High Holy Days Among Spanish “Marranos”

The author is executive director of the Institute for Marrano (Anousim) Studies in Israel

Five centuries ago, the Days of Awe among the Spanish “Marranos” were indeed regarded as such by them, but uppermost was FEAR, from being discovered by the Inquisition.

Therefore, the fact that Rosh Hashanah is but 10 days apart from Yom Kippur made most secret communities weigh which of the two festivals was paramount. The fear was to take time off from work twice in such close succession, whatever excuse they wished to make, or if self-employed, to be seen desisting from work first for two consecutive days, and then another day but 10 days later, was for the majority just too risky.

And so in the passage of very few years after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and particularly in the Balearic Isles, only Yom Kippur was observed. The “Marranos”, or Chuetas, as they were called on the Island of Majorca, called Yom Kippur El Día Puro. Fasting was something that they found the easiest to do, without detection. It was to make a gathering for prayers that was far more difficult. Yet somehow they managed it throughout the centuries. The fact that our calendar is lunar was a tremendous help to isolated groups.

One of the most thrilling reports of “Marranos” praying together in secret was reported in the 1930s, when Ezriel Carlebach, editor of the Jewish Daily Forward in New York, found himself in the capital of the Balearic Isles, Palma-de-Majorca, on Kol Nidre night. The biggest problem for the American was to convince the Chuetas that he was indeed a Jew, and wished to pray with them. After so many centuries the Chuetas knew almost no Hebrew, but the one common word between them and Carlebach was Adonai. Later, when this had convinced them, Carlebach saw how the prayers, even in Spanish, still had the form and order of the service that so many Jews around the world know.

We are told that the original Kol Nidre prayer was composed by those suffering the Inquisition.

In my visits and studies to the more tolerant smaller Balearic Isles, especially Ibiza and Formentera, the third and more jovial Festival of Succoth, with its pastoral, agricultural emphasis, seems to have been far easier to observe.

To this day, one village has a Fiesta, which is set by the moon’s cycle and usually seems to fall on the intermediate days of Succoth. There is a procession around the village, with a proportion of the men dressed in creamy white shawls fringed at the corners. In their arms they carry an exact replica of the lulav, but the etrog is missing. Another nearby place has a 16th century folk song of how the Jews, Moors and Christians celebrated Fiestas together at the time when, officially, no practicing Jew was allowed to live in Spain!

Here in Israel we are free to observe our festivals, but if our forefathers in times of danger had not somehow remembered and tried to practice, would there still be Jews and a State of Israel? I admit I stand in Awe of their tenacity and faith, and I try to remember them in my own prayers.

(Editor’s note: An article by Haim Shapiro in the Jerusalem Post of October 3, 1995, described an ancient secret Yom Kippur ritual still practiced by “Marrano” families in northern Portugal. Women gather together and braid oil lamp wicks while reciting 73 blessings, possibly corresponding to the number of the names of God. The practice is noted in the Shulhan Aruch. In addition to Belmonte and Oporto, holiday activities were held in Gurada for 600 crypto-Jewish families who live in the Portuguese towns of Fundao, Pinhel, Meda, Trancoso, Idanha, Penamacor and Vilarinho dos Galegos, as well as in the Spanish province of Galicia.)

Note from Oscar Filipe de Oliveira Barroso ob@sibs.pt
Vilarinho dos Galegos was founded by Jewish people who fled from Spain in 1492.
Galegos means Galicians… that’s the reason for its name