Cracking the Tu B’Shvat – Shmita Conundrum

How does Israel honor Tu B'Shvat – the Jewish Arbor Day – in a year when planting is forbidden? Through celebration, education – and the occasional workaround.

Landscaping encompassing the new National Library of Israel construction zone – an unusual sight to see, as landscaping is usually the last stage before a building is completed. Photo: Albatross

The year 2022 marks a brand new beginning for the National Library of Israel as the new Library building and campus, nears completion. Over the past year, the structure, designed by noted architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron, has emerged as a stunning addition to the Jerusalem cityscape.

Further to the magnificent building, the surrounding gardens and statuary will be an attraction in themselves. Specially selected plants and trees, native to this region, celebrate Israel’s rich, varied vegetation, while the landscaping and winding trails reflect the natural terracing characteristic of Jerusalem.

Yet, oddly enough for a construction site, although the building is still being finished, the surrounding gardens, including the Idan and Batia Ofer Park, have already been planted. Landscaping is usually the final stage, but in the Land of Israel, shmita, the Jewish agricultural sabbatical, must be taken into account.

During shmita, all agricultural activity is forbidden by Jewish law. Therefore, the landscape architects raced throughout the summer to prepare the gardens before the advent of the Jewish New Year. And so, passers-by are treated to the lovely if unusual sight of flourishing plants and budding trees encompassing a construction zone.

Landscapers worked throughout the summer on the gardens, including the Idan and Batia Ofer Park, to “beat the clock” before the advent of the shmita year. Photo: Albatross.

Shmita Workarounds

The Library found a solution to its specific planting challenge by beating the countdown to shmita. More generally, however, how does Israel honor Tu B’Shvat – the Jewish Arbor Day – in those years when planting is forbidden?

In 2008, the Knesset passed a law concerning the Sabbatical year, according to which a National Shmita Commission would refer questions concerning the laws of shmita to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. The Chief Rabbinate then issued shmita guidelines for KKL-JNF, which carries out handling and management of forests on behalf of the government. During shmita, according to these guidelines, there is no ceremonial tree planting (other than special exceptions at sites where planting has been preapproved by the Chief Rabbinate), no public tree plantings with schoolchildren or tourists, and no distribution of saplings.

These dismal directives are offset by positive and proactive actions to engage in continued preservation and upkeep of existent forests, including pest and disease control as well as the all-important business of fire prevention measures. In lieu of Tu B’Shvat tree-plantings, schoolchildren will be able to participate in activities ranging from forest clean-ups to preparing saplings that will be seeded, transplanted, and potted on special soil-free substrates, unconnected to Mother Earth, and therefore not planted.

Tu B’Shvat seders were held everywhere from Italy and North Africa to Oman and Persia. (Left) Frontispiece of Seder Tu B’Shvat “Pri Etz Hadar”, Venice, 1762. NLI Collections. (Right) Page from “Seder Limud Tu B’Shvat – the New Year for the Trees”. Ṣuḥār (Oman), 1805. The National Library of Israel collections

Celebrate with a Seder

The modern-day tree-planting festival of a “Jewish Arbor Day”, notes Rabbi Dr. Zvi Leshem, Director of the Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism at the National Library of Israel, is a part of the Zionist enterprise. A Tu B’Shvat Seder was the more traditional –and mystical – way of celebration.

This tradition was started, perhaps sometime in the 18th century, by followers of the 16th century kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (also known as “Ha’ARI Hakadosh”). These disciples created a festive meal with prayers, readings, and eating the seven species of grains and fruits native to the Land of Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates, as well as drinking four cups of wine.

Leshem says, “A common misconception is that the Seder Tu B’Shvat originated with a little booklet from 1762, Pri Etz Hadar, which took the custom from the book Hemdat Yamim, which was published in 1731. But Hemdat Yamim was thought to be Sabbatean [of the followers of the false messiah Sabbatai Zvi] and therefore suspect. However, in my research, I discovered an earlier source, Birkat Eliyahu, from 1728, which is pre-Hemdat Yamim and also mentions Ha’ARI, and so there’s an ante-Sabbatean version, too.”

