The First Jewish Translation of the Book of Books into Spanish

As many conversos began to return to their heritage after the Inquisition, several Jewish cultural books were translated into Spanish for their use - including the Book of Books.

With the decree to expel the Jews from Spain in 1492, many Jews chose to remain in the Spanish kingdom and live as Christians while others accepted the invitation of the King of Portugal, King Manuel I, to emigrate to the neighboring realm where they could live openly as Jews. When the King of Portugal married the Princess of Spain, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, he changed his policies and forced the conversion of the newly arrived Jews of Portugal.

Towards the end of the 16th-century and into the 17th-century, thousands of “New Christians” took advantage of the newly eased travel restrictions between the Iberian Peninsula and the countries beyond it and emigrated to Western Europe and the New World. Upon arrival in their new communities, many chose to openly return to Judaism and the tradition of their forefathers. Those who returned to the old faith dealt with many questions on their journey, including: How does one revive a once forbidden culture, relearn lost religious practices and revive a language that has been long forgotten?

With the return of many Spanish Jews to their heritage, there was a sudden demand for translation of Jewish texts.  A great number of Jewish texts, including Halakhic and ethical treatises, prayer books and even the “Book of Books,” the Hebrew Bible, were translated into Spanish and Portuguese over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries. One major project of this sort was the first complete Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible into Spanish, printed in Ferrara in 1553.

Making the Books of Jewish Heritage Accessible 

“The Holy Bible in the Spanish tongue. Translated word for word from the true Hebrew by very excellent literati . . . with the privilege of the most illustrious Lord Duke of Ferrara.”

(Subtitle of the Ferrara Bible, the first complete Jewish translation of the Bible into Spanish, printed in 1553)

Safely ensconced in their new home in the Duchy of Ferrara in Italy, far from the reach of the long arm of the Spanish Inquisition, the translator Abraham ben Salomon Usque and the typographer Yom-Tob ben Levi Athias — themselves ex-conversos who had escaped from Spain and Portugal — labored together to translate and print twenty-seven titles of Jewish books in Spanish and Portuguese. The Ferrara Bible was their most important work. It was a new translation and revision of earlier, partial translations of the Bible into Spanish.

The original printed edition of the Ferrara Bible of 1553. Click here to access the item in the library catalog.

The revised and translated Bible became an important Judeo-Spanish text in Western Europe and the New World. It was first printed and distributed in Ferrara which, in the second half of the 16th century, was an important stop along the route for conversos emigrating from the Iberian Peninsula.


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The Ferrara Bible had multiple printings and editions including an edition published in Amsterdam in 1726 when the city became the preferred destination for conversos returning to Judaism in the 17th century.

Chapter One, Genesis, from the Ferrara Bible, printed in Amsterdam. Click here to access the item in the library catalog.

The Ferrara Bible filled a central need in the Spanish Catholic world as well. Researchers posit that the new translation influenced Catholic religious thought and many Christian authors quoted directly from the translated text. None the less, anyone caught by the Inquisition with a copy of the Ferrara Bible in his possession opened himself up to real danger.

Spanish translation of the Bible published in 1945 in Argentina, based mainly on the Ferrara Bible. Click here to access the item in the library catalog.

The Ferrara Bible – A Bridge across the Generations

This book became a bridge between the glorious culture of the Jews of Spain and Portugal prior to their expulsion and their descendants who, hundreds of years after they were torn from their country, preserved that precious culture in their new homes.

This article was written with the help of Dr. Aliza Moreno of the National Library of Israel.


The Cooking Accident that Destroyed a Jewish Greek Community

The inferno that decimated Thessalonica left 70,000 people, including 52,000 Jews, homeless and penniless.

Salonika homeless

A Jewish family left homeless by the fire that was relocated to a temporary tent camp. Photograph from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The fire started on a Saturday afternoon.

What began with a small spark quickly became a massive inferno that, in just a few hours, managed to destroy a large section of the city. While Thessalonica had suffered fires in the past, local officials did nothing to prepare the residents for the colossal damage this fire would cause.

