From the Golden Age of Discovery to the Inquisition, Portuguese Jewry went from the heights of wealth and success to the depths of anguish and despair.
The history of Jews in Portugal is like that of many other places, where success and sadness go hand in hand. Walking along Lisbon’s streets, remnants remain of Portugal’s rich Jewish life. Sparks of Portugal’s past can be found in the remote mountain villages where the some of the last remaining Marrano communities can still be found practicing Jewish rituals behind closed doors, fear of persecution still looming.
Today, the Jewish community of Portugal numbers approximately 600 people.
Legends say that Jews first came to the Iberian peninsula during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar in the 6th century BCE or maybe even beforehand during the reign of King Solomon in 900s BCE. Jews lived and remain active in social and commercial life of the peninsula during the Visigoth and Muslim periods of occupation 5th -8th century C.E.
Several important Jewish communities were already active when the kingdom of Portugal was founded in the 12th century. During the first dynasty, Jews enjoy relative protection from the crown. The crown recognized the Jewish community as a distinct legal entity and appointed specific rulers to adjucate their cases. King Affonso Henriques (1139-85) entrusted Yahia ben Yahi III, a Jew, with the role of royal tax collector and supervisor; Yahia be Yahi III also became the first chief Rabbi of the Portuguese Jewish community. Yahia ben Yahi’s grandson, Jose ben Yahi was appointed High Steward of the Realm, by Henriques’ successor, King Sancho I (1185-1211).
Tensions arose between the Jewish community, who choose to remain faithful to their religion, and the local clergy and middle/lower classes. The clergy wanted to invoke restrictions of the Lateran Council against the Jews, but King Dinis (1279-1235) resisted and reassured the Jews that they did not have to pay tithes to the church.
The 13th and 14th centuries were known as Portugal’s Golden Age of Discovery, in which Jews made a major contribution to Portugal’s success. In the early 14th century, more than 200,000 Jews lived in Portugal, which was about 20 percent of the total population.
Jews lived in separate quarters, but had freedom to move within the country; these quarters remained until the Jewish expulsion from Portugal. Each of these quarters had its own synagogue, slaughter house, hospital, jails, bath houses and other institutions. A rabbi served as the administrative and legal authority within the commune.
Portugal was home to many famous Jews during this period. Abraham Zacuto wrote tables that provided the principal base for Portuguese navigation, including those used by Vasco Da Gama on his trip to India. Guedelha-Master Guedelha served as a rabbi and doctor and astrologer for both King Duarte and King Alfonso V. Isaac Abravanel was one of the principal merchants and a member of one the most influential Jewish families in Portugal. Another figure, Jose Vizinho, served as doctor and astrologer to King Joao II. Joao II also sent the Jew, Abraham de Beja, on many voyages to the East.
Jews became the intellectual and economic elite of the country. Jews were involved in all aspects of the explorations, from financing the sailing fleets to making scientific discoveries in the fields of mathematics, medicine and cartography. Many were employed as physicians and astronomers as well royal treasurers, tax collectors and advisors. It was common to see Jews adorned in silk clothing, carrying gilt swords and riding beautiful horses. They were given preferential treatment by the kings.
Jealous of the Jews’ success, anti-Jewish sentiment arose in the peasant and middle classes. Fights between Jews and Christians became more common after the influx of Jews from Spain into Portugal, in 1391.
During the reign of King Joao I (1385-1432), Jews were forced to wear a special habit and to obey a curfew. Joao’s successor, King Duarte (1433-1438), introduced laws forbidding Jews from employing Christians. A reprieve took place during King’s Alfonso V’s rule, when many of these restrictions were repealed.
