The Maccabees: Conversos, Conflict and Poetry

Crosspollination and Strength in Jewish Culture


In the 2173 anniversary of the rededication of the Holy House (Bet Hamikdash)

In memory of all the Maccabees 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. 


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 was 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 (the Inquisition), cloaked under iron-fist-power and holier-than-thou attitudes (Spanish Monarchy and the Church).

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 times, 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 Hanukkáh 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.

Hag Xameag, and may you have a Hanukiá Luminosa



The narrative of Hanukkáh 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:

“[N]arrates 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 [non-canonical Books of the Maccabees] tell 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 Hanukkáh, 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), there 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 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 of the spiritual-political dimensions of Israel contained in the Torah, and perhaps the first recorded historical instance of anusím (heb. forced ones), the Hebrew resistance response against assimilation.

As it concerns to our author Miguel de Silveira, he was considered a Marrano[4]in Spain, a term probably popularized in the mid-15th century by anti-Jewish anti-Semites and applied to those Jews who were forcibly converted to Christianity since 1391 and their descendants. The Rabbis call any forcibly converted Jew an “anús” in Jewish legal terminology, and the Catholic religious authorities called them conversos or cristianos nuevos. These were the ones who resisted the imposition of Christianity as a foreign service on Israel in modern times. The Jews of the Iberian Peninsula, as modern scholarship is discovering, were victims of a centuries-long drawn-out process of monastic conversion policies,[5] and the displacement of the Andalusian-Babylonian Jewish tradition for new mystic categories similar to Christianity coming from Ashkenaz,[6] both beginning in the late 12th century.

The forces at hand that led Spanish Jews to mass conversion in the 14th and 15th centuries were both External (stemming from the reconquista’s Spanish Christian-Nationalist ideologies), and Internal (stemming from innovative forms of Jewish interpretation made through esoteric-Kabbalah, which blurred the distinctions with Christianity; thus displacing the halakhah (Jewish law) as the mental modus operandi of the Sepharadím).[7] 

Both trends represented an attack on Rabbinic and Andalusian-post-Rabbinic traditions. It is in the very precise sense of Law where Silveira connects the history of the Maccabees with the situation lived by conversos. Converso authors created through the Spanish Inquisition period a literature that portrayed these tensions of either conformity or rebellion to and against the forcibly imposed system, in their 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 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 Sephardic 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 in Celorico de la Beira (Portugal), nearly 100 years after the 1492 Expulsion of Jews from Spain, in the midst of political and economic change, and where a good 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 vested 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 apparently 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, 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, their language of choice for writing and publishing was Spanish.  Keeping up with the latest cultural and scientific trends, returning conversos were instrumental for the transmission of Western European intellectual works into the Ottoman Empire and among rabbinic circles. Like former-converso Aharón Afiyáh – who happened to be the teacher of philosophy and science to the celebrated Salonika rabbi, Moisés Almosnino[14] –, 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 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 literati and the most revered poet of the Baroque age, 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 melissá, whereby “in Jewish tradition, ‘literature’ and ‘meaning’ are indistinguishable’: melissá 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 one 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.  Although this would be difficult to believe in our days, 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 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 ibn Nagrella 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 favor

los meritos de Isaac, Abraham y Sara . . .[20] / 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.

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 try to unfold 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 Sion,

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 the 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.

Escorpio, 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 splendour

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 Maccabees, 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

(Re-edited 12/26/2022 for Blog re-post)

[1] Glatzer, Nahum N.; The Judaic Tradition Boston: Beacon Press, 1969; p. 43-44. My addition in brackets, see author below.

[2] More on this subject see Shaye J.D. Cohen’s From the Maccabees to the Mishnah; Westminster Press (Philadelphia, 1987); pgs. 34-46.

[3] 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.

[4] 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 are more plausible explanations.

[5] 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.

[6] 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).

[7] 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).

[8] Saenz-Badillos, Angel & Targarona Borras, Judit; Poetas hebreos del al-Andalus (s. X-XII); Ediciones Almendro (Córdoba, 1990); pgs. 14-15.

[9] Artigas, María del Carmen; Antología sefaradí: 1492-1700; Editorial Verbum (Madrid, 1997); p. 124.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Viaje del Parnaso. Verse appears in Caro Baroja’s Inquisición, criptojudaísmo, p. 124.

[12] Ibid. 129.

[13] Antología sefaradí, p. 126.

[14] 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.

[15] Antología sefaradí, p. 126.

[16] As quoted in Elias L. Rivers’ Góngora y el Nuevo Mundo; HISPANIA, Vol. 75, No. 4; p. 859. My emphasis and translation.

[17] 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 regard to the Active / Passive agents of po’el and pa’ul; De la Divina Providencia, p. 22-23.

[18] See José Faur’s In the Shadow of History; State University of New York Press (1992); p. 180.

[19] Vayyaiqra Rabba, ed. M. Margulies, XXVII, 5, vol. 3, p. 631.

[20] ‘Eloah ‘oz, as translated from the original Hebrew. Appears in Poetas hebreos del al-Andalus (s. X-XII); p. 84.

[21] A otro conde don Julián; POESIAS; Oceano (México, 1998); p. 288.


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