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Anusim (Heb. אֲנוּסִים; "forced ones") are people compelled by overwhelming pressure, whether by physical threats, psychological stress, or economic sanctions, to abjure Judaism and adopt a different faith (in contradistinction to meshummadim, or voluntary apostates – see *Apostasy ). Here attention will be directed only to instances of group compulsion. An edict or systematic attempt to force Jews to convert to another faith is termed in Hebrew gezerat shemad ("edict of apostasy"). In Jewish sources, the term anusim is applied not only to the forced converts themselves, but also to their descendants who clandestinely cherished their Jewish faith, attempting to observe at least vestiges of the *halakhah , and loyalty to their Jewish identity. Both the elements of compulsion and free will enter the psychological motivation of the forced convert. The concept denoted by the term anusim, therefore, is fluid, bordering on that applying to apostates and even to *Marranos ; it has been the subject of much discussion.

Early Middle Ages

The vituperation heaped on Jews by Christian ecclesiastics, and the violent methods employed by the church in the fourth century (see Jewish *History , Middle Ages), led to many forced conversions. There is clear evidence that anusim existed in the Frankish kingdoms of the sixth century, for the typical pattern of mass violence combined with threat of expulsion is already present in the mass conversion of many Jews to Christianity in *Clermont-Ferrand in 576. The almost inevitable result of the creation of a Jewish "underground" within the Christian society is also clearly visible. The events in Clermont were set in motion after a Jew, who had voluntarily adopted Christianity, was molested by other Jews during a religious procession. The participants in the procession then made an attack "which destroyed [the synagogue] completely, razing it to the grounds." Subsequently, Bishop *Avitus directed a letter to the Jews in which he disclaimed the use of compulsion to make them adopt Christianity, but announced at the end of the missive: "Therefore if ye be ready to believe as I do, be one flock with us, and I shall be your pastor; but if ye be not ready, depart from this place." The community hesitated for three days before making a decision. Finally the majority, some 500, accepted Christianity. The Christians in Clermont greeted the event with rejoicing: "Candles were lit, the lamps shone, the whole city radiated with the light of the snow-white flock" (i.e., the forced converts). The Jews who preferred exile left for *Marseilles (Gregory of Tours, Histories, 5:11) The poet Venantius Fortunatus composed a poem to commemorate the occasion. In 582 the Frankish king Chilperic compelled numerous Jews to adopt Christianity. Again the anusim were not wholehearted in their conversion, for "some of them, cleansed in body but not in heart, denied God, and returned to their ancient perfidy, so that they were seen keeping the Sabbath, as well as Sunday" (ibid., 6:17).

Persistent attempts to enforce conversion were made in the seventh century by the Visigoths in Spain after they had adopted the Roman Catholic faith. Comparatively mild legal measures were followed by the harsh edict issued by King Sisibut in 616, ordering the compulsory baptism of all Jews. After conversion, however, the anusim evidently maintained their Jewish cohesion and religious life. It was undoubtedly this problem that continued to occupy Spanish sovereigns at the successive Councils of Toledo representing both the ecclesiastical and secular authorities; it is difficult to conceive that the term Judaei, employed in the texts of the canons subsequently promulgated by the councils, actually refers to professing Jews; the restrictive measures adopted against the Judaei only make sense if directed at the devoted underground. Thus, steps were taken to secure that the children of converts had a Christian religious education as well as to prevent the older generation from continuing to observe the Jewish rites or from failing to observe the Catholic ones. A system of strict supervision by the clergy over the way of life and movements of the anusim was imposed. The attitude of the victims is seen in a letter addressed to the Visigothic king Recceswinth in 654, in which they promised to live as faithful Christians but pleaded not to be compelled to eat pork against which they felt physical revulsion.

Later Middle Ages

Attempts from the beginning of the eighth century to compel Jews in the *Byzantine Empire to accept Christianity similarly resulted in the creation of anusim leading a crypto-Jewish existence. According to the chronicler Theophanes, when in 722 the Emperor *Leo III "compelled the Jews and the Montanists to undergo baptism, the Jews, although unwilling, accepted baptism and then washed it off" (Chronographia, ed. by De Boor, 1 (1963), 401). At the end of the ninth century and in the first half of the tenth, attempts were made to convert Jews to Christianity in the Byzantine Empire by physical threats, missionary *disputations , and the offer of rewards to the converts. *Basil I is particularly notorious in Jewish chronicles for these attempts.

Compulsory conversions took place in the Rhineland in the tenth century, and during the Crusades amid the anti-Jewish attacks after 1096 (see also *Kiddush ha-Shem ). The action of Emperor *Henry IV, who later permitted the victims to return to their former faith, was violently resented by the Pope and the Christian populace, hence Henry's successors did not always follow this policy. In Spain and North Africa in the 12th century, the Muslim *Almohads forced both their Jewish and their Christian subjects to convert to Islam, apparently by terrorization rather than legislative measures. The converts from Judaism and their descendants remained isolated from their environment and humiliated by society. All the evidence points to them having led a crypto-Jewish existence.