In 1492, King Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain expelled all the Jews from Spain. More than 150,000 Spanish Jews came to Portugal seeking permanent refuge. King Joao II of Portugal allowed them to enter because he was preparing for war against the Moors and wanted to take advantage of their wealth and expertise in weapon-making. At a price of 100 Cruzados a family, 630 wealthy Jewish families were granted permanent residence. A number of craftsmen, skilled in making weapons, were also allowed to become permanent residence. The rest were permitted to stay in Portugal for eight months, upon payment of 8 cruzados per adult. At the end of those eight months, shipping was still not available, so the King forfeited Jewish liberty and declared the remaining Jews slaves.
Another tragedy befell the Jewish community in 1493, when the King ordered the separation of Jewish children from their parents. Seven hundred children were sent to the newly discovered island of Sao Tome, off west coast of Africa. In 1993, descendants of those children held a ceremony commemorating the event.
Following King Joao’s death in 1494, Manuel I ascended to the throne and restored the Jews’ freedom. His legitimacy as heir to the throne was challenged, so he decided to solidify his position by marrying Princess Isabel of Spain. Isabel told Manuel that she would only marry him if he expelled the Jews. Their marriage contract was signed on November 30, 1496, and, five days later, he issued a decree forcing all Jews to leave Portugal by October 1497.
Manuel was never content with his decision, mainly because he appreciated the economic value of the Jews to the country. To make it more difficult for Jews to leave, he made Lisbon the only viable port of exit. He also tried to convert as many Jews to Christianity as he could to keep them in Portugal.
On March 19, 1497 (the first day of Passover), Jewish parents were ordered to take their children, between the ages of four and fourteen, to Lisbon. Upon arrival, the parents were informed that their children were going to be taken away from them and were to be given to Catholic families to be raised as good Catholics. Children were literally torn from their parents and others were smothered, some parents chose to kill themselves and their kids rather than be separated. After awhile, some parents agreed to be baptized, along with their children, while others succumbed and handed over their babies.
In October 1497, about 20,000 Jews came to Lisbon to prepare for departure to other lands. They were herded into the courtyard of Os estaos, a palace and were approached by priests trying to convert them. Some capitulated, while the rest waited around until the time of departure had passed. Those who did not convert were told they forfeited their freedom and would become slaves. More succumbed. Finally the rest were sprinkled with baptismal waters and were declared "New Christians."
While many of the New Christians accepted their religion, many chose to continue practicing Judaism behind closed doors, while publicly practicing Catholic rituals; they became known as Marranos or crypto-Jews. The Portuguese majority still considered the
In 1506, 3,000
Popular support for a Portuguese Inquisition surfaced in 1531, when many Christians blamed the New Christians for the recent earthquake. Pope Clement VII authorized the Inquisition and the first auto de fe (trial) took place in Lisbon on September 20, 1540.
The right to seize and confiscate the property of the accused led to the arrest of every prominent
Attempting to evade the Inquisition, many Portuguese Marrano families fled to Amsterdam, Salonika and other places across the Old and New worlds. In 1654, 23 Portuguese Jews arrived in New Amsterdam (New York) and became the first Jewish settlers in the United States. The stream of refugees did not stop until the end of the Inquisition in the late 18th century. The last public auto de fe took place in 1765; however, the Inquisition was not formally disbanded until after the liberal revolt in 1821.
Around 1800, Portugal decided to
In 1912, the new Portuguese Republic reaffirmed the community’s rights. The Jewish community was able to maintain places of worship, a cemetery and a hevra kadisha (burial society) and could slaughter animals in accordance to Jewish law, register births, deaths, and marriages and collect charity.
Conversions to Catholicism were still frequent though in the 1920's, splitting families; this tendency declined by the 1950's.
A brief Marrano renaissance occurred in the early 1930’s led by Artur Carlos de Barros Basto. Basto, a Marrano Jew, decided to convert to Orthodox Judaism at the age of 33. He became an engineer, served as a professional soldier, was decorated after World War I for his bravery and eventually was promoted to captain. Known as the “Portuguese Dreyfus,” Basto was dismissed from the army because he was a Jew.
