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Inquisition and impurity

In the second half of the 15th century, forced conversion of the Jews in the Iberian Peninsula led to the adoption by many of the conversos of a system of practices and beliefs defined by the Inquisition as marranism or the“Judaizingheresy”, namely the secret observance of Judaism under the mask of the Catholic religion. In fact, especially with the passing of the generations and the consequent loss of much knowledge, starting with the exact dates of the Jewish feasts, marranism acquired ever more syncretic characteristics, mingling Christian beliefs and practices with Jewish ones and giving life to what was described as the “marrano religion”. A significant example of this is the particular devotion to St Esther, the protagonist of the Jewish feast of Purim and celebrated as a saint by the Catholic Church on 1 July, but celebrated with special devotion by the marranos, who regard her as the first “marrana” – Esther in Hebrew means the woman who hides herself – and who celebrate her for three days with partial fasts to recall those of Esther in the Biblical text.

Of notable interest is also a case of which a record remains in a trial of the Inquisition in Mexico. It led to the burning at the stake of a converso of Spanish origin who had settled in the Americas. He had been accused of having obliged his wife not to go to church and not to take part in Mass during her menstrual periods, thereby demonstrating, as his sentence said, that he was acting “out of obedience to Mosaic law”. The accused may have been convinced that he was acting as a good Christian by imposing on his wife abstention from religious practice during the periods of her menstruation. In the Jewish system, during these days the woman is niddà, that is, impure, and is prohibited from lying with her husband and from touching sacred objects in the synagogue. Formerly she was also prohibited from entering the temple. After giving birth she remains impure for 40 days if she has given life to a male child and for 80 days if the child is female. In both cases the period of impurity is divided into two parts, the first of which – seven or 14 days according to the sex of the newborn infant – is considered in Leviticus as a period of impurity like that of the period of menstruation, while in the subsequent period, of purification, the woman must abstain only from contact with the sacred. While the system of ritual impurity linked to menstruation was already abolished in Christianity in the third century, that of impurity following birth remained in force until a few decades ago; according to this system, the woman had to submit to a 40-day period of purification, at the end of which she would receive the priest’s blessing. Hence, given the close analogy in the Jewish system between premenstrual and postpartum impurity and the analogy between the two postpartum systems, the Jewish and the Christian, the possibility of a similar confusion in the mind of the accused, or perhaps also of the entire group to whom he belonged, may have stemmed from this, regardless of whether it was a confusion desired out of obedience to the “law of Moses” or whether it was an involuntary form of syncretism. Whatever it may have been, the poor converso was burnt at the stake for this religious melding, which may have seemed to him completely natural. His widow, freed because she had acted out of obedience to her husband and not to the norms of Judaism, learned that attending Mass had no connection with her menstrual cycle and the Mexican Inquisition celebrated its victory over the Judaizing heresy with a burning at the stake.

Anna Foa




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 23, 2020