Jewish Heritage in Portugal

Jun 15, 2019Portuguese culture and lifestyle

Nowadays Portugal is a country where communities of different religions live in harmony and without major upheavals. Nevertheless, we all know that the Inquisition ruled in Europe and Jews were persecuted.

As we are now free from that persecution and cherish history, culture, and tradition, let us give you some more details on the Jewish heritage in Portugal and the remaining communities. There’s plenty to discover and explore and a lot to learn. After all, Portuguese culture is permeated with influences from all religions and cultures.

Portuguese Nationality to the Sephardi Jews descendants

Inquisition started in France, in the 12th century and the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition was established on  November 1st. 1478, in Spain. In Portugal, the Inquisition is set in 1536.

Spanish Jews fled to Portugal, as they were forced to convert to Catholicism or abandon the country. But their peaceful living didn’t last very long. Many of them had converted from Judaism to Catholicism, know as ‘New-Christians’, only to escape the persecution. They kept their beliefs and religious practices in secret.

Recently the Portuguese Minister of Justice has welcomed the fact that the Nationality Law ‘is allowing Sephardic Jews to re-establish ties with the national community from which they were once separated, thus enabling their full participation in the construction of a more pluralistic and fraternal society in Portugal’.

Our constitution based on the fundamental rights of citizens. The country is committed to building a free and fair society for all. In 2013, the Portuguese Parliament approved a bill amending the Nationality Law, making descendants of Portuguese Sephardic Jews eligible for Portuguese nationality. This bill was passed in order to promote Justice

Jewish Communities

There are still some important Jewish communities in Portugal, where traditions still live on and they are open to receive all people curious to know more about their religion and way of living.

These communities play a key role in the maintenance of the Jewish Heritage in Portugal, in informing society about religion and the integration of its members, as well as in helping to reduce intolerance and exclusionary behavior towards Jews in Portugal


The Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue is the largest in the Iberian Peninsula. It is located in Porto and the Rabbinate is recognized by the Rabbanut Harashit of Israel. The Jewish community of the city includes about 300 Jews, originally from more than 30 countries.

In Porto, there was a ‘Judiaria’ – a Jewish quarter – where all Jews concentrated. Most of them came from Spain when the Catholic kings expelled the Jews from the country. Five hundred years ago the Jewish synagogues and cemeteries were destroyed and the Jewish houses were looted. Nowadays, the Jewish community flourishes and is open to all who want to know more about their religion, history, culture, and traditions

HEKAL found at the old Jewish quarter of Olival

On the building where the synagogue is located, you can visit the Jewish Museum of Porto. The Jewish community hosts schools, visitors and tourists at the Museum, helping them understand all the information available about their religion, their community and the work they do in the city.

The Jewish community of Porto gives full support to the Rabbis to foster the practice of Judaism, to create kosher structures in the city and to ensure that all structures work well. This community is also responsible for the reception of newcomer Jews to the city.


The presence of the Jewish community in Tomar dates back to the 14th century. The Jewish quarter was located right in the center of the city and the people dedicated their lives to crafts, small commerce and street vending. As the community grew bigger during the 15th century, a mandatory closing and opening schedule was instituted: the Jewry had to close its doors at sunset and they would open again at sunrise.

With a central location, the Jewish quarter and the Synagogue was a reflection of the importance of the community in society. When the King ordered the expulsion of all Jews from the country, the quarter was abandoned and the synagogue was used as a jail, as a Catholic chapel, as a haystack, as a cellar and grocery storage facility, throughout the centuries.

In November 2018 the Synagogue reopened, now more cult-oriented. It also houses the Abraão Zacuto Hebrew Museum, currently in construction. The collection consists of thousands of pieces that were donated to the institution, throughout the years. As this is the oldest synagogue in the Iberian Peninsula, one of the renovations’ goals was to open the synagogue to all those who want to participate in the cult.


Although during the 16th century, many of the Jews living in Portugal were forced to abandon the country or convert to Christianism. There was a small group that decided to go against all the rules. The ‘marranos’, as they were known, kept their traditions almost intact, becoming a crypto-Jewish community of exception. This spirit of resilience and resistance is what makes this community stand out from the rest.

You can visit the Belmonte Jewish Museum, where you can learn more about the Jewish presence in Portugal, its history and observe pieces from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, used by the Jewish and New-Christians’ daily life and religious practices.


Easter Celebrations: Christian and Jewish Heritage in Portugal

In Castelo de Vide, the Easter celebrations combine both Christian and Jewish traditions. There are two main moments of the celebrations. One of them has the Jewish influences more present: the night of the Good Friday to Bright Monday.

On the morning of Joyous Saturday, the village shepherds gather their flocks for blessing and then sell them. The sold sheep are killed on that day, according to Jewish tradition. (Some people decide to kill the sheep on the night  of the Good Friday, according to the Bible.)

Another reminiscence of the Jewish Kippur tradition (an act of atonement) is the demand for forgiveness, at the church door, in secrecy.

Jewish Gastronomic Heritage in Portugal

When the Jewish community was forced to convert to Christianism or abandon the country, when the Inquisition started to burn Jews in the pyre, New-Christians came up with ways to fool the authorities. As sausages were part of the traditional Portuguese diet but Jews didn’t eat pork meat, they had to come up with a plan to fool the Inquisition officials!

This is how the ‘alheira’ was born. They started making sausages from a mix of bread and chicken and used spices to color them like the average pork meat sausage. The ‘alheira’ is now part of the traditional dishes, served with french fries, white rice, and a fried egg. You can nowadays find ‘alheiras’ made from game meat.

We are very proud to live in a country where different religions and cultures coexist in harmony and allow us to learn more about our history and distinct ways of life.

We are happy to share this knowledge with you and take you to all these places!



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