At the close of the 13th century the Jews in southern Italy were given the choice of baptism or death, and there followed a wave of forced conversions under which the Jewish population in *Apulia completely disappeared. Many were driven to simulate Christianity to save their lives. The neofiti (neophytes), or mercanti as they were called because of their commercial activities, remained a recognizable and unpopular group suspected of retaining their fidelity to their ancestral faith for over two centuries. In 1453 Pope *Nicholas V wrote of them: "their forefathers were Jews who adopted Christianity 150 years ago, rather from compulsion than of their own free will."

[Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson]


Forcible conversion of Jews occurred in many lands throughout the ages, but nowhere was this phenomenon more consequential and widespread than in the Iberian Peninsula, in the Kingdoms of Castile, Aragon, and Portugal. Crypto-Judaism in Sepharad began in 1391 as a result of the massacres that broke out in Seville and spread throughout the peninsula in the summer of that year. The attack against the Jews was perpetrated following a venomous anti-Jewish campaign that was initiated by Ferran Martinez, the archdeacon of Ecija. During the massacres thousands of Jews were killed, thousands fled, and thousands were forcibly converted. Following the massacres, a very strong anti-Jewish campaign was conducted by churchmen. Particularly effective was the campaign led by Vicent Ferrer at the beginning of the 15th century. Many Jews converted to Christianity and joined the ranks of the *New Christians or conversos. The Tortosa Disputation in the years 1413–14 initiated by Jerónimo de Santa Fé, Joshua Halorqui before his baptism, proved disastrous to the Jews of the Kingdom of Aragon. Numerous Jews were baptized following in the footsteps of their leaders who had been held like hostages, away from their communities, during long months of the disputation.

Many conversos found their way to the financial and administrative top open. Many occupied important positions in the governments of the Hispanic kingdoms, thus arousing the envy and antagonism of many Christians. In any case, among the Old Christians many doubted the sincerity of the conversos and did not accept their conversion under duress as an irrefutable proof of their Christianity. The economic, social and political achievements of some of the New Christians strengthened the already existing opposition to their integration into Christian society. In fact, those who were baptized, whether in 1391 or in later years, did not form a homogeneous group. Some were real anusim or Crypto-Jews who continued to identify themselves as Jewish and observed Judaism secretly as much as possible. This group must have been large since it is reasonable that many thousands of Jews who converted forcibly or out of fear did not change their faith and their identity overnight. Others might have accepted their fate, and in their despair decided they would put an end to their tragic existence by facing reality and try to become part of the majority society. A third group consisted of Jews who had been somewhat alienated from Jewish tradition and practice and might have found it easier to turn from being Jews "without a synagogue" into Christians "without a church." Another group was composed of true Christians whose conversion was an act of faith. Even if their baptism came in times of persecution, it was the result of religious conviction. Such were Pablo de Santa María, formerly Solomon Halevi, or his disciple Joshua Halorqui. Members of the last group proved to be the greatest persecutors of the Jews.

If the boundaries between these groups sometimes disappeared or were blurred, it was primarily due to the Christian refusal to accept the conversos as true Christians and to the prevalent Christian notion that all conversos maintained their Jewish identity.

Many New Christians left behind them in the Jewish camp spouses, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters or other relatives or friends and did not cut off their relations with them. Under Vicent Ferrer's influence, Castile decided in 1412 to compel the Jews to live in different quarters and be separated from Old and New Christians. After the Tortosa Disputation various measures were taken to put pressure on the Jewish communities and prevent Jewish influence on the conversos. Gradually Christian antagonism towards the conversos assumed an ethnic and racial character. The concept of the limpieza de sangre (purity of blood) barred the New Christians' integration within Christian society. More and more violence was perpetrated against the conversos. The armed rebellion of the conversos in Toledo in 1449 was the result of the Old Christians' growing pressure and venomous campaign against them. In 1473 widespread violent attacks were perpetrated against the conversos throughout Castile. The demand by churchmen that tough measures be taken against insincere converts led to the establishment of the *Inquisition in 1480 in the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. The Inquisition was meant to eradicate heresy among the New Christians. From 1481 onwards the Inquisition conducted a systematic war against the conversos. The latter were accused of secretly observing Jewish practices while the Jews were blamed for providing them with the information and material that were necessary to maintain their Jewish identity. The official reason for the Expulsion of 1492 was the influence Jews had on the New Christians. In 1492, the conversos were joined by a large group of Jews who decided to convert rather than leave the country. Many expellees were destined to return and be baptized after they had found no haven.

The records of the Inquisition show that the Expulsion did not put an end to the converso problem and that for generations to come descendants of New Christians would be tried and condemned for Judaizing. The Chuetas from Majorca remained a segregated group and suffered humiliation and persecution beyond the 18th century.

The largest group of Castilian Jews found refuge in Portugal. When the Portuguese king wished to marry the Castilian princess, the Catholic monarchs laid down one condition to their approval: the Expulsion of the Jews from Portugal. Manuel's edict of Expulsion for 1496 remained a dead letter, since Manuel, who did not wish to lose the Jews, decided to convert them all forcibly in 1497. All these converts were forcible converts, many of whom had left Castile to retain their Judaism. Many kept Judaism secretly and were the target of the Inquisition that was created in 1540. The number of converts in Portugal was high compared to the less than one million people who lived in the country around 1500. Only through flight could any of the Portuguese Crypto-Jews leave the Iberian Peninsula and live as Jews or as Christians away from the Inquisition. The result was the Portuguese communities which were established in Western Europe and the New World and those which were founded in the Ottoman Empire.

