1550 AD to 1570 AD, Psalm 124: The purity of blood

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This generation of the 1550s and 1560s.

According to our count, this generation is the 124th generation associated with Psalm 124. It is in this Psalm 124 that we therefore find an illustration of the facts of this generation.

The discovery of the New World could have led Spain and Portugal to believe that they would remain the dominant powers in the world. But in this generation, there are already signs of exhaustion.

The reaction is a withdrawal into oneself that will prove fatal. To fight the Jews who have accepted to stay by converting, with sincerity or not, Spain establishes purity of blood (« limpieza de sangre »). A trap for the Jews who did not flee.

As Spain descends into obscurantism, Judaism is reborn in Israel thanks in part to the impetus of former Iberian Jews who escaped the trap set. The Portuguese marranos are also beginning to spread among the emerging powers of Europe, embryos of future flourishing communities.


A shaken hegemony

The discovery of the New World and the opening of trade routes to Asia might have suggested to Spain and Portugal that they would be the dominant powers of a world, that they had already been shared, for long centuries.

In the present generation, this hope becomes less obvious. Portugal already sees its hegemonic position questioned.

If the signs of decadence are already visible, Spain may still believe in the preservation of its hegemonic position to the present generation. Spain renounces itself to the Empire built by Charles V by separating from Germany perhaps already being aware of its financial and human (demographic) limits.

In trying to keep the Netherlands in its fold, and especially in the bosom of Catholicism, Spain engages in new military expenditure which will eventually make him aware of the financial limits of the contribution of the new world.

limpieza de sangre

In spite of the signs of a loss of power, Spain is taking a decision from this generation that will weaken it further. This decision will also be the end of all hope for the Jews still present in the Iberian Peninsula either to return to the religion of their fathers or to blend into the population by agreeing to be loyal Christians:

  • Most converts  [1] from Judaism became very pious Christians. But the Spaniards were apparently unable to meet their presence. The conversos participated brilliantly in the 16th century Spanish, golden age of this civilization. Among the great figures from their ranks were St. Teresa of Avila, mystic and founder of convents, Fernando de Rojas, author of the first great literary work of the Spanish Renaissance, Diego Lainez, friend of Saint Ignatius Loyola and second general of the Jesuit order, Francisco de Vitoria, the greatest jurist of the sixteenth century; there were still poets, humanists, novelists. Most Spaniards found the conversos of the aristocracy unbearable.
  • In 1547, a man of humble origins and therefore « unblemished » – an archbishop named Siliceo – promulgated a statute on the « limpieza of sangre », or « purity of blood », which he imposed on Toledo. In the future, only those whose blood was unblemished, untainted by that of the conversos and who had not had to suffer accusations of heresy, could be appointed to ecclesiastical functions. In 1556, King Philip II (who had just come to power in Spain) approved this status. « All the heresies in Germany, France, and Spain, » he remarked, « were brought by the descendants of the Jews ». It was a pure fantasy with regard to the Jews of France and Germany. But the strangest thing is that Philip II himself had Jewish ascendants.
  • The statutes of the « limpieza » gained all Spain. Conversos were excluded from guilds and colleges, and banned in some cities. Religious and secular organizations made the purity of blood an indispensable quality for their new members. It was necessary to advance the proof that one possessed a genealogical tree without the least « stain ».
  • This obsession continued throughout the 16th century until the 17th century. The communities seemed to agree to make their laws on the purity of the blood ever stricter. The most vague rumors about some Jewish ancestry became irreparable defilements. The honor of a man no longer depended on his actions alone, but on the haunting echo of a past he did not control. […] For centuries, Spain was devoured by the hatred of Jewish foreigners.

Thus the psalmist can make for this generation a positive balance for the Jews who were able to escape from Spain and Portugal by noting the trap that came down on those who could not or did not want to leave these country:

  1. A song of ascents. Of David. Had it not been for the Lord Who was with us, let Israel declare now.
  2. Had it not been for the Lord Who was with us when men rose up against us,
  3. Then they would have swallowed us raw when their anger was kindled against us.

The Jews who remained in Spain and Portugal thinking they could hide their real religion behind a Christianity facade found themselves on the pyres of the Inquisition. Unlike their ancestors who had suffered the Visigoths or the Almohads, there was no possible return to Judaism and the fire of the inquisitors’ anger (« their anger was kindled against us ») was the only answer to their hope.

  1. Then the waters would have washed us away; illness would have passed over our soul.
  2. Then the wicked waters would have passed over our soul.

Those who remained in Spain and Portugal had to submit to the waters of Christian baptism. It is these « wicked waters » that have been fatal to the Jews who remained in Spain and Portugal and especially to their « souls » because they will never be able to return to Judaism and in Christianity they will always be considered outcasts. Their soul is thus condemned to live in a nothingness between Judaism and Christianity.

The Marranos and the rebirth of Judaism

To this generation, while the Marranos keep Judaism only a few discrete practices, Joseph Caro in Safed unifies for practicing Jews who can still freely practice their religion the way to comply with Jewish laws.

