SUKKOT: A Sukka in a Mexican Inquisition Jail (September 1603)

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Throughout our history, we Jews have overcome all type of obstacles to observe the Mitsva of Sukka. And perhaps one of the most striking examples of the Jewish people’s love and determination to observe this precept is the Suca that was built in the patio of the Inquisition jail in Mexico City, 1603 by a crypto-Jew named Sebastián Rodriguez.
Sebastián was born in Portugal in 1573, in a town called San Vicente Davera, but left his house at the age of seven and move to Seville (Spain), where he worked in the shop of his uncle Antonio Rodríguez, who taught him to read and write.
At the age of fourteen, in 1587, he embarked for New Spain (Nueva España, former name of Mexico) and settled in the city of Puebla, in the house of a distant relative, also Portuguese, named Guillermo Rodríguez, who sent Sebastián to nearby villages to sell clothes. At the age of sixteen he became independent and began to work on his own.
At the age of eighteen, he married his cousin Constanza Rodriguez, who was seven years older than him. Prior to the wedding, his brother-in-law Domingo Rodríguez and a friend Manuel de Lucena took Sebastián to the fields and taught him many of the Tora’s laws and traditions of marriage and Jewish life in general.
Sebastián main teachers, from whom he learned often the laws of the Tora, were Luis de Carvajal (El Mozo) and Sebastián de la Peña. During long walks in the company of his teachers, they analyzed together the different passages of the Tora. Luis de Carvajal, always kept hidden between the lining and the felt of his hat, several writings with passages and laws of the Tora, and in that way he would teach to his students.
In 1596, when he had barely turned twenty-three, and because of the accusation of a man named Pedro de Reparo against him, Sebastián Rodríguez was arrested in Mexico City along with his wife Constanza. He was taken to the prisons of the Inquisition in the Plaza Santo Domingo, which today is very close to the famous “Zócalo”.
His punishment was life imprisonment, and the confiscation of all his property.
During the first three months of his interrogations, Sebastián kept absolute silence, so they kept him chained to shackles in his hands and feet. After those three months of torture, Sebastian confessed that he professed the Law of Moses. It was then that the chains were removed and he was placed in a cell next to Luis Diaz, who operated as a spy for the inquisición. Luis Diaz, nicknamed later as “El Malshín” (the informant), reported to the inquisitors that his cellmate , Sebastián “judaizaba” (behaved as a Jew) and he presented some examples: Sebastián did not consume the meat they served him in jail, he did nor sweep the floor of his cell on Saturdays, … he washed his hands before eating bread, and he prayed every day facing East, with his head covered.
As a result of this report, Sebastián was taken to the Inquisitors to declare the truth. He denied the accusations and the inquisitors tortured him again. This time with the instrument of torture called “el potro” (pulling the extremities of the body with ropes). After the fifth round of “el potro”, Sebastián declared that he indeed practiced some Jewish rituals but that “he repented of having done it”
Patio del Palacio de la Inquisición
The holiday of Sukkot of 1603 was approaching, and Sebastián Rodríguez, his wife Constanza and their little son Domingo, had been in the jail of the inquisition known as “La casa Chata” for seven years. Sebastián wanted with all his heart to comply with the biblical precept of celebrating the festival of Sukkot, and therefore, he looked for a way to build a Sukka (ritual hut), in the very courtyard of the jail, in the presence of the inquisitors Alonso of Peralta and Gutierrez Bernardo de Quirós.
At the beginning of September 1603, the Count of Monterrey and Viceroy of New Spain gave Captain Esteban Lemos a special award. Esteban Lemos did his work in the palace of the Inquisition, as a notary for the Holy office. Taking advantage of this award given to Lemos, Sebastián Rodríguez “decided to honor Lemos and dedicate a party in his honor.” The warden gave Sebastián permission to do so on September 21, Sukkot, and approved the list of guests proposed by Sebastián. The true intention of the party was nothing other than to “build” a Sukka and be able to fulfill the Mitsva of having at least one celebratory meal in the Sukka.
Sebastián asked for a large number of branches to decorate the “patio”. The inquisitors sent four Indians to look for the branches and Sebastián began the preparation and decoration of the jail’s enclosed area and placed the branches above the four walls of the courtyard, known until today as “patio de los naranjos” (orange trees).
For the “special occasion”, a nice meal was prepared, which included chicken as the main dish. Sebastián took care that the chicken were slaughtered with the Shehita (kosher slaughtering), something that had been organized outside the prison.
And so it was that on September 21, 1603, Sebastián Rodríguez, together with his wife Constanza, and several other Jews who were imprisoned in the prison of the Inquisition, were able to celebrate the feast of Sukkot, eating in the Sukka and celebrating this beautiful holiday with songs and joy. And all this in front of the inquisitors, who were unaware that they were consuming Kosher food inside Sukka and participating of a Jewish Holiday.
On June 2, 1606, Sebastián Rodríguez, his wife Constanza Rodríguez, and his son Domingo, were released.
Today, 400 years later, Sebastián Rodríguez’s risky decision to build a Sukka within the inquisition prison is an inspiring example of the Jewish people’s determination to maintain and fulfill the Tora wherever we are, challenging even the Spanish Inquisition, which did not stop its horrific persecution in the New Continent.
This story is recorded in the General Archives of the nation of Mexico, which is located in the palace of Lecumberri. “Process against Sebastián Rodríguez and Constanza Rodríguez as Judaizantes”. Inquisición en Mexico, 1595-1596, vol 154, exp.2.
Written in Spanish by Mr. Eli Suli (México),
expert in Sephardic Jewish history