Exterior of the Portuguese Synagogue in 2015
|Groundbreaking||April 17, 1671|
|Completed||August 2, 1675|
The Amsterdam Sephardic community was one of the largest and richest Jewish communities in Europe during the Dutch Golden Age, and their very large synagogue reflected this. The synagogue remains an active place of worship and is also a popular tourist attraction.
The Sephardim (Hebrew for "Jews of Spain") were issued with the Spanish Royal Alhambra Decree in 1492, whereby they were given the choice of exile from Spain, or conversion to Catholicism, or failing to do either, execution. Of Spain's estimated 200,000 Jews at that time, around half converted; many by coercion, others because of social and financial pressures preventing their departure, and a few out of genuine religious conviction. They became Spain's Jewish-origin New Christians or conversos (i.e. "converts" to Catholicism).
Of the other half of Spain's Jews who did not convert, and instead chose exile, some sailed south (becoming the North African Sephardim), others went east (becoming the Eastern Sephardim), but most crossed the border west to Portugal.
In Portugal, Jewish life was interrupted only a few years later, when there too they were issued with the Portuguese decree against the Jews in 1496. While in theory, the Jews now in Portugal who chose not convert to Catholicism also had the option to be expelled (or executed) by 1497, the Portuguese king, not wanting a similar Jewish flight and brain drain as happened in Spain, in practice blocked Portugal's ports of exit, and subsequently reasoned that those who stayed behind agreed to become Christians by default. Thus the Jews in Portugal were forced to convert to Catholicism in 1496 after the decree and, all but a few who did manage to flee, became Portugal's Jewish-origin New Christians or conversos.
For the next few centuries, the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal continued to investigate the conversos and their descendants on suspicions that they continued to practice Judaism in secret. Many in fact did continue to practice Judaism behind closed doors, while publicly professing to be Catholics; in Spanish and Portuguese these were called Marranos.
The persecutions and trials by the inquisition against conversos lasted well into the late 1800s. Furthermore, the legal distinction between so-called Old Christians and New Christians was maintained for centuries, with a person's pedigree always on record.
Both those who actively maintained Jewish practices in secret, and also some sincere conversos who had converted fully to Catholicism, were at times hounded, persecuted and executed on charges of being Marranos. This was often a pretext for the confiscation of their property. Many of them wished to have freedom of religion again and to be free from this institutionalized anti-Semitism. Amsterdam, then one of the greatest cities in the world, offered both of these things.
In this historical context, a substantial migration of conversos from the Iberian Peninsula to Amsterdam took place from the 1600s to the early 1800s. Once in Amsterdam, many returned to Judaism openly and publicly. They called themselves Portuguese Jews, even those who came directly from Spain. They wanted to avoid being identified with Spain, which was at war with the Dutch Republic at the time during the Eighty Years' War. This branch of Judaism is also known as the Western Sephardim.
The Sephardic Jews in Amsterdam were known as the "First Modern Jews" because they were the first people to distinguish the difference between religious and secular spheres of their individual and collective lives. Their religious life was focused primarily on the synagogue, religious calendar of Jewish life, and the eagerness to provide a Jewish education to their kids.
The Sephardic Jews used both the Portuguese and Spanish language to communicate with one another and other people. Although Portuguese was the main language spoken in the community, it was still beneficial to the Sephardic Jews to know both languages.
When Amsterdam started to become more and more populated with Jews, it became common for people to refer to it as the "New Jerusalem." This nickname developed because of the Jewish life that Amsterdam was beginning to become fulfilled with. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, the holy land of Judaism, and is known as one of the most popular cities in the country. Amsterdam being nicknamed after this city is a way of saying that it is becoming the start of a Jewish city. The Jewish neighborhood that formed in this city was called the "Jodenbuurt." Being the center of Jewish settlement, this neighborhood was easy for visitors and tourists to recognize as a Jewish community because of the buildings that were present. The community had both a Spanish-Portuguese synagogue and a German-Jewish synagogue. By having two types of synagogues not only made the community easy to recognize, but made visitors feel welcomed and Christians were shown a great sense of openness to the community, as it did not matter if one was Jewish or not.