According to official reports, the cause was completely accidental. A woman was roasting eggplants in her home at 3 Olympiados Street on August 18, 1917, when a spark from the flame caught on the walls of the house and quickly grew to a full-fledged blaze. A small cooking accident quickly evolved into a widespread fire that lasted for 32 hours. Strong winds spread the flames through the cramped and narrow alleyways, igniting the wooden homes that served as kindle for the growing fire that engulfed the Jewish quarter of the second largest metropolis in Greece.

The destroyed Jewish quarter of Thessalonica after the fire of 1917. Photograph from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The local firefighters did their best to quell the flames but found themselves hindered by a shortage of water. The city had suffered a severe drought the previous summer and the consumption of water had gone up considerably due to the allied forces taking up residence around Thessalonica and its harbor. With no water to come to its defense, the city burned as the fire continued to spread freely from the poor neighborhoods on its fringes, down to the city center, turning building after building to piles of ash.

Tiring, a Jewish store that sold clothing, shoes and hoisery was destroyed by the 1917 fire in Salonika. Photograph from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Tiring, a Jewish store that sold clothing, shoes, and hosiery was destroyed by the 1917 fire in Thessalonica. The name of the store is written on the building in Hebrew lettering. Photograph from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

On the evening of August 19, 1917, the flames were finally brought under control but the damage had been done. Forty-five percent of the population of Thessalonica (also known by the name Salonika), approximately 70,000 people, were left homeless with nothing left to show for the lives they had built other than the smoking embers of the 9,500 homes that had found themselves in the destructive path of the insatiable blaze.

For the Jews of Thessalonica, the majority population in the city, the devastating rampage of the fire proved catastrophic. Before the fire, the city was considered to be the “Jerusalem of the Balkans,” with a rich, thriving and educated melting pot of Jews from different countries and cultures who came together to build a new life. Along with the local post offices, banks and newspaper offices, the local Jewish schools, community centers, the Jewish college, and thirty-two synagogues were completely destroyed along with the entirety of the archives of the community which held records of a centuries-long history of Jewish presence in Thessalonica.

A group of Jews from Salonika left homeless by the fire are seen sitting in the streets with their few remaining belongings. Photograph from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
A group of Jews from Thessalonica left homeless by the fire are seen sitting in the streets with their few remaining belongings. Photograph from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The 70,000 newly homeless people were forced to find quick solutions to their predicaments. With the help of the Greek, British and French authorities, a portion of the homeless were given temporary housing. Parts of the Jewish community were rehomed in temporary tent encampments which provided little more than a roof over their heads and basic protection from the elements. With over 20,000 still without even temporary shelter, many Jews were forced to emigrate and left their home for Athens, the United States, France and the Land of Israel in the hopes of starting over.

With the destruction of the community archives and registry, the Jewish community had to start from scratch. The Jews who remained in the city following the wave of emigration had to build a new community register in order to properly obtain their civil status and file their claims to receive compensation and their land following the fire.

A page from the new registry of the Jewish community of Thessalonica created after the fire of 1917 now held by the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. Families and individuals registered their personal information and provided a photograph of each family member for the records. Click to enlarge.

One by one the community members came forward to register themselves and their families and one by one their registration forms were filled out in handwritten Hebrew and Ladino. Each registration was accompanied by small photos of each family member to match the new records that made up the recreated community registry.

Salonika community registry
A page from the new registry of the Jewish community of Thessalonica created after the fire of 1917 now held by the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. Click to enlarge.

After previous fires in the city the government had allowed for people to simply rebuild, but after the great fire of 1917, the government decided to use this as an opportunity to take the newly conquered territory and build a fully modernized, Hellenized city from the ashes. As part of the planning process, the government revoked the old rights and deeds to the land and the old owners were given an opportunity to bid on their plots of land at auction.  Using this methodology, the government seriously hindered the ability of the Jewish community to reestablish itself.

Despite the government’s best efforts and the rising air of anti-Semitism across the country, the Jews fought against the odds and worked to rebuild what had been lost. The community succeeded in rebuilding several synagogues, hospitals, and community centers, though many of the institutions were moved to the outskirts of the city due to the new building plans. The community also rebuilt a successful Jewish press which had three different newspapers in circulation written in Judeo-Spanish, and in French with a daily distribution rate of 25,000 copies.

