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High Holidays with the Inquisition

Spanish Inquisition

The Spanish Inquisition was an age of public burning of Jews in Spain. They called it auto-da-fé: an act of faith.

The so-called “religious ceremony” of public burning started with sprinkling the instruments of torture with holy water, as the event was considered divinely inspired by the Creator. The procession consisted of penitents wearing conical hats, walking barefoot, holding lit candles and, behind them, the condemned recalcitrant Jews who had converted but refused to abandon their faith – called Marranos – accompanied by a priest ready to hear their last confessions.

The cortege was followed by ecclesiastical and temporal dignitaries on horseback, led by the Grand Inquisitor General.

Once the cavalcade of the living dead reached the public square, the infidels would be burned alive. They would die quickly if winds enraged the fires, or roast slowly if gusts were absent. In a windless summer night, it would take two hours for the bedevilled to be haltingly immolated while they recited the Shema Yisrael in the throes of insufferable agonies. As the flames eventually rose to embrace the entire body, with fires sprouting from every orifice, hymns would be chanted, scriptures read, crosses paraded and masses celebrated as the Inquisition presented its burnt human offerings to a silent deity.

If the doomed Jewish souls confessed, as an act of charity they would be strangulated before burning.

It was in such a world, in the realm of Their Most Catholic Majesties Ferdinand and Isabella, during the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, that Don Fernando Aguilar, a Jewish community leader and conductor of the Royal Orchestra of Barcelona, converted but remained true to the faith of his forefathers at great risk to himself and to his entire family.


Clandestine Jews did their best to practise their faith in great secrecy, but “some rituals,” according to Dr. Yvette Alt Miller, “were nearly impossible to observe. One was listening to the shofar each Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. On Rosh Hashanah they would eat a furtive festive meal together. On Yom Kippur, they would go about their business in public, never letting on that they were fasting. But blowing a shofar out loud, let alone for the 100 blasts prescribed for each day of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, was impossible. Doing so would lead to immediate arrest, torture, and death.”

In an inspired decision in 1497, Don Aguilar made an announcement that on Sept. 5 he would present a new composition in celebration of the Peoples of Spain in Barcelona. The date happened to be the First of Tishrei 5258 – the night of Rosh Hashanah. During the concert, in a solo passage, a musician rose with an unusual musical instrument: a ram’s horn. He then “performed” by blowing tekiah, shevarim, teruah as each note of High Holiday services resonated throughout the concert hall. While most in the audience found the music somewhat avant-garde, the sound of the instrument was greatly appreciated for its clarity. But for the Marranos in the audience, storming the heavens with the shofar gave them the chance of performing a mitzvah they had not fulfilled for ages.

Five hundred years later in 1992, I visited Spain as part of a mission called From Expulsion to Redemption. In Madrid, we were received by His Majesty Juan Carlos I at the Zarzuela Palace, his residence, because he considered us not as guests but people of the land coming back home. We also toured the Alhambra Palace in Granada, shimmering under Federico Lorca’s “immense Andalusian nights,” one evening.

In the Hall of Diplomacy, where the Edict of Expulsion was issued, I tried to imagine how Don Isaac Abravanel, the head of the Jewish Communities of Spain, pleaded with a “golden tongue” for the reversal of the decision before Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, only to have Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor, intervene by throwing his wooden cross at the feet of their majesties, thundering that his Lord had been betrayed for 30 shekels once and he would not be forsaken again for all the gold of Jews.

A few days later, we flew to Israel. As the outline of the shore came into view, I rejoiced that I was arriving in a land where the shofar would never remain silent during the High Holidays.