Dona Gracia (Hannah) Nasi (1510-1569) was a successful Jewish businesswoman who ruled over a worldwide economic empire, but who was also a philanthropist who used her economic and political power to advance the interests of her people, saving Jews from the Inquisition, establishing yeshivot, and supporting poor Torah scholars.

Introduction



Dona Gracia was born in Lisbon to a family of anusim, crypto-Jews (Jews who had been forced to convert, but who kept their Jewish identity in secret) of Spanish origin. When the situation of the Jews in Lisbon deteriorated, she moved to Antwerp, and from there to Italy. Ultimately she moved to Constantinople (today’s Istanbul), where she lived until her death.

In Constantinople, she worked for the renewal of Jewish settlement in Tiberias, in the Land of Israel, so as to provide Jews with a safe refuge; she received a permit to do so from the Turkish sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, who at that time ruled over the Land of Israel.* Her son-in-law and nephew, Don Yosef Nasi, also became involved in her efforts to rebuild Tiberias.

Dona Gracia was, without doubt, one of the most famous and important women in the Jewish history of the Middle Ages, and was a rare example of a woman of wealth, commerce and political vision in the male-dominated world of the 16th century.

Life Story

Dona Gracia was born to the Nasi family, a family of anusim living in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1510. At the age of 18, Dona Gracia married Francisco Mendes, the son of a well-to-do family, also anusim. Since they had to behave outwardly as Christians, they were first married in secret, in a Jewish ceremony, and then in a well-attended church ceremony.

Mendes was one of the largest spice traders in Europe, and held a franchise issued by the rulers of Portugal. His brother, Diogo, opened the Mendes Bank in Antwerp, which later became the largest bank in Europe. Diogo married Brianda, Dona Gracia’s sister. Eight years following their marriage, Francisco Mendes died, and Dona Gracia was left a young widow.

Meanwhile, the situation of the Jews of Lisbon deteriorated, and Dona Gracia, together with her only daughter, Reyna, and her nephew, later known as Don Joseph Nasi, moved to Antwerp (then a part of the Netherlands), where they joined the banking business of her husband’s family. In Antwerp she worked for the anusim, helping to smuggle them to other countries in Europe, or to the territory of the Ottoman Empire.

Six years following her husband’s death, his brother also died, and Dona Gracia took control of all the family’s businesses. Thus she became a successful businesswomen in what was then a totally male dominated field, controlling her flourishing, international economic empire with determination. It seems that she had a monopoly throughout the Ottoman Empire on the import and export of arak and wine, the production of wine casks, the trade in beeswax and minerals, and other products.

At that time there was a growing wave of anti-Semitism in Europe, and Dona Gracia was forced to flee Antwerp. In 1545 she reached Venice, but she was not left in peace for too long. The enormous wealth left to her by her husband and the assets of the bank that had been entrusted with her led to a rift with her sister, Brianda, who demanded half of the family’s assets. As a result of being informed upon – probably by her sister – to the Inquisition in Venice, for having continued to practice Judaism in secret, Dona Gracia was arrested and her property confiscated. It was only due to the intervention of her nephew, Don Joseph Nasi, before the Turkish sultan, that she was released from prison. She moved to the city of Ferrara in Italy, where she joined the Jewish community; she decided to abandon her double life and openly return to Judaism. In Ferrara she continued her extensive commercial activities, as well as her aid to the anusim.

In 1553, she moved to Constantinople (now Istanbul) in Turkey. Political conditions in the Ottoman Empire at that time were more sympathetic to the Jews, and this encouraged the expansion of the Nasi family’s business enterprises. There were two reasons for this: the family’s wealth, which was used for the benefit of the sultan, and the special relationship that developed between Sultan Suleiman and Dona Gracia. Don Joseph Nasi, who had also returned to Judaism, joined Dona Gracia in Turkey, married her daughter, and successfully managed the family’s banking business. Thanks to him, Dona Gracia was able to turn her attention to charitable enterprises and support for the Jews.