The ceremony spread throughout the Jewish world with Seders held everywhere from Italy and North Africa to Oman and Persia. Its popularity, however, was superseded in the 19th century with tree-planting in the Land of Israel, and – because you can’t keep a good mystic tradition down – it was revived in the latter 20th century.

Leshem says, “I truly think I participated in the first Seder Tu B’Shvat that the vegetarian Jews in the upper west side of New York started in the mid-70s. Within a short time it spread like wildfire and became super-popular among all the denominations.”

In Israel, the non-kabbalistic Seder Tu B’Shvat was revived by Israel Prize-winner Nogah Hareuveni, founder of the biblical nature reserve known as Neot Kedumim. Leshem notes that in recent years the Israeli versions “have become more elaborate, often including the Pri Etz Hadar list of 30 fruits with Zoharic readings.”

The National Library of Israel website offers educational resources, from lesson plans and photos to puzzles to posters, to learn from and enjoy.

Plant Educational Seeds

Like the JNF-KKL, other organizations are also focusing their Tu B’Shvat activities and educational efforts this year on ecology, sustainability, and community.

The Library is no exception. NLI’s Education Department has a pack of educational resources to help expose students to different aspects of Tu B’Shvat, including lesson plans, posters, newspaper articles, photos, activities, puzzles – plus, the thing kids love most: a Kahoot quiz.

NLI’s website, too, has a special page dedicated to all things Tu B’Shvat, from historic photographs to musical recordings piyyutim (liturgical hymns), Hebrew melodies, and ethnographic recordings of a Hasidic Tu B’Shvat tish, and of a Seder Tu B’Shvat.

While circumstances of shmita may prevent tree-planting activities this year, they have conspired to create a happy accident whereby, by the time the Library opens in fall 2022, the trees, plants and flowers will be in full bloom. These will be fully accessible to Library visitors who will be able to enjoy the gardens, enter the building, view galleries, sit and study in the reading halls, listen to recordings and songs, examine original documents, participate in educational programs, and – after a year of lying fallow – celebrate new beginnings.

The new National Library of Israel building and campus will open to the public this autumn. Photo: Albatross.

8 Nights, 8 Treasures, 8 Languages

Join us for a Hanukkah video journey across cultures and time, featuring treasures from the National Library of Israel!

The valiant Maccabees and a lit Hanukkiah appear on the cover of a Polish Zionist Hanukkah publication, 1947. From the National Library of Israel collection

Join the National Library of Israel in celebrating Hanukkah this year with eight stories, eight historical treasures, eight languages, and eight candles; part of the National Library’s “A Look at the Jewish Year” series.

First candle

Join Dr. Aliza Moreno-Goldschmidt, head of the Israel and Judaica Reading Room, as she explores a small, rare booklet of Ladino Hanukkah verses, printed in the Ottoman Empire:

Check out these stories about Sephardic culture and heritage:

Memories from my Sephardic Grandparents

Five-Hundred Years in the Life of the Amon Family

Kosher Pork Chops and Crypto-Jewish Identity

Also check out our world-leading collection of digitized, fully searchable historic Jewish press, including numerous titles in Ladino and Spanish.

Second candle

Join Ariel Viterbo, an archivist in the National Library’s Archives, for a look at a late 19th century Tuscan Hanukkah flyer, including texts in Hebrew and Italian:

Discover more Italian Jewish culture and heritage:

Did a Woman Really Read from the Torah in the 15th century?

The Disappearing Headstones from the Jewish Cemetery of Ferrara

Meet Emilia Morpurgo: A Female Ritual Slaughterer from Italy

“I-Tal-Ya Books”, an exciting new initiative to create a unified listing of all Hebrew books in Italy for the first time ever

Third candle

Join Tadeusz Woleński, a project manager in the Culture Department, for a look at two Polish Hanukkah treasures, one from just before the Holocaust and one from just after:

Check out these stories about Polish Jewish culture and heritage:

Also check out our world-leading collection of digitized, fully searchable historic Jewish press, including dozens of titles in Polish and Yiddish.

