A Great Sephardic Shepherdess

This letter is dedicated to Moshe and Batya Blanco.


Dear Friends,


This year, events are being held worldwide to mark the five centuries since the birth of Dona Gracia Nasi, who was raised in Lisbon, Portugal. In her era, she was considered to be the most powerful, wealthy, and influential Jewish woman in the world; moreover, she used her power, wealth, and influence on behalf of her suffering people. As we shall learn in this letter, her inspiring activism caused her to become a great Shepherdess of Israel. Before we can be inspired by her activism, we first need to be aware of the following historical developments and family connections which led to her amazing role:


In 1497, most of the Jews of Portugal were refugees from Spain. This was because the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, and many crossed the border into Portugal, which then allowed Jews to have religious freedom. The Jews who were expelled from Spain were those who publicly identified themselves as Jews and who publicly practiced Judaism, unlike those Jews who had publicly accepted Christianity under duress, when Christian mobs in Spain offered Jews the choice of “the cross or death” during a long period of violent attacks on Jewish men, women, and children. Many of those who publicly converted under duress secretly remained Jews, and they tried to observe aspects of Judaism in hidden ways. They were known in Hebrew as “anusim” – forced converts; however, the Spanish Christians often referred to these hidden Jews as “marranos” (pigs). The Church established a division known as the “Inquisition” which sought to discover these hidden Jews who were engaging in “heretical” Jewish acts, in order to torture and kill them.


(It is a topic for a different discussion, but we need to be aware that in Germany, during the Christian Crusades, there were entire Jewish communities where men, women, and children gave up their lives when offered the choice, “the cross or death”; thus, they died saying, “Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One!”)


In 1497, the Jews of Portugal lost their religious freedom due to pressure from the Church, and a new strategy of forced conversions was developed. The Jews were denied the option of leaving the country if they refused to accept Christianity; in fact, the king decreed that all Jews in Portugal would henceforth be considered Christians, without their consent. The Jews were forced to adopt Gentile names; moreover, they were forced to participate in Christian services, and to give their children a Christian education. The entire Jewish population therefore became “anusim” – forced converts. In addition, guards and spies were posted at every border crossing to prevent Jews from escaping.  


Among the many Jews who were thrown into this predicament were two brothers, Tzemach and Meir Benvenisti, scions of one of the most distinguished families in Spain. The first names of the brothers were changed to Francisco and Diego, and their family name became Mendes. Like most of the other Jews of Portugal who became members of the Church against their will, the brothers secretly observed aspects of Judaism. For example, they avoided certain transgressions of Shabbat, refrained from eating non-kosher foods, fasted on Yom Kippur, and attended occasional Jewish prayer gatherings in private homes. Within their hearts, they were still bound to the Torah, Hashem’s covenant with our people (Exodus 19:5).  


The King of Portugal suddenly announced that the “new Christians” would be given a respite for thirty years to acclimate to their new lives, during which the Inquisition would not be active in the kingdom; thus, no steps would yet be taken against those who were suspected of practicing Judaism in secret. In 1510, during the period of respite, Francisco and Diego Mendes founded a spice trading company in Lisbon, which was known as the “House of Mendes.” Two years later, the House of Mendes opened a branch in Antwerp, which was then the commercial capital of Northern Europe. Within a short period, the two brothers succeeded in taking over the prestigious European spice market. The brothers amassed a huge fortune, and established an international network of distributors and agents throughout Europe. Their company also gave loans to kings, princes, and bishops. Through their political and economic contacts, they gained much influence. Their agents, however, secretly worked to weaken the Inquisition, but they were unable to prevent the Inquisition from coming to Portugal.


In 1528, Francisco Mendes married Beatriz de Luna, a child of anusim, and her brother, Dr. Miques, was the court physician. Her Jewish name was Chana (Gracia) Nasi, and she became known among Sephardic Jews as Dona Gracia, the name which I shall use in this letter. (“Dona” is a Spanish courtesy title for a woman.)


The House of Mendes suffered a year of upheaval in 1536. Francisco Mendes died at a relatively young age, leaving Dona Gracia widowed at the age of twenty-six. In 1536, the Inquisition came to Portugal. The members of the Mendes-Nasi family decided that remaining in Lisbon was too dangerous, and they decided to transfer the hub of their business and family activities to Antwerp. The young widow managed to move to Antwerp along with her daughter Reyna, her sister Brianda, and her brother’s two sons, Yosef Nasi, and his young brother, Shmuel Nasi. Due to the great influence of the Church in most of Europe, she and other anusim in Antwerp were not free to publicly return to their people and their faith.


Dona Gracia assumed the responsibility of managing her deceased husband’s financial empire. Antwerp’s merchants were under the impression that Francisco’s death would put an end to the economic power of the House of Mendes. Dona Gracia proved, however, that the death knells for the family business were premature, for the trading house flourished under her leadership. Kings and noblemen respected her, but not one of them knew that her vast wealth was funding one of the most incredible rescue operations in Jewish history.


