The Blessing of Abraham: Did a Jewish Columbus Set the Stage for American Freedom?
“In fourteen hundred and ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue; and his interpreter was a Jew whose name was Lou and that is true.” —Dr. Gerhard Falk
The Alhambra Decree
On March 31, 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella issued the Alhambra Decree. This was an edict of expulsion proclaiming that all 800,000 of Spain’s Jews had four months to convert to Christianity or exit the country, under pain of death.
Conversos & Marranos
Jews who converted to Roman Catholicism—“Conversos”—were allowed to remain in Spain. There were, of course, many who converted outwardly but who secretly continued to practice Judaism. These people were referred to as “Marranos”—or swine.
Tens of thousands of Jews were tortured and burned at the stake during the Spanish Inquisition as heretics. The Crown and the Church would then confiscate their land. Christopher Columbus, known in Spanish as Cristóbal Colón, was, according to the most up-to-date scholarship on the subject, a Marrano who hid his Jewish identity in order that he might lead the life he chose.
The Italian-Born Non-Italian
Columbus spoke Castilian Spanish, but he did not speak Italian, even though he was born in Genoa, Italy. It is believed that Columbus’ family spoke Castilian, due to the fact that the Jews were kicked out of Castile one hundred years before, many of them fleeing to Italy. Columbus saw the Jews being exiled again in his lifetime—this time from the whole of Spain! And the final day Jews were allowed to leave was August 3rd, 1492, the selfsame date that Columbus set sail on his voyage of discovery.
Columbus Avoids a Curse
Columbus’ original plan was to leave Spain a day earlier; but doing so would have meant sailing on the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av, which marks the destruction of the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem, making this date—according to Jewish lore—an accursed one for beginning a sailing voyage or a new enterprise.
Jews on Deck
Columbus’ interpreter for the voyage was Luis de Torres, a Jew. And the ship’s doctor, surgeon, astronomer, and navigator were also Jewish. Every one of them had converted formally to Christianity one day prior to setting sail with Columbus. The Christian crewmembers recognized these Conversos as Marranos.
Looking for the Lost Tribes
De Torres’ Hebrew skills were seen as necessary, because Columbus half-expected to meet Hebrew speakers upon reaching the other side of the world—which is where Columbus thought he would eventually find himself. Where else could the “ten lost tribes of Israel” have ended up? The journey was actually financed by two prominent Jewish Conversos—Luis de Santangelo, Chancellor of the Royal Household of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, and Gabriel Sanchez, Treasurer of Aragon—with the help of Don Isaac Abranel, a rabbi and statesman. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, contrary to popular belief, did not fund Columbus’ voyage.
A Note on New World Peacocks
It is interesting to note that, upon Columbus’ landing on the island of Hispaniola, de Torres mistook the turkeys he saw for peacocks, so he called them by the Hebrew word tuki, meaning peacock. The name stuck.
A Jewish Will
Christopher Columbus’ will, signed on May 19th, 1506, was written with Jewish customs in mind. Columbus tithed one-tenth of his estate to the poor and provided an anonymous donation for the support of poor girls in particular. Columbus also left money to a Jew who was known to be living in the Jewish Quarter of Lisbon. And Columbus signed his will using a signature of triangular dots and letters resembling inscriptions on the grave markers of Jewish cemeteries, his express wishes being that his heirs continue to use this special way of signing. (This was a secretive way of symbolizing the Kaddish, a prayer of mourning recited on the Sabbath for lost loved ones at temple; so, by using this writing, Columbus’ heirs could participate in Kaddish for their patriarch and benefactor.) Columbus also left money to support a Crusade to free the Holy Land from the Muslims, since Jews of his day believed that only the liberation of Jerusalem from Islam could usher in the Messianic Era.
Letters from Dad
At the top left corner of twelve of the thirteen letters Columbus wrote to his son Diego, the Hebrew letters bet-hei are present—meaning b’ ezrat Hashem (with the help of God). Many religious Jews have added this blessing to their letters down through the ages.
The Blessing of Abraham
In Genesis 12:3, God tells Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Is it possible that, in its Jewish discovery, the New World received Abraham’s blessing? Or is it only a coincidence that America has become the one true bastion of freedom for those who follow in the traditions of Abraham? Perhaps Columbus’ goal of liberating Jerusalem to create freedom for Jews under the new banner of a Messianic Holy Land was not such a hollow dream after all. For it was indeed Christopher Columbus who set in motion the forces that would end in the founding of a new nation that would become the safest place on earth for Jews and Christians to practice their religions. And this blessing has become even more important in the 21st century, especially given the intolerance in today’s world for Judeo-Christian principles, ethics, and freedoms.