This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Columbus's Medinah?*

October 14 is commemorated by our neighbours to the south as Columbus Day. Now this fact would not normally deserve mention in a Jewish newspaper. As we shall see in a moment, however, there has been some weighty scholarly debate over the possibility that Columbus, though undeniably a devout and zealous Catholic, might also have been the proud descendant of Spanish Jews. Ironically, this view has been championed by some patriotic Spaniards, who would rather have him a Spanish Jew than an Italian gentile.

Here are a few of the interesting facts that have been raised in connection with this question:

*There is evidence that Columbus spoke Spanish while still living in Italy, an unusual situation unless his family had originated in Spain. Spanish-speaking Jewish refugees from the Inquisition were numerous in the Genoa area.

*The form "Colón" which Columbus adopted as the Spanish equivalent of his last name was not the expected form (which would have been"Colom" or "Colombo"). It was however a common Jewish variation on the name.

*Columbus was known to frequent the company of Jews and former Jews, among whom were some noted astronomers and navigators, as well as his official translator. Marranos figure prominently among Columbus's backers and crew. Throughout his life he demonstrated a keen knowledge of the Bible and the geography of the Holy Land. In fact in one place he calculates the date from the destruction of the "Second House" [=Temple], counting from the traditional (and erroneous) Jewish date of 68 C.E., rather than the generally held 70.

*Columbus began the official report of his first voyage to America, addressed to Ferdinand and Isabella, with the following words:"And thus, having expelled all the Jews from all your kingdoms and dominions, in the month of January, Your Highnesses commanded me that...I should go to the said parts of India." This is a strange fact to mention in this context, and it is not even correct: The order of expulsion was not signed until March 31st!

*The connections between the timing of Columbus's voyage and the expulsion of Spanish Jewry are indeed curious. Historians have noted that, though Columbus was not scheduled to set sail until August 3rd, he insisted that his entire crew be ready on board a full day earlier. The timing becomes more intriguing when we consider that August 2nd 1492 was the day that had been ordained for the last Jews of Spain to depart the country. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were departing Spain on that black day.

*When this coincidence of dates was first noted by the Spanish biographer S. de Madariaga, the English Jewish historian Cecil Roth supplemented it with a further "coincidence": August 2nd 1492 coincided with the Ninth of Av, the Jewish fast of mourning for the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples! It was as if Columbus had arranged to remain on board ship for that ill-omened day, and to depart only afterwards.

It would be impossible, in the context of a short newspaper article, to enumerate all the evidence that has been adduced on this question. De Madariaga devoted a five-hundred page tome to proving this thesis. Some of the most important arguments are however summarized in the relevant entry in the Encyclopedia Judaica, written by the encyclopedia's editor-in-chief Cecil Roth. While Roth himself expresses some scepticism about the explorer's Jewish origins, it is significant that the entry is not preceded by the special sign that normally indicates articles about non-Jews.

Perhaps Columbus Day is, after all, a Jewish holiday.


This article and many others are now included in the book

Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

by Jason Aronson Publishers


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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

[1]

First Publication:

  • Jewish Free Press, Oct. 14 1991.

Bibliography:

  • Cecil Roth, "Who Was Columbus?" in: Personalities and Events in Jewish History, Philadelphia 1953.
  • Salvador de Madariaga, Christopher Columbus, Being the Life of the Very Magnificent Lord Don Cristoból Colón, 1939.