Society for Crypto Judaic Studies
ABRAHAM BEN SAMUEL ZACUTO
What happened to a celebrated scholar who refused to convert.
And what happened to his descendants who became Crypto-Jews
By Harry A. Ezratty
from HaLapid, Fall 2008
I was probably nine or ten and sitting in the synagogue when my father called my attention to an elderly gentleman located a few rows in front of us. “Do you see that man over there?” he asked rhetorically. “He's a descendant of Abraham Zacuto, the man who made the maps for Columbus .” It was true, Solomon Zacuto, the man sitting in front of us was heir to that and much more.
It was the first time I was to hear the name of this remarkable Sephardic Renaissance man, a native of Salamanca , Spain , born in 1452. Aside from making maps, Zacuto was also an inventor, astronomer, physician, teacher, religious thinker and advisor as to the nature of the universe to royalty, in Spain and Portugal . Despite these impressive credentials he is not as well known as the Polish, Copernicus, the Italian, Galileo or the Dane, Tycho Brahe. The family name Zacuto is derived from the Hebrew word, “health.”
Three decades after my introduction to Zacuto, I was in Puerto Rico 's famed Casa De Libros, (founded by the American bibliophile, Elmer Adler) holding a genuine copy of the legendary “Tables of Zacuto” in my hands. The Tables, or Ephemerides as they are also known in Latin, foretold the rising and setting of the sun and the moon and the movement of the stars, including lunar and solar eclipses. They were used by Columbus ; the Tables saved his life while shipwrecked in Jamaica during his fourth and last voyage to the New World . But more about that later.
The Tables would have fit neatly into Columbus 's desk drawer. Written in Latin, each page is divided into several square blocks with the sun colored yellow. Other heavenly bodies appear in their various movements (on dates Zacuto foretold) located at the top of each box. Eclipses are also shown with their future dates. Columbus 's personal copy is in the museum at Seville with marginal annotations made in his own hand.
After graduating from Salamanca , Zacuto taught Mathematics and Astronomy in his native city's famed University, the oldest in Spain . Amongst his scholar-colleagues he was usually referred to as El Judio Salamantino . It should be remembered that the terrible anti-Jewish riots of 1391 had eroded the once favorable position of Spain 's Jews and Zacuto may have been seen as a marginal citizen, explaining why he was not called by his own name. Or could it have been that his contemporaries were envious of his achievements? Because aside from his teaching position at Salamanca, he enjoyed the admiration and patronage of the Bishop of Salamanca, Gonzalo de Vivero, and Don Juan de Zuniga who was the Grand Master of the Knights of Alcantara. Under their aegis Zacuto wrote many treatises on the solar system. He wrote his famous work on lunar and solar eclipses, De las eclipses del sol y de la luna while in Zuniga's service . Before Columbus set sail Zacuto met him. Afterwards he counseled that the enterprise to the Indies was feasible though hazardous.
So certain of Zacuto's academic abilities was the Bishop of Salamanca that his will directed all of Zacuto's Spanish treatises be bound and placed in the cathedral library. The distinction between the scholar's Spanish and other writings seems clear. Zacuto was a religious man who wrote fluently in Hebrew on subjects relating to Judaism. His most important astronomical work, Ha- Hibbur ha Gadol (The Great Essay) was written in Hebrew and later translated into, Latin, Portuguese, Castilian, Italian and German.
In 1492 when Jews were expelled from Spain , Zacuto left for Portugal . One of his students at the Portuguese court procured a position for him. The move was a bitter experience for him, one he carried for the rest of his life. Like other exiled Sephardim he lamented being torn from his beloved Spain . He later wrote about his personal feelings on the expulsion:
“On Monday the twenty-fifth of June of the year 1492, I left….at noon never to return, because the King, Don Fernando, and the Queen, Isabella , annihilated be their names and memory , banished all the Jews who lived under their rule....”
Zacuto experienced his anguish, and those of the rest of his co-religionists, when he stood with many thousands at the port of Palos on that day making determinations as to where they would go. Within five weeks Columbus 's three ships would sail from this port into the unknown reaches of the Atlantic to change the face of the world, Zacuto could not go to the New World ; his descendants would. Zacuto chose neighboring Portugal .