Dona Gracia used her economic and political power to initiate a trade embargo of the Italian port city of Ancona, in response to the execution of 26 conversos at the orders of the Pope. She established yeshivot and a Hebrew printing press in Istanbul. She even received permission from the Turkish sultan to rebuild the ruins of the town of Tiberias and settle Jews there. She and Don Joseph Nasi rebuilt the walls of the town and built houses there, but their plan to settle Jews there failed.

Dona Gracia’s activities for the anusim Jews was welcome and courageous, but it’s easy to understand the circumstances that led to this activity. But, from where did she get the idea of settling Jews in Tiberias? Look at the text about synagogues in Tiberias.

Dona Gracia died in 1569, in Constantinople.

Read more about Dona Gracia's travels and vision about Tiberias.

Expulsion from Spain

In the early Middle Ages a large Jewish community lived in Spain. Under tolerant Moslem rule, the Jews enjoyed economic comfort, almost complete religious freedom, and a flourishing spiritual and cultural life. Many of them acquired a higher education and some were even appointed to senior administrative positions. This period is known as the Golden Age.

Why was the name “Golden Age” chosen to describe this period?


For about 400 years the Christians had fought to take Spain back from the Moslems. These wars were called the Reconquista (Spanish for “reconquest”). Initially the Christian conquests did not have a significant effect on the lives of the Jews, but as Christian rule became more established, the Jews lost their privileged status, and began suffering persecution for their faith. A wave of violence occurred in 1391, and as a result of the riots many Jews left Spain while others converted to Christianity (they were known as conversos).

In 1469, with the marriage of Ferdinand, King of Aragon, and Isabella, the daughter of the king of Castile, the two kingdoms were united, thus creating a united Spain. Ferdinand and Isabella, who were Catholic, worked to strengthen Christianity within their united kingdom. With the approval of the Pope they established an Inquisition – an investigative tribunal. The Inquisition investigated and punished Christians who were suspected of having strayed from the Catholic faith, among them the Jewish and Moslem conversos as well.

The attitude of the authorities toward Jews who had converted was complicated. Although the conversos were once again eligible for government and administrative posts, this aroused the envy of the Christians. The latter argued that the Jews had converted solely to enjoy the advantages reserved for Christians.

Among the converts were also crypto-Jews (anusim), Jews who had converted outwardly, but who in secret kept the commandments and customs of Judaism. In the second half of the 15th century the Inquisition both persecuted the Jews and spied on the Marranos (anusim), to discover if they were observing their former religion in secret. The punishment for such backsliding was to be burnt at the stake.

In 1492, Granada, the last Moslem stronghold in Spain, was conquered. This was a major victory of the Catholic kings. A short time later, and with the encouragement of the head of the Inquisition, Tomas de Torquemada, they published an edict expelling all of the Jews of Spain. The Jews were required to leave the kingdom within three months. Many left their birthplace, while others converted to Christianity. About 200,000 Jews were forced to quickly leave Spain, leaving most of their belongings behind. Their community’s property was confiscated and synagogues were turned into churches.

About half of the exiles went to neighboring Portugal (from which they were expelled in 1497), while the rest were scattered through various countries, principally in the territories of the Ottoman Empire, North Africa, Protestant Europe, but even wandering as far as the American continent.

The Alhambra Decree

The Alhambra Decree (Edict of Expulsion) ordering the expulsion of the Jews of Spain, dated March 31, 1492.

From Wikimedia Commons.

The Spanish Expulsion

The Christian Kingdom of Spain and the Spanish Expulsion, 1492.

The exile communities maintained their traditions, their language – Ladino* – and their particular order of prayers. The Jews of Spain joined existing Jewish communities, or founded new communities, in the countries to which they migrated. The culture of the Spanish Jews influenced the communities that took them in, and contributed to their development. The exiles from Spain used their ties with their brethren scattered around the world for the purpose of international trade, thus enriching the countries in which they now lived.

In the name of strengthening Christianity, Ferdinand and Isabella also persecuted the Moslems. They too were forced to convert or to leave Spain, and among them too there were those who only outwardly converted. At the beginning of the 17th century the Moslems were also expelled from Spain.

The interior of the El Transito Synagogue in Toledo. Photographer: Windwhistler Wikipedia