After leaving the army, Captain Basto established a synagogue in the city of Oporto. He also began writing a weekly newspaper and began visiting remote villages, often in full military regalia. Accompanying him on these trips were two medical doctors who performed circumcisions when needed. (Circumcision was one of the first Jewish customs to be dropped because of its identifying nature.)
The synagogue of Oporto grew and moved into a new building donated by Ellie Kadoorie, a wealthy Sephardic Jew. The “Kadoorie” synagogue was built on property bought and donated by Baron Edmond de Rothschild of Paris. Another synagogue was established in Braganca, with its own Rabbi.
Basto also established a yeshiva in Oporto, which ran for nine years educating more than 90 students. These activities did not go unnoticed by the government, especially after an estimated 10,000 families across Portugal admitted to practicing Judaism in secret. Trumped up charges were brought against the Captain and he was court-martialed, stripped of his rank and was forced to close the yeshiva. Thus, the Marrano renaissance ended.
Marranos practiced Judaism privately in their own homes, however, they abandoned any obvious identifying Jewish practice, such as circumcision, mikveh and the celebration of any public holiday. The celebration of Yom Kippur and Passover were done a couple days late to confuse the Inquisitors. Shabbat lamps were hidden inside clay pots, so those outside could not see the light burning. Jewish women also led prayer services, since this was the job normally performed by males.
If a community member died, a minyan gathered at the home of the family, but made it appear as if their attendance was just done to console the mourners.
Catholicism did make some inroads into the lives of the Marranos, resulting in a unique combination of Jewish and Christian rituals and terms. For example, Marranos worshiped Saint Moses and Saint Queen Esther and celebrated Little Christmas (which roughly coincided with Hanukkah). Marranos also prayed with a Judaized version of the Lord’s prayer.
The phrase, “I enter this house, but I do not adore sticks or stones , only the G-d of Israel,” was muttered before entering a Catholic Church and is still stated by Marrano Jews.
Because sacred Jewish texts could not be used, the Marrano community created their own prayer books, one of these is called the Rebordelo manuscript (Rebordelo is a remote village in Portugal). Inside this handwritten prayer book are prayers for different occasions, which seem to date to the early 18th century. The book also contains a list of recommendations on how to live an ethical life. Also, there is a folk ballad about a wandering Jewish troubadour who elopes with a girl trying to avoid a marriage to a rich man.
Besides for books like these, the only references available to the Marrano community about Jewish life and history is the Old Testament.
Many of these Marrano practices are still being performed behind closed doors and shaded windows. In 1920, in the town of Braganca, no child under the age of 12 was permitted to attend religious meetings, out of fear of the child innocently exposing their secret faith.
In 1987, David Augusto Canelo, a non-Jew, wanted to write a book about the last Crypto-Jews and was only able to obtain interviews with the community members if he agreed not to use their names. Community members still fear being “tried” by the Inquisition.
In 1991 a French TV crew wanted to film the ceremony of matzah preparation performed by the Marrano community to be seen in a French documentary. The crew was allowed to tape the ceremony, which was still performed secretly. A door knock in the middle of the filming scared many of the participants, even though the Inquisition had ended more than 150 years earlier.
Approximately 380 Jews were living in Portugal during the outbreak of World War II and an additional 650 Jewish refugees from Central Europe were granted “resident” status. After France fell to Nazi Germany, Portugal adopted a liberal visa policy allowing thousands of Jewish refugees to enter the country, however, those of Russian origin or birth were excluded. More stringent restrictions were made in immigration policy, from late 1940 to spring 1941, resulting in decrease usage of its ports.
During the Holocaust, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, disobeyed government orders and issues visas enabling Jews to travel from France to Portugal. He was dismissed for disobedience and died impoverished. For his efforts, he was later recognized as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations,” Portugal’s only honoree.
During the second part of the war, Portugal agreed to give entry visas to those coming via rescue operations, on the condition that Portugal would only be used as a transit point. Portugal also joined other neutral countries in the efforts made to save Hungarian Jewry. More than 100,000 Jews and refuges were able to flee Nazi Germany into freedom via Lisbon. All of Portugal’s Jews and Jewish refugees living there survived the war.
