Secret Celebration: How Spanish Jews Kept Purim Under the Inquisition
In 1391, anti-Jewish massacres swept Spain, where Jews were given the choice of converting to Christianity or being murdered. Some 20,000 Spanish Jews became Christians during this time period and many more continued to convert throughout the 1400s under duress. However, many of these Jews who were converted under the sword continued to practice Judaism in secret. This greatly disturbed the Spaniards, who saw that many closet Jews continued to be part of the top echelons of Spanish society, like they had during the Golden Age of Muslim Spain.
Thus, in 1492 Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand expelled from their kingdom the Jews who continued to practice their faith. Previously, the Spanish Inquisition was established to hunt down Jews who continued to practice their faith in secret. In total, 165,000 Jews fled Spain, with 50,000 baptized and an additional 20,000 perishing while attempting to leave Spain in 1492. Meanwhile, 31,912 “heretics” were burned at the stake in Spain, with an additional 17,659 burnt in effigy. For secret Jews, known as Anusim, Conversos or Marranos, who lived under the yoke of the Inquisition and thus were in constant fear that they would be discovered, the Purim holiday had a special meaning since Queen Esther was also forced to practice Judaism in secret initially.
For the Anusim of Spain, Portugal, and Latin America, Purim was not a festive day full of children making noise and adults consuming alcohol. If these Jews celebrated in this manner, they would be discovered by the Inquisition. Instead, the Anusim, whose very existence was always in peril, would fast for three days, just as Queen Esther fasted for three days when the Jews of Persia were threatened with annihilation.
As a result, the Inquisition used the Fast of Esther as an indicator of Jews engaging in forbidden religious activity. Furthermore, a three day fast was not considered healthy. According to Gabriel de Granada, a 13-year-old boy interrogated by the Inquisition in Mexico in 1643, the women of his family would divide the three day fast between them. Some would fast on the first day, while others would fast on the second and third. Leonor de Pina, who was arrested by the Portuguese Inquisition in 1619, recorded that her daughters would fast for three days during daylight, while eating during the night. When they ate, they would refrain from eating meat.
Scholars of the Anusim maintain that the secret Jews of Spain, Portugal and Latin America viewed private fasting for three days as a substitute for the mitzvah of having a public Megillah reading in the synagogue and sending gifts of food to family and friends, which were actions that would have caught the attention of the Inquisition. In fact, Professor Moshe Orfali of Bar Ilan University asserted that the Anusim fasted quite often, which they viewed as a way of demonstrating their remorse for being forced to violate the Torah.
Interestingly, the Anusim also transformed Queen Esther into “Saint Esther,” as a means of disguising their Jewish faith from the Inquisition. Anusim frequently offered all of their prayers to her. Thus, even though the Anusim lost much of their Jewish heritage over the centuries when the Inquisition was in place, they never forgot Queen Esther or the words in the Megillah which proclaim, “These days of Purim will never leave the Jews, nor will their remembrance ever be lost to their descendants.”