Fourth candle

Join Dr. Amalia Kedem of the Music Collection and Sound Archive for a listen to the official candle lighting ceremony at the Israeli president’s residence in 1957:

Discover more:

Hanukkah Songs and Sounds From Across the Globe

Bringing Darkness to Light: Singing Hanukkah Songs Through the Holocaust

Diverse musical treasures from the NLI collections

Listen to the full recording of the ceremony described in the video


Fifth candle

Join Emmanuel Fulop, R&D Manager and Architect, for a look at a rare French Jewish text that mentions latkes before potatoes had even made their way to Europe!


Sixth candle

Join Chaya Meier-Herr, head of the Edelstein Collection, for a look at a 1914 Hanukkah publication for German Jewish soldiers:

Seventh candle

Join Alexander Gordin, coordinator of the Special Collections Reading Room, for a look at a rare Hanukkah text from the Bukharian Jewish community:

Eighth candle

Join Daniel Lipson, expert reference librarian, for a look at rare Hanukkah posters printed in India:

Discover more:

Items relating to Kolkata in the National Library’s Digital Collection

Gandhi’s 1939 Rosh Hashanah Greeting to the Jewish People

A Parrot from India Recites ‘Shema Yisrael’ in Cairo

These films are part of “A Look at the Jewish Year,” a series presented by the National Library of Israel, which provides insights into the Jewish calendar and holidays through the lens of the National Library’s world-leading collection of Jewish manuscripts, books, printed materials and more.

They have been produced 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 Peek into Paradise: What Can Medieval Manuscripts Teach Us about Adam and Eve?

Was the serpent originally a form of ape? What fruit did the first sinners eat? And how does Lilith figure into the story? These intriguing questions have stirred the imaginations of illustrators of Hebrew manuscripts throughout history

The Temptation of Adam and Eve, an illustration from the Kaufmann Mishneh Torah

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat; and she gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat. And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig-leaves together, and made themselves girdles. (Genesis 3:6–7)

The year was 1296. Maimonides had been dead for nearly a century, but his groundbreaking writings were still making waves, his unique voice echoing across the Jewish world. In northern France, one of the greatest works in the history of Hebrew manuscript illumination was being copied and illustrated: a manuscript of the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides’ great halakhic work, also known as Sefer Yad ha-Hazaka (“Book of the Strong Hand”). In the 19th century, Prof. David Kaufmann, the head of the Jewish Theological Seminary in Budapest, purchased the manuscript, which is today preserved, together with his entire library, at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest.

The title pages of each of the manuscript’s 14 sections are adorned with delicate floral ornaments as well as a rectangular cartouche featuring the opening word of the text in large letters. Some of the pages’ lower margins are decorated with drawings related to the text. Most of the illustrations in the manuscript depict familiar biblical scenes. For example, Samson killing the lion, David and Goliath, the binding of Isaac and Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Aside from these, there are also illustrations of medieval knights and hunters. The prevailing hypothesis is that the illustrator was Christian.

A knight, decorated with gold leaf, the Kaufmann Mishneh Torah

The manuscript’s final illustration (Book 13, vol. IV, fol. 70) shows Adam and Eve standing on either side of the Tree of Knowledge. Most intriguing is the shape of the snake, which has arms! What’s more, the snake bears more than a passing resemblance to… a monkey.

The final illustration in the Kaufmann Mishneh Torah, featuring Adam and Eve

Another question with regard to the Kaufmann Mishneh Torah illustration is why Adam and Eve are already depicted covering themselves with fig leaves if they are only now eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. How are they already aware of their nakedness?

Detail, the Temptation of Adam and Eve, the Kaufmann Mishneh Torah

The four chapters of the Bible dedicated to the story of Adam and Eve before their expulsion from the Garden of Eden left future generations with much material for thought and creative expression. While the Jewish sages and later commentators repeatedly discussed various and bizarre questions related to humanity’s original ancestors, the illustrators of Hebrew manuscripts over the generations concentrated almost exclusively on a particular dramatic moment in the story: the eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and the destructive consequences of violating the divine proscription.