At the same time that the Jews were trapped in Spain and Portugal, a certain Jewish revival took place in the Land of Israel under the impulse of a character with a particular destiny:

  • In 1553 [3], the Jewish physician of Soliman introduced him to Joseph Nasi, whose family was forced to convert to Christianity before fleeing to Istanbul, after a trip by Holland and Italy. There, he won the confidence of the Sultan and became the confidential agent of his son and heir. Joseph, referred to by European diplomats as the « Great Jew », ran a complex trading empire. He served as emissary and mysterious international intermediary to the sultan, referee of war and finance, mediator between East and West. Joseph believed in the return of the Jews to the Promised Land, and Soliman granted him the lordship of Tiberias in Galilee. He rebuilt the city, settled Italian Jews there, planted mulberry trees to develop the silk industry, and was the first Jew to plant Jews in the Holy Land. He built his Jerusalem in Galilee, because this expert of the things of power knew that the true Jerusalem was the preserve of the sultan.
  • This did not prevent Joseph from protecting the Jewish scholars of Jerusalem, where Soliman insisted on the superiority of Islam and the inferiority of the other two religions with meticulous care that is still found today in the city. He then fought against the Emperor Charles V, so his attitude towards the Christians was partly a function of the cynical necessities of European diplomacy. Jews, they, imported little.
  • They continued to pray around the Temple Mount and on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, as well as in their main synagogue, the Ramban, but the Sultan loved order in all things. Opposed to anything that might threaten the Muslim monopoly on the Temple Mount, he gave the Jews a three-meter wide street along the retaining wall of Herod’s temple for them to pray. This decision had a certain logic, since the street ran along their old Grotto synagogue, and that it adjoined the Jewish quarter, where the Jews had begun to settle in the fourteenth century. But the site was dominated by the Maghreb Muslim district. Jewish worship was carefully regulated, and Jews later had to obtain a permit to pray there anyway. The Jews soon baptized the place « Ha-Kotel », « The Wall ». Strangers speak of the Western Wall or Wailing Wall, and thus its golden-colored stones have become the symbol of Jerusalem, the emblem of holiness.

Thus, the trap that tried to confine itself to Hispanic Judaism and that could have carried with it one of the essential components of Judaism did not have the dreaded effect. Judaism is reborn in the land of Israel, while the Portuguese Marranos, in fact Spanish Jews converted by force, begin to spread in the nascent powers of Europe.

All this is facilitated by the arrival of the Reformation which has the effect of less pressure on the Jews and also a beginning of tolerance on German soil where the exactions against the Jews are becoming rare. At the same time, Polish Judaism is flourishing with benevolent protection from the rulers who save them for a few more generations from the massacres that took place elsewhere in previous generations.

The following conclusion illustrates the paradox of the result of the Inquisition:

  • By a curious [4] reversal of history, because it was associated with the appearance of a world economy turned towards the Atlantic and the rise of new shopping centers in North-West of Europe, the episode « new Christian » did not only bring about a renewal of the Jewish presence in a Western Europe that had rejected it since the Middle Ages. It eventually leads to the emergence of new Jewish centers in the Americas and elsewhere. In the Anglo-Saxon world, Jews reappeared in the mid-seventeenth century as new-Christian emigrants, from Amsterdam to London or Dutch Brazil for what would become the British colonies of the New World. The Sephardic communities of the West thus turned to new directions, those very regions where some of the great upheavals of the contemporary history of the Jews took place. The expulsion of the Jews from Spain and the series of events that led to the extinction of all Jewish life in the Iberian Peninsula actually sowed the seeds of a Jewish renaissance in Western Europe.

Thus, the psalmist can conclude the balance of this psalm with a positive conclusion even if it is obvious that the exile is not over and that other misfortunes are sadly watching the Jewish people to the next generations. But for this generation, the Jewish people have saved their soul by preserving their faith outside the Hispanic Peninsula where everything was done to make that soul, this faith, disappear.

This is the conclusion of the psalm of this generation:

  1. Blessed is the Lord, Who did not give us as prey for their teeth.
  2. Our soul escaped like a bird from the hunters’ snare; the snare broke, and we escaped.
  3. Our help is in the name of the Lord, Who made heaven and earth.


[1] Chaim Potok: « A story of the Jewish people ». Chapter: « Christianity, lost in the enchanted country ». (French: « Une histoire du peuple Juif ». Chapitre : « Le christianisme, perdus dans le pays enchanté ». (p. 499-500) ).

[3] Simon Sebag Montefiore: « Jerusalem – Biography ». Chapter: « Mystics and Messiahs ». (French: « Jérusalem – Biographie ». Chapitre : « Mystiques et messies ». (p. 356,357) )

[4] Esther Benbassa and Aron Rodrigue: « History of the Sephardic Jews ». Chapter: « The end of Sefarad? « . (French: « Histoire des Juifs sépharades ». Chapitre : « La fin de Séfarad ? ». (p. 69) ).