Columbus’ Jewish Connection

On October 12th every year, the Americans celebrate Columbus Day, honoring the discoverer of what he thought to be the Indies.
Cristoforo Colombo was an Italian, born in the city of Genoa. It is thought that his maternal grandfather had been a Jew, originally from Spain, but that is merely speculation. He himself preferred to be known by his Spanish name, Cristobal Colon and was a practicing member of the Catholic church.

In Spain he was well acquainted with many “conversos” or crypto-Christians, Jews who had been converted to Christianity while secretly practicing Judaism. The Spaniards called them “marranos”, a derogatory term meaning pigs.

Columbus had a dream to sail east to the Indies to find great wealth. He influenced the rulers of Catholic Spain, King Ferdinando and Queen Isabella, to permit him to sail and asked them for the finances for the voyage. In all, he made four voyages.

On August 3, 1492, exactly one day after the publication of the Edict of Expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Columbus set sail with three ships, the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria. Sailing with him were six “converso” Jews: Luis de Torres, his translator and interpreter, Maestro Bernal, a physician, 2 surgeons, Marco and Rodrigo Sanchez, Alfonso de la Calle, sailor and navigator, and Rodrigo de Triana, the sailor who was the first to sight land on October 12, 1492.

The maps and routes of the sailings were prepared by Abraham Zacuto, a professor of astronomy at the University of Salamanaca and the only Jew among Columbus’ friends who did not convert to Christianity.

Joseph Vecinho, a Jewish physician to King John II of Portugal, used his influence to obtain large sums of money to finance Columbus’ explorations. The two Jews who contributed the largest sums were Luis de Santangel and Gabriel Sanchez.

While it is doubtful that Christopher Columbus was himself a Jew, it is historical fact that he read from the Hebrew Bible and was well acquainted with the lives of Moses and King David.

In his diary, he frequently made mention of the ancient Hebrews. Two small marks appear at the top of each page, similar to the Hebrew custom of writing B’H.

American Jews owe a debt of gratitude, not alone for the discovery of America (Central America only), but for the festive meal which they enjoy every November.

Columbus’ interpreter, Luis de Torres, was fluent in Hebrew and Arabic. When he landed on what is today Haiti and the Dominican Republic he spotted a large bird which he called a “tuki”. On American Thanksgiving Day, that bird, the turkey, is the central guest of honor on American tables.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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