On August 2, 1492, a young sailor named Christopher Columbus departed Spain. As his ships sailed out of Seville’s harbor, he noted something curious: thousands of men, women and children were desperately cramming into boats and ships.

That day was the final deadline for all Jews to leave the Spanish kingdom. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had recently conquered all of Spain and sought to make their new kingdom an entirely Christian nation. No Jews could remain. In desperation, thousands fled, taking only those possessions they could carry. Within days, the Jewish community of Spain, which had flourished for hundreds of years, was no more. Synagogues were shuttered. Jewish schools were closed. The abandoned houses of the fleeing Jews were taken over by their non-Jewish neighbors.

In the weeks and months that followed the expulsion of Jews from Spain, Jewish life seemed completely dead. Not all of Spain’s Jews had fled when the fateful edict was pronounced. It was possible to remain in Spain but the conditions for doing so were dire: any Jew who hoped to remain in his home had to publicly embrace Christianity and renounce all Jewish observance.

Many Jews lived ostensibly Christian lives in public, but held on to Jewish observance in secret. On Friday nights, these secret Jews would shutter their windows so neighbors wouldn’t see them light their Shabbos candles. Jewish housewives would bake their weekly challah loaves in hiding; their husbands would whisper the words of the Shabbos Kiddush.

These clandestine Jews knew their very lives were at stake, should a neighbor overhear their murmured Hebrew prayers, or a passer-by spy them enjoying a holiday meal. The Spanish Inquisition had begun years before, when a secret Passover Seder was reported taking place among secret Jews: any Jew suspected of clinging to his or her religion would be tortured into confessing, then burned at the stake. Thousands of Spanish Jews had already died in public executions this way. Public burnings of Jews became so frequent they even had a name, auto de fe, and attending these frequent spectacles became a popular national pastime.

Even though they had ostensibly embraced Christianity, the secret Jews of Spain were never trusted; neighbors and priests realized they continued to practice Judaism, and were always alert to any display of Jewish ritual. Spaniards called these Jews “marranos,” a disparaging term that means “pigs,” and many eagerly looked for any sign of Jewish practice could see them turned over to the Inquisition.

The Conductor in Barcelona

Yet in the city of Barcelona, a large group of secret Jews clung to their ancient traditions. It’s impossible for us to know today exactly how many of Barcelona’s Jews continued following their religion, but we do know from the following story, passed down from generation to generation, that it was a sizeable number.

Even though it meant he could be arrested at any moment, Don Aguilar continued to live as a Jew.

Don Fernando Aguilar was a prominent Barcelona Jew. Conductor of the prestigious Royal Orchestra in that city, he was a man of distinction and enjoyed great wealth and prestige. When the edict banishing him and his coreligionists from Spain came, Don Aguilar decided to remain. He publicly embraced Christianity, but at the same time made a daring decision: in private, Don Aguilar, like so many Spanish Jews, would never renounce his faith. Even though it meant he could be arrested at any moment, Don Aguilar continued to live as a Jew.

When he came home each night, he kissed a mezuzah that he kept hidden in his floorboards. He was careful to eat only kosher food and observe the Jewish holidays. As the years went by, it became harder and harder to keep up his Jewish practice, but Don Aguilar – like the rest of Barcelona’s Jews – did as much as he could. There was no synagogue in his city any more, but groups of Jews would meet in private, under pain of death, to whisper prayers. There were no Jewish schools in Spain any longer, but families did their best to give their children a Jewish education. Year after grinding year, the secret Jewish community continued, holding on to as many of the mitzvot as possible.

Some rituals, however, were nearly impossible to observe. One was listening to the Shofar. Each Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the secret Jews of Barcelona and elsewhere would gather to pray. On Rosh Hashanah they would eat a furtive festive meal together. On Yom Kippur, they would go about their business in public, never letting on that they were fasting. But blowing a Shofar out loud, let alone for the 100 blasts prescribed for each day of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, was impossible. Doing so would lead to immediate arrest, torture, and death.

The Shofar Symphony

Five long years after the expulsion of Spain’s Jews, five years of practicing their religion in secret, of living a double life, Don Aguilar saw an opportunity. In 1497, he made a public announcement: on Sunday, the 5th of September, he would personally lead the Royal Orchestra of Barcelona in a brand-new concert of his own composition. The piece he’d written was unlike anything ever heard in Spain before. It was, he declared, to be a celebration of native peoples and their cultures. Every instrument ever invented around the world, no matter how far away, would be represented.

On the eve of the concert, the orchestra hall was filled. Some in the audience noticed that Don Aguilar was not wearing the gold cross he usually sported, but there was so much excitement about his unusual orchestral work, nobody paid much attention to this difference in his dress. Many of those in attendance were “marranos” but the fact that so many of these people came to the concert apparently didn’t arouse anyone’s suspicions. As the curtains parted, the concert began as planned.

Don Aguilar’s music was interesting. True to his word, the audience heard from a wide range of instruments. There were bells and horns, stringed instruments and an array of different drums. Then, in the middle of the concert, a musician with the orchestra who was rumored by many to be a secret Jew took the stage. He was holding an unusual instrument: a ram’s horn.

Don Aguilar’s “music” gave the secret Jews a chance to hear fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the Shofar.

The musician put it to his lips, and began to blow. Tekiah, shevarim, teruah. Each note of the Rosh Hashanah Shofar service rang out throughout the hall, one hundred notes in all. Most of the audience appreciated it as a virtuoso performance of an unfamiliar instrument. But to the secret Jews in the audience, Don Aguilar’s “music” gave them their first chance in years to hear fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the Shofar.

Sept. 5, 1497 was the first of Tishrei, 5258 – the night of Rosh Hashanah.

Little is known of Don Aguilar. Some say he was arrested soon after the concert and executed in secret, so that news of his exploits would not become public. Others maintain he lived to an old age, continuing to live a Jewish life.

All that is known is his amazing actions on Rosh Hashanah, over 500 years ago, when for one evening he allowed an entire secret Jewish community to fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the Shofar.

Primary source: Rabbi Eliyahu Ki-Tov, The Book of Our Heritage, and Rabbi Stewart Weiss’ article in the Jerusalem Post. Note: no written documentation of this event exists; the name of Don Fernando Aguilar and the legend of his actions in September 1497 have been passed down through the centuries verbally. While it is impossible for us to verify the details of these events, generations of Jews have maintained that this amazing Rosh Hashanah “concert” took place.