Zacuto's fortunes rose in his new home. Because of his reputation he was appointed Court Astronomer to King John II and later to King Manuel I. Under their tutelage he made a great contribution to navigation; the astrolabe, the ancient forerunner to the modern sextant, used by mariners to measure the location of sun, moon and stars in order to determine a ship's position at sea, had been constructed of wood. This important instrument was prone to swelling when it became wet from rainstorms or humidity. In dry weather the astrolabe would shrink. These variations rendered the Astrolabe's accuracy unreliable. Zacuto constructed one of copper which neither swelled nor shrank. Before he left for his historic voyage to India in 1496, Vasco da Gama consulted with Zacuto packing the astronomer's charts, tables and the newly perfected astrolabe to take with him.
In the year 1503, on his fourth and last voyage to the Americas , Columbus was shipwrecked in Jamaica . He and his crew made their home in the remains of their ship near the beach. At first the natives were impressed by the Europeans and their swords and knives. There were firearms which they had never seen before, firing shot over many yards. Over time, however they understood that these marooned sailors were vulnerable and refused to co operate with them or provide them with food and water. On one occasion the native Chief confronted Columbus with obvious hostile intent. Armed with Zacuto's Tables, Columbus knew an eclipse was on the way. He told the natives that he would cause the sun to disappear and that it would not return unless they left in peace and continued to provide Columbus and his crew with food. It worked and the hapless seamen were safe for a while.
By 1497 the Jews of Portugal were all forceably converted to Christianity. Zacuto managed to escape with his son Samuel to North Africa . The rest of his family remained behind. The trials of this scholar began anew. Imprisoned by pirates in North Africa with his son on two occasions, this man who faithfully served both Spain and Portugal in their efforts to make new discoveries was hounded by the Inquisition and forced to subsist as a private tutor of mathematics in Tunis .
Towards the end of his life, Zacuto finished a work he had been writing for some time on Jewish law and genealogy, Sefer ha-Yuhasin (The Book of Relations.) He wrote other philosophical religious tracts. Not much is known of his last years. He surfaces in Jerusalem in 1513, where he taught at a Yeshiva. He disappeared thereafter and it is believed he died around 1515 in obscurity.
While Zacuto was able to leave Portugal , others of his family were trapped and forced to lead the lives of crypto-Jews. Two, who were to become influential in Jewish history, were able to leave Portugal and resume their Jewish lives. Both came with their families to Amsterdam . From that city, a haven for Portuguese crypto-Jews there their lives took very different paths.
The Amsterdam Jewish community which the Zacutos and other early conversos from Spain and Portugal encountered was a confusing one. There were few rabbis to assist returning Jews. Early rabbis, who were themselves crypto-Jews, could barely read or speak Hebrew. One Italian rabbi, the Sephardi, Samuel Aboab, characterized the lot of Iberia 's crypto-Jews as having lived in “spiritual servitude.” Most crypto-Jews mixed their Catholic upbringing with their new introduction to Judaism. In Spain or Portugal they cited the Shema beneath their breath as they took communion before a priest. They knew that their salvation lay in the Law of Moses and that the images in the church were against Jewish belief, but were unable to explain the basic principles of Judaism. Many crypto-Jews held back joining the Jewish community until they understood what their responsibilities would be or that it was safe to be counted as a Jew in this new country.
One must understand that in the 17 th century, Iberian Jews were only two or three generations away from Judaism; it was easier for the rabbis to determine one's Jewish credentials. It is not the same situation that today's crypto-Jews face, because the passage of hundreds of years and the difficulty of preparing a family tree conclusively proving a Jewish maternal line is almost impossible.
What were the commitments a 17 th century crypto-Jew had to make in Amsterdam in order to join the Community of Israel? Once the rabbis determined there was no need for a formal conversion the newly returned Jew was given Hebrew prayers to memorize. A circumcision was necessary. The newly returned Jew recited the Hebrew prayers, which he memorized and probably didn't understand, before a congregation of fellow Jews after his circumcision healed. He presented himself on that day wrapped in a shawl and tiffilin as an expression of his devotion to Judaism. He was expected to live with and practice the rituals of Judaism. There seems to be no equivalent ritual for women. Nevertheless, after a lifetime of expressing one's self through the rites and prayers of the Catholic Church, newcomers often continued to use them as a comfortable and familiar conduit to demonstrate their devotion to Judaism.