Today there are about 600 Jews living in Portugal, as well as a Marrano community numbering close to 100 individuals. Marrano communities were discovered by Samuel Schwartz, a Polish mining engineer, in remote mountain villages. Many of the Marranos did not believe Schwartz was Jewish because he openly identified himself as a Jew and they believed they were the only Jews still living. The communities were only convinced of his Jewish identity after he recited the Shema prayer. In recent years, many members of the Marrano community decided to reconvert to Orthodox Judaism.
In 1997, Portugal’s National Assembly marked the expulsion from Portugal and commemorated the development of exile Portuguese communities throughout the world. A special session attended by dignitaries was held in the capitol.
That same year Portugal’s Prime Minister announced that he would investigate government documents relating to the transfer of gold from Nazi Germany into Portuguese banks.
The largest Jewish community of about 300 can be found in Lisbon, where there are two synagogues, one Sephardic, Shaare Tikva and one Ashkenazi, Ohel Yaacov (Ohel Jacob). Lisbon’s Jewish community is centered around the Comunidade Israelita de Lisboa, or the Jewish Community of Lisbon, a community center that houses Shaare Tikva. The Sephardic synagogue offers traditional services, study groups, children’s activities, and cultural events and houses documents and religious objects dating back to the 1300s.
Ohel Jacob is the only Ashkenazi synagogue in the Iberian Peninsula and was originally established as an Orthodox congregation. The synagogue was inactive for a period but following its reconstitution in the 1990’s the Bnei-anussim, or children of Marranos, who were interested in returning to Judaism, were welcomed at the Ohel Jacob synagogue.
Ohel Jacob is housed on the second floor of a rundown building at Avenida Elias Garcia 110. The HeHaver Jewish Association, which currently administers the Ohel Jacob building, allows Kehilat Beit Israel to use the synagogue for the practice of Masorti, or Conservative, Judaism, which has welcomed Bnei-anussim back to the community. Beit Israel is under the rabbinical authority of Rabbi Jules Harlow. Today, the Bnei-anussim make up about one third of this Ashkenazi congregation in Lisbon. Ohel Jacob will be rededicated on December 17th, 2006. This will be the first synagogue dedication in Portugal since the opening of the Belmonte synagogue in 1997.
There is also a Jewish cultural center, a kosher butcher, a special slaughtering house and a home for the aged in Lisbon. Jewish visitors to Lisbon may be interested in visiting the remains of the medieval Jewish quarter and Rossio Square, the site of the Palace of the Inquisition, where 1,300 Jews were burned at the stake. A collection of Jewish tombstones, with inscriptions written in Hebrew, can be found at the Archaeological Museum. In the National Museum of Ancient Art, there is a painting of Grao Vasco, a 16th century Jew.
Located about 80 kilometers north of Lisbon is the seaside village of Obidos, in the Costa de Prata region. A Jewish community lived in Obidos between the fifth and seventh centuries, when the city was occupied by the Visigoth. Another Jewish community lived there between the eighth and twelfth centuries, while it was under Arab rule. In Obidos’s Jewish quarter, a synagogue can be found that dates to the end of the 12th century.
Also, in the Costa de Prata region, in the city of Tomar, an ancient 15th century Jewish synagogue and mikveh, one of the two surviving monuments of medieval Jewish heritage, can be found. The synagogue has become a national museum and features historic remains of medieval Portuguese communities. In 1993, a Yom Kippur service was held at the synagogue because of the large number of Jewish tourists.
In the Costa Verde region, a small Jewish community can be found in the city of Porto, which served as a major center for Jewish traders during the Middle Ages. One of the sites is the earliest known Jewish Quarter found in Portugal, now Rua de Santa Ana. Visitors can also visit the Kadoorie Synagogue as well.
