It’s Saturday, Shabbat (the Jewish sabbath). The Synagogue of El Transito in Toledo, Spain is crowded, but there is no service taking place. Tourists mill through the sanctuary and the adjoining rooms of the Sephardic Jewish Museum. There is a group of local families gathered with a children’s song leader, but they don’t sing Jewish songs. For all I know, I am the only Jewish person in the building.

The Synagogue of El Transito in Toledo.

What happened? How did Spain go from being one of the centers of Jewish religious and cultural life to this?

In the year 70, the Roman legions under Titus crushed the four-year-old Jewish rebellion, and destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Jews scattered throughout the Roman Empire, joining enclaves that had already spread over most of Europe. Spain, called Sepharad in Hebrew, was one of the focal points of this diaspora.

While the Roman Empire remained pagan, Jews generally lived freely, and were able to engage in a wide variety of professions. However, after the adoption of Christianity in the year 312 under the emperor Constantine, things began to change. Jews were seen as a threat, and efforts were taken to maintain separation between Jews and the rest of the community. Canonic decisions forbade Jews from blessing Christian crops, forbade Christians from marrying Jews, and even sharing meals with Jews.

In the year 410, the Visigoths sacked Rome. They would then take control of what is now France, and ultimately Spain and Portugal. Under Arian Visigoth rule, Jews and non-Jews lived peacefully and productively.

In 587, the Visigoth royal family converted to Catholicism, and passed a series of anti-Jewish edicts in Spain. The Third Council of Toledo in 589 forbade Jews from holding public office, and officially moved to baptize all children of mixed marriages (Jews married to Christians).

In 613, the Visigoth king Sisebut issued edicts of expulsion against the Jews of Spain; they were forced to either convert to Catholicism or leave. However, a more tolerant king (Suintilla) took the throne in 621, and many of those who converted returned to their Jewish practices.

In 633, the Fourth Council of Toledo sought to address this. If a professed Christian were caught practicing Judaism, his children were to be taken away and raised in a monastery.

Future laws again sought to convert or expel Jews, though many converts continued to practice Judaism in secret. The Eighth Council of Toledo passed a law that anyone practicing Judaism after conversion was to be put to death. The Twelfth Council called for forced baptism, and levied heavy fines on Catholics who aided Jews. Practicing Jews were forced to sell all property ever acquired from a Christian, at a reduced rate.

In 711, the Moors invaded Spain from North Africa. Jews were said to have sided with the invaders and provided assistance. While under Muslim rule there were restrictions placed against Jews, Moorish Spain was seen as a very tolerant place in comparison to the rest of the world. Jewish exiles from Spain returned, and a great number of Jews from elsewhere immigrated.

During this period, Córdoba became a main center of Jewish learning in the world. Spanish Jews of the 9th and 10th centuries were leaders in astronomy, medicine, and mathematics, in addition to their religious pursuits. Jews served as advisors to Muslim rulers throughout Spain.

While not constructed until the 14th Century, Moorish design elements can be seen in the Synagogue of El Transito.

In 1066, Muslims in Grenada attacked the Royal Palace, killing the Jewish vizier Joseph ibn Naghrela, and then massacred an estimated 4,000 Jews in the city. The massacre is considered by many to be the end of the Golden Age of Jews in Moorish Spain.

As the Catholic reconquest of Spain gained momentum, Jews were a tolerated part of society. Alfonso VI had 40,000 Jews in his army, gained after granting Jews in the kingdom equal rights with Catholics. While anti-Jewish riots still took place, subsequent rulers also practiced tolerance of the Jewish community in Castile, and Jews held high positions at court. This acceptance was to be short-lived, however.

In 1212, Catholic forces conquered Toledo and celebrated by robbing and killing the Jews there, who were seen as collaborators with Muslim rulers. Jews in Castile were forced to wear clothing distinguishing themselves, and were forbidden from proselytizing Christians. In 1250, Pope Innocent IV made it illegal for Jews to employ Catholics, for Catholics to drink wine or take medicine prepared by Jews, and for Jews and Catholics to be in company together.

By the year 1300, there were approximately 500,000 practicing Jews living in Spain. While anti-Jewish demonstrations and edicts were commonplace, it is during this time period that the Synagogue of El Transito was constructed in Toledo. Jews lived separately in ghettos of the major cities, but maintained their society and practices. They rarely left the ghettos, fearing violence from the Catholic populations.

The interior of the Synagogue of El Transito, much of which has survived.

In 1391, after the death of King John, anti-Jewish sentiment reached a boiling point. In Seville, more than 4,000 Jews were massacred in a single day (June 6), and two of its three synagogues were converted to churches. By June 20, the riots had spread to Córdoba, with 2,000 Jews massacred and their corpses piled in the streets. The following two months saw repeats all over Spain. By 1410, to escape persecution and death, more than 200,000 Jews had converted to Catholicism, and only 100,000 openly practicing Jews were found in Spain.

In 1412, edicts were drawn forbidding Jews from practicing medicine and chemistry, or dealing in wine, bread, or meat. They were forbidden from visiting Catholics or giving them presents. Laws like this, along with substantial taxes and fines, were designed to force Jews to convert or be impoverished. In 1415, Jews were forbidden from studying the Talmud and other Jewish texts, and were forced to listen to Catholic sermons.

With the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella, and the fall of Grenada in 1491, Spain was finally fully united and Catholic. On March 31, 1492, all Jews in Spain were ordered either to convert or leave the country, and so ended the days of the Spanish Jews. While some converts continued to practice Judaism covertly, the rise of the Inquisition made that prospect significantly harder.

Today, there is a small Jewish population in Spain, mostly in Madrid and Barcelona, made up of less than 50,000 people, many of whom fled to Spain to escape Nazi Germany. The Alhambra Decree which had expelled Jews in 1492 was formally rescinded in 1968.

As I walked through the Synagogue of El Transito, I felt both sad and hopeful. I was sad at this history, and the persecution my people suffered throughout centuries of life in Spain. However, seeing tourists viewing our history, and seeing the Menorah proudly displayed in a strongly Catholic country, I was hopeful for the future. Perhaps one day there will be another Golden Age for the Jews of Spain.

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