On July 31st 1492, under threat of death and forced conversion, the last Jews left Spain. Three days later Christopher Columbus set forth for America. Coincidence? Perhaps.
Yet, some scholars suggest there is more to Christopher Columbus’s story than we have been led to believe. At least three arguments have been put forth suggesting he was not only a Jew, but that his faith motivated his voyage.
1. Columbus’s Letters to His Son: Columbus wrote numerous letters, only a fraction of which survive. Those addressed to his son Diego contain two Hebrew letters in the upper left-hand corner—bet and hay.
They are a standard abbreviation for the Hebrew phrase B’ezrat Hashem, meaning “With God’s help.” To this day observant Jews use this abbreviation on any written written communication.
This phrase appears solely on Columbus’s letters to his son. This subterfuge is consistent with the practice of many Spanish Jews known as marranos or conversos. These were Jews forced to convert to Catholicism in public, but who maintained their Jewishness in private.
The Tragedy of the Conversos
Hundreds of thousands of Spanish Jews became conversos, and many of their descendants eventually left Spain for the New World. Indeed, several well-known conversos were part of Columbus’s crew, and one of them built the Western hemisphere’s first synagogue.
Even Columbus’s trip was partially financed by two prominent conversos. Louis de Santangel and Gabriel Sanchez both loaned Columbus 17000 ducats. And they were joined by one of Spain’s most prominent Jews—Don Isaac Abravanel—who left Spain a few days before Columbus.
2. Columbus’s Will: His will includes a strange triangular signature of dots and letters found on many Jewish gravestones in Spain and Southern France. He instructed his descendants to use this signature in perpetuity.
Britain’s foremost Jewish historian, Cecil Roth, suggested that this signature signaled to Columbus’s children that he wished for them to say Kaddish—the traditional Jewish prayer of mourning—after his death.
Columbus’s will also left a tenth of his estate to charity and set aside funds to provide dowries for orphaned girls. These were standard practices of Jewish wills.
3. His ultimate goal: Columbus lived through one of history’s darkest periods for Jews in Europe. This darkness led many Jews to wish for the coming of the Messiah, the redeemer who would bring about safety and peace.
For Jews the rebuilding of Jerusalem is one of the pre-requisites for the coming of the Messiah. According to Carol Delanay, an anthropologist and professor at Stanford University, Columbus’s primary goal in traveling to Asia was obtaining gold to finance a new crusade to retake Jerusalem.
Delaney does not suggest Columbus was Jewish, but her argument was echoed by Simon Wiesenthal, who does believe Columbus was Jewish and who suggests Columbus was motivated to conquer Jerusalem in order to create a safe haven for Jews exiled from Europe.
Was Columbus Jewish? We will probably never the answer to this intriguing mystery. What we do know, however, is that his life contained much more than meets the eye. In an era where religious freedom around the world is increasingly under attack, let us remember a man who may well have discovered a new world in a quest for religious liberty.