Tortosa Debate of 1413–14

jewish debateWords are destructive. Take, for example, the Tortosa Debate that expedited the exile of Spanish Jewry.

The expulsion        of   5252/1492 was the conclusion of a process that started centuries before when Spanish Visigoth rulers converted to Catholicism. Back in 4441/681, King Erwig was already warning Jews to make their choice to leave their religion or leave Spain:

“If any Jew prevents his slaves from being baptized or withholds himself and his family from baptism,” he wrote, “he shall have his head shaved, receive a hundred lashes, and pay the required penalty of exile. His property shall pass over into the power of the king” (abridged).

Yet somehow, the Jews always managed to hang on, sometimes even enjoying times of great prosperity, including the Golden Age during a period when moderate Moslems controlled Spain.


The countdown to catastrophe began in 5138/1378 when the archdeacon of Ejica, Ferrand Martinez, began traveling throughout Spain inciting people against Jews.

For years, his efforts were ineffectual because Spanish kings understood that it was worth protecting their Jews for economical reasons. The floodgates of pent-up hate burst forth in 5151/1391 when King John of Castile passed away, leaving an 11 year old heir and a weak ruling council.

Martinez seized his opportunity, inciting the Seville populace to attack the Jewish quarter, where they murdered 4,000 Jews, forced the remainder to convert, and turned two shuls into churches; once the people tasted blood there was no stopping them. The butchery continued in Cordova andJaen and spread out to almost every region ofSpain.

The rabble murdered Rav Yehuda, the grandson of the Rosh, together with his family, talmidim and many others in Toledo on the 17th of Tammuz. They destroyed famous shuls or turned them into churches. Government attempts to stem the violence were largely unsuccessful. When Barcelona sentenced ten rioters to death, dockworkers and fishermen cried out: “Long live the king! The fat cats want to kill the common people!” and smashing down the prison doors they freed the convicted men. Then they stormed the fortress where Jews were hiding and gave them the choice to convert or die. After a week of rioting, 400 Jews died.

“All the rest converted,” contemporary records report. “Only a few escaped, and through our many sins there is no one calling himself a Jew left in Barcelona…”

Rav Chasdai Crescas, a talmid of the Ran, wrote at the time: “Hashem bent His bow like an enemy against the kehilla of Seville… they lit fire in its gates and killed many there. But most of them converted, and some were sold to Arabs, or their children and women… while some died al kiddush Hashem, and many desecrated the holy covenant…

“(In Saragossa) they fought against the Jews in a tower with bows and crossbows, and killed them there in the tower. Many died al kiddush Hashem including my only son, a pure sheep whom I offered as a burnt offering… Many killed themselves and some threw themselves from the tower… And some went out from there and died al kiddush Hashem in the street.”

These pogroms were a turning point for Spanish Jewry – by the time they ended the following year, the power and influence of Spanish Jewry was in tatters.

“Among us today in the whole state of Aragon there is no outcry or breach,” Rav Chasdai wrote. “Through Hashem’s mercy on us, a remnant of us is left. (Although) in all these places… nothing is left except our bodies, nevertheless, our hearts feel awe and our eyes are lifted to our Father in heaven until He favors us and heals us of our pain, and does not let our feet stumble.”

What was the cause of the unprecedented conversion of so many Jews?

Contemporary gedolim squarely laid the blame on philosophy. As Rav Yosef Yaavetz writes in Ohr HaChaim: “Most of those who glorified in (philosophical) wisdom, almost all of them, converted on that bitter day, whereas the women and common people gave over their bodies and money for kiddush Hashem.

Rav Chasdai too blamed “the Greek (Aristotle) who darkened the eyes of Yisroel in our time.”


As Chazal comment on the verse, “Machirivayich umeharsayich mimcha yeitzei’u,” “Your destroyers and wreckers come from your midst,” Jews sometimes wreak more harm that anyone else.

The most prominent convert of these times was Shlomo HaLevi, the rav of Burgos, who had corresponded with the Rivash in earlier years (Teshuvas HaRivash

192). He persuaded his talmid, Yehoshua Lorki, to convert as well, and Lorki wreaked so much harm that he became known as Hamegadef, an acrostic of his gentile name, Miestro Geronimo de (Santa) Fé. He started by authoring two books against Judaism, and then began organizing one of the most infamous theological “debates” in history.

