Revealed: Stirring Words from the Victims of the Mexican Inquisition

Jews in Mexico who secretly kept their faith were tortured and tried. Their tormentors saved their poems...

" much as I feel faint, in just thinking of Him my spirit rejoices..." (Image source: History of the Inquisition / National Library of Israel collection)

A century after a Catholic theocracy rampaged across Iberia in the late 15th Century, multitudes of Jews had fled abroad or were living in hiding.

Those who escaped preserved and built the Sephardi culture we enjoy today.

Many Jews who had immigrated to the New World outwardly lived as converts, while secretly maintaining threads of a Jewish life – so-called crypto-Jews.  They lost the liturgy, could have no prayer books, and knew little Hebrew beyond the “Shema”, yet they clung to their Jewish heritage, creating their own unique brand of Jewish identity and culture.

Many were eventually betrayed as Jewish dogmatizers, yet remained steadfast in their beliefs through years of torture and imprisonment in the dungeons of the Inquisition, even in the New World, ultimately paraded through throngs of cheering crowds to be burned alive at the stake with their siblings, parents, and children, as part of a public display known as an auto de fé.

An auto de fé in Peru, 17th century (Public domain). Click image to enlarge


An auto de fé in San Bartolomé Otzolotepec, Mexico (Public domain). Click image to enlarge

How could they reconcile their Jewish beliefs while facing such horrors?

For some, we actually know the answer, as they inscribed their inner thoughts and rationale into poems and prayers.

The sacred writings of crypto-Jews in Mexico 400 years ago ring with a desperation tempered by deep faith in Hashem, the God of their ancestors.

It was their own sin – turning their back on the Law – that led to their suffering.

Depiction of different forms of torture performed during the Inquisition, appearing in the book History of the Inquisition. From the National Library of Israel collection

Despite it all, they called out in repentance, hoping, knowing that Hashem would in some way hear their cry – if sincere – and then generously shine His favor upon them once again.

The Carvajal family in Mexico was led by Luis de Carvajal, the younger, an “alumbrado,” a mystic.

His family and friends became embroiled in the Inquisition. Many of them, including Luis, were finally martyred at the auto de fé of 1596 in Mexico City.

The Palace of the Inquisition in Mexico City, now the Museum of Mexican Medicine (Thelmadatter / CC BY-SA 3.0)

What we know of them comes from their own writings.  Fragments of poems and prayers circulating in this crypto-Jewish community are preserved in the transcripts of their trials.  The Inquisitors were scrupulous in their recording of evidence against those that followed the Laws of Moses, forcing the accused to sing the songs and recite the prayers that condemned them in humiliation.

A depiction of the execution of Mariana de Carvajal appearing in the book El Libro Rojo: 1520-1867 (Public domain)

The trial transcripts of crypto-Jews in the New World are currently housed as original single-copy documents in special library collections and archives around the world, as well as rare archival and microfilm copies, such as the Mexican Inquisition Collection at the National Library of Israel’s Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem.

Fly page of the transcript of the 1601 Inquisition trial of Leonor de Cáceres, grandniece of Luis de Carvajal, now in the Huntington Library collection (Photo: Mark Schneegurt). Click image to enlarge


The new publication, Anthology of Religious Poetry from the Mexican Inquisition Trials of 16th-Century CryptoJews, brings these cultic compositions together in the most comprehensive collection of paleographic transcriptions to date.  It is rich in bibliographic information for scholars seeking to study the religious poetry of Mexican crypto-Jews. For the lay reader, these poems are presented in Spanish and translated into English.

Penitential prayers tinged with hope are mixed with beautiful compositions that speak to a deep understanding and belief in the ways of Hashem.

The most famous compositions are nine poems, known as “canticos”, which were culled from the Inquisition records of  Luis de Carvajal’s trial. The following is the first English translation of one such poem, known as “Cantico 3”:

As for myself, I have a heart enamelled
with the name of the Lord, holy and blessed,
and as much as I feel faint,
in just thinking of Him my spirit rejoices…
Remind me of the time that teaches me,
it was to deliver me from Egypt,
and to see that He that was then is now,
I hope for better times, I pray.