The Comic Strip in the Sarajevo Haggadah

Several decades after the decoration of the Kaufmann Mishneh Torah, Adam and Eve appear again, this time in the work known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. Today, this Haggadah is displayed in the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo, hence its name. However, it is thought that the magnificent Haggadah was actually written and decorated in Barcelona, around the year 1350.

Unlike the usual focus on the scene of the Temptation, the Sarajevo Haggadah actually shows Adam and Eve in a variety of scenes. After two pages of illustrations depicting the creation of the world, we are introduced to the couple. The panels are reminiscent of a comic strip that reads from right to left and top to bottom. We first see Eve being formed from Adam’s side (or rib) and immediately after, Adam and Eve are seen eating from the forbidden tree while the snake watches them. In the bottom illustration on the right, the couple realize they are naked and cover themselves with fig leaves, and at the left, we see them banished from Paradise. Both are now clothed and Eve is spinning wool while Adam works the land by the sweat of his brow.

Four scenes featuring Adam and Eve in the Sarajevo Haggadah

Now let us return to one of the most intriguing details in any illustration of Adam and Eve – the shape of the serpent. In the Sarajevo Haggadah, the serpent appears in its familiar form, according to the biblical curse: “Because thou hast done this, cursed art thou from among all cattle, and from among all beasts of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life” (Genesis 3:14). In the illustration at the top, the limbless snake coils around the Tree of Knowledge, and in the illustration below it is slithering on its stomach. Eve, apparently having learned to be wary of it, looks as if she might use her spindle to rap the snake on its head.

In the bottom right scene, rays of light appear over the tree on the left. According to the Bible, Adam and Eve “heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden toward the cool of the day.”  “Where art thou?” God asks Adam, who immediately justifies himself and explains: “I heard Thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” Why? “The woman whom Thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.” (Genesis 3:7–12). The anonymous illustrator of the Sarajevo Haggadah imagined God as rays of celestial light, a familiar visual tactic for representing the image of God, and especially the divine voice.

“The voice of the LORD God walking in the garden toward the cool of the day,” the Sarajevo Haggadah

The Image of God in the Golden Haggadah

Some 30 years before the writing of the Sarajevo Haggadah, around 1320, another Passover Haggadah was written and illustrated in Barcelona. Named the “Golden Haggadah” for the gilded backgrounds adorning the 128 illustrated pages out of the 322 pages in total in the manuscript, this Haggadah also opens with illustrations of biblical scenes. However, the first illustration does not present the creation of the world. Instead, it shows Adam naming all the animals in Paradise, according to a nearby inscription.

Illustration from the Golden Haggadah: Adam naming the animals

The second illustration in the Golden Haggadah contains two scenes familiar from the Sarajevo Haggadah: the creation of Eve from Adam’s side and the pair eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The startling innovation here concerns the portrayal of the image of God, who appears from a cloud to scold the three sinners—Adam, Eve and the serpent. Though the artist may have intended to portray an angel and not God himself, many might consider this illustration a violation of the second commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me. Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness” (Exodus 20:2–3). The inscription above the illustration reads simply: “Adam and his wife naked.”

Second illustration in the Golden Haggadah: the image of the watchful God appearing from a cloud

Similar to the Sarajevo Haggadah, the illustrations in the Golden Haggadah are separated into four panels. On the opening page, below the illustrations of Adam and Eve, we see the murder of Abel by Cain and next to this, Noah and his wife and sons leaving the ark. Here, too, the figure of the watchful God appears above.

The four panels in the Golden Haggadah

Between Judaism and Christianity

The story of Adam and Eve was naturally embraced by Christian tradition. The Western Church even preserved one of the apocryphal books, “The Life of Adam and Eve”, which recounts their story after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

Influences in the opposite direction also exist – Hebrew manuscripts from Europe often show the adoption of Christian motifs, methods of copying and illustration styles. The Frankish knights from the Kaufmann Mishneh Torah are but one of many examples.

Another example of the inter-religious influence associated with Adam and Eve can be found in the Schocken Bible. This manuscript, originating in southern Germany, is preserved at the Schocken Institute in Jerusalem, and dates to around 1300. The beautiful title page features 46 miniatures in medallions, each depicting a scene from Genesis. The blue and red color scheme was common in stained glass windows in Gothic churches as well as Christian manuscripts from the period.

