A Synopsis of the History of the Jews in Portugal

By ©Inacio Steinhardt

Friday, December 20, 2002

To understand the relevance of the Jewish presence in Portugal, we must recall the antiquity of the Jews in the Iberian Peninsula and the roots of Portugal as a nation.

The truth is that we don’t have any written evidence of the time and circumstances of the arrival of the first Jews to the territory that was to be Portugal.

There are several legends spread about Jews arriving as settlers or merchants, with the Phoenician ships, from Sidon and Tyre, or with the ships that King Salomon, an ally of the Phoenicians, has built in Etzion-Gaber, near Eilat of today. Or they may have come as fugitives, and prisoners, at the time of the destruction of the first and second temples of Jerusalem, respectively by the Babylonians and the Romans.

Curiously enough, at a certain time, the Jews of Spain and Portugal have claimed that they could not be accused of the death of Jesus, because they were already here at the time. This happened 2000 years ago!

When threatened with expulsion they alleged their right to live in a land that was inhabited by their ancestors for so many centuries.

Written documents regarding the existence of Jews in the peninsula date from the 3rd. Century BCE, and specifically in the area where Portugal is today, from the 6th Century CE.

The late is an epitaph found in the Algarve.

The identity of Portugal as an independent country dates from the 12th century.

Thus the existence of Jewish communities in Portugal precedes Portugal’s own origins.

Therefor we must look at whole picture of the Iberian Peninsula, during the Reconquista from the Moors. From the Jewish point of view, this period can be divided in two quite different stages.

During the first stage the three ethnical communities, Christians, Jews and Arabs lived together in mutual acceptance of their different cultures (convivencia).

Thinks changed when the Christians had already recovered from the Arabs most of the territory of the Peninsula. In this second stage they were engaged in the dissemination of the Christian religion as the sole true belief. Then the infidels – Arabs and Jews – were merely tolerated.

During the first stage Jews lived in the cities held by Christians as well in those ruled by the Moslems. The fights between those two peoples were not always exempt of momentary alliances between Christian and Arab rulers, in collusion to overthrow rival leaders.

The Jews were instrumental in many diplomatic missions as much as they were later associated in the building of the new cities and the new states that emerged from the final victory of Christians.

A nobleman from Burgundy, France, had come to the Peninsula, to help the Christians in their Reconquista wars against the Arabs (Moors).

In recompense the King of Castile, Afonso VI, gave his daughter, Tareja (Teresa) in marriage to this nobleman, Henry of Burgundy and granted him the earldom of Portucale, a tiny territory whose name derived from its main city Porto (port, sometimes called Oporto in English) and Cale, a fortified island situated in front of the city, in the Douro River.

After the death of Count Henry (Henrique), his young son Afonso Henriques rebelled against his grandfather and proclaimed the independence of Portugal, of which he became the first king in 1140..

After many bloody battles, Castile finally recognized the independence of Portugal.

Don Afonso Henriques started then his own Reconquista, aiming at enlarging his kingdom at the expenses of the Arab rulers, south of Oporto to southern shores of the Algarve.

The most important adviser to the Portuguese King in the conquest of new territories from the Moors, was the Jew Don Yahia ibn Yahia (or Ibn Ya’ish).

The Ibn Yahia’s, like the Abrabanel’s, both prominent Jewish families even today, are considered by family tradition, to descend from King David himself, by two sons of the exiliarch (Reish Galuta) Hizkiahu.

In the social structure of the society in the Middle Ages the Jews, as the Moors, were considered an entity apart, in fact owned by the king.

D. Dinis, the forth king of Portugal, referred in the official documents, to his Jewish subjects as “meus judeus” (my Jews). He could impose on them whatever duties, restrictions, missions or taxes, as he might want.

D. Afonso Henriques, the first King, established the base for a Jewish administrative structure of the country, parallel with the administrative structure of the rest of the population. Special legislation applied to the Jews, thus treating the Jews as legal and social exceptions.

The country was divided in seven districts, each one having his own Jewish ouvidores (magistrates) which administrated justice to their fellow Jews.

In each district the Jews were organizes in communities – named the comunas – each having its own arrabi (rabbi) and its officers, both for synagogue service and for their own prisons, hospitals, etc.