Stars in the heavens

While the Carvajal family and other crypto-Jewish clans in Mexico were pursued by the Inquisition for another 60 years, many survived to become as numerous as the stars in the heavens.

Many became the founders of cities throughout what is now the southwest United States, yet they had lost virtually all traces of Jewish identity.  Some families maintained tidbits of Jewish customs, but did not make the connection to their Jewish heritage, until recently.

Today, crypto-Jews related to the Carvajal family and others are being identified through extensive genealogical studies from El Paso, Texas to St. Augustine, Florida and beyond.

Thousands are returning to Judaism, converting to the religion of their ancestors.

Anthology provides a glimpse into their heritage. It gives us all a vision into how crypto-Jews reconciled their martyrdom, while remaining faithful to Hashem.

There is wisdom here for us all.


Anthology of Religious Poetry from the Mexican Inquisition Trials of 16th-Century CryptoJews, transcribed and translated by the author is now available online, part of the National Library of Israel’s Digital Collection.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

A Mobile Feast: Sukkot on Wheels During the Yom Kippur War

Rare photos reveal how IDF soldiers managed to fulfill the commandment to “sit in the sukkah”, even as war raged in the north and south

A sukkah on an IDF vehicle, October 1973. The Nathan Fendrich Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The Yom Kippur War took its name from the sacred fast day on which the deadly conflict broke out and surprised the State of Israel. The sirens wailed on Saturday, October 6, at 1:55 pm. However, it is worth remembering that the war was still underway during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot which took place soon after. Thus, enlisted and reserve soldiers found themselves “celebrating” the harvest festival on the frontlines in both the Sinai Desert in the south and the Golan Heights in the north.

An improvised sukkah on an armored personnel carrier. October 17, 1973. Photo: Eli Landau, the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

“IDF soldiers are exempt from the sukkah commandment,” the chief military rabbi, Brigadier-General Mordechai Piron stated in a special proclamation on Sukkot in the midst of the Yom Kippur War. “Their duty at this time is to completely defeat and destroy the enemy,” the rabbi stated, “and whoever is unable to perform the mitzvah of sitting in the sukkah is exempt from it.”

Despite this unequivocal declaration, there were soldiers who nevertheless tried to observe the mitzvah of sitting in the sukkah, even at the front. What probably drove the battle-weary soldiers was their desire for even a little of the holiday atmosphere, a brief respite.

A reporter for the Al HaMishmar newspaper who accompanied the soldiers in the difficult battles along the Suez Canal in the south reported in Hebrew: “Despite the bitter fighting, there is no forgetting that civilian life goes on. On the frontline we discovered an improvised sukkah: a half-track vehicle decorated with branches, completely kosher.”

In the collections of the National Library of Israel we found several rare photographs documenting soldiers erecting improvised sukkot on jeeps and other military vehicles. It’s unclear if all of these creative sukkah booths fulfill the  requirements according to Jewish law, but it is very possible that for the soldiers at the front, they provided some joy and a sense of home during difficult days.

A sukkah on an army vehicle in the Golan, 1973. The Nathan Fendrich Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Among the photos that stand out in particular are those taken by the photographer Nathan Fendrich. The 39-year-old Jewish-American tourist had come to Israel to document historical and archaeological sites. Finding himself “stuck” in Israel at the outbreak of the war, he decided to travel between the various fronts armed with his camera. Among hundreds of fascinating photographs, we found a handful documenting some improvised sukkot.

A sukkah on an army vehicle in the Golan Heights. The Nathan Fendrich Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel
A sukkah on an army vehicle. The Nathan Fendrich Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The Sukkot holiday of 1973 began under the shadow of desperate battles on both fronts, with real concern for the survival of the Jewish state, but by the end of Sukkot the turning point had come, and IDF forces moved from defense to offense. A journalist for Maariv reported on October 17 from deep in Syrian territory:

“On the main road approaching Hushniya—in between two damaged tanks, a yellowing thatch blows in the wind covering an improvised sukkah. A soldier from the Combat Engineering Corps tells us: ‘The guys from the armored division set up the sukkah. Yes, they managed to fulfill the mitzvah of sitting in it, before they were called to destroy the last enemy pocket at the Hushniya junction.’”


The Nathan Fendrich Collection has been reviewed and described thanks to the generous support of The Leir Foundation.