The first two medallions are dedicated to Adam and Eve. The first shows the Temptation, and the second, the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Note that in the Schocken Bible, the couple is depicted naked even after the expulsion. Clearly, even after the sin, “man … shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).

Title page of the Schocken Bible


Detail of the two medallions showing Adam and Eve, the Schocken Bible

Romantic Icons

Indeed, Adam and Eve’s devotion to each other did not go unnoticed in the Jewish artistic community over the ages. We find a hint of this in many Jewish marriage contracts (Ketubbot) adorned with the figures of the first couple. For example in a Ketubbah dating back to 1629 from Mantua, Italy, Adam and Eve are depicted reaching out their hands and holding what appear to be golden apples. The illustration raises another question that challenged the Jewish sages: What kind of fruit grew on the Tree of Knowledge? The most popular candidate is the apple of course, but the biblical text offers no evidence to support this claim.

Adam and Eve, from a Ketubbah. Courtesy of the Bezalel Narkiss Index of Jewish Art in the Center for Jewish Art, the Hebrew University

We also found a unique manuscript that contains illustrations of Adam and Eve without mention of the Temptation or the Fall. A manuscript picture bible from Warsaw features illustrations of the major events in the Bible, with the relevant quotations from the biblical text written above each scene. The first illustrations show the creation of the world and the creation of the flora and fauna.

Creation of the World, the Warsaw Bible. Courtesy of the Bezalel Narkiss Index of Jewish Art, in the Center for Jewish Art, the Hebrew University

Two illustrations are devoted to the story of Adam and Eve. The first, on the right, shows Adam naming the animals. Next to it, on the left, is the creation of Eve. Notice how in both illustrations, the artist took care to preserve Adam’s modesty by adding a large-leafed plant to cover his loins.

Adam and Eve, the Warsaw Bible. Courtesy of the Bezalel Narkiss Index of Jewish Art, in the Center for Jewish Art, the Hebrew University

Illustrations of the first couple can be found in bibles,  halakhic books, Haggadot and Ketubbot. The purpose of the illustrations varied according to the type of text. In Ketubbot, their appearance was meant as a living example of romantic love; in Haggadot and illustrated bibles, their story was intended as a landmark in the historical continuum from Creation to the giving of the Torah and the birth of the Jewish people; and in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah they are a purely decorative ornament.


In the World of Demons and Spirits

We conclude with a more modern illustration of Adam and Eve—taken from a Jewish mystical amulet. Apparently, the most common Jewish amulets were intended for the protection of new mothers. These amulets cited the names of Adam and Eve, as well as three angels who were called to protect the mother and her newborn.

An entire tapestry of Jewish legends has been woven into the origin story of this particular type of amulet. Some of these legends describe the Jewish mythological figure of Lilith as Adam’s first wife, who was banished before she could bear him sons. In a desperate attempt to take revenge on Adam and all his offspring, the demonic Lilith devotes herself to harassing newborns and their mothers. She strangles babies in their sleep, seduces men and becomes pregnant with the wasted sperm, giving birth to demonic stepchildren.

According to Jewish folklore, three angels—Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelof—were sent to stop Lilith and return her to Adam. But she claimed that she was now the partner of the great demon Samael and could no longer return to her former husband. The angels managed to extort a promise from her that she would not harm the descendants of Adam from his second wife Eve, which would explain the appearance of their names next to Adam and Eve on the amulets.

The earliest known printed Jewish amulet is a birthing amulet of this sort, featuring a depiction of Adam and Eve and published in Amsterdam around 1700. Suffice it to say, the scene is a familiar one, featuring a notoriously untrustworthy serpent…

A birthing amulet featuring an illustration of Adam and Eve. The names of the angels Senoy, Sansenoy and Samengelof also appear, as do the names Lilith and Satan. This is the earliest Jewish amulet to appear in print. Source: Angels and Demons: Jewish Magic Through the Ages, edited by Filip Vukosavovitch

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.