A Jewish hospital in Salonika that began functioning in 1907. The photograph is from before the fire in 1917. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
A Jewish hospital in Thessalonica that began functioning in 1907. The photograph is from before the fire in 1917. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

On the eve of World War II, the Jewish community, once a majority, made up just 40% of the city. When the Germans occupied Thessalonica in the early 1940s they systematically destroyed the Jewish cemetery and more than 50,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz and Treblinka where over 90% of the once thriving community perished at the hands of the Nazis. Following the war, a handful of survivors returned to their homes and tried to once again reestablish the Jewish community.

The Jewish Cemetery of Salonika
The Jewish cemetery of Thessalonica in the early 20th century. Photograph from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

A large portion of the remaining archives of the Jewish community of Thessalonica is now preserved in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish people in Jerusalem, a priceless remnant of a nearly lost culture.



The Disappearing Headstones from the Jewish Cemetery of Ferrara

Were the ancient headstones sold or stolen and who was responsible for their disappearance?

The Jewish Cemetery of Ferrara, Photo by Lungoleno

The Pinkas of the Spanish Levantine School is one of fourteen community registers produced by the Jewish Community of Ferrara in Italy which have been preserved to this day. The manuscript, now housed in the National Library of Israel, holds the protocols and deliberations of the town’s committee meetings from April 23, 1715, to February 18, 1811.

When studying the manuscript, the word “cimiterio” (cemetery in Italian), makes multiple appearances. These occurrences provide interesting new information regarding the cause of the almost total disappearance of the ancient matṣevot (Jewish headstones) from the Sephardic cemetery of Ferrara, currently located on Via Arianuova. The sepulchral ground used by the Spanish and Levantine community is mentioned in 35 acts of the Pinkas, of which 13 are centered on the renewal of the appointments of the caretaker assigned to it.

It is highly unlikely that the considerable number of tombstones presumably present in the two Sephardic cemeteries of Ferrara, the old and the new, went missing by chance. The transcript of the council meeting on April 8, 1717, features the defense of a person accused of stealing and selling sepulchral stones from the Sephardic Community of Ferrara to the local municipal authorities of the time.

Page from the Farrera Pinkas, April 8, 1717. Click image to enlarge.

The Community Council offered a defense for Isacco Lampronti against unjust accusations of the theft and sale of cemetery gravestones. His accusers alleged that he committed these crimes on his own initiative, but the council claimed that the marble stones were sold by the same congregation in 1705 and 1706, in order to make a financial profit.

The first name that appears among the buyers of the missing headstones is that of Scipion Sagrati, who held the high office of Judge of the Savi, and who purchased the marble in order “to repair the floods of the water.” In 1705, Ferrara was damaged by a disastrous flood, called “the highest of all,” caused by the flooding of the Po and Panaro Rivers. Judge of the Savi, the Marquis Scipione Sacrati Giraldi, took preventative measures to avoid damages both before and during the flooding.

In order to prevent the ruinous entry of water into the city, the Sacrati walled the Porta degli Angeli, one of the main city gates sparing Ferrara the fury of the flood. It is very probable that the Marquis Sacrati had an urgent need to acquire some material to wall up the ancient city gate and he therefore lawfully purchased the Jewish burial stones for this purpose. Another possible hypothesis is that the Judge of the Savi may have instead obtained and used the Sephardic tombstones after the long flood to “close the routes, and repair the river banks.” Moreover, it is attested that on 28th June 1706, about a year after the violent flood, the same Scipione Sacrati Giraldi generously donated two octagonal wells to the city of Ferrara made at his own expense with the marble reused from the gravestones of the Jews.

Map of the Porta degli Angeli.

The second name that appears in the Pinkas testimony is that of Cardinal Del Verme. This is the Cardinal Bishop Protempore Taddeo Luigi Dal Verme, Bishop of Ferrara from 1701 until 1717, the year of his death. His relationship with the Jews of Ferrara was slightly ambiguous, so much so that, during his episcopate, his edicts forbade honoring the dead with tombstones. From the lines written by Abbot Girolamo Baruffaldi, we learn of an episode related to the construction of the extravagant Archiepiscopal Palace commissioned by Tommaso Ruffo, former Cardinal Legate and future first Archbishop of the city. According to the Pinkas, the Archiepiscopal stable was paved with tombstones stolen under the cover of darkness from the gardens where Jews were buried.

