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El Macabeo


I wrote this essay a couple years ago, inspired by one of the most shinning poets of the Baroque
Age, the Portuguese-born and converso Miguel de Silveira. His magnus opus, El Macabeo (1638), was
published shortly before his death (he died in Italy, fleeing the Inquisition), and it kept being reprinted
until the first part of the 19th century. Admired by Jews and Christians alike, his long poem on the
Maccabees was truly inspirational in an Age of utter intolerance and corruption during the Spanish
Inquisition, cloaked under iron-fist-power and holier-than-thou attitudes.

A personal friend of Cervantes (author of the Quixote), and a leading protagonist of the Golden
Age of Hispanic letters, Silveira summarized the entire Zionist enterprise of the Maccabees on one
imposing axis, the Law (the Torah).

Although it took him more than 20 years to write this amazing piece of literature, during his stay
in Catholic Spain and Portugal, and far from any center of Judaism, it is incredible to read how keen was
his understanding on the centrality of Judaism.

Sometimes it is interesting how certain situational circumstances and events may repeat through
history. In our age when certain powerful national potentates have taken to task for engaging in criminal
behavior, assisted sometimes by the very people who claim to be lawful, the history of Hanuka is a
prime example of maintaining prerogatives that not only protects the sovereignty of a nation, but also
the independent political dignity of a people.

El Macabeo, yet to be published by any contemporary printer, is an amazing example of the

human resolve for justice according to the rule of law. In this respect, any human being who protects the
concept of rule of law also becomes a Maccabee on his or her own right.

May you have a Hanukia Luminosa

December 22, 2003

The Maccabees: Anusim, Conflict and Poetry
Crosspolinization and Strength in Jewish Culture II


In the 2173 anniversary of the rededication of the Holy House (Bet Hamikdash)
In memory of all the Macabees of history

Si tu braço robusto, acción procura / If your strong arm tries to

Justificar, por medios desta llama, / justify, through the use of this flame,
que en la forma aparente, en la luz pura, / that apparently, in pure light,
de tu Justicia símbolos derrama. / overflows with symbols of your Justice
en hombros de mi Fe, tendrá segura / on the shoulders of my Faith, it will have for sure
observancia la Ley, que el celo inflama, / the observance of Law, by heaven kindled,
si al coraçón, que en ella vivifícas, / to the heart, with it enlivened,
de tus montes eternos fortificas. / and strengthened from your perennial mounts.

— Miguel de Silveira (1580?-1638), El Macabeo

The narrative of Hanukah as told today to Jewish children hides behind a fanciful story a crude
history of the Jewish people. As summarized by Nahum N. Glatzer, the First Book of the Maccabees
“narrates the historical events during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes of Syria, who in the year 168
b.c.e. tried to impose Hellenist customs in his realm [with the assistance of Hellenist Jewish High
Priest]. He abolished Mosaic Law and decreed that Jerusalem’s Temple should be used to celebrate
religious Greek festivities.

The Hebrews who were living in Judea at that time wanted to free themselves from this foreign
tyranny, and they tried for Judea to have political independence . . . The biblical texts tells of the
uprising of the priest Matathias of Modín and his five children, the battles that they fought and
the highlights of the most heroic one, Judah the Maccabee, known as The Hammer . . . This book
tells the new dedication of the Temple, which is commemorated with the festival of Hanukah, or
‘The Festival of Dedication.’ This also relates the battles undertaken by the brothers Judah,
Jonathan and Shimon. This last one is able to get the independence of Judea in the year 140, the
establishment of the ruling family, and a peace treatise with Sparta and Rome.”1

As the Maccabee rebellion is concerned, the main feature to be noticed here is the forced
abandonment of the Law, the Torah. While the Maccabees were obvious Hellenizers, that is participants
of Greek culture and politics (not spiritual customs), they were not Hellenist, that is full subjects of
Greek culture, politics and spiritual customs.2

After the return of Jews from Babylonia (530’s b.c.e.), the Jews lived without much friction or
problems under the rule of the Persians, and later the Macedonian Ptolomies of Egypt. The rebellion
began after their rulers forced them to violate Jewish Law, and fully adapt to Hellenization. The forced

