Remains of a Torah ark discovered
during renovations in Portugal
By Amiram Barkat
A group of citizens from the city of Porto in Portugal who view themselves as descendents of Crypto-Jews want to turn a building in which the remains of an ancient synagogue were found into a museum dedicated to the history of the city’s Jews.
In their view, the building, in which a recess of a synagogue ark was discovered by chance, once served as the synagogue of Rabbi Isaac Aboab. However, so far the group’s request has not been acceded to, and it appears unlikely that it will.
Rabbi Aboab, also known as the “last gaon [sage] of Castile,” was the head of the Guadalajara yeshiva and one of the last gaonim of Spain. In March 1492, on the eve of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Aboab and a group of Jewish dignitaries managed to obtain political asylum in Portugal.
The rabbi settled in the Judiaria, or Jewish, quarter of Porto along with a few hundred Jewish families. Five years later, the Portuguese authorities forced all the Jews in the country to either convert to Christianity or be expelled.
Many of those forced to convert continued to observe the Jewish commandments in secret. Over the years, the Jews abandoned the Judiaria, and many of its buildings were handed over to the Church or various charity organizations. The synagogue building was handed over to a state charity.
Two years ago, the organization gave the building to a priest named Agostinho Jardim Moreira to establish an old people’s home in