18 May 2008

Cervantes: Jewish roots?

In April, the European Jewish Press carried a story by Linda Jimenez Glassman - Was Miguel de Cervantes a Converso? - focusing on historian Abraham Haim's belief that the author of "Don Quixote de la Mancha" was from a Converso family.

Converso means a descendant of a family or individual that was forced to convert to another religion, usually Catholicism in the sense of the Spanish usage. The other term used commonly in Hebrew is bnai anousim (children of the forced).

MADRID (EJP)---Historian Abraham Haim believes that Miguel de Cervantes’ classic "Don Quixote de la Mancha" is the product of "the silence experienced by a Jewish soul."

A specialist in Sephardic history and culture, Haim made the comment during a lecture "Traces of Judaism in Don Quixote" organized by Casa Sefarad-Israel in Madrid at the Cervantes Institute.

Among Haim's examples in the book, which was written a century after the 1492 Expulsion from Spain:

-"Don Quixote" (16th century) contains numerous references to the Kabbalah and Jewish traditions. The only possible explanation, says Haim, is that Cervantes was a Converso - Jews forced to convert to Christianity during persecutions in 1391 or other times or those who converted to avoid expulsion in 1492. Many continued secret Jewish practices for decades if not centuries and into contemporary times.

-Cervantes’ birth records were probably forged, claims Haim.

-Cervantes was familiar with Catholic texts, but also included "coded" aspects of Jewish tradition to avoid the Inquisition's notice, but understood by Jews.

-Cervantes says Don Quixote's diet includes "duelos y quebrantos" (literally, suffering and brokenness) on Saturdays. According to the story, this term is used today by Moroccan Jews for eggs and grains (or lentils), but also refers to the sadness of those expelled.

-The "Festival of Tents" is described, in a reference to Succot: families from town build a cabin and young women invite the characters to join them. Haim says the word "huesped" (guest) is related to "ushpizim" (Aramaic, guest).

-Book burnings are mentioned. Asks Haim, "What books did the Inquisition burn? "Those with references to Judaism."

-In Chapter IX, speaking in the first person, Cervantes describes walking through Toledo's old Jewish-Arab section, the Alcana, where he bought some old papers. He thought they were Arabic but a translator said they were written in “a better and older” language. This is a clear reference to Hebrew, believes Haim.

-The most important evidence, says Haim, is the nearly literal translation of an entire page of Talmud. Sancho Panza passes judgment in a dispute between two men over a debt payment; the people call him "a new Solomon" because of his wisdom.

Read more here.

For another article on Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616) addressing similar themes, click here. "Cervantes, Don Quijote, and the Hebrew Scriptures," is by Kevin S. Larsen, Professor of Spanish and Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Wyoming. His article, “Conversos,” appeared in the Encyclopedia of Judaism.


  1. Dave Christensen11:48 AM

    Cervantes could be from a secret Jewish family. My own Jewish ancestors hid their identity in Spain pretending to have converted to Catholicism until about 1590 when they relocated in Holland, when Holland freed itself from Catholic control. So they kept their identity alive for a full century after the Inquisition. Most likely they retained very little of their practices, but when they community migrated to Holland, they quickly recovered Jewish identity.

  2. MY father often told us of our Jewish roots as children also tried to teach us the traditions I thought it was a joke now that I start think about it its starting sink inn the more read up on the genealogy I'm starting to believe!?

  3. My father up to the day he move on he often told us of our Jewish root to be totally honest Ive never believed it bit the more I study and dig into my family roots the more I believe