It was something the rabbis needed to combat, sometimes with historic and brutal consequences. Uriel da Costa was punished by receiving lashes in the synagogue for his deviations from Orthodox thought. And Benedict Spinoza was banished forever from the Amsterdam Jewish community under a herem (a rabbinical excommunication) for ideas that varied from Orthodoxy. No Jew was permitted to trade or have any contact with him. Without making comments on the severity of these punishments or if they were even warranted, we have to understand the delicate position in which the leaders of the Jewish community found themselves at that time.
Jews were newcomers to Holland ; they spoke a foreign language and had different cultural and religious practices from the Dutch. They stuck out like a sore thumb. The Dutch had recently seceded as a possession from Catholic Spain. In their rift they enthusiastically embraced a break-away Protestant theology that looked with favor on the Hebrew bible and the restoration of the Jewish people to Jerusalem . It would not do for the Jews to antagonize their hosts whose religion espoused a great devotion to the Hebrew bible or “Old Testament,” its Prophets and heroes. In a world where free speech and the free choice of religion were far from universal and accepted concepts, da Costa and Spinoza were potential sources of friction between the Jewish community and the their new government, because of their radical ideas about God, the bible and man's soul.
No wonder many crypto-Jews stood outside the community. They felt they had to until they were secure enough to join it. Some never made the transition, remaining Christians; others vacillated, returning to Catholicism when it was convenient and then Judaism for the same reasons; a few returned to Iberia preferring the life there to a new one in a strange land. Over time, those who chose not to return were beneficiaries of a benevolent and tolerant Holland that extended them the freedom to worship, while it denied that same right to Catholics. It afforded them citizenship and defended and protected them overseas when they fell into the hands of pirates and anti-Jewish governments. To the world these people may have been Jews. To the Dutch they were valued citizens who deserved and were afforded the same protection other Dutch citizens enjoyed. It was to this society that two Zacuto conversos came in the early 17 th century. Their presence enriched the Jewish community.
Moses Ben Mordecai Zacuto was born in Portugal in 1620. Despite several generations of his family's removal from formal and organized Judaism, the young man jumped feet first into his Jewish studies when he arrived in Holland . He soon was able to enter a Polish Yeshiva where he became attracted to Kabbalah. One of the legends surrounding him states that as a young man he fasted for 40 days in order to purge himself of his knowledge of Latin. When he finished his schooling he moved to Italy where he lived in Venice , Verona and Mantua . His life is marked by a great interest in Kabbalah, his writings, poems and his editing of works of other Hebrew authors. Moses Zacuto is credited with writing the first biblical drama in Hebrew, Yesod Olam . He also acted as a rabbi in Venice .
Moses Zacuto is a great example of a crypto-Jew's return to Judaism who helped to enrich his newly acquired religion. Influenced by Dante, he wrote of hell and man's tribulation in that pit of desperation. During his lifetime he enjoyed the reputation of being the leading Italian Kabbalist. Moses Zacuto died in 1697. During his lifetime he saw the return of the crypto-Jew to freedom in Western Europe and the Americas .
Abraham Zacuto, who would become known to history as Zacutus Lusitanus was born in Lisbon in 1575, almost a century after his famous ancestor left Portugal for North Africa . He was born Manuel Alvares de Tavera and enjoyed a reputation as one of the finest physicians in his native city. By 1625 he moved to Amsterdam . Here his life changed drastically. At age 50 he accepted Judaism, dropped his Portuguese name, assumed the name Abraham Zacuth and submitted to circumcision. He continued practicing medicine and during a time when that discipline was primitive, he was known as a first rate diagnostician who described malignant tumors, diphtheria and other diseases.
Zacutus Lusitanus was a prolific writer on medical topics. After his death his works were complied in France . They include a description of all diseases then known, a survey of internal medicine, a description of rare diseases and the famous Zacuti Pharmacooea , a list of drugs which highlighted newly discovered drugs from South America. He died in 1642.
In 1992, American descendants of Abraham Zacuto traveled to Spain to celebrate the 500 th anniversary of Columbus ' discovery of the New World , in which their ancestor played an important role. They returned to Spain carrying a banner which read: DESCENDANTS OF ABRAHAM ZACUTO Salamanca, Spain 1452-1515: Astronomer. Mapmaker. Inventor. Philosopher. Professor. In the year 1992, Abraham Ben Samuel Zacuto had finally come home