arabic among themselves but with Hebrew letters that only they could read.

Moreover, the Jews join the Arab culture and literature, whose achievements (are) also led to Hebrew literature. There are great authors, such as Yehudah ha-Levi, Ibn Gabirol, Maimonides, etc. The Almohades forced Jews to convert to Islam, which they avoided as they could.

In the Christian kingdoms (Castile and Aragon), among the new settlers of reconquered cities are also Jews who are declared “property of the king” so that their life and properties are respected. They were generally artisans, merchants and moneylenders; their knowledge of other languages made them interpreters for others. Jewish communities had internal autonomy; their judges applied the Talmudic Jewish law and could impose fines and punishments.

The Jews converted to Christianity sometimes get involved in religious controversies that were organized in the Middle Ages. When the Catholic Monarchs established the Inquisition, some of the converted get involve therein. The problem with the converted is that, some of them converted “falsely” and, secretly, remained Jews.

By the Edict of Expulsion of 1492, the Catholic Monarchs decided the expulsion of all the Jews not converted. They went to Africa, Turkey, Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal, but there, a few years later, they were forced to be baptized. They come out little by little as Christians and, when they can, they go to countries where they are allowed to live as Jews.

Hispania, Aspamia…Sepharad

The Talmud calls “Aspamia” to Hispania, but since the Middle Ages Jews calls it “Sepharad”, there comes “Sephardic”. Sephardim continued calling themselves their descendents until today. They speak and write in Spanish and Portuguese over centuries. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries they are part of the Golden Age of Literature. Today, those who live in Latin America are part of their culture and literature.

The Jewish of Spain wanted to descend from those of Jerusalem, and even some families said to be descendent of King David. Perhaps by some phonetic similarity, the unknown Sepharad (it is thought that perhaps it was in minor Asia) of Prophet Abdías, vers.20: “And the exiles of Jerusalem who are in Sepharad…”, was identified with Spain.

Fernando Díaz Esteban
Academic of the Real Academia de la Historia