ROOTS OF SEFARAD

Jewish Heritage in Spain and Portugal

Jews in Portugal


Orthodox Synagogue, Lisbon

The consolidation of Jewish communities in what is now Portugal occurred during the Roman period (2nd century B.C.E-5th century C.E.) in main Roman cities in the western Iberian Peninsula.  There are documents attesting to Jewish presence there during the Visigoth period (5th-7th centuries), and by the beginning of the Muslim period (8th century) there were large Jewish commercial centers in Muslim cities along the coast.

The 12th century saw the independence of Portugal and its establishment as a separate state.  Between this time and 1481, Jewish communities developed without many problems, and some Jews held important positions in the royal administration.  The relationship between Catholics, Muslims and Jews was generally one of respect and cooperation. Jews even moved to Portugal to escape persecution in their places of origin, many of them from Spain, which suffered a wave of anti-Jewish riots in 1391.  Jews during this period made important contributions to Portugal's economic, cultural and scientific life, and the Jewish community prospered. 

Between 1481 and 1495 there was a period of social instability in Portugal, including an attack on the main Jewish quarter in Lisbon.  However, in 1492 Portugal accepted many Jews who were fleeing Spain from the expulsion (on condition that they pay a sum of money and not stay in Portugal longer than eight months).  The first book printed in Portugal was a Pentateuch, from the shop of Samuel Gacon in Faro in 1487.  Shortly thereafter, the Jew of Spanish origin Abraham Zacuto, Portuguese Court Astronomer, published his Almanach Perpetuum, the first of its kind.

Synagogue, Tomar

In 1496 King Manuel I, on drawing up his marriage contract with the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, yielded to their demands and agreed to completely expel Jews from the kingdom.  However, Manuel realized that the Jewish community was an asset to the Portuguese economy. He delayed the Jews' departure and forcibly converted as many of them to Christianity as possible. His efforts culminated in the creation of thousands of New Christians, when crowds of Jews waiting to leave the country were baptized in Lisbon.  Many Jews did depart, marking the beginning of the Portuguese Jewish diaspora throughout the world and the end of its Jewish quarters.

1496 also saw the beginning of the formation of small groups of Crypto-Jews in the interior of the country.  These were made up of New Christians who publicly followed Catholic rituals but maintained some Jewish religious and cultural practices in the privacy of their own homes.  In many cases they fled to mountainous areas of the country that were almost inaccessible to the large retinues of the Inquisition.  However, when these people were caught, their punishment ranged from the public forswearing of their alleged sins to the obligatory wearing of a special penitential habit, prior to being burned at the stake.

Only in the 18th century was the power of the Inquisition curtailed, by the Marquis of Pombal, principal minister to King Jose I (1750-1777). The last public 'auto-da-fé', at which Jews who professed their religion were condemned, took place in 1765. The Inquisition was only formally disbanded in 1821.

The Jewish community was slowly accepted back into the country from around 1800.  In 1804 the first Jewish gravestones were permitted in the English cemetery in Lisbon.   In 1821, religious freedom was finally proclaimed in Portugal, though it was not until 1904 that the first pot-expulsion synagogue was built. (Shaaré Tikvá –“Doors of Hope”-- in Lisbon).  At the beginning of the 20th century, Army Captain Arturo Carlos de Barros Basto, himself a descendent of forced converts,  organized a movement in the north of Portugal to bring Crypto-Jews back to Judaism.  He obtained financial support from the Jewish communities of Amsterdam and London, and many Crypto-Jews began to practice their religion openly.  In 1938 the “Kadoorei Mekor Haim (“Fountain of Life”) synagogue opened in Porto. However, the Fascist, anti-semitic regime of Antonio Salazar expelled Barros Basto from the army in 1943, and many Jews, frightened, went back underground.

Synagogue, Porto

During the Second World War, Portugal established a fairly liberal visa policy: thousands of Jewish refugees were allowed entrance, and Lisbon served as a base for the operations of Jewish organizations in and beyond the Iberian Peninsula.

In 1987 the then President Mário Soares, for the first time in the History of Portugal, asked forgiveness to the Jewish communities of Portuguese origin for Portugal's responsibility in the Inquisition and all the past persecutions of Jews.

The present-day Jewish population of Portugal is difficult to estimate accurately, although in the most recent census about 7000 people identified themselves as Jewish.  The majority are Orthodox and live in Lisbon or Porto. There is also a small community in Belmonte, composed of Crypto-Jews who were discovered by in 1917 by a Polish Jewish mining engineer named Samuel Schwarz. They officially returned to Judaism in the 1970s, and opened a synagogue in 1996.  In recent years there has been a growing movement among bnei-anusim–descendents of forced converts–to return to Judaism, and a number of Conservative communities have been founded.