In 1391, there was a series of anti-Jewish massacres across Spain, where Jews were given the choice of converting to Christianity or being murdered; 20,000 Spanish Jews became Christians during this time period and many more continued to convert throughout the 1400’s under duress. However, many of these Jews who were converted under the sword continued to practice their Judaism in secret. This greatly disturbed the Spaniards, who saw that many of these closet Jews continued to be part of the top echelons of Spanish society, like they had during the Golden Age of Muslim Spain.
Thus, in 1492, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand expelled the Jews who continued to practice their faith from their kingdom, while in 1480; the Spanish Inquisition was established to hunt down Jews who continued to practice their faith in secret. In sum, 165,000 Jews fled Spain, 50,000 were baptized, and an additional 20,000 passed away while attempting to leave Spain in 1492. Meanwhile, 31,912 heretics were burned at the stake in Spain, while an additional 17,659 were burnt in effigy. For such secret Jews, known as Anusim, Conversos or Marranoes, who lived under the yoke of the Inquisition and thus were in constant fear that they would be discovered to be practicing their Jewish faith, the Purim holiday would have special meaning, since Queen Esther also was forced to practice her Judaism in secret initially.
For the Anusim of Spain, Portugal, and Latin America, Purim was not a festive day full of children making noise and adults consuming alcohol, for if these Jews did this, they would be discovered by the Inquisition. Instead, the Anusim, whose very existence was always in peril, would fast for three days, just as Queen Esther fasted for three days when the Jews of Persia were threatened with annihilation.
However, the Inquisition used to utilize the Fast of Esther as an indicator of Jews engaging in forbidden religious activity. Furthermore, a three day fast was not considered healthy. So, according to Gabriel de Granada, a thirteen year old boy interrogated by the Inquisition in Mexico in 1643, the women of his family would divide the three day fast between them; some would fast on the first day, while others would fast on the second and third. Leonor de Pina, who was arrested by the Portuguese Inquisition in 1619, claimed that her daughters would fast for three days during daylight, while eating during the night, and when they ate, they would refrain from eating meat.
Scholars that have studied the Anusim have claimed that the secret Jews of Spain, Portugal and Latin America viewed private fasting for three days as a substitute for the mitzvah of having a public Megillah reading in the synagogue and sending gifts of food to family and friends, which were actions that would have caught the attention of the Inquisition. In fact, Professor Moshe Orfali of Bar Ilan University asserted that the Anusim fasted quite often, which they viewed as a way of demonstrating their remorse for being forced to violate the Torah. Interestingly, the Anusim also transformed Queen Esther into Saint Esther, as a means of disguising their Jewish faith from the Inquisition and Anusim would offer all of their prayers to her. Thus, even though the Anusim lost much of their Jewish heritage over the centuries when the Inquisition was in place, they never forgot Queen Esther or the words in the Megillah which proclaim, “These days of Purim will never leave the Jews, nor will their remembrance ever be lost to their descendants.”
By Rachel Avraham