Glatzer, Nahum N.; The Judaic Tradition Boston: Beacon Press, 1969; p. 43-44. My addition in brackets, see author below.
More on this subject see Shaye J.D. Cohen’s From the Macabees to the Mishnah; Westminster Press (Philadelphia, 1987);
pgs. 34-46.

abandonment of the Torah, which is the Constitution of Israel,3 has a political dimension and it
constitutes aboda’ zara (the following of a foreign cult). This means anything not stipulated by the
Torah. The Maccabees response is against aboda’ zara, that is against the displacement (banishment) of
the spiritual-political dimensions of Israel contained in the Torah, and perhaps the first recorded
historical instance of Anusim, that is in Rabbinical-legal terminology: Jews forced to live as non-Jews
while behaving as Jews in secret, the Hebrew resistance response against assimilation.

Their equivalent in the Modern Age were the so-called “Marranos,”4 a term probably
popularized in mid 15th century Spain by Anti-Jewish Anti-Semites. The Jews of the Iberian peninsula –
Spain particularly –, as modern scholarship is discovering, were victims of a long drawn out process of
monastic conversion policies,5 and the displacement of Jewish tradition for new mystic categories
similar to Christianity,6 both beginning in the late 12th century. In historical literature, these Jewish
converts-by-force are also known as “Conversos.”

The forces at hand that led Spanish Jews to mass conversion in the 14th and 15th centuries were
both External (stemming from Spanish Christian-Nationalist ideologies), and Internal (stemming from
innovative forms of Jewish interpretation made through Kabbalah, which blurred the distinctions with
Christianity; and displaced Jewish law as the modus operandi of the Jewish people).7

Both trends represented an attack on rabbinic and post-Talmudic tradition. It is in the precise
sense of Law where the history of the Macabees and Spanish conversos meet. From this world the New
Maccabees, the conversos, were to emerge and create – as in the ancient Hebrew narratives – a literature
that portrayed these tensions of either conformity or rebellion to and against the forcibly imposed
system, in this case: Christianity.

FROM moaxahas AND melissa TO conceptismo: Tracing Miguel de Silveira

Poetry has always been an intimate part of Jewish expression since biblical times. However, this
expression has never been closed from borrowing forms from different cultures, and in the way creating
new ones. Thus we see in al-Andalus (Southern Spain under Muslim rule) the birth to the moaxahas,
line-versed love poems (romances) that begin with the use of folk (vernacular) language, in this case
More on this subject see José Faur’s El Pensamiento Sefardí frente a la Ilustración Europea; apperars in PENSAMIENTO Y
MISTICA HISPANOJUDIA Y SEFARDI; Ediciones de la Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha (Cuenca, 2001); pgs. 323-337.
Also Elie Benamozegh, Morale Juive et Morale Chretienne (Paris: Michel Lévy Frères, 1867), p. 334.
The origins of the word marrano are unclear. Some historians give it a Greek connection to Maranatha (banished), which is
a corruption from the chaledean Anathema (banished / cursed). See Zimmel’s Die Marranen in Der Rabinischen Literature
(Berlin, 1932); op. cit. p. 2; however, according to Castilian etymology, marrano is a piglet recently born. Linguist give it
two possible origins, the Hispanoarabic muharram, and the German-Visigothic mahrran, both of which – in my opinion – are
more plausible explanations.
Under the auspices of pope Innocent IV, the Franciscans and Dominican Orders were allowed to preach in synagogues in
1242, something previously forbidden by Visigothic Laws in Christian Spain. The conditions that led to this shift began after
the Spanish Christian Kingdoms replaced the older Syriac-Mozarabic rite with the newer Latin rite of Rome in the late 11th c.
For a comparative study of Kabbalah and Christian doctrines, see “A Crisis of Categories: Kabbalah and the Rise of
Apostasy in Spain,” in ed. Moshe Lazar et al (Lancaster, California: Labyrinthos, 1997); and also Faur’s In the Shadow of
History, State University of New York Press (1992).
It is well documented that all the Spanish Jewish apostates had been trained in Northern Spanish yeshivot, Jewish learning
centers with close ties to French mystical trends. Many of the Jewish apostates who helped the monastic orders in the
conversion of Jews were indeed former Jewish scholars in their own right. Also compare Sáenz-Badillos / Targarona’s
Diccionario de autores judíos (Sefarad Siglos X-XV); El Almendro (Córdoba, 1988).

