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New Christians


NEW CHRISTIANS , a term applied specifically to three groups of Jewish converts to Christianity and their descendants in the Iberian Peninsula. The first group converted in the wake of the massacres in Spain in 1391 and the proselytizing fervor of the subsequent decades. The second, also in Spain, were baptized following the decree of Ferdinand and *Isabella in 1492 expelling all Jews who refused to accept Christianity. The third group, in Portugal, was converted by force and royal fiat in 1497. Like the word *Conversos, but unlike *Marranos, the term New Christian carried no intrinsic pejorative connotation, but with the increasing power of the *Inquisition and the growth of the concept of limpieza de *sangre, the name signaled the disabilities inevitably heaped on those who bore it. In Portugal, the Marquis de Pombal officially abolished all legal distinctions between Old and New Christians in May 1773. Comparable measures were not enacted in Spain until 1860, by which time much of the distinction had been eroded by assimilation and inquisitorial repression. However, pockets of social discrimination against New Christians still continued, as, for example, against the *chuetas of the Balearic Isles.

[Martin A. Cohen]

In Halakhic Literature

The New Christians who continued secretly to observe the precepts of Judaism as much as possible after their conversion were not regarded as voluntary apostates. The basis of this decision was the statement of *Maimonides (Yad, Yesodei ha-Torah 5:3–4) that although one should allow oneself to be put to death rather than abandon one's faith in times of persecution, "nevertheless, if he transgressed and did not choose the death of a martyr, even though he has annulled the positive precept of sanctifying the Name and transgressed the injunction not to desecrate the Name, since he transgressed under duress and could not escape, he is exempted from punishment." In accordance with this, Isaac b. *Sheshet ruled that those New Christians who remained in their countries because they were unable to escape and flee, if they conduct themselves in accordance with the precepts of Judaism, even if only privately, are like full Jews, their sheḥitah may be relied upon, their testimony in law cases is accepted, and their wine is not forbidden by touch as that of non-Jews (Resp. Ribash, no. 4). However, some authorities ruled that if the Marranos of a certain locality succeeded in fleeing to a country where they could return to Judaism, while others remained there in order to retain their material possessions, the latter were no longer presumed to have the privilege of being regarded as Jews (Ribash, ibid.) nor are they regarded as valid witnesses (Tashbeẓ, 3:47; Resp. Redakh, no. 24). Others, however, expressed more lenient views and held that no one is to be deprived of his rights as a Jew as long as he is not seen to transgress the precepts of Judaism even when there is no danger involved (Tashbeẓ, 1:23). Moses Isserles, too, rules that even those Marranos who are able to flee but delay because of material considerations and transgress Judaism publicly out of compulsion while remaining observant privately do not make wine forbidden by their touch (Sh. Ar., yd 124:9, and see ibid. 119:12).

The problem of the Marranos in halakhah became increasingly complex as the length of their stay and that of their descendants in their native lands wore on. Jewish religious tradition was gradually forgotten by the descendants of the Marranos in Spain and Portugal, and many of them assimilated and intermarried with the gentiles. Since for several centuries individuals and groups of descendants of Marranos continued to escape to other countries where they were absorbed in the Jewish community, doubts and differences of opinion related to the laws of marriage and personal status arose among the great talmudists about the Marranos returning to Judaism. Isaac b. Sheshet, Simeon b. Solomon Duran in Algiers, and Elijah Mizraḥiin Constantinople ruled that the children of Marranos counted as Jews in matters of marriage, divorce, levirate marriage, and *ḥaliẓah even after several generations (Yakhin u-Vo'az, pt. 2, no. 38; Mayim Amukkim, no. 31; Maharik, Resp. no. 85 in the name of Rashi). On the other hand, some ruled that the children of Marranos born after their parents had converted and succeeding generations were to be regarded in all ways as non-Jews; their betrothal to a Jewish woman was invalid, levirate marriage did not apply to them, and even if a Marrano begot a child by a woman forbidden under penalty of *karet the offspring does not rank as *mamzer, and should he become a proselyte would be permitted to marry a Jew. The Marranos who had lived among gentiles for more than a century came to regard those things forbidden by the Torah as permitted and married non-Jewish women, with the result that their children were presumed to be non-Jewish unless it could be proved that their mothers were Jewish (Keneset ha-Gedolah, eh 4; Resp. Maharit, vol. 2, eh no. 18).

A Marrano who could have fled but did not was penalized, in that he did not inherit the property of his Jewish relatives, while every Marrano heir who hastened to return to Judaism canceled the rights of the other Marrano heirs (Resp. Reshakh, pt. 1, no. 137). According to some authorities, the customs of dowry and marriage allowance applying to Marranos while they lived as gentiles remain in force (Resp. Maharashdam, Ḥm no. 327), but according to others the agreements made by Marranos at the time of their marriages in accordance with gentile usages had no binding force (Joseph Caro, in Avkat Rokhel). A testamentary disposition or the gift of a dying person made by a Marrano not in accordance with Torah law was not binding (Joseph ibn Lev in Edut be-Ya'akov, no. 71, 195b; Keneset ha-Gedolah, Ḥm 161; Torat ha-Minhagot, no. 51).

The scholars of Safed headed by Jacob Berab imposed flagellation upon Marranos who returned to Judaism as a punishment for transgressing the prohibitions which rendered them liable to karet in their previous condition (Kunteres ha-Semikhah at the end of Resp. Maharalbaḥ); and since flagellation can be imposed only by ordained dayyanim, Jacob Berab and his colleagues wanted to enforce punishment when ordination was renewed (see *Semikhah). A Marrano who escaped from his native land but was not circumcised through neglect was prevented from participating in the sacred service in the synagogue until he was circumcised (Mayim Rabbim of Raphael Meldola, yd nos. 51 and 52).

[Moshe Nahum Zobel]


Roth, Marranos, index; Baer, Spain, 2 (1966), passim; A.J. Saraiva, Inquisição e Critãos-Novos (1969). in halakhic literature: H.J. Zimmels, Die Marranen in der rabbinischen Literatur (1932); S. Assaf, Be-Oholei Ya'akov (1943), 145–80.

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