Matzah and the Spanish Inquisition: Part 1

Angelina de Leon of Almazan’s matzah (Spain, 1500s):

made the dough of flour and eggs, and formed some round, flat cakes with pepper and honey and oil. She cooked them in an oven and she did this around Holy Week” (from Gitlitz & Davidson, 1999)

Matzah and the Spanish Inquisition: Part 2 – here

Matzah – the number 1 Jewish food

Matzah is probably the most Jewish of foods – Biblical, prescribed, unique, forever associated with the Exodus from Egypt and the festival of Passover that commemorates it.


By eating matzah, we are told, we can understand the experience and significance of the Exodus from Egypt – the sense of haste as the suddenly freed Hebrew slaves fled their captivity:

And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough which they brought forth out of Egypt, for it was not leavened; because they were thrust out of Egypt, and could not tarry, neither had they prepared for themselves any victual. Exodus 12:39

Seven days shall ye eat unleavened bread; howbeit the first day ye shall put away leaven out of your houses; for whosoever eateth leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel. Exodus 12:15

mar14_0045But for many of us, who buy our factory-made cardboard-and-cellophane-wrapped matzah from supermarkets (with brand names as indelibly printed on our cultural memory as Marmite or Kellogg’s) and who find ingenuous ideas to tolerate it over the eight days of the festival (chocolate coated; matzah granola, matzah pudding, matzah pizza), matzah as an authentic homemade bread can become dissociated with its origins. With so many special Kosher for Passover foods developed to replace our everyday foods the focus can often seem to be on what we (and  indeed our pets) shouldn’t eat rather than the focal bread of affliction.

Matzah – a commitment to faith – an act of resistance

In a previous blog post we featured modern day communal matzah baking in Ethiopia which brings the community together to make and bake matzah on open fires. This has something to teach us about the effort and commitment required to follow the Jewish faith in the absence of Tesco’s and Kosher Kingdom – a reminder that traditionally Jewish communities everywhere would make and bake their own matzah for the festival.

But there was a time in the 15th and 16th centuries when celebrating such religious festivals as Passover and consuming matzah in order to celebrate our freedom from slavery was a risky endeavour punishable by death. For those Jews forcibly converted to Christianity at the time of the Spanish Inquisition and after the Expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal (1492), who chose to continue some of their Jewish practices in secret, preparing and eating matzah was an act not only of religious commitment but of bravery, defiance and resistance in the context of a society where freedom of religion was not tolerated.

Moshe Maimon

Secret Seder in Spain during the times of inquisition by Moshe Maimon (1892)

“…A plate of matzah was at once an act of defiance against the pressures of assimilation and the risks of disclosure and an affirmation of pride in the preservation of family and religious heritage.”

Gitlizt & Davidson (1999)

Jewish food and the Spanish Inquisition

According to many testimonies from trials of heretics in the 15th century, choice of food became powerfully significant. What someone ate, what they didn’t eat and when they ate it could literally be a life and death situation.

A drizzle of honeyA book by David Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson entitled A Drizzle of Honey: The lives and recipes of Spain’s secret Jews (1999) describes how food could be a key source of evidence in the courts of the Inquisition when trying Conversos (those who had converted to Christianity to avoid the expulsion of 1492) as ‘heretics’:

“After the explusion of Jews in 1492, those Conversos that remained lived lives relatively undifferentiable from those of their Christian neighbors. They went to church regularly, took communion, kept icons of the saints in their homes, and prayed for the salvation of their souls through the intercession of Jesus (or sometimes Moses). Of the vast range of Jewish customs detailed in the corpus of Jewish law, they tended to preserve just a few. Of the festivals, they kept only the Passover seder and the Yom Kippur fast, and perhaps Purim, which they also observed by fasting. They revered the Sabbath… abstaining from work, and lighting candles. And they clung to their familiar Jewish food.

“Preparing a stew on Friday night for its consumption on Saturday put a family at risk because it was an open announcement that the family had not completely abandoned its Jewish practices. For that reason the Inquisition consistently asked questions of the accused’s neighbors and house staff about the foods that were or were not consumed and how they were prepared. For the converso family struggling both to maintain its traditions and to evade the Inquisition, the preparation of each Sabbath stew or plate of matza for Passover was at once an act of defiance against the pressures of assimilation and the risks of disclosure and an affirmation of pride in the preservation of family and religious heritage.”

Food Culture and Jewish Identity

Examples of indictments from historical trail documents illustrate the types of behaviour that brought one under suspicion. Of the indictments against the converso Juan Sanchez Exarch, who, in 1484, was put on trial accused of Judaizing activities, many related to the consumption or abstention of certain foods and several relate specifically to Passover practices:

(Indictments relating to festivals)

  • He celebrates the Passover, on that day eating matza, celery and lettuce, as the Jews do.
  • He gets unleavened bread from the Jewish neighbourhood on the Passover.
  • He buys new dishes for the Passover.
  • He does everything else the Jews do on Passover.
  • He celebrates the Festival of the Booths.
  • He makes a hut of branches outside his house; if he can’t do it there, he goes to the home of a Jewish relative or a bad Christian to construct the hut, and eats almond pastries with them.
  • He keeps the fasts of Quipuz[1], called the Pardoning Fast, and of Haman, and of Taamuz, and then in the evening breaks his fast with beef or chicken.

(Indictments relating to Shabbat)

  • Sanchez Exarch keeps the Sabbath as the Jews do.
  • Specifically, on the Sabbath he eats food cooked on Friday and warmed over.
  • He eats this food, called hamin[2], ceremonially.

Source: Gitlitz & Davidson, 1999

The Matzah of Spain’s secret Jews

prickingUsing Gitlitz and Davidson’s recipes for matzah recreated from accounts of the trials of the Spanish Inquisition – usually from witnesses’ (such as neighbours of the accused) testimonials, we found a way of experiencing a time when the making and eating of matzah carried huge risks for those Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity yet wished to practise their Jewish rituals. Please follow the link to read more about the matzah of Spain’s secret Jews.

Liz Ison

[1] Yom Kippur/Day of Atonement

[2] Slow cooked stew made for Shabbat


One thought on “Matzah and the Spanish Inquisition: Part 1

  1. Pingback: Matzah and the Spanish Inquisition: Part 2 | Wimshul Cooks

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s