On December 12, 1670, the Sephardic Jewish community of Amsterdam acquired the site to build a synagogue and construction work began on April 17, 1671, under the architect Elias Bouman. On August 2, 1675, the Esnoga was finished.
The inscription above the entrance is from Psalm 5:8: "In the abundance of Thy lovingkindness will I come into Thy house". The sign also contains "1672", the year the building was intended to be completed, and "Aboab", the name of the chief rabbi who initiated the construction project.
The building is free-standing and rests on wooden poles; the foundation vaults can be viewed by boat from the canal water underneath the synagogue. The entrance to the main synagogue is off a small courtyard enclosed by low buildings housing the winter synagogue, offices and archives, homes of various officials, the rabbinate, a mortuary, and noted Etz Hayim library. The interior of the synagogue is a single, very high rectangular space retaining its original wooden benches. The floor is covered with fine sand, in the old Dutch tradition, to absorb dust, moisture and dirt from shoes and to muffle the noise. Only five synagogues in the world have a sand floor, and this is the only one with such a floor surviving outside the Caribbean region.
During the 1955-1959 renovation, the former Etz Hayim seminary auditorium was redesigned as a winter synagogue; central heating and electric lighting were added. The benches were taken from a synagogue originally built in 1639 and the Hechal dates from 1744.
Baruch Spinoza was expelled from this synagogue community for his writings.
The Portuguese Synagogue has one of the oldest Jewish libraries in the world and filled with original and rare texts. It is called upon for academic and rabbinical research all the time. It was founded in 1616 and has been housed in the historical complex of the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam since 1675. In 1889 the private library of the then librarian David Montezinos was donated to Ets Haim and the library is known since then as Ets Haim/Livraria Montezinos.
The Religion of Judaism contains a physical building that is known as a Synagogue. A synagogue is of significant importance to Jews because it serves as their place of worship where the Torah is read and assembly and congregation of Jews takes place. Whether it be a religious holiday, a Shabbat service, or any day of the week, a synagogue is a safe place where Jews can go to pray. Especially when a loved one is in a time of need, many Jews will turn to their synagogue and pray in hope of healing the one who is ill and in desperate need. Not only is the synagogue used as a safe haven, but it is a place of interaction with other Jews from an individual's community.
The Portuguese Synagogue that existed in Amsterdam was also known as the "Esnoga." Esnoga is a Portuguese word defined as the house of worship, the synagogue. It transformed from converted warehouses that were unnoticeable to the public into monumental structures that provided Jewish worship. In 1670, the Jewish population of Amsterdam was approximately 2,500 people. Five years later as more people moved to Amsterdam, the Portuguese Synagogue was inaugurated. The synagogue consisted of Jews who had behaviors that were refined and cultured and challenged the belief that existed that Jews were a "disgraceful, stubborn breed." These Jews who were members of the Synagogue engaged in international commerce and maintained economic relationships with Gentile elites to aid their challenge of this statement. Overall, the Portuguese Synagogues that were created became the public markers of the prosperity, sense of comfort, and prestige city's that the Jewish communities enjoyed during these years.
The Interior of the Portuguese Synagogue is of the longitudinal Iberian-Sephardic type. The Holy Ark is situated in the South East Corner of the building and faces the holy city of Israel, Jerusalem. On the other side of the room, opposite of the ark, is the Tebah. The Tebah is a box/chest from which the service is lead.
The Women's Gallery is supported by 12 stone columns, each which represents one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. In addition to these columns, there are 2 large brass chandeliers that hold a total of 1,000 candles. All of the candles are lit in the Synagogue during worship services. The light of these candles shine together through the 72 windows that exist in the building.
Around the building, there are numerous offices, archives, the rabbinate, the mortuary, and the Ets Haim. The Ets Haim (Tree of Life) is the library that contains valuable collections of Sephardic manuscripts.
A close-up of Hezekiah da Silva, as portrayed in a drawing found in the Rabbis' room