15th.century synagogue uncovered in Oporto

By ©Inácio Steinhardt

Friday, October 28, 2005

The descendants of the "anusim" (forcibly converted) in the Northern Portuguese city of Oporto are excited.

The place of the 15th. Century synagogue of rabbi Isaac Aboab, in the old Jewish quarter of Olivais, has been discovered.

This is rabbi Isaac Aboab II, "the Last Gaon of Castile", who in 1492, a few months before the expulsion of the Jews from Spain  by the "Catholic Kings" Fernando and Isabel, went to Portugal, with another 30 prominent Spanish Jews, to negotiate with King John II, the transfer of those who would choose to wait in the neighboring country for an eventual abrogation of the evil.

They were received with honor by the King and finally an agreement was reached. Six hundred Jewish families would be allowed to settle in Portugal, in consideration for a large contribution to the king's treasury.

All other Spanish Jews wishing to escape through Portugal would be allowed in, against payment of a head tax. Those would have to leave the country within eight months. The king would endeavor to supply ships for their departure to other safe places. Those that would eventually stay longer than the stipulated term would become the king's slaves.

For Aboab and the 30 families that came with him the king ordered the allotation of suitable houses in the "Judiaria do Olival" , the newest Jewish quarter in the city of Oporto.

The "Judiarias" were closed residence quarters, were the Jews inhabitants had to live. They all had gates and guards, and no Jew was to be found outside this ghetto after the bells of the churches rang for the evening prayer of "Ave Maria".

The "Judiaria of Olival" was created in 1386 by order of King João I, when the old "Judiaria of Miragaia", in the outskirts of city, became too crowded.

It was located in Rua de S. Miguel, a very wide street which later gave place to two news streets, S. Miguel e Victoria.

The "Judiaria" had it's own synagogue and all other Jewish and own administrative institutions.

Rabbi Isaac Aboab died in 1493, eight months after the expulsion from Spain.

He was spared the trauma of the forcibly conversion in 1497 of all the Jews of Portugal, native and refugees from Spain alike, who were unable to leave the country before the deadline imposed by João's successor, Manuel I.

The expulsion of the Jews from Portugal was on of the terms of agreement for the marriage of Manuel with the daughter of Fernando and Isabel, an important match for Manuel, who expected to inherit the crown of Spain.

But the presence of his Jewish subjects was too important to the king for their financial support and for their skills that contributed largely to the Portuguese sea discoveries.

Manuel ordered them to leave and at the same time perpetrated a most cruel machination to keep them in the country. Instead of letting them out and supplying ships for that purpose, he forced them to convert to the Christian religion and remain in Portugal.

The rabbi's son, Abraham Aboab, received as New-Christian the name of Duarte Dias. His grandson and namesake, Isaac Aboab, was Henrique Gomes.

Henrique Gomes was the father of the famous Immanuel Aboab, the author of «Nomologia o Discursos Legales», written in Venice, in Spanish. He was born as a Christian, but we don't know his Portuguese name.

Immanuel, who was born in Oporto in 1556, wrote in his book that he still remembered from his youth his great-grandfather's synagogue, before it was destroyed.

In 1497 all synagogues in Portugal were confiscated and many of them became Catholic churches years later.

In 1598 a monastery, which later became a church, by the name of S. Bento da Victória, was built in the ancient Jewish quarter. Until recently there were rumors that the church has been built in the place of the ancient synagogue and that the reason to call it "da Victoria" (of the victory) was meant to celebrate the victory of the Christ over the Law of Moses.

Recently, the historian professor Elvira Mea, a specialist on the Inquisition at the Oporto University, had the opportunity to visit a house, which had belonged to the Misericordia of Oporto and had been donated to a priest who intended to adapt it for a daycare house for old people.

While proceeding to the necessary reparations they noticed the existence of a false wall. After breaking it down they found that the original wall had a sort of built-in stone closet, which, according to professor Mea must have been a Ehal (Aron Hako-desh) where the Torah scrolls are kept.

The find is located in the East wall in the ground floor of a two-store house, a few houses apart from the church.

Outside the house, in his back side, there is a stairway, which is known by the public as "Escadinhas da Esnoga". Esnoga is a miss-pronunciation, in ancient Portuguese, of the word "sinagoga". It is still used today by the Lisbon Sephardic Jews to designate their synagogue.

Ancient maps of the town show a today non-existent alley, the "Viela da Sinagoga", which may have been near this house.

Furthermore, a building two houses apart from this, is indicated by tourist guides as having been where the New-Christian Gabriel da Costa was born and lived before departing to Amsterdam, where he returned to Judaism to became the famous and unfortunate Uriel da Costa.

Elvira Mea is convinced that this house, while apparently belonging to the 16th. Century, has been adapted from the original 15th. century synagogue. She believes that the house of worship may have been used for secret prayers by the "anusim" long after the forced conversion.

The descendents of the ancient "anusim", now affiliated in an association by the name of "Ladina-Sefarad" with its headquarters in Oporto, have a plan:

They want to induce the Institute for the preservation of historical buildings to put an embargo on the works been done in this house.

They want the Misericordia to allocate another house, from the many that are vacant in the same area, for the daycare institution.

And they intend to open a Bank account to collect donations worldwide, first to compensate the priest for the large expenses he already incurred  in the restoration of the house, and that he will need now to start over in a new place.

And they want to recover the house as a museum-synagogue, with the hope that new findings still may be there to be uncovered when making the necessary adaptations.

Givat Savion, Israel, October 2005

© Inacio Steinhardt




Ben-Rosh: Biografia do Capitão Barros Basto, o apóstolo dos marranos (Colecção Textos)
Isaac Aboab
The days of awe (Menoras hamaor)
Menoras hamaor
La synagogue vide: Les sources marranes du spinozisme
The last Crypto-Jews of Portugal
A Inquisição de Coimbra no Século XVI: A instituição, os homens e a sociedade
Conversos, Inquisition, and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain
Last Kabbalist of Lisbon
Don Isaac Abravanel: Statesman & Philosopher
Farewell Espana: The World Of The Sephardim Rememb
The Expulsion of the Jews: Five Hundred Years of Exodus Vestígos hebraicos em Portugal: Viagem de uma pintora = Jewish vestiges in Portugal : travels of a painter
History of the Jews of Spain and Portugal
Expulsion 1492 Chronicles: An Anthology of Medieval Chronicles Relating to the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal
Em nome da fé: Estudos in memoriam de Elias Lipiner
Spain and the Jews: The Sephardi Experience, 1492 and After
The Last Jews on Iberian Soil: Navarrese Jewry 1479-1498
The Expulsion of the Jews from Spain (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization (Series).)
Os judeus na região de Viseu: A história, a cultura, os lugares
Studies on the History of Portuguese Jews from Their Expulsion in 1497 Through Their Dispersion
La vara de Yehudah =: (Sefer sebet Yehudah) (Biblioteca Nueva Sefarad)
Los judíos en Portugal (Colecciones MAPFRE 1492)
Lost sons of Israel: A recent discovery in Portugal
Los djudios de Espanya i Portugal en la filatelia mundial =: The Spanish and Portuguese Jews in the postage stamps
Portugal's secret Jews: The end of an era



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