On Tisha B’Av We Remember & Mourn

Rabbi Daniel Schaefer

We are approaching the end of the three weeks, a period of time that culminates tomorrow night with the arrival of Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning. I’m incredibly grateful that Judaism sets aside sacred time for us to be sad, to feel down, and to get in touch with despair. These are emotions that we often push away because we feel obligated to be happy, distract ourselves with the busyness of life, or just don’t want to experience them. But the 9th of Av creates a container for the historical tragedies that have befallen our people and the present day circumstances that overwhelm us.

And the hope behind finding room to mourn what is broken, is that we create the space to breathe and be present in reality, to acknowledge our own role in the brokenness of the world, and to begin the work of turning and preparing to do teshuva.

The historical events most often associated with the 9th of Av are the destruction of the First and Second Temple in Jerusalem, but tonight I want to talk about another event that tradition teaches fell on Tisha B’Av: The Expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.

Before the Jewish people were able to find freedom, opportunity, and success in the United States and establish the first Jewish state in Israel, the height of Jewish culture, freedom, and achievement was probably the Jewish Golden Age of Spain, which began under Muslim rule around 900 CE. The Jewish community, at the time “Heavily concentrated in Granada,..earned their livelihoods as distributors of the region’s sugarcane and cotton; as exporters of marble, gold, silver, iron, and copper; as retail tradesmen, artisans, and physicians.” According to historian, Howard Sachar, “Iberia’s affluent Jews [envisioned] themselves as the aristocrats of the Diaspora” They possessed, “economic success, superior education ­and often a highly cultivated, characteristically Iberian elegance of personal demeanor.”

The Jewish Golden Age of Spain can be divided into different periods and was not without persecution and tragedy as fundamentalist rulers arose and Muslim and Christian rulers battled for control over the Iberian peninsula.

But over centuries, Spain produced not only economic success, but some of the greatest Jewish scholars in our history, rabbis I frequently like to quote in my divrei Torah, like – Yehuda HaLevi, Moses Maimonides, Ibn Ezra, and Nahmanides. The Zohar, the foundational work of Jewish mysticism, which has influenced almost every aspect of Jewish life, including Kabbalat Shabbat, was a product of Spanish Jewry during this time.

However, in the 13th century, overt hostility against Jews in Christian Spain became more pronounced, finding expression in brutal episodes of violence and oppression. It was an animosity not only driven by religion, but by the economic and social crises of the 14th and 15th centuries in Europe.

Mobs of angry Catholics would storm into the Jewish quarter, destroy synagogues, and break into houses, forcing the inhabitants to choose between conversion and death. Thousands of Jews sought to escape these attacks by converting to Christianity. But many continued to practice their Judaism in secret, and came to be known as Crypto-Jews, or more derogatively, Marranos, or New Christians.

In 1478, the Spanish Inquisition under King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella replaced the Medieval Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisition sought to identify heretics among those who converted from Judaism and Islam to Catholicism, but continued to practice their old religion in secret. People were pressured to inform on their neighbors as the fear of the other grew.

The situation took an even harsher turn in 1491 with the case of the “Holy Child of La Guardia’ – when several Marranos were accused of having crucified a Christian boy, to perform witchcraft, an event that had no basis in fact. Despite it being a completely trumped up charge, all the accused were sentenced to death later that year.

By this time, in the words of historian, H. H. Ben-Sasson, “The mass animosity which prepared Christians to believe any evil of the Jews and the New Christians alike, had assumed a distinctly racist tone.”

Finally, on March 31, 1492, King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella, issued the Alhambra Decree, ordering the expulsion of practicing Jews from the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon and its territories. Spanish Jews were given three months to leave. Many Jews converted, over 50,000 fled to Italy and Moslem countries, and over 100,000 fled to Portugal, where children faced separation from their families, before they were often forced to convert to Christianity.

The end of the three month period fell on July 31, 1492, on the 7th of Av. But our tradition places this tragedy on the same day as many other great tragedies that befell our people, including the expulsion of Jews from England, the destruction of both Temples, and the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, which led to the start of World War I.

We don’t argue over a day or two, because we need the space to collectively remember and mourn. The Spanish Expulsion might feel very remote to some of us, but it was a huge and tremendously tragic event in Jewish history. I’m grateful that it’s one of the events that we remember every Tisha B’Av as we make space to feel the unpleasant feelings that we often seek to push away. Remembering the events of our people’s history – that we had to live in fear of our neighbors informing on us, that we were expelled from our homes, that we too were separated from our parents and children – can enlarge our humanity and foster our compassion for others. Not only remembering, but actively mourning the pain and loss of our ancestors serves as a reminder that the present moment is not unique and that we have the wisdom and power to act in ways that can prevent others from needing to mourn as well. Let us create the space this weekend to feel sorrow, to remember the pain and loss of our people, and to find the strength and courage to support those who don’t need to face those same experiences today.