While Baruffaldi, who was alive at the time of these events but who was often outspoken against Jews, writes of a theft, the minutes of the council meeting of the Spanish Levantine School of April 1717 testify instead of an explicit sale of the headstones made by the Jewish community to the Bishop of Ferrara. What is certain is that Dal Verme, having obtained the Jewish tombstones, gave them to Cardinal Legate Ruffo who then used them to pave the stables of his many horses.


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The shortlist of well-known buyers ends with Emigliano Travaglioni, who purchased the headstones “for the purpose of the fortress in the year of the blockade.” Abbot Emiliano Travaglini was the Commissioner of the Apostolic Chamber of Ferrara during the year 1708, which was emblematically defined “the year of the blockade” as the city was besieged and blocked for many months by the Austrian imperial troops. Despite the fact that the city of Ferrara had been isolated, there was still a large armory inside the Pontifical Fortress, the imposing pentagonal headquarters of barracks, powder magazines and deposits of papal arms. During the imperial siege, while awaiting the arrival of troops and materials from Rome, it was only possible for the people of Ferrara to strengthen the fortifications with that which was available in the city. It is precisely in this particular context that the purchase of Jewish sepulchral stones was carried out by Abbot Travaglini. The headstones were likely to be used to reinforce the defenses against the enemy at the gates.

There are only three people mentioned as buyers of the marble stones of the Spanish cemeteries but the list should certainly be longer. In fact, the list as mentioned in the Pinkas ends with “and others,” making clear reference to other incalculable and unknown buyers.

The root or reason for such a serious accusation – the theft of Jewish headstones – aimed at a well-known and influential character of Ferrara of the time (Isacco Lampronti) remains unknown. It is possible that it was personal resentment that led Isach Saralvo and his sons to make such an accusation against the famous doctor, but the framework of the story and its origins are still very blurred. Even the date of this “criminal accusation” may not have been by chance. In fact, due to a strange and not accidental conjunction of years, there is a theory that this controversy is connected to the reconstruction of the Borso d’Este column.

In 1472, a column supporting the statue of an enthroned Duke Borso was placed on the left side of the entrance of the ducal court of Ferrara, in front of the Cathedral and next to the column with the equestrian monument of Duke Nicolò III. On December 23, 1716, a fire broke out in the surrounding shops and the column suffered serious damage. In 1718, sources attest that, in order to restore it, the city authorities ordered many marble burial headstones to be removed from the Jewish cemeteries, and provided payment to the Ghetto’s caretaker.

The Borso d’Este column containing Jewish headstones. Photo credit: Lungoleno

The story of the reuse of Jewish gravestones for the column, soon abandoned by historians, was lost to time. It was only in 1960, during a restoration of the Borso column, that a photographer successfully captured fragments of Hebrew writing embedded in the structure. The photographs show 36 fragments of tombstones in which Hebrew characters, noble coats of arms and elegant floral decorations are visible. The dating of the stone material shows they come from a chronological period between 1557 and 1680. It is very difficult, especially due to the loss of the auditing book of 1707 and the often conflicting documentary sources, to establish with certainty if the tombstones were indeed deliberately sold by the Jewish community or if, as was often known to happen, they were forcibly removed or taken under special municipal injunctions.

The data contained in this precious documentary source has made it possible to clarify an unusual aspect of the history of the Sephardic Jewish cemeteries of Ferrara, cemeteries that are almost totally void of ancient sepulchral stones, which appear to have been reused in various manners over the long history of the city of Este.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.

The Ten Lost Tribes and the Return of the Jews to England

Menasseh Ben Israel, known as the “Ambassador of the Jews,” managed to convince the English that the readmission of the Jews to England would bring about Redemption.

Jews being burned alive for alleged religious crimes. German woodcut from the end of the 15th century.

In the year 1290, the Jews of England were expelled from the realm by royal decree of King Edward I. Even after there were officially no Jews remaining on English soil, Christian theologians continued to regard Judaism as a moral peril that threatened the peace of the pious English folk.  The Jewish community had betrayed Jesus and was culpable for his death. The generations of Jews born after the death of the Messiah were equally guilty of his murder and still had his blood on their hands. Jewish-Christian relations became even more contentious with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and the forced baptism of the Jews who had chosen to remain on the Iberian Peninsula.