In the mountainous village of Belmonte, the last Marrano community can be found. In 1997, Portugal’s first new synagogue in 70 years was dedicated in Belmonte. The dedication ceremony was attended by Israeli President Ezer Weizman and Portugal’s President Jorge Sampaio. Many of members Belmonte’s Marrano community have reconverted to Orthodox Judaism. In Belmonte there is also a mikveh.
Excavations of possible 15th century synagogues are being undertaken in Evora, in the mountain village of Castelo de Vide and in Valencia de Alcantara, which is on the Spanish side of the border.
In Evora, there is a stone with Hebrew inscriptions on it, dated 1378, which can be found in the Evora Museum along with a money box and bench from the Inquisition. Across the street from the Evora Museum in the Public library is a rare 1st edition copy of the “Almanac Perpetuum” written by Abraham Zacuto.
In 2013, Portuguese researchers discovered and catalogued hundreds of secret markings that Jews left on buildings in Seia, a municipality in north Portugal, during the 16th century after their forced conversion to Christianity. Researcher Alberto Martinho said the findings “elucidate the Jewish presence” in the region at that time.
Jews from around the world attended the rededication ceremony for Portugal’s oldest standing synagogue on April 23, 2015. The Sahar Hassamain synagogue is located on Sao Miguel Island, 900 miles from the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, and was rededicated following a restoration project started in 2014. Jose Oulman Carp, the president of the Jewish Community of Lisbon, stated at the dedication ceremony that “the renovation has been completed in a very thorough and professional manner with a lot of help from the United States, and from descendants of the big community of Jews from the Azores archipelago there.” The building was restored to function as an Orthodox synagogue, but since there is only one Jewish resident on the island it will mostly be used as a museum and library specializing in Jewish heritage and literature. Oulman Carp said that he hopes the synagogue restoration encourages Jewish tourism to the area and local people to explore their Jewish heritage and the Jewish history of their island.
In 2015, Portugal adopted legislation to grant Portuguese citizenship rights to descendants of Jews who were expelled from and persecuted by Portugal more than 500 years ago. This means that Sephardic Jews who can prove their relation to Portuguese Jews who were expelled and mistreated by the Portuguese government can apply for dual nationality. Applicants are not required to travel to Portugal; however, they must produce evidence that demonstrates a connection to ancient Portuguese Jewry, which is scrutinized by Portuguese Jewish community institutions and government agencies. The application and review procedure can take several months.
Three months after the passing of the law, in June 2015, 250 applicants were informed by the Portuguese government that they qualified for citizenship rights under the new law. The majority of these 250 approved applicants came from Turkey, but 15 applications were also sent from Israel, and an equal number from the United States. As of November 2020, 76,000 applications for citizenship had been submitted and 23,000 approved.
Thanks to the legislation the Jewish community in Porto has experienced a renaissance of involvement and interest. The Porto Jewish community was designated by the Portuguese government as one of two institutions tasked with vetting the citizenship applicants, bringing thousands of dollars in income and tourists from all over the globe. Most of the new income has been generated by citizenship application fees.
Portugal and Israel had low level ties in the 1950’s. In 1959, the Bank of Portugal and the Bank of Israel established financial relations. Diplomatic relations were not established though until 1977.
The decision to allow Sephardic Jews to reconnect with their Portuguese roots inspired Israeli Foreign Ministry Advisor Ashley Perry to launch the Knesset Caucus for the Reconnection with the Descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities in October 2015.
Comunidade Israelita de Lisboa
Chabad Lubavitch of Portugal
Comunidade Judaica Masorti de Lisboa- Beit Israel
For more information on Jewish sites and cultural life in Portugal, contact the Portugal National Tourist Office: phone 212-354-4403/4 or fax 212-764-6137.
Original article written by Rebecca Weiner
Sources: Cnaan Lipshitz, “New citizenship law has Jews flocking to tiny Portugal city,” Times of Israel (February 11, 2016);