Sukkah Scuffles: Surprising Testimony From the 12th Century

The only mentions of a sukkah in the Cairo Genizah refer to communal sukkot in synagogue courtyards. A fact that caused quite a bit of trouble.

False accusations and brawls on Sukkot

The Cairo Genizah is a famous collection of Jewish manuscript fragments, originally stored in Cairo’s Ben Ezra synagogue. It contains around 300,000 items, some of them over a thousand years old. It does not, however, contain any documentation of private sukkot erected in building courtyards or on balconies.

In the overcrowded neighborhoods of Fustat, the medieval capital of Egypt, now Old Cairo, Jewish residents shared common courtyards in multi-story apartment buildings, which was why on Sukkot, the sukkah was built in the courtyard of the synagogue. It should be remembered that for long periods, the synagogue was the center of communal life, the place where the community’s children learned, as well as a hostel for weary travelers, a soup kitchen for the needy and more.

The two synagogues in Fustat—the Iraqi synagogue of the Babylonians, and the “Shami” synagogue of the Syrian Jews, (who worshipped according to the custom of the Land of Israel, which was considered part of Greater Syria or “Sham”)—each had its own sukkah. As communal property, the sukkah was the responsibility of the community leaders, who also were in charge of the day-to-day upkeep of all the communal property. The first document we see here, from 1165, is an account in Judeo-Arabic of the “kodesh” (lit. sacred), meaning the communal assets, in this case of the Shami community. One of the expenses was “cleaning out the pipe in the entry hall, behind the Shami synagogue sukkah, in the presence of the rabbi—31 drahma.”

“….cleaning out the pipe in the entry hall, behind the Shami synagogue sukkah, in the presence of the rabbi—31 drahma.”

There was also a sukkah in the courtyard of the Iraqi synagogue, which followed the Babylonian rite. We learn this from an interesting testimony recorded in the middle of the 12th century, about an altercation between two respected members of the community:

“So say I, slave and servant of our rabbi, Abu Alkhir, that on Thursday evening, after the evening prayer, I was about to leave the Iraqi synagogue after the congregation left. And when I left the sukkah in the direction of the synagogue gate, I saw the honorable gentleman Abu Albaha, may God protect him, quarreling with Abu Alufa, and I don’t know how the quarrel began, but I saw Abu Alufa raise his hand to the gentleman Abu Albaha over and over, and expose his head [i.e., knock his head covering off] and level false accusations at him.”

Another testimony which appears later also confirms the details of the incident described above. The page was sent to the Nagid, the head of the Egyptian Jewish community, but alas, we still do not know the true reasons for the brawl or how the conflict was resolved.

So this year, while it can occasionally get hot and crowded in the sukkah, let’s try to be respectful and avoid any kerfuffles!

Happy Sukkot!


The “kodesh” expenditures can be found at Cambridge University Library, TSAr18 (1) .155, and were published by Moshe Gil in his book Documents of the Jewish Pious foundations from the Cairo Geniza, document 67. The testimony, also in Cambridge University Library, TS10J14.30, has not yet been published in full, and is mentioned in Shlomo Dov Goitein’s A Mediterranean Society, Vol. II.

A Half-Angel, Half-Demon Named Azazel and His Connection to Yom Kippur

What are the strange biblical origins of the term "scapegoat"? And what does it have to do with the Jewish Day of Atonement?

The demon Azazel from the Dictionnaire Infernal

You may or may not be aware that the word Azazel is often used in modern Hebrew in a similar function to the word “Hell” in English – as in a place where you can tell someone particularly annoying to go to. Some of you may also have heard of the ancient Jewish practice, dating from before the destruction of the temple, of se’ir la’azazel (“a goat for Azazel“), the ritual of sending a goat into the wilderness as atonement for the sins of the people, hence the term scapegoat. But did you know that Azazel was also the name of a dangerous and destructive angel, who according to Jewish mystical tradition, was responsible for teaching humans some of history’s most horrible lessons?

So, who exactly is this rebellious angel Azazel and how is he related to Yom Kippur?

