Over centuries, the Jewish community in Spain had flourished and grown in numbers and influence, though anti-Semitism had surfaced from time to time. During the reign of Henry III (1390-1406), Jews faced increased persecution and were pressured to convert to Christianity. Many Jews were killed, and those who adopted Christian beliefs – the conversos (Spanish: “converted”) – faced continued suspicion and prejudice. In addition, there remained a significant population of Jews who had professed conversion but continued to practice their faith in secret. Known as Marranos, those nominal converts from Judaism were perceived to be an even greater threat to the social order than those who had rejected forced conversion. After Aragon and Castile were united by the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella (1469), the Marranos were denounced as a danger to the existence of Christian Spain and a formal Inquisition was established to deal with them.
A grand inquisitor was appointed by the name of Tomás de Torquemada, a name synonymous with brutality and fanaticism associated with the Inquisition. Torquemada used torture and confiscation to terrorize his victims, and his methods were cruel by design. The sentencing of the accused took place at the auto-da-fé (“act of faith”), an elaborate public expression of the Inquisition’s power. The condemned were presented before a large crowd that often included royalty, and burned at the stake. The number of burnings during Torquemada’s tenure was said to have been about 2,000. At Torquemada’s urging, Ferdinand and Isabella issued an edict on March 31, 1492, giving Spanish Jews the choice of exile or baptism; as a result, according to Rabbeinu Don Yitzchok Abarbanel zt”l, more than 300,000 Jews were expelled from Spain. The deadline to leave was on August 2, 1492, which was also Tishah B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar year.
Not all of Spain’s Jews had fled when the fateful edict was pronounced. It was possible to remain in Spain, but the conditions for doing so were dire: Any Jew who hoped to remain in his home had to publicly embrace Christianity and renounce all Jewish observance. Many did so. But even those who had ostensibly embraced Christianity, the secret Jews of Spain, were never trusted; neighbors and priests realized they continued to practice Judaism, and many “real” Christians eagerly looked for any sign of Jewish practice so they could turn them over to the Inquisition.
Don Fernando Aguilar was a prominent Barcelona Jew. Conductor of the prestigious royal orchestra in that city, he was a man of distinction and enjoyed great wealth and prestige. When the edict banishing him and his coreligionists from Spain came, Don Aguilar decided to remain. He publicly embraced Christianity, but at the same time made a daring decision: In private, Don Aguilar, like so many Spanish Jews, would never give up his faith. Even though it meant he could be arrested at any moment, Don Aguilar continued to live as a Jew. He kissed a mezuzah that he kept hidden in his floorboards and was careful to eat only kosher food and observe the Jewish holidays. There was no synagogue in his city anymore, but groups of Jews would meet in private, under pain of death, to whisper prayers. There were no Jewish schools in Spain any longer, but families did their best to give their children a Jewish education. Year after grinding year, the secret Jewish community continued, holding on to as many of the mitzvos as possible.
Some rituals, however, were nearly impossible to observe. It took five long years after the expulsion of Spanish Jewry, five years of practicing Judaism in secret, of living a double life, before Don Aguilar saw an opportunity to do something for his fellow Jewish brethren. In 1497 he made a public announcement: On Sunday, the 5th of September, he would personally lead the Royal Orchestra of Barcelona in a brand-new concert of his own composition. The pieces he’d written were unlike anything ever heard in Spain before. It was, he declared, to be a celebration of native peoples and their cultures. Every instrument ever invented around the world, no matter how far away, would be represented.
Excitement filled the air and anticipation for this great event was at an all-time high. On concert day, the orchestra hall was filled. The “who’s who” of Barcelona was in attendance. Many of those were Marranos, like Don Aguilar, but the fact that so many of these people came to the concert apparently didn’t arouse anyone’s suspicions.
Don Aguilar’s music was inspiring. True to his word, the audience heard from a wide range of instruments. There were bells and horns, stringed instruments, and an array of different drums. Then, in the middle of the concert, a musician with the orchestra stepped forward and took the stage. He was holding an unusual instrument: a ram’s horn.
The musician, a secret Jew handpicked for this task by none other than Don Aguilar himself, put the ram’s horn to his lips, and began to blow. He blew long blasts, followed by intermediate notes and then short staccato bursts. In fact, they were tekiah, shevarim, teruah. Each note of the shofar service rang out throughout the hall, one hundred notes in all. Most of the audience applauded it as a virtuoso performance of an unfamiliar instrument. But to the secret Jews in the audience, Don Aguilar’s “music” gave them their first chance in years to fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the shofar.
Because September 5, 1497, was the first of Tishrei, 5258 – the first day of Rosh Hashanah.
Little is known of Don Aguilar. Some say he was arrested soon after the concert and executed in secret so that news of his exploits would not become public. Others maintain he lived to an old age, continuing to live a Jewish life.
All that is known is his amazing actions on Rosh Hashanah, over 500 years ago, when for one evening he allowed an entire secret Jewish community fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the shofar.
(R’ Eliyahu Ki-Tov, Book of our Heritage)