This Day in Jewish History

1647: The Portuguese Burn a Converso Backslider

Isaac de Castro Tartas, 22, recited the Shema at the stake, starting a defiant practice that confounded the Lisbon authorities.

Bernard Picard / Wikipedia

On December 15, 1647, Isaac de Castro Tartas, a converso Jew of Portuguese descent, was one of six people burned at the stake by the Portuguese Inquisition, in Lisbon. He was 22 years old, and was sentenced to death for having backslided into Jewish belief and practice, and refusing to repent for his crimes.

Castro Tartas was born Thomas Luis, in Tartas, France, probably in 1625, to a family with origins in Portugal. In 1640, the family moved again, this time to Amsterdam, where Jews were now permitted to practice their faith under relatively limited restrictions. The men were circumcised, and renamed themselves with Hebrew names.

Isaac apparently began medical studies in Leiden, the Netherlands, but had to flee after killing a young nobleman there, probably in a duel. He sailed to Recife, the city on the northeast coast of Brazil that had been founded by Portugal, but which was occupied by the Dutch between 1630 and 1654. During that brief interlude of Dutch rule, many Jews took up residence in Recife, making it the first settlement of Jews in the New World.

Defiantly Jewish

In Recife, Isaac refused to assume a low profile, and openly practiced his Judaism and even confronted Catholic priests. Word of his presence got back to his enemies in Holland, who continued their pursuit of him in Brazil. At this point, Isaac fled to Portuguese Brazil, specifically to what is today called Salvador, capital of the state of Bahia, south of Recife.

There, in 1644, Isaac was identified and arrested by agents of the Portuguese Inquisition.

According to witnesses, he was actively spreading Jewish teachings among converso relations he had found in Bahia. He claimed to his interrogators to be a Jew who wished to be baptized into the faith, but apparently tefillin were found in his possession, giving the impression that he was still a practicing Jew.

The following year authorities extradited Isaac back to Portugal, where he was put on trial as a Judaizer. Now, he fully embraced his Judaism, rather than deny it.

According to historian Miriam Bodian, Castro Tartas also claimed that he was entitled to practice Judaism because of a “universal natural right to freedom of conscience,” the only case known, she writes, of the use of such a defense. The record of his testimony has him making the claim that “an act that is done in accordance with one’s conscience cannot be judged culpable, and the act I have and will continue to do – the act of professing Judaism - is done according to the dictates of my conscience.”

Needless to say, the court did not accept Isaac’s defense. He was sentenced to death, a punishment carried out on this day in 1647.

As Isaac burned, he recited the Shema, the Hebrew affirmation of faith in the one God of Israel, and this quickly became known among the converted Jews of Lisbon, who began to recite the line in public, to the great consternation of the authorities.

Back in Amsterdam, too, Isaac’s martyr’s death became highly celebrated. His brother, David de Castro Tartas, a publisher, commemorated his memory in several of his publications. Such figures as Saul Levi Mortera and Menasseh ben Israel praised his memory publicly, and the poet Salomon de Olyvera wrote a verse in Hebrew about the martyr, who, in response to the demand that he accept Christianity, tells his judges, “I shall rise and take courage -- I am triumphant/ You will bow down to nothingness and fall” (as cited in “Hebrews of the Portuguese Nation,” by Miriam Bodian).

Twitter: @davidbeegreen