Arabic. After 958, the Andalusian Jew Dunash ibn Labrat decides to adapt Hebrew poetry to the
quantitative metric system used by the Arabs. It is from these techniques that the most important
Sepharadi liturgical and secular poetry was to be born,8 and would provide the most enduring synagogal
prayer traditions to our days. Likewise, the castellano (the folk Latin spoken in Castile) verse would go
through a similar transformation.

The converso Miguel de Silveira was born nearly 100 years after the Expulsion of Jews from Spain, in
the midst of political and economic change, in Celorico de la Beira (Portugal), where a number of
Jewish-conversos had established residence. He belonged to the prestigious family of the scholar
Thomas Piñedo. His schooling took place in the universities of Coimbra and Salamanca, studies that
would lead him to become the Royal Mathematician of Castile and hold the title of Court Physician.9

In 1612, Miguel became invested with the monastic votes of the Hermandad de Esclavos del Santísimo
Sacramento, Catholic brotherhood where poets like Cervantes, Sala Barbadillo, Lope de Vega and
Quevedo were also members.10 Both Cervantes and Lope admired Silveira, although neither seemed to
have suspected that Miguel was a New Christian. Cervantes considered him to a be a gallego, a native
from Galicia:

Este, por quien de Lugo están ufanas / This, for whom the Muses
las Musas, es Silveira, aquel famoso, / of Lugo are proud, is Silveira, the
que por llevarle con razón te afanas.11 / famous one with whom one works hard
with reason to understand.

Miguel de Silveira was a converso who moved comfortably in the Catholic environment of Spain.
Nonetheless, despite the work the Count Duke of Olivares made to improve the social acceptance of
conversos, the Inquisition took advantage of targeting prominent figures to inject fear into the converso
population.12 After he was interrogated in 1634 in relation to the case of his friend Bartolomé Febos,
who was accused as a judaizante (i.e. being a practicing Jew), Silveira probably feared to be targeted
and fled Spain. He reappeared in Naples, where he published his work El Macabeo in 1638.13

As it was the case with many conversos of prominence, the language of choice for writing was Spanish.
Keeping up with the latest cultural and scientific trends, the conversos returning to Judaism were
instrumental for the transmission of Western European intellectual works into the Ottoman Empire and
among rabbinic circles. Like former-converso Aharon Afiyah – who happened to be the teacher of
philosophy and science to the celebrated Salonika rabbi, Moisés Almosnino14 --, the literature produced
by Silveira had great reception not only among Christian circles, but also Jewish ones. El Macabeo was
reprinted in Madrid (1731), and translated into Italian in Naples (1810); this was a work regarded by his

Saenz-Badillos, Angel & Targarona Borras, Judit; Poetas hebreos del al-Andalus (s. X-XII); Ediciones Almendro (Córdoba,
1990); pgs. 14-15.
Artigas, María del Carmen; Antología sefaradí: 1492-1700; Editorial Verbum (Madrid, 1997); p. 124.
Viaje del Parnaso. Verse appears in Caro Baroja’s Inquisición, criptojudaísmo, p. 124.
Ibid. 129.
Antología sefaradí, p. 126.
Tirosh Samuelson, Hava; The Ultimate End of Human Life, as it appears in CRISIS AND CREATIVITY IN THE
SEPHARDIC WORLD, 1391-1648; Columbia University Press (New York, 1997); p. 230.

contemporaries to be very close in talent and breath to Virgil’s Aenid (1st c. b.c.e) and to Homer’s
Odyssey (9th c. b.c.e.)15

The historical Macabee was a favorite pride figure of Spanish and Portuguese conversos. According to
María del Carmen Artigas, in El Macabeo “the good reader can understand all the metaphors and figures
of diction . . . that could refer to the monarchy that the ‘New Macabees’ had to confront in the Golden
Spanish Century.” Indeed, this time period of arts and literature, known today as the Baroque, developed
a form of expression called conceptismo, a perfect tool to disguise converso sentiments against their
oppressors (Church and State).