His right hand man during this project was St. Vicente Ferrer, later canonized as a saint because of the record numbers of Jews he persuaded or forced to convert during and after the 5151/1391 pogroms. Theological debates generally ended up badly for the Jews as the ruling powers generally decided their conclusions in advance. For example, the Paris Disputation of 5000/1240 resulted in the public burning of 24 cartloads of seforim inParis’ streets, and although the Ramban writes that he was victorious in his 5023/1263 debate against the apostate monk, Pablo Christiani, the gentiles claimed the opposite in their records.

The Tortosa Debate organized by Lorki and Ferrer was even worse, because Lorki had a good knowledge of Jewish sources and could outwit the Jews on their own turf.

It was easy for Lorki to spark off the debate because he was the personal physician of Pope Benedict XIII of Avignon. (During most of that century popes lived in Avignonof southern France and not in Rome.) Lorki presented his boss with a Latin and Hebrew booklet filled with ambiguous medrashim, and explained how easy it would be to twist them to support false beliefs.

Intrigued by the idea, the pope immediately shot off missives to Jewish communities, ordering them to send delegates to a debate in Tortosa. Jews chosen to attend included famous gedolim such as Rav Zerachiah HaLevi, author of Baal HaMaor on the Rif, and Rav Yosef Albo, author of Sefer Ha”ikarim, who bases certain sections of his sefer on this debate.

However, the delegates soon realized that their wisdom would not avail because the debate they were attending was merely a plot to raise Christian prestige and make fools of them. As they reported, “We found the whole giant courtyard lined with fabric, and there were seventy chairs laid out for their priests known as cardinals, bishops and archbishops, all of them in gold raiment, and there were all the great people of Rome and the local town and ministers, almost a thousand people.”

In his welcoming address to the Jewish delegates too, the Pope made it clear that the whole debate was a farce and that its result was a foregone conclusion:

“You, who are the wise men among the Jews, know that I have not come here, nor did I send for you, to decide which of the two religions is the true, since I am well aware that my religion and my faith are true, and that your Torah, while it once was true, has ceased to be so….”

The Jews had lost the debate in advance, even though their subsequent arguments were brilliant. Lorki got a lot of his ammunition from “medrashim” that he dredged up from the book Dagger of Faith written by 13th

century priest, Raymond Martini. This book not only misinterpreted medrashim, but also included a number of medrashim that have no clear source.

Every time Lorki cited one of these fake medrashim, the Jews would demand that he produce an original source for it, and every time they made this demand, Lorki ignored them. At the end of each day, a priest would sum up the arguments.

After many meetings stretching over two years, Lorki was satisfied that he had proved

his case and concluded that it was the holy duty of the Church to burn the Talmud. Fortunately, the Pope considered this measure too draconian and merely decreed that the Jews must hand over all their copies of the Talmud for censorship. Lorki’s false claim that the Christians had won the debate demoralized the Jews to such an extent that the following year of 5154/1414 was known as “the year of conversions.”


However, the Jews who refused to convert became even more fervent in their example as is evidenced by the list of takanos enacted at the 5192/1432 intercommunity synod at Valladolid, Castille. The takanos start out by reinforcing the intensive study of Torah: “Each community of the whole kingdom of Castile shall be obliged to establish and provide a voluntary fund for Talmud Torah in the following manner. For every head of big cattle slaughtered for them, they should pay for Talmud Torah five maravedis etc. Every community of fifteen families shall maintain a proper teacher for the children of primary school age who shall instruct them in Tanach.”

The takanos then stress the importance of Torah leadership and jurisdiction:

“A community of forty families or more shall be obliged to endeavor so far as possible, to maintain among themselves a rav who will teach them halachos and aggados. Each rav shall maintain a yeshiva where those desirous of learning may study the halacha. Any community having ten families or more shall establish a place for prayers. Each community shall choose judges.

“Whoever is appointed in each community shall have the power as long as this takana is in effect, to judge any dispute, contentions or quarrels according to Talmudic law and impose fines and punishment. No one shall bring his or her neighbor before any judge who is not of our faith” (abridged).

Despite a century of depredations, in the end, about 200,000 faithful Jews set out from Spain in 5252/1492 to spread the light of Torah throughout the world.

(Source of some material: “Tor Hazahav veHashmad,” Refael Halpern, “Ruach Yaakov” Organization, 1992)

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