The books of Zephaniah and Obadiah are found in the collection of 12 Prophets in the Bible. Notably concise – Obadiah is one chapter while Zephaniah is three truncated chapters – they are easily overlooked. Nonetheless, included in them are direct references to the Messianic import of the return of Crypto-Jews, also known as Bnei Anousim, to the Jewish fold.
The Bnei Anousim are descendants of Jews who, despite being forcibly converted to Catholicism in Spain and Portugal in the 14th and 15th centuries, continued to practice Judaism in secret. They were then subjected to persecution and oppression under the Inquisition and the latter’s efforts to snuff out their brave attempts to cling to their Jewish identity.
This historic injustice is now being partially rectified as Spain and Portugal offer citizenship to descendants of Jews who were expelled from Iberia at the end of the 15th century. In Israel, the government and private institutions have introduced initiatives to reach out to the millions of people with Jewish roots.
The resurgence of a Bnei Anousim movement is an unprecedented event in human history in which a nation is reunited and a long lost branch revived. It would be surprising if such a miracle was not mentioned in the Bible, but in fact, it is explicitly described. The last two verses of Obadiah detail this event, explicitly naming Spanish and French Jews who will return to the nation and land of Israel:
“And this exiled host of the children of Israel who are (with) the Canaanites as far as Zarepath (France) and the exile of Jerusalem which is in Sepharad (Spain) shall inherit the cities of the south (Negev). And saviors shall ascend Mt Zion to judge the mountain of Esau, and the Lord shall have the kingdom.”(Obadiah 1:20-21)
Today, French Jews are moving to Israel in record numbers while more and more Spanish Jews are exploring their Jewish roots in unprecedented efforts.
Rabbi Isaac ben Judah Abravenel, known as the Abarbanel, was the leading Torah authority in Spain at the time of the Expulsion in 1492. He was also a wealthy financier and statesman with close ties to the royal court. Born in Portugal, Rabbi Abravenel fled the country as a result of political intrigue against him. When King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella banished the Jews, Rabbi Abravenel unsuccessfully worked to avert the decree, even offering to pay the monarchy, but was banished with the rest of the Jews.
After witnessing the expulsion of the Iberian Jews firsthand, Rabbi Abravenel described their prophetic return in his introduction to the Book of Kings. In his commentary to chapter 20 of Ezekiel, he explained that the prophesied ingathering of the exiles that precedes the messiah will certainly include the Jews who were forced to abandon their faith and convert to Catholicism.
“In the End of Days,” he wrote, “the prophet foresaw that God would awaken in the hearts of the Anusim a desire to return to Him.”
Michael Freund, Chairman of Shavei Israel, the largest organization in the world working with Bnei Anousim, sees this prophecy unfolding every day. His organization helps lost tribes and hidden Jewish communities to return to their roots in Zion, in a process referred to by the prophets (Ezekiel 11:17) as the Ingathering of the Exiles.
“Incredibly, this prophecy is now coming to life before our very eyes,” Freund told Breaking Israel News. “We are at the beginning of an historic turning point, one that will see millions of people throughout the Spanish and Portuguese speaking world reconnecting with their Jewish roots, and I believe it is time for the State of Israel and the Jewish people to reach out to them.”
Freund’s organization sends emissaries around the world to provide thousands of Bnei Anousim with educational and religious resources to find their place in the Jewish Nation. He has recently published a free e-book in Spanish and Portuguese entitled, “Do you have Jewish roots?” with the aim of providing people with a practical guide for rediscovering their ancestry. It has been downloaded more than 30,000 times in the first two months since publication.
“This,” Freund noted, “is a clear sign of the vast potential. After all, God promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that their descendants would be as numerous as the stars of the sky and the sand on the beach (Genesis 22:17), so we must do our utmost to reach out to the lost Jewish souls that are out there and bring them home again.”
Ashley Perry (Peres), the President of the Reconectar organization and Director-General of the Knesset Caucus for the Reconnection with Spanish and Portuguese Jewish Communities, explains that bringing about this Biblical prophecy also requires a pragmatic approach.
“The Jewish People have never let historic circumstances prevent us from achieving the seemingly impossible, and the reestablishment of the State of Israel is the greatest example of this. So too, reconnecting with the part of our people that was violently torn from us centuries ago,” he told Breaking Israel News. “It is not only a moral imperative, it is also, according to many rabbis throughout the ages, from Rashi, Rambam, the writers of the Shulchan Aruch, to Rabbis Soloveichik and Yosef, in our generation, a halachic (Jewish legal) requirement. According to these rabbis, Anousim, who can trace Jewish ancestry and customs, who wish to return to our people and land, should be encouraged to do so.”