Conceptismo is displayed through a game of concepts and ideas, according to a rational logic, that
utilizes a first-rate rhetoric. It uses extreme comparisons, metaphors and literary imagery, all driving into
a dense conceptual stage that only very sophisticated minds can unlock its diverse meanings. Referring
to his Soledades, the illustrious Luis de Góngora, another famous converso and the most revered poet of
the Baroque, would describe his poetry in the following:

. . . you must work (that this grows with any act of courage), so to reach what you could not in
the superficial reading of its verses; then I must confess that it is useful to enliven the ingenio
[wit], because from this was born the intrinsic complexity [obscuridad] of the poet. You shall
find the same, Vuestra merced, in my Soledades, if you have the ability to peel the shell
[corteza] and discover the mysteries that this covers.16

One must note that the expression “Peel(ing) the shell” is of rabbinic origin.17 Furthermore, Silveira’s
conceptismo can also find its roots in the Andalusian Jewish literary tradition of melissa, whereby “in
Jewish tradition, ‘literature’ and ‘meaning’ are indistinguishable’: melissa includes both “meaning and
the articulation of ‘meaning’ . . . (this) not merely reports historical events, but transforms them into
literary entities.”18

In all this, there is a major observation we must make in reference to Silveira’s treatment of the subject
within Jewish literary tradition. Silveira’s El Macabeo falls into the category of heroic poetry, that is
the literary line that follows the heightened narratives of conquest and loot. Unlike pagan literary
traditions, Jewish narratives do not contain a taste for the use of mighty emotions of pride and valor
through War. Contrary to the latter, Jewish thinking takes the view of the oppressed. As taught by
Rabbi Hunna (4th c.) in the name of Rabbi Joseph (d. 333):

Invariably God seeks the persecuted. There may be a righteous person persecuting another
righteous person – “and God would seek the persecuted.” A wicked person persecuting a wicked
person – “and God would seek the persecuted.” And it goes without saying that a wicked person

Antología sefaradí, p. 126.
As quoted in Elias L. Rivers’ Góngora y el Nuevo Mundo; HISPANIA, Vol. 75, No. 4; p. 859. My emphasis and
In Hagiga 15b one reads, “he found a walnut (egoz), he ate the inside, and he threw away the shell.” Also see David
Nieto’s comment regarding the word ‘cover’ in regards to the Active / Passive agents of po’el and pa’ul; De la Divina
Providencia, p. 22-23.
See José Faur’s In the Shadow of History; State University of New York Press (1992); p. 180.

persecuting a righteous person – “and God would seek the persecuted.” Even when a righteous
person persecutes a wicked person – “and God will seek the persecuted.”19

In Muslim Spain, Jewish poets did not cultivate War in their creations. Of the most illustrious writers of
Sepharad, Shemuel ibn Nagrella ha-Nagid (993-1056) was perhaps one of the very few Jews who
ventured into this subject; amidst all the destruction the poet prefers to invoke victory in the name of his
forefathers rather than on his own merits:

(70) Los enemigos vertían sangre como agua / The enemies poured blood as it was water
aquel día angustioso, yo vertía mi plegaria / on that day of anguish, I poured my prayer
al Dios que a los inicuos abaja y arroja / to God who brings down the wicked
a la fosa que ellos excavaron, / and throws them into the pit by themselves excavated
y que, en la batalla, la espada y las flechas devuelve / and to whom, in battle, the sword and spears
al corazón del enemigo, que las prepara y lanza. / to the enemy’s heart, who prepares and shoots them.
Yo no decía: “Dame, Señor, la victoria, / I did not say: “Give me victory, Lord,
porque mi conducta sea recta, / because my conduct is righteous,
ni porque mi enzeñanza pueda concebir y dar a luz . . . / and not even because my learning can conceive
and give birth
(82) No te acuerdes de mis delitos, recuerda en favor mío / Don’t remember my crimes, remember in my
los meritos de Isaac, Abraham y Sara . . . / the merits of Isaac, Abraham and Sarah . . .

