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Translating the Bible into Spanish

A few generations after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, large numbers of “New Christians”—descendants of those Jews who chose to convert and to remain in Spain and in Portugal—began to return to Judaism.  As part of the process of return they were forced to confront some challenging questions: How does one revive the forbidden culture of ones forefathers? How does one relearn the religious practices and Hebrew language that has been forgotten for decades?

 

The solution they came up with combined the long lost tradition of their ancestors and the Christian culture into which they were born. 

 

With the decree to expel the Jews from Spain in 1492, many Jews chose to remain in the Spanish kingdom and live there as Christians. Others chose to take up the invitation of the king of Portugal, Manuel I, to emigrate to the neighboring kingdom, where they could live openly as Jews. Following the marriage of the king of Portugal with the daughter of Spain’s rulers, Ferdinand and Isabella, the king decreed the forced conversion of all of the Jews in Portugal who had arrived there but a few years earlier. 

Only toward the end of the sixteenth century and into the seventeenth century did thousands of those “New Christians” make use of the new easing of travel restrictions between the Iberian Peninsula and countries beyond it to emigrate to countries beyond, like Western Europe and even the New World. In their new diaspora communities many chose to return openly to the Jewish religion of their forefathers. They were forced to deal with many questions on their religious journey back to Judaism, among these, how to revive the once forbidden culture of one’s ancestors? How to relearn the religious practices and the sacred language that has been forgotten for decades?


Cognizant of their unique situation, there was a need to translate for those newly-returned to Judaism the texts that until then had needed no translation.  Halakhic and ethical treatises, prayer books and even the “Book of Books,” the Bible, were translated into Spanish and Portuguese over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One of the great translation projects of that time was the first complete translation of the Bible into Spanish which was printed in Ferrara in 1553.

 

 

The First Jewish Translation of the "Book of Books" into Spanish

 

The Holy Bible in the Spanish tongue. Translated word for word from the true Hebrew by very excellent literati . . . with the privilege of the most illustrious Lord Duke of Ferrara”

(Subtitle of the Ferrara Bible, the first complete Jewish translation of the Bible into Spanish, printed in 1553)

 

 

Safely ensconced in their new abode in the Duchy of Ferrara in Italy, far from the reach of the long arm of the Spanish inquisition, the translator Abraham ben Salomon Usque and the typographer Yom-Tob Ben Levi Athias—themselves ex-conversos who had escaped from Spain and Portugal—labored together and printed twenty-seven titles of Jewish books in Spanish and in Portuguese. The Ferrara Bible was their most important work. It was a new translation and revision of earlier versions of the Bible that had been translated into Spanish.

 

 

 The original printed edition of the Ferrara Bible of 1553. Click here for the item

 

The Bible that the two men revised and translated anew became an important text in the Judeo-Spanish world of Western Europe and the New World. It was first printed and distributed in Ferrara which, in the second half of the sixteenth century, was an important stop along the route of conversos emigrating from the Iberian Peninsula. Later, it was printed repeatedly in Amsterdam, when that city became the preferred destination for ex-conversos returning to Judaism during the seventeenth century.

 

 

 The Ferrara Bible appeared in multiple editions. One example, appearing in the accompanying illustration, is the edition published in Amsterdam in 1726. Over the years, Amsterdam became the preferred destination for the descendants of the conversos and it is the city known for such great personalities as Menasseh ben Israel and Baruch Spinoza. Click here for the item

 

 Chapter One, Genesis, from the Ferrara Bible, printed in Amsterdam. Click here for the item

 

The Ferrara Bible apparently filled a central need in the Spanish Catholic world as well: researchers posit that the new translation influenced Catholic religious thought and many Christian authors quoted directly from the translated text. Nevertheless, whoever was caught by the Inquisition with a copy of the Ferrara Bible in his possession opened himself up to real danger.

 

 

The Ferrara Bible was neither the first nor the only Jewish book to be printed in that city. Another important book is Nahum Israel, printed the same year by Samuel Usque. It is not clear whether he was directly related to Abraham Ben Salomon Usque.

 

The Ferrara Bible – A Bridge Across the Generations

 

Entire passages from the Bible printed by the “very excellent literati” can be traced to sources that were in use among Spanish Jewry before the expulsion. Taking into account that the Bible that they produced was used by the descendants of the conversos and the Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were expelled and that it was reprinted over the course of centuries, this is a book that had managed to become a bridge between the glorious culture of the Jews of Spain and Portugal prior to their expulsion and their descendants who, hundreds of years after they were torn from their country, preserved that precious culture in its new abodes.

 

 Spanish translation of the Bible published in 1945 in Argentina, based mainly on the Ferrara Bible. Click here for the item

This article was written with the help of Dr. Aliza Moreno of the National Library.