Lisbon is the largest and main center of Jewish life officially recognized in 1912, but there are also communities in Oporto, Belmonte and Algarve. The total Jewish population of Portugal is around 1500 / 1800.
Until the 12th century, when Portugal began to emerge as an entity separate from Spain, Portuguese Jewry’s historical experiences were essentially the same as those of Spanish Jewry, dating back to Roman times.
The kings who most contributed to the formation of Portugal employed prominent Jewish courtiers. This relationship contributed to the considerable autonomy granted to the Jewish community during the early years of independence. In exchange for significant tax payments and confinement to Jewish quarters, juderia (Jews) were allowed to administer their own laws and practice their religion. The monarch appointed a Jewish leader, the arraby mor, to represent Jewish needs to the government, but Jews were themselves permitted to choose local leaders and rabbis. This security and tight-knit framework enabled Jews to prosper commercially and culturally.
The Church, however, developed a deep hostility toward Judaism. The Black Death in 1350 presented the Church with an opportunity to vent its antisemitic anger. By blaming Jews for the spread of the malady, anti-Jewish riots were sparked in many cities and towns. From this point onwards, Portuguese Jews suffered from diminishing protection and tolerance.
Although Jews exiled from Spain were allowed to enter Portugal in 1492, the spreading influence of the Spanish monarchy resulted in the issuance of a Portuguese edict of expulsion four years later. The Portuguese dynasty’s fear that the Jews’ departure would economically cripple the kingdom resulted in the forced conversion of tens of thousands of Jews to Christianity.
First meeting of a Portuguese Jewish community President with a Spanish Monarch since the Inquisition. José Oulman Carp with King Juan Carlos I in May 2009.
Portuguese Jews had four options with regard to the Inquisition in Portugal, which started in 1536. This was also true of Spanish Jews who had entered Portugal trying to escape the Spanish Inquisition that began earlier, in 1492. Jews could convert to Christianity. Those who did so were then known as Conversos or New Christians. They could refuse to convert, but that meant being summarily tried by an Inquisitional Tribunal and being burnt at the stake. They could try to escape. Wealthier Jews fled first to Amsterdam and then spread out throughout Southern Europe, reaching Istanbul and Smyrna (Izmir) in the Ottoman Empire as well as Salonika (Thessaloniki) and Malta. Some even reached the Land of Israel. Jews of more limited means fled to nearby Morocco where there were established communities of Oriental Jews. Finally, some Jews went into hiding (and became known as the Anussim, also called, pejoratively, Marranos).
The descendants of these people were first rediscovered in Belmonte in 1927 by a Jewish engineer called Samuel Schwartz who was working at a nearby mine. He found it strange to see candles burning behind drawn curtains on Friday nights. He returned and eventually realized that these crypto-Jewish families were secretly celebrating Jewish rituals transmitted orally by their ancestors. Today Belmonte has its own synagogue, museum and rabbi. Anussim should not be mistaken for Conversos.
The only Jews to return to Portugal after the Inquisition were the descendants of Sephardic Jews who returned to mainland Portugal in 1810. Some settled in the Portuguese islands of the Azores. The Inquisition officially ended in Portugal in 1821.The first post-Inquisition synagogue to be built was that of Ponta Delgada (Azores), called the Har Hashamaim Synagogue, built in 1836.
Ashkenazi Jews started arriving in Portugal after the 1917 Russian Revolution and later came in much greater numbers with the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany. Aristides Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese Consul of Bordeaux, acting alone and against government orders, issued over 30,000 visas to refugees who fled Nazi-occupied Europe to Lisbon in 1940–1943.
Today’s the number of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews today is almost proportional in the jewish Portuguese community, although religious services continue to be conducted in the Sephardic tradition. The Comunidade Israelita de Lisboa is the organization that unites local communal groups of Lisbon and its environs which mantains a Regular religious services, Mikvê, all Jewish celebrations, welfare, a youth movement with 45 children, activities for adults and the golden age (Guil Hazaav), a Jewish education department, a volunteer Hevra Kadisha, the effective and systematic participation inside the Portuguese society and the close relationship with local authorities, while the Comunidade Israelita do Porto is the organization that unites local communal groups of Oporto. It is linked with Jews in Golders Green, London, who form its religious committee and are members of the Board of Directors. In recent years, a number of Portuguese have traced their roots back to Conversos. Some of these individuals, primarily in Belmonte, have decided to return to Judaism.
The Jewish Community of Oporto, founded 90 years ago, adheres to Orthodox religious practice. The community maintains a prayer room, mikveh, museum, school, library, a kosher communal kitchen and dining room, a pantry to house kosher food, and a terrace upon which the community Sukkah is erected during.
Chabad maintains two houses in Portugal, one in Lisbon the other in Cascais.
In 1977 Portugal and Israel established diplomatic ties, and the consulate general in Lisbon was raised to the rank of an embassy. Portugal opened an embassy in Israel in 1991. The Comunidade Israelita de Lisboa maintains a close relationship with the Embassy of Israel and together they perform a series of initiatives.
Comunidade Israelita de Lisboa / Jewish Community of Lisbon
Rua Alexandre Herculano, 59
Tel: 351 1 385 8604
Fax: 351 1 388 4304
Rua do Monte Olivete, 16 r/c esq 1200-280 Lisboa
Tel: 21 393 11 30
Fax: 21 393 11 39
Comunidade Israelita do Porto/Jewish Community of Oporto
Rua de Guerra Junqueiro, 340
4150-386 Porto – Portugal
Tel: +351 911768596
Inquiries about tourism: firstname.lastname@example.org
Kosher food can be obtained in Lisbon, Oporto and Belmonte. The synagogue of Oporto sells kosher meals under the supervision of Rabbi Daniel Litvak.
For up to date information on Kosher restaurants and locations please see the Shamash Kosher Database.
There are synagogues in Lisbon, Belmonte and Oporto. During the entire 19th century, the small Lisbon Jewish community had no formal synagogue and had to pray in private houses. The Lisbon Synagogue, consecrated in 1904, was the first Jewish house of worship to be built in Portugal since the late 15th century. Designed by Miguel Ventura Terra, the synagogue combines neo-Byzantine and neo-Romanesque architecture with a pseudo-Oriental patina. In 2004, a ceremony was held to celebrate the synagogue’s 100th anniversary, attended by Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio and Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar.
The Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue in Oporto is the largest synagogue in the Iberian Peninsula and recently marked its 75th anniversary. Synagogue members include Jews of diverse origins, including those who came from Egypt, India, Russia, United States, Poland, Spain, Israel, Portugal, Mexico and Venezuela.
The former synagogue of Tomar is home to the Museum Luso-Hebraico Abraham Zacuto where exhibits include a large collection of gravestones as well as stone carvings, ceramics and other artifacts describing Jewish customs. These were donated by individuals and Jewish institutions from various parts of the world. The synagogue was originally built in the 15th Century, sometime between 1430 and 1460, when the local Jewish community came to prominence. Today it is the oldest Jewish house of worship in Portugal. It was situated in the heart of what was then the Judearia, or Jewish Quarter, in the area that is now located between the present day streets of Rua Direitados Açougues and Rua dos Moinhos. After the expulsion of the Jews of Portugal, the building was used for a variety of purposes. In the late 19th century it served as a hay loft and in the early 20th century as a grocery warehouse. The synagogue was finally recognized as a national monument in 1921 and was restored by Samuel Schwarz, who purchased the building in 1923. Schwarz undertook the cleaning and excavation of the sanctuary at his own expense and the building was eventually converted into a museum in 1939. There is also a Jewish museum in Algarve, which is a part of the Faro Jewish Heritage Center.
Guided tours of The Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue in Oporto are offered every day (with the exception of Shabbat and Jewish holidays) and visitors can familiarize themselves with Jewish history, religion and symbolism.