Isaac de Castro
(1625 - 1647)
In 1647, the Portuguese Inquisition in Brazil compelled
Isaac de Castro to choose between his Judaism and burning alive. De Castro
courageously chose his faith and martyrdom.
Isaac de Castro lived in the Dutch-held section of 17th century Brazil, one of the earliest permanent Jewish settlements in America.
The Dutch had conquered the northeastern provinces of Brazil from Portugal in
1630. Until 1654, when the Portuguese reconquered the area, several hundred
European Jewish families migrated there and formed a vibrant community
centered in Recife. The Dutch were tolerant of Judaism and, therefore, Recife attracted European Jews forced to practice their
religion in secret while pretending to live as Catholics.
Isaac de Castro migrated from Amsterdam to Recife in 1641,
at age sixteen. In 1644, de Castro chose to move from the relative safety of
Recife to Bahia, the capital of Portuguese Brazil, where he came under
scrutiny by the Inquisition. Historian Arnold Wiznitzer speculates that de
Castro moved to Bahia because he was an emissary sent by the Amsterdam Jewish
community to Portuguese Brazil to encourage Jewish conversos living there to
observe Jewish rituals. If Wiznitzer is correct, De Castros mission to
these secret Jews cost him his life.
Soon after he arrived in Bahia, someone denounced Isaac de
Castro to Dom Pedro da Silva, the Bishop of Bahia, chief of the Portuguese
Inquisition in the colony. The bishops informant recognized de Castro as a
visitor to the Recife synagogue. Brought before the bishop in December 1644,
de Castro tried at first to evade punishment. He swore that he was Jose de
Liz, a circumcised Jew born in France. De Castro (alias de Liz) testified that
he developed doubts about Judaism while studying at a French university and
came to Bahia to learn more about Catholicism.
In 1498, Portugal compelled its Jews to convert or be
expelled. In order to stay, many Jews chose outward conversion. Contrary to
popular imagery, the Inquisition did not execute professing Jews who refused
to convert. Rather, its targets were Jews who had accepted baptism and
converted to Catholicism but who continued, secretly, to maintain or promote
Jewish practices. Isaac de Castro tried to convince the bishop that he was not
a baptized Christian, although he had a Christian education, and was thus
outside the Inquisitions jurisdiction. The bishop was having none of de
Castros story. His Catholic Bible and tefillin were introduced as evidence of de Castros double life. The bishop ordered
de Castro shipped to Lisbon, Portugal for formal adjudication.
At his ecclesiastical trial in June 1645, de Castro finally
admitted his correct identity. He was indeed the son of Portuguese conversos and had lived outwardly as a Catholic when the family moved to France. His
mother told him, however, when he was supposed to undergo infant baptism, she
substituted another child for him. For this reason, de Castro claimed, he felt
free to practice Judaism without running afoul of the Inquisition. When the de
Castro family moved to Amsterdam, Isaac, his brothers and his father underwent
circumcision and openly reclaimed their Jewish identity. De Castro claimed
that he migrated to Recife and then Bahia to avoid a murder charge pending in
Amsterdam. Witnesses testified to the contrary that de Castro was sent to
Bahia by the Jewish community to teach Judaism to the provinces secret
The tribunal believed the witnesses and found Isaac de
Castro, who in their judgment had been properly baptized a Catholic, guilty of
secretly practicing and proselytizing for Judaism. He was offered two choices:
continue to deny Catholicism and be burned at the stake, or confess his
errors, return to the Church and suffer a prison sentence not likely to exceed
five years. According to Wiznitzer, de Castro understood that, to save his
life, "he was expected to abjure Judaism and profess Catholicism as the
vast majority of imprisoned apostates had done under similar
circumstances." To his credit, de Castro "decided that such a price
for saving his life was too high and preferred to perish . . . for the
sanctification of Gods name."
The trial transcript records that, upon hearing of his
conviction, de Castro indicated that he prayed to God seven times each day,
observed the Jewish holidays and fast days, upheld the laws of kashrut and
complied as best he could with the 613 mitzvot prescribed by the sages –while
presenting the outward appearance of a Christian. For two years, priests
attempted to convince de Castro that Christ was the Messiah and that he should
accept Jesus as his savior. Frustrated by de Castros refusal, the clergy
finally informed the court that he was incorrigible.
On December 15, 1647, de Castro was re-tried in criminal
court and sentenced to death. Offered another chance to convert, he refused.
Taken to the Square of the Royal Palace for public execution, de Castro was
offered a final chance to embrace Catholicism so he might mercifully be
strangled before being burned alive. He refused once again. Eyewitness
accounts indicate that, as the flames rose, de Castro intoned the Shema and
then called out his final words, Ely, Adonai, Sabahot.
Jewish Historical Society