HaSe’ir La’Azazel, Leora Wise. This is the second engraving in a series of nine on the scapegoat, inspired by Goya’s “Los caprichos”. Printed in the Jerusalem Print Workshop. For the series on Leora’s website:

And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats: one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for Azazel. And Aaron shall present the goat upon which the lot fell for the LORD, and offer him for a sin-offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell for Azazel, shall be set alive before the LORD, to make atonement over him, to send him away for Azazel into the wilderness. [Leviticus 16, 8-10]

It begins with an age-old tradition rooted in the Bible that took place once a year on Yom Kippur. On that day, a day of atonement and fasting, the high priest was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple, and bring with him a sacrifice to the God of Israel. After leaving the temple, he cast lots for the two goats. The first would be sacrificed to God on the spot, and the second would be sent into exile to Azazel, after all the sins of Israel had been transferred to it. The casting of the lot symbolized God’s choice of the se’ir la’azazel (the scapegoat to be sent to exile to Azazel).

How are we to understand the instruction to send this creature to Azazel? It all depends of course on the meaning of the word Azazel. According to the Talmudic Sages, the word Azazel, which is mentioned three times in the Bible, is the name of a particular cliff or especially treacherous mountain (Az-el). They explained that on Yom Kippur the high priest would cast lots and decide which goat would be sent to Azazel. Then an emissary would accompany the goat that was selected to the location, some 7 miles from Jerusalem, and there he would throw the poor goat off the cliff to its death.

From the Lenkin Family Collection, the National Library of Israel

There is also another way of understanding the word Azazel, and that is as the name of a supernatural being to whom the poor goat must be sacrificed. If God is the essence of good, Azazel is an evil demon or a lesser god that is fed by the sins of the people.

This second interpretation comes from the Jewish apocrypha, or more specifically the First Book of Enoch, which details Azazel’s awful nature. Here there is no trace of a helpless animal forced to carry the sins of the collective through no fault of its own. Rather, Azazel is the rebellious angel at the head of a heavenly plot to take over the earth.

The First Book of Enoch retells the story cited in Genesis (6, 1–4) of the angels who had relations with the daughters of men. The offspring of their unnatural union were the nefilim—giants of renown who filled the earth. Enoch, the seventh generation between Adam and Noah, is naturally the central figure of this book and is chosen to bring God’s message to the rebellious angels. One of those evil angels, and second in importance only to their leader Shemhazai, is our Azazel.

Azazel’s influence on mankind is destructive and eternal: he “taught men to make swords, and knives, and shields, and breastplates, and made known to them the metals of the earth and the art of working them, and bracelets, and ornaments, and the use of antimony, and the beautifying of the eyelids, and all kinds of costly stones, and all coloring tinctures.”  He teaches humans not only how to make weapons of war, he shows them the power of artifice and hypocrisy. And as a result of this destructive influence, “there arose much godlessness, and they committed fornication, and they were led astray, and became corrupt in all their ways.”

Although Enoch warned the rebellious angels, they remained steadfast in their destructive ways. And were punished for it. Thus, Azazel finds himself bound in the desert. This is in fact an original and interesting explanation of the origin of the sacrifice of the scapegoat in the desert:

And again the Lord said to Raphael: ‘Bind Azazel hand and foot, and cast him into the darkness: and make an opening in the desert, which is in Dudael, and cast him therein. And place upon him rough and jagged rocks, and cover him with darkness, and let him abide there for ever, and cover his face that he may not see light. And on the day of the great judgment he shall be cast into the fire.”

Azazel appears in other Jewish works from the first centuries CE, and even more interestingly, he has a starring role in various Christian traditions. The religion that grew out of Judaism also preserved something of the scapegoat from the Book of Leviticus. According to some of the early Church Fathers, Azazel was even one of the names of the devil himself. Is it any wonder that so many illustrations show the devil with the hindquarters and hooves of a goat?

So the next time you decide to make someone a scapegoat, or heaven forbid wish someone a long visit to hell or some other desolate wilderness, we recommend that you hurry and cool off, appease your demons and prove to the devilish Azazel that you were just joking. There’s really no need for all that -after all, the modern kapparot (atonement) chicken is the natural heir to the Biblical and Talmudic scapegoat—a helpless creature onto which we transfer all our sins on the Jewish calendar’s Day of Atonement.