It is difficult to generalize about all descendants of conversos. Naturally, no " *marrano " Judaism existed in the Peninsula. Various customs and different prayers developed among different groups. In certain areas, however, a very strong "Jewish" identity remained until almost modern times. That is why we have recently witnessed the return of many Crypto-Jews in Belmonte, in northern Portugal, to Judaism and why so many descendants of conversos left Spain and Portugal and joined existing Jewish communities or formed their own after their return to normative Judaism.

[Yom Tov Assis (2nd ed.)]

Crypto-Jewish Women

Not all conversas were Crypto-Jews. Those women who chose to identify with the Jewish people instead of the Catholic Church faced considerable risks. Following the establishment of the Inquisition, Jewish observance by New Christians became dangerous as well as difficult. Even the woman's domain was no longer a safe refuge since every home had servants who were potential informants. Once the Jewish community had been expelled, however, the home became the only remaining institution where observance was possible. Women's roles were magnified in importance as they became teachers as well as practitioners of Judaism. The Inquisition was aware of the centrality of women in maintaining Crypto-Judaism and arrested and tried numerous conversas. The most frequent accusations against women which appear in trial transcripts concern observance of the Sabbath and the dietary laws. These Jewish practices would be easily noticed, especially by anyone working in the household. In addition, many conversas observed the fast of Yom Kippur in the hope of attaining salvation. Fasting on Mondays and Thursdays was revived during the messianic fervor between 1497 and 1503 when Inés, a young woman from Herrera, had visions of redemption. She, along with two other converso prophets, spread messianic expectation among the conversos of Extremadura.

Other holiday observances preserved in secret included Passover, although the traditional seder disappeared from most homes in Spain fairly quickly. Prior to 1492, maẓẓah was obtained from Jews; afterwards, numerous Judaizing women baked it. The most outstanding example of women baking maẓẓah can be found in the community of Belmonte in Portugal where the women dressed in white and recited lengthy prayers as they ceremonially prepared the maẓẓah while the men stood guard outside. Birth and purity rituals were also observed in secret. One unique ritual was the hadas, a celebration including singing on the eighth night after the birth of a male or female child; the infant was dressed in white and a collation was served. In some homes, the de-baptism ritual was another Crypto-Jewish creative addition. On a more traditional note, many women bathed after childbirth and after menstruation, in place of the required visit to the mikveh. Death and burial rituals also played a substantial role in Crypto-Jewish life; while they ranged from the halakhic to the superstitious, all were based on past Jewish practices. These customs reflect some of the Crypto-Jewish women's observances; others may emerge from the tens of thousands of trials, especially in the archives of Portugal, that have not yet been read and analyzed. In addition, there were Judaizing conversas in the New World including women from the *Carvajal family in Mexico.

[Renée Levine Melammed (2nd ed.)]

Modern Times

Later instances of forced conversion occurred in *Persia . From 1622 to 1629 the Jews of *Isfahan were compelled to accept Islam, and in 1656 Abbas II issued a decree ordering all Persian Jewry to convert, despite open protest and petitions. The specific ceremonies attending their acceptance into Islam and the name by which they were known, *Jadid al-Islam (New Muslims), show that a typical anusim existence and society was created there. In 1839 the entire Jewish community of *Meshed was forced to convert in similar circumstances. Outwardly devout Muslims, they meticulously continued to observe the Jewish rites in secret, as did their descendants, who were also known as the Jadid al-Islam.

The lot of European Jews, particularly Jewish children, who outwardly embraced Christianity in order to save their lives during the Nazi persecution between 1939 and 1945 was in many ways similar to that of the anusim of former ages. It has proved impossible to assess the number of conversions among the Jewish people in this period. Research into this question has been further complicated by emotion and anger on the part of Jews against those who tried "to steal souls" during the *Holocaust on the one hand, and on the other, of gratitude to those who had endangered their lives to save the children.

[Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson]


C. Roth, A History of the Marranos (1941); Y. Baer, A History of the Jews in Christian Spain (1966), vol. 2; H. Beinart, Conversos on Trial, (1981); idem, Records of the Trials of the Spanish Inquisition in Ciudad Real (1974–1985), 4 vols; B. Netanyahu, The Marranos of Spain, (1966); S. Schwartz, Os Cristãos Novos em Portugal no seculo XX (1925). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: M.E. Giles (ed.), Women in the Inquisition: Spain and the New World (1999); R.L. Melammed, Heretics or Daughters of Israel? The Crypto-Jewish Women of Castile (1999); idem, "Life Cycle Rituals of Spanish Crypto-Jewish Women," and "Visionary Experiences among Spanish Crypto-Jewish Women" (translations with commentary), in: L. Fine (ed.), Judaism in Practice (2001), 143–54; 348–52.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.