The Hebrew poet expresses a subtle humbleness in the middle of failure. Nagrella trusts to God the
victory before counting on the merits of his own. This heroic poetry does not place importance in the
size and abilities of armies, nor in weapons or strategies. War is viewed from the point of the oppressed,
as he’s being invaded and defeated. A similar feeling would be taken in El Macabeo, and ten centuries
after Nagrella, Andalusian literati Antonio Machado would write:

Hijo tuyo es tambien, Dios de bondades. / It is your son, God of kindness.

Cúrale con amargas soledades. / Cure him with bitter solitudes.
Haz que su infamia su castigo sea. / Make his infamy his punishment.

Que trepe a un alto pino en la alta cima, / May he climb a Pine tree in mountain crest,
Y, en él ahorcado, que su crimen vea, / And there, hanged from his neck, may he see his crime
Y el horror de su crimen lo redima.21 / And may the horror of his crime redeem him.

The author asks God to make the enemy see the pain of the persecuted (y las flechas devuelve al corazón
del enemigo / and return the spears to the heart of the enemy). It is under this light of heroic poetry that
one will show the genius of Silveira.

Vayyaiqra Rabba, ed. M. Margulies, XXVII, 5, vol. 3, p. 631.
‘Eloah ‘oz, as translated from the original Hebrew. Appears in Poetas hebreos del al-Andalus (s. X-XII); p. 84.
A otro conde don Julián; POESIAS; Oceano (México, 1998); p. 288.

La lumbre Macabea: Light and Law in Hebrew discourse

El Macabeo is divided in 20 books, the shortest one containing 74 verses, and the biggest 123. In the
Prologue, Silveira explains that it took him nearly 22 years to complete this work, which in no way he
claims to be superior to the original text. It is a long epic, of which I will only transcribe few verses from
the beginning and the end. The language is extremely heavy for the modern reader, so I will limit
myself to unmask some of its content.

In the seventh verse, the author laments the sudden loss of the Temple. Silveira demands of his reader
to look beyond the darkness that has fallen, and see in it the terror that this represents:

Con rayos de su vista penetrante, / With rays of his penetrating sight,
que las tinieblas rompen del abismo, / breaking all abyss darkness,
todo lo mira. Todo en breve instante / he is all-seeing. All in a sudden instant
retratando en ideas de si mismo / portraying in his own ideas
a su ciudad atiende militante, / cares militantly for his city,
sumergido en cofuso barbarismo / already submerged in gentilic
de la gentilidad. El Templo sacro, / barbarism. The sacred Temple
trasladado en mentido simulacro. / transferred into false scheme.

The new imposed custom is a lie, a lie to the people of Israel. This lie has led the people into a barbaric
state. Then in the ninth verse, the Macabee who has not abandoned the Law, proceeds to liberate his
people from this oppression:

Mira del Macabeo el santo celo, / The Macabee looks with his holy zeal,
que fomenta la Ley con fuego escrita. / encouraged by fire-written Law.
La piedad de librar el patrio suelo, / The piety to free the fatherland,
del yugo que la Parca necesita. / from the yoke that the Meager needs.

The Law is the source for strength in order to liberate the land of Israel from foreign rule. There is an
innate pain too that comes with the yoke of a foreign ruler, in the following verse the poet refers to Israel
as the People of Jeremiah, making an allusion to pain and tears:

Revolviendo estas formas en su mente / Mixing these forms in his mind
(Sagrado Archivo) el venerado Onías / (Sacred Archive) the venerated Onias
en su divina esencia ve presente / in his divine essence sees present
al celador del pueblo de Geremías. / the jealous keeper of the people of Jeremiah.

Memory (Sagrado Archivo / Sacred Archive) is indispensable to make the Divine essence manifested.
Then the poet identifies this memory as the sword to use in battle:

“Esta espada,” les dice, “al Macabeo / “This sword,” he says, “to the Macabee

daréis, cuya virtud, vidas reparte. / you shall give, whose virtue shares life.
Y electo por caudillo al culto hebreo, / And elected as fighter the learned Hebrew
oprima la cerviz del Sirio Marte. / may he force down the Syrian Mars.

