There is no doubt that Don Samuel is counted among the illustrious ancestors of Don Isaac Abravanel – illustrious because he was among those Jews who filled important positions in the courts of either Castile or Portugal, but also because, according to Menahem ben Zerah in his work Zedah La Derekh he was “God’s chosen leader of the Jews of Spain and France” (p100)
However, we know from a source completed a century after Menahem’s Zedah (Chronicle of Joseph ben Zaddiq of Arevalo circa 1470)that Don Samuel changed his name to Juan Sanchez de Seville – in other words he converted to Christianity (p100). No reason is given for this shocking revelation in this source but thirty years later Abraham Zacuto in his Sefer Yuhasim (1504) affirms that Don Samuel changed his name during the Shemad – meaning the great persecution of 1391 implying that he adopted Christianity along with thousands of other Jews under the threat of death and was therefore a forced convert (p100). This seems to be the official line of later historians, and was reiterated by Barukh Uzziel Hezqeto who wrote a bibliographical introduction to Don Isaac’s “Wells of Salvation” when it was published in Ferrara in 1551. Hezqeto interviewed surviving members of the Abravanels who were certainly informed about details of Don Samuel’s life but no new information was revealed – on the contrary. With no new information Hezqeto summarized briefly that “because of some persecution Isaac Abravanel’s ancestors were forced to wanderings which ultimately brought them to Portugal” (p101). Later historians speculated but mostly confirmed that Don Samuel lived for a short period as a Christian before returning to Judaism (p102).
This, after all, was not such a great disgrace since even the great Maimonides recommended support for these converts provided they a) secretly adhered to Judaism b) made sincere efforts to leave the land of their persecution. But was this actually true of Don Samuel? Netanyahu, in his chapter “The conversion of Don Samuel Abravanel” from his book “Towards the Inquisition”, affirms that there is evidence which suggests Don Samuel was not forced but was a voluntary convert.
In 1936 when Y. Baer published his second volume of Hispano Jewish documents he quotes from the municipal archives of Seville which mention a Juan Sanchez as Juan I’s tesorero mayor in September 1388. There is no doubt that this is the same Don Samuel, who according to Baer, could not have converted during the Shemad of 1391 as he was already using his “Christian name” in 1388. He was, affirms Baer, therefore a voluntary convert (p102).
The question then becomes a serious and mysterious one. Why would an admired leader of Spanish Jewry abandon his religion and his people at a time when he was under no threat of immediate death? Baer suggested Don Samuel might have anticipated the persecution to come and so converted in time of peace which was more advantageous (p103). However, there is no proof that the events of 1391 could have been foreseen in 1388. Moreover, had this been the case it would have been much easier and much more honorable for him to uphold his tradition, his family name and move to a neighbouring country rather than forsake his people and his faith. Bear’s conclusion therefore must be wrong (p104).
In Netanyahu’s earlier work of 1953 he had described Don Samuel as a crypto-Jew, living under duress as a Christian and seeking an opportunity to escape the land of his persecution. However, later research has brought evidence to the contrary. The Cronica de Juan II de Castilla edited by Perez de Guzman records that among the attendees of the coronation of Juan II was the name of the Contador mayor of the time – Juan Sanchez de Seville. Since the coronation took place in 1419 when Juan Sanchez was 85 years old it can only mean one thing – he never left Spain or made attempts to return to Judaism but died in Castile a convert. He was therefore a real convert and not a forced one!(pp105-106)
Although there are no sources which cite solid reasons for Don Samuel’s decision, Netanyahu speculates that it could only have been a deep and personal crisis which affected him so severely that it destroyed his old attitudes, compelled him to see everything in a different light and which ultimately caused him to totally cut himself off from his past. Netanyahu sets out some events from the stormy period of Castile’s history to try to find the roots of Don Samuel’s crisis. (p108)
The Pichon Affair (pp108-124)
In 1355 Don Enrique, the Count of Trastamara and contender to the throne invaded Toledo and butchered 1200 Jews in an attempt to curry favour with the people and rally support for himself to replace King Pedro of Castile. His plan worked. He became popular with the masses and was crowned King in 1366 while Pedro fled to England for support. Once crowned King, and realizing he needed help from Jewish financiers, he changed his attitude towards the Jews and tried to enlist help from them for his administration. Those Jews who had been loyal to Pedro refused to collaborate with Enrique, so he was forced to turn to others. One of these was Joseph Pichon who offered his services to Enrique and was appointed head of tax collection. The Jews loyal to Pedro were outraged and refused to help Pichon, considering him a traitor. They began plotting his downfall. Thus the united Jewish front began to break down. (pp 108-111)
Eventually Pichon managed to obtain help from other Jews who felt Pedro had gone for good. They began working with Enrique with good results. After a brief upheaval whereby Pedro returned to retake the throne with the help of the English army and Pichon was probably exiled, Pedro died and Pichon was reestablished alongside Enrique.
Once reinstated Pichon became Contador mayor and immediately sought Don Samuel’s help, whose consent (because of his reputation and status) made it easy for other Jews to agree to work with Pichon. Instead of taking revenge on his fellow Jews who had shunned and maligned him, he gave them high offices and elevated them to positions of power. These same Jews, instead of being grateful for their high positions, began plotting Pichon’s downfall once again and managed to make Enrique believe that Pichon was embezzling funds. Pichon was interrogated and imprisoned but not convicted. After a hefty fine he was reinstated.(pp111-112)
Enrique died in 1379 and the plotters feared that Pichon would take revenge for their actions. They devised a plot to kill Pichon by tricking the new King, Juan I, into signing an execution order for an “informer”. Only one month after the coronation of Juan I Pichon was executed by his own people.
The King was outraged when he found out he had been tricked and he sentenced to death the main orchestrators of Pichon’s execution. (pp 112-118)
Abravanel had been one of Pichon’s close aids and must have been shocked at the news of his being executed as an informer. Voicing his outrage at these events he became isolated and labelled as Pichon’s ally. Thus began a bitter, irreconcilable conflict between Don Samuel and Castile’s Jewish leadership.(pp121-122)
In September 1380, disgusted at the behavior of his Jewish courtiers, Juan I issued a series of anti-Jewish regulations denying the right of any Jews to serve in courts of Kings and nobles. Thus when we read Hezqeto’s statement that Don Isaac’s ancestors (i.e. Don Samuel) had become impoverished because of some gezera, and we know it was not the Shemad of 1391 as Don Samuel was already a convert, it must have been the effect of these anti-Jewish laws passed by Juan I. We do not know how this affected Don Samuel financially but certainly a loss of position would have affected him greatly.
With this loss of wealth and surrounded by Jewish hostility Don Samuel would have undergone a deep crisis. We know from Menahem’s work that Don Samuel was not an orthodox Jew – he was devoted to his people more from an ethnic-national rather than religious perspective. However, the events which took place must have led him to the conclusion that his people appeared perverted and evil. Theses reflections ended in his seriously considering conversion. (pp 122-124)
This is Netanyahu’s hypothesis – one which takes into account the historical and political events the time and one which enables him to ascribe to Don Samuel’s conversion a motive related to his unique course of life. He views it as an extraordinary case and his work in “Towards the Inquisition” offers an explanation to what he considers as a most unusual and baffling event.(p125)