The last synagogue in Oporto, before the forced conversion

In the city of Oporto existed, at least three Jewish quarters (Judiarias): the “Judiaria Velha” (Old Jewry), in Cividade in the current quarter “Bairro da Sé”, in the place where later the Hospital dos Coreiros da Sé was installed; and after this, the “Judiaria de Monchique”.

Over time, the Judiaria de Monchique was becoming small, and Jews began to expand outside the precincts of the Jewish quarter. This gave rise to conflicts and discussions with the Christian population.

Faced with this situation, in 1386, King John I gave orders to the Oporto Municipality to designate a new location, large enough for the habitation of the Jews of the city.

The chosen terrain was an area of ​​olive groves (Olival) in the place then called “das Courelas”. It was rented (aforrado) by the city to the Jews, against the payment of 200 maravedis of 27 soldos each.

The Judiaria embraced the street then called S. Miguel (which include the part known today as Rua de S. Bento da Vitória with which it forms a sort of an elbow) and the streets Taipas, Belo Monte – down to the bottom of the stairs, which until recently were called the Escadinhas da Esnoga (Stairs of the synagogue), and now I think they are also called da Vitoria.

In 1491, shortly before the expulsion of the Jews of Castile, Rabbi Isaac Aboab, the “Gaon of Castile,” negotiated with D. John II the entry of Jewish refugees to Portugal, in order to wait there for the desired repeal the decree of Ferdinand and Isabella. Every Jew, when entering Portugal, had to pay a tax of 8 cruzados.

To the 30 most distinguished Jewish families, including the Gaon’s own, the king assigned residences in the aforementioned S. Miguel street.

Isaac Aboab died in 1493, in Oporto, and was therefore spared witnessing the forced conversion, in 1496, of all Portuguese Jews, including his own family. His son received the new Christian name of Duarte Dias, and his grandson, who also bore the name of the grandfather, Isaac Aboab, was baptized as Henrique Gomes.

From this year on there were no longer public Jews in Portugal. At the site of Judiaria a church and convent were built, and given the name S. Bento da Vitória, symbolizing, it is said, the victory of the church over the synagogue. It was even though until recently, that the church was built on the ruins of the synagogue.  

However, the long stairs which were called (until recently) the “Escadinhas da Esnoga” (Stairs of the Synagogue) lead to the rear of one of the houses of the Rua de S. Miguel. The houses of that street, although they have been benefited several times, with restoration work, kept more or less their original trace. Most of them are owned by the Oporto Misericórdia (a welfare brotherhood).

About 7 years ago, this house was given over by the Misericórdia for the establishment of a day home for elderly people. During  the restoration work, the workers noted the existence, in one of the rooms, of a double wall on the eastern side. After that the false wall was removed, they found in the original wall, a built-in closet, a niche, with all the appearance of having been an Ehal (or Aron Hakodesh) where the Sifrei Torah are kept.

The fact that it is on the eastern wall, i.e. in the direction of Jerusalem, to where Jews direct their prayers, and at the exact point at the end of the esnoga stairs, suggests that  the synagogue where rabbi Aboab prayed  was in this house and not in the site of the present church.*

Years ago, when I visited the site to examine the Ehal, I passed near the entrance to the Monastery of S. Bento da Vitória, in the street of the same name, and I was surprised to see me in the outer wall, a plaque with the following inscription:

“In memory of all Portuguese Jews victims of the infamous decree of 1496 which gave them the option to forced conversion or death.

Earth, do not cover their blood by omission.

Let be restored the blessed memory of all those men and women who have kept alive for five centuries the echo of the word of the living, renewing the prophetic vision of Moses on Mount Horeb:

The bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.

Their burning souls were not destroyed by the flames or by the beings who wanted, through the most terrible torture, forcing them to renounce their sublime faith in the source of life and love.

The just vibrates in his faith”

I had vague information that Captain Barros Basto placed  a similar inscription in the wall of the vestibule of the Kadoorie Meḳor Haim synagogue. And that he was  forced to hide it under the tile panel, which is still there today. I tried to obtain more information about the origin of the inscription in the wall of the convent. All that I could find out was that it had been placed there in 1996, at the initiative of French Jews, at the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Decree of Expulsion by King D. Manuel I.

* Since then I have located several more closets in the same style in other places in Portugal. In some cases local tradition indicated that such houses “where in the place of the ancient synagogue. The Tomar synagogue had also such a closet in the eastern wall, which can be seen in ancient pictures. But it was covered during restauration.