It is worth noting that Marte (Mars) – the god of War – is invoked as an enemy, and not an ally in the
battle. The sword alluded in this verse has a connection to virtue and cultivated learning in the Hebrew.
In the midst of battle, the sword spreads light left to right, moving forward and illuminating Zion:

Sucinto de fulgores celestials, / Brief of celestial lights,
que vierte el día en porticos dorados, / poured by day on golden doors,
ya de Sión besando los umbrales, / kissing the threshold of Zion,
dan a Modín caracteres sagrados. / give to Modín sacred characters.
Brotan del alma fuentes de cristales, / The soul springs crystal fountains
en celadoras llamas abrasados, / in jealous flames embraced
por hebras, derramando los licores, / with threads, distilled liquids flowing
que de la nieve afrenta los candores. / that the snow confronts in truth.

The soul becomes activated through the Light, and moves forward. The mind, the generator of reason,
meets the soul to play with the most intimate secrets, all leading to discovery:

“Es en quien la Divina Omnipotencia, / “It is the Divine Omnipotence,
al alma infunde espíritu divino, / the soul founded in divine spirit,
pondera en simulacro de conceptos, / thinks in strategy of concepts
de su mente los íntimos secretos.” / in his mind the intimate secrets.”

The Divine presence is present in the soul and the mind, awakening all the senses. Next, a call to
activate the rest of the people is felt:

Levántese la gente, suspendida, / Rise up people, suspended,
en la neutralidad, de su cabaña: / in the neutrality of his cabin:
Tal, absorto el varón, deja el sosiego. / Such, the stunned gentleman leaves the comfort.
Admira la visión, abraça el fuego. / He admires this clarity, embraces the fire.

This is perhaps a moving remark of freedom call for conversos, Israelites suspended in oblivion. Then,
Silveira seems to make an allusion to the Inquisition:

Los miedos de nocturnas confusiones, / The fears of nightly confusions
debilita el fulgor del áureo velo. / weakens the brightness of rising veil.
Y en humerosa luz en escuadrones, / And in smoking light the squadrons
en las alas del polo alienta el vuelo. / in the wings of polo encourages the flight.

There is confusion brought by ignorance / darkness, which debilitates the will of Light. However at the
end of all, Light (Torah) triumphs, and opens all the fountains of plenty:

Tendió la noche el manto a los mortales, / The night spread the mantle to mortals,
rompiólo el sol de su nativa cumbre. / and broken by the sun from his own abode.
Por zonas de estrellados animales / Through areas of broken animals
abrió las Fuentes de su eternal lumbre, / he opened the Fountains of his eternal light,
de dos naturalezas desiguales / made of two unequal natures
anima la terrestre pesadumbre / and enlivened the saddened ground
Chirón, flechando de sus luces bellas, / Chiron, sending lightening arrows,
al corazón de Escorpio las centellas. / to the heart of Scorpio.

Scorpio, the venomous crawling critter, is dead. The Temple is restored to its former glory. Here
Temple and soul have a deep correlation in Hebrew meanings.

Así del Templo los gloriosos faustos / In this manner the Temple glorious splendor
restaura el Soberano Macabeo. / is restored by the Independent Macabee.
Formando a sus piadosos holocaustos / Forming again the pious holocaust
aras el coraçón llama el deseo. / heart altars called by desire.
Ya dedica a los mares nunca exhaustos / The human ship dedicates
la nave humana el ínclito trofeo, / to the never-ending seas the Illustrious trophy
dando festivo aplauso a sus altares / giving festive applause to its altars
curso del Evo en círculos solares. / Course of Eternity in Solar Circles.

The last four lines of this stanza seem cryptic. The “human ship” gives a trophy to the “never-ending
seas.” Would this be a reference to not only the Temple restitution, but furthermore the “seas” of the
Torah? The human ship navigates through the seas, and applauds the “altars” (the height of learning?)
that one finds in the course or perfect solar circles.

It seems that Silveira, more than exposing in poetic style the book of the Macabees, extracts the essence
of the whole enterprise against foreign rule; he does not only poetically narrate a fight against the
banishment of Israel’s spiritual-political duality, but also seems to bring forth the central aspect of
knowledge as a source of Freedom.

In the age that Silveira lived, this notion meant a lot.


David Ramírez