During the 16th-century, many New Christians and Jewish converts to Christianity began settling in the British Isles. They developed trade networks to ship all kinds of goods throughout Europe and to the New World. By this time, the attitude towards the Jews had changed somewhat. Many received the New Christians as brothers in all respects, but there were still some who viewed the Christian converts as two-faced shape-shifters, charlatans, and the devil’s henchmen.  This dubious role had, until then, been filled by none other than the Pope in Rome who was viewed by the English as the servant of the devil ever since England broke away from the Catholic Church during the reign of King Henry VIII.

So long as England was ruled by devout Protestant kings, the chances of openly practicing Jews being readmitted to the kingdom was near zero. The relatively small presence of converted Jews was tolerated so long as they did not stand out, to which the bitter demise of Rodrigo Lopez, the real merchant of Venice, stood as proof.

Rodrigo Lopez was tied to a plot to poison Queen Elizabeth I, etching by Friedreich Von Holsen, 1627.

With the execution of King Charles I and the abolishment of the throne in 1649, a rare window of opportunity opened – a historic moment that might have quickly passed had there not been a leader with an iron fist on hand to steer its course. Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Young Republic, was determined to be this leader. He was joined on the historical stage by another figure, a Jewish thinker who was known throughout Europe as the “Ambassador of the Jews,” and who helped to promote resolution of the “Jewish Question.”

Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector, in a painting by Samuel Cooper, 1656.

The Ambassador of the Jews Offers the Jewish People Salvation:

The positive attitude toward the Jews held by the victorious Puritans (who sent the king to his death on 30 January 1649) was an open secret. Their messianic belief had them convinced that the second coming of Jesus would occur only when the conversion of all the Jews in the world was completed. They were less certain of to how to go about making this ideal a reality.

Menasseh Ben Israel in an etching by Rembrandt.

Many found their answers in the short book written in 1650 by Menasseh Ben Israel, a Portuguese Jew whose family had fled to Amsterdam when he was a child. Ben Israel gained prominence in the Netherlands as a rabbi, author and printer. As a consequence of his discussions with the Portuguese journeyman converso Antonio de Montezino, Menasseh Ben Israel became convinced that the native peoples of South America were descended from the ten lost tribes of Israel. He provided dozens of testimonies and references from sources and travelogues in order to convince his readers. Menasseh dedicated his book to the English parliament – but why set his sights on England?

Since the Jews had already been expelled in 1290, Menasseh Ben Israel called for their readmission to the island nation – a return that would confirm the ancient prophecy that tied Jewish settlement in all corners of the world to the coming of the Messiah. The strange ideas spread by the Ambassador of the Jews rang true for the English. Ben Israel had provided a winning plan for those who believed that the conversion of the lost tribes in South America heralded the conversion of Jews all over the world, a necessary precursor for the second coming of Christ.

When the time came for serious discussion of the question of readmission of the Jews to England, Oliver Cromwell sent Ben Israel an official invitation to visit the new republic.

The discussions commenced in December 1655 in Whitehall Palace. The matter of the readmission of the Jews to England provoked a huge outcry among theologians, merchants, and the rank and file citizenry who opposed the prospect that the hated Jews would return once again to British shores.

Menasseh Ben Israel’s pamphlet “Vindicie Judaeorum (The Hope of Israel),” was devoted entirely to one purpose: the systematic refutation of the various accusations made against the Jewish people. This time, Ben Israel abandoned his messianic plea for a more legal-philosophical essay.

Hebrew version of Vindicie Judaeorum, by Menasseh Ben Israel, published in Vienna in 1813.


A page from “The Hope of Israel”, by Menasseh Ben Israel, published in London in 1650. From the Valmadonna Trust Collection at the National Library. Click to enlarge.

With the festive conclusion of the meeting at Whitehall, it was decreed that there would no longer be an official law prohibiting settlement of Jews in England. While the government did not necessarily welcome the return of the Jews as many had hoped at the start of the discussions, the door was opened at last for their gradual return. This policy was maintained and later intensified with the reinstatement of the monarchy in England in 1660.