These rescue operations began when the Inquisition assumed power in Portugal. Thousands of anusim tried to flee, but the escape routes were sealed. Through sophisticated methods, Dona Gracia played a key role in helping them to flee the country and to also transfer their money out of the country. These anusim wanted to flee to places which they would be free to publicly return to their people and their faith. They did not have to make the journey alone. Representatives of the House of Mendes awaited the refugees in every land they visited. Its employees prepared secure escape routes for the refugees along with protected way stations; moreover, they also accompanied the refugees to their next stops. It was a highly advanced and brilliantly engineered enterprise.  


Don Gracia’s brother-in-law, Diego Mendes, suddenly passed away in 1542, and Don Gracia became the manager of the entire House of Mendes. A new danger arose when King Charles V, for various financial reasons, decided that Don Gracia’s daughter, Reyna, should marry a Christian nobleman of Charles’s choosing. Don Gracia had no intention of allowing such a thing to happen, but she needed to act with wisdom and caution. Externally, she expressed deep satisfaction with Charles’s concern for her daughter’s future, but she secretly began to hatch an escape plan. She found a way to transport her wealth, in small increments, outside the borders of the kingdom, and the preparations for her escape were completed in 1544.


Her servants reported that their mistress had gone for a vacation in the village of Aix-les-Bains, but she never went there. While the ruling powers tried to track her down, Dona Gracia made her way across the Alps, on the same route that so many anusim followed to freedom as a result of her efforts. Her goal was to journey to Constantinople, where the Muslim ruler, the Sultan, welcomed Jews. After many adventures and hardships, she arrived at her destination. In 1553, Don Gracia entered Constantinople in a magnificent procession, accompanied by an honor guard from the Sultan’s army. She then publicly returned to her people and her faith. She was later joined by her nephew, Don Yosef Nasi, and he married Dona Gracia’s daughter, Reyna. 


Don Yosef later became the foreign minister of the Sultan. With the approval of the Sultan and the help of Dona Gracia, he also attempted to renew Jewish life in Tiberias, an ancient city of the Land of Israel. (See Part 4 of the “Related Comments” section for further information.)


Dona Gracia’s public return to Judaism evoked tremendous tumult in Christian Europe. It also spiritually strengthened the anusim – the “lost sheep of Israel” – who viewed her as a model. As a “shepherdess” of her people, she continued her rescue efforts to bring the “lost sheep” home.


May her memory be a source of strength and blessing for all of us.   


The month of Adar 2 has begun. May Hashem bless us with a good, healing, and joyous month!

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Comments:


1. After her public return to Jewish life, Dona Gracia donated enormous sums of money to support Torah study and Torah scholars, to establish yeshivot and synagogues, and to print holy Jewish books, including those that were translated into Spanish and Portuguese. These translated works helped anusim to reclaim their heritage. In Constantinople, she established a yeshiva that carried the official name: “Yeshivah of the Spanish Exiles in the Home of Dona Gracia Nasi.” The Mahari ben Lev, one of the leading sages of the generation, headed the yeshivah.


2. We celebrate the holiday of Purim during this month, and the heroine of the Purim story is Queen Esther. There is a certain similarity between Queen Esther and Dona Gracia. Both women went through a period when they had to keep their Jewish identity and loyalty to the Torah hidden; moreover, both used their great influence to help their people during a period of danger. In addition, both women were respected by the leading Torah sages of their eras. With regard to Esther, the Talmud states that the leading Torah sages agreed to Esther’s suggestion that Purim be established as a holiday for all future generations (Megillah 7a - Rashi). The sages therefore established Purim as an annual holiday, and they also included the Scroll of Esther within our Sacred Scriptures.


3. Most of the information in the above letter is based on an article about Dona Gracia by Rabbi Eliezer Eisikovits which recently appeared in the Kolmus Journal of Mishpacha Magazine (17 Adar 1, 5771). With the permission of the magazine, I also cited some excerpts from the article. 


4. In the 1560s, Don Yosef, with the support of Dona Gracia, became deeply engaged in a bold project—an effort to establish a self-sufficient Jewish settlement on the site of the ancient city of Tiberias in the Land of Israel. This settlement was to serve as a refuge for anusim fleeing from Spain and Portugal. The project was also an expression of their yearning for the return of our people to the Land of Israel, as foretold by our Prophets.


Don Yosef obtained a privilege from the Sultan granting him the ruins of Tiberias with seven surrounding villages. By 1566, despite local Arab opposition, a thriving settlement existed. It was short-lived, however, due to continuing Arab opposition, especially after the passing of Dona Gracia and Don Yosef. A generation later, only a handful of families remained. In a later generation, however, Jewish life in Tiberias was renewed.


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