Upon all the rabbis and ouvidores was the Arrabi-Mor (the Chief Rabbi), a high officer, appointed by the King, and bearing his own seal. He had the supreme authority over the Jews in the whole kingdom.

Apart from administrating justice the Arrabi-Mor was also in charge of protecting the Jews under his jurisdiction against local hostility.

The Arrabi-Mor used his own influence with the king in many circumstances, an important weapon since the legal situation was defined by the exclusive will of the monarch who solved all problems according to the balance of power and not according to the law.

When the Jews received the king’s protection, it was by grace and mercy and not by right.

They had to live in separate quarters, called the Judiarias, from where they could not be out after the hour of the Ave Maria, the Hail Mary.

The special legislation for the Jews included such measures as to prevent contact (conversação) between Jews and Christians.

Obviously some of the laws were so impractical that the kings had to grant, from time to time, both collective and individual exceptions.

All those exceptional grants are recorded in the Chancelarias, the books of records of the Kings of Portugal, kept at the National Archives (ANTT) in Lisbon. Those are important sources for research on the Jewish life in Portugal.

Because of the importance of the Jews to the Kingdom, both professionally and as counselors and ministers to the Kings, their situation has known ups and downs, but was bearable until the end of the 15th century.

In 1492 there were approximately 80,000 Jews living in Portugal. This was also the time when the Portuguese seamen were most busy in discovering new lands and new paths in the sea.

The Portuguese Jews were very much involved not only in the scientific element of the discoveries, but also in the financing of the same.

This was also the year when the Jews from Spain have been put in face of the dilemma: convert or leave Spain.

There were about 300,000 thousand Jews in Spain. There are no exact figures, but it has been estimated lately by some historians, that one third managed to migrate to other countries, less than one third converted, and about 120,000 came across the frontier to Portugal.

This has been negotiated with the Portuguese King, John II. They had to pay a tax per head and they were to leave Portugal in one-year time or become slaves to the king.

At that time most of the Peninsular Jews believed that there were signs that the Messiah was about to come and they would be liberated. This might have been the reason why so many preferred not to go further than Portugal.

Most of them could not leave the country in one year – eventually did not want either – and they became slaves to the King of Portugal. John II took some cruel measures against them. One of those was sending 2000 Jews children to the island of S. Tome, in Africa, then not inhabited, and was popularly known as the island of the crocodiles. We don’t know for sure what was the fate of those children.

After the death of John II, the new king, Manuel the first, used of mercy with the Jews, canceled the situation of slavery and, as a matter of fact, used their skills and money for the expansion of the discoveries.

In 1496, thou, the King contracted his own marriage with the eldest daughter of Fernando and Isabella. The catholic sovereigns put as a condition for the marriage that the kingdom should be clean of Jews.

Manuel hoped, with this marriage, to inherit the throne of Spain and therefore unit the all Peninsula.

He accepted the challenge, but conceived a Machiavellian plan to supposedly expel the Jews and yet keep them in his Kingdom.

On the 5th of December 1496 he issued a decree that all the Jews of Portugal must convert to Christianity or leave the country until October 1497.

For those wishing to leave he promised to provide ships.

Most of the Jews decided to leave… but the ships were not provided. During the ten months that followed the King tried all possible trickeries to compel them to convert. One of those was again taking from then the children younger than 14 years and have them be raised by Catholic families in their religion.

In May 1497 he issued a new decree granting to all Jews that converted a period of 10 years, during which no inquires would be made to their religious practices at home, so that they might adapt themselves at pace to the new religion.

This decree is very important for two reasons – one for it was later extended to 50 years during which there was no Inquisition in Portugal – and second because it gave the Jews the opportunity to organize themselves in secrecy to continue their religious practices.

Eventually this was the main cause for the persistence of so many Catholic communities in Portugal, that kept secretive Jewish rituals during five centuries – half a millenium, an amazing phenomena in the history of the Jews in this country.

As the time approached, the Jews demanded from the King to keep his promise – to provide them with ships in order to escape the conversion.

They were ordered to converge to Lisbon, were they received temporary shelter in the Palace of Estaos, a kind of hostel, located then in the Rossio square, where the National Theater of D. Maria stands today.

From there, in October 1497, they were dragged to a nearby church and forced to take the water of the baptism. The same thing happened all over the country.

All religious books in Hebrew were burned and the synagogues became Christian churches.

From there on, they become Christians who had to show ostensibly that they went to the churches and they kept all the commandments of the Christian faith. At home, however, most of them continued to follow the religion of Moses.

There were several instances when they were persecuted because of this double existence, in one of which, during Passover of 1506, more than 2,000 Jews, or New-Christians as they were called then, were slaughtered in the streets of this city.

In 1538 the Holy Tribunal of the Inquisition was established in Portugal, obviously not against the Jews, because there were no more Jews as such in Portugal, but against the heretics New-Christians.

The population was encouraged to denounce any suspicion of Judaism. There was a list of such sins, and it would be enough to abstain from eating pork, or changing his own shirt on Friday, or even washing oneself too many times, to have all one’s belongings seized, to be put in prison, being tortured, and eventually, if the person would not show signs of sincere repentance, he would be burned during a most impressive ceremony called the auto-de-fé , an act of faith.

The same National Archives, mentioned above, the Arquivo nacional da Torre do Tombo, hold circa 44,000 well documented files from the proceeds of the Inquisition, including detailed description of the tortures and of the auto-de-fé.

Jews – as such – were not allowed to live in this country until the beginning of the 19th century.

It is said that at that time prince Pedro of Portugal visited the British colony of Gibraltar. He was surprised to be introduced to people, mainly businessmen, whose names sounded very Portuguese to him, such as Cardoso and Pinto.

They explained to him that those were Jews families that had been able to escape from Portugal after the forced conversion.

When the prince asked why they did not return then to Portugal he was told that the law in Portugal had banned the Jews from living there.

Five years later, when the prince became King Pedro I, he officially invited the Jews from Gibraltar and Morocco to come and live in Portugal.

About 80 families came and established themselves in Lisbon, the Algarve and some of the Portuguese colonies. However the decree that forbid the Jews to live in Portugal was not abolished until the end of the century. Until then, the Jews were only tolerated.

In 1910, with the abolition of the monarchy and the advent of the republican regime, the religion was separated from the state and all religions have been permitted since.

As explained, the first settlers of this modern Jewish community were Sephardis from Gibraltar and Morocco.

The first Ashkenazi, or Central European, Jews arrived in the second decade of this century.

The first was Wolf Terlo, an expert in the wine industry from Russia, and after him, Samuel Schwarz, a mine engineer from Lodz, in Poland. Both came for professional reasons.

Samuel Schwarz was the first person to contact the secret Jews – New-Christians or Marranos – in the north of Portugal.

After them, there was a wave of immigration from Europe. Mostly persons that hoped to reach the Americas from here and found that they could make a living in Portugal.

During the war tens of thousands of Jews refugees passed through Portugal.

The dictator, Salazar, himself of supposed Jewish ancestry, had decided to admit any Jewish refugees into Portugal.

Pursuing a precarious line of political neutrality between his

fascist counterparts in Germany, Italy and Spain, and the centuries old alliance between Portugal and Britain, he predicted that if the Jewish refugees who flew ahead of the German Army to the South of France, would cross the Pyrenees, the Gestapo would follow them.

This would put an end to Portugal’s neutrality.

However, a Portuguese Consul in Bordeaux, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, south of France, defied the specific orders of Salazar, and granted Portuguese visas to circa 40 thousand refugees.

Mendes was brought back to Portugal, punished and discharged from his diplomatic carrier. In spite of all the possible financial help from the Jewish community of Lisbon, Consul Sousa Mendes died in poverty and misery.

Today the Lisbon Jewish Community has about 500 member, half of which are really temporary residents on business or professional ground.

One crypto-Jewish community, in Belmonte, has returned openly to mainstream Judaism and a synagogue has been built in the village.

A small group of crypto-Jews residing in Lisbon, have either joined to Jewish community there or created a minyan of their own at the premises of an Ashkenazi shtibl that subsisted from the time of the ^"of their ow

In Oporto, the Community created by Captain Barros Basto – to learn more about him click here has known ups and downs. Today it has about 40 members, which pray at the synagogue erected by the efforts of the unfortunate captain.

Temporary Jewish residents of the Algarve have also created a social organization at Portimao.

Some associations of people who consider themselves as "anusim" and search their path to mainstream Judaism have recently been created in Lisbon, Oporto and Guarda.

Inacio Steinhardt - June 2000


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