Purim of Alcazarquivir –

Purim on the 14th of the month of Adar in the Jewish calendar, is the only holiday that celebrates an event that occurred in the Diaspora, outside the Land of Israel, in Persia at the time of Mordecai (Mordehai) and Queen Esther. The grand vizier, Amman, decreed the death of all Jews of the vast Persian empire, and thanks to the intervention of the Jewish queen, the king allowed Mordecai, Esther’s uncle, to organize the defense of the Jews, who thus escaped destruction and death.

Several Jewish communities have the custom to celebrate in a second Purim, local events, when they were miraculously spared from extermination.

In the year 5338, in the Jewish calendar, the second day of Elul corresponded to August 4, 1578, a sad date in Portugal’s history – because of  the defeat of the Portuguese troops in Alcazarquivir, and the mysterious disappearance of the young King Sebastian.

Local tradition tells that, when the Portuguese army reached the outskirts of  Alcazarquivir (the great fortress), two “anusim” (Jews violently converted to Christianity), which were part of the Portuguese army, went in secret to see the Jews of the city. They disclosed to the Jews, that the Christian king, before leaving for Africa, went to a church in Lisbon, and made a solemn oath that if he won the battle, he would force all the Jews of those lands to convert to Christianity, such as D. Manuel I had done to the entire Jewish population of Portugal.

The Jews of Alcazarquivir were stricken with panic. However, the rabbis asked them to make a day of fasting and prayer, imploring God to save them from that cruel decision, as did Queen Esther in her time.

In the course of the battle, the Moorish King Mulay Mohammed, who had been dethroned by his uncle Abd-al-Malik (Mulay Ally), and made an alliance with the Portuguese King, expecting to regain the throne, was deadly wounded.

Shortly after that Abd -al- Malik himself also perished, according to legend, by the effects of intoxication. However, the Moors of Alcazarquivir, in collusion with the Jewish doctor of the king, decided to hide the fact of his death and pursued the battle under the command of the brother of the sovereign.

Soon after, unexpectedly, the Christian king disappeared, probably wounded in battle. In the absence of a commander, the Portuguese who had already murmured against the many tactical errors of D. Sebastian, lost orientation and dispersed. Thousands felt under the swords of the Moors; others were imprisoned.

Alcazarquivir did not fall, and D. Sebastian disappeared never to be seen again. For hundreds of years, people believed that he would return in a foggy morning… or maybe not.

This battle became known in history as the “Battle of the Three Kings” in memory of the kings who perished there.

Then the rabbis of Morocco ruled that, from that year on and forever, from generation to generation; those communities would celebrate, on the second day of Rosh Hodesh Elul, a feast of Purim, with joy, rest from work, and offer of alms to the poor  (Mishloah manot laEvionim ).

All this was written in a Megillah, a hand-written roll of parchment, of which there are still some copies in Israel, and probably in other countries. They are read in the synagogues and in the family, in the day they call “Purim Sebastiano ” or “Purim Sebastian YSV ” (short for ” let his name and memory be erased for ever”).

This is what the Jews of Tangier and Tetuan celebrate every year on that date.

The historic episode of the defeat of Don Sebastian at Alcácer Quibir is also largely  referred to by some Jewish chroniclers, such as Yossef Hacohen, in his work “Emek Habahah” (Valley of Tears), where he inputs Sebastian’s defeat to a divine punishment for the forced conversion of Portuguese Jews in 1497; and also by Imanuel Aboab in his “Nomologia relatng the failure of the Portuguese with King D. John II’s exile of Jewish children to the island of St. Thomas, which  Samuel Usque called the “Island of the Lizards” because it was inhabited by crocodiles.

 In this picture, the first part of the Meguila di Sebastian.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

O minuto vitorioso de Alcácer Quibir : batalha do Mohácen, 4 de Agosto de 1578 / José de Esaguy. Lisboa : Agência Geral das Colónias, 1944.

A lição de Alcácer Quibir / Mário José Domingues. Lisboa : Civilização, 1975

A  batalha dos três reis : uma narrativa de heroísmo e lenda. [S.l.] : Ledo, 1990

Alcácer-Quibir 1578 / José de Esaguy. Lisboa : Império, 1950

Battle of Alcacer Quibir

 Battle of Alcacer Quibir / Jesse Russel

מגלות לימי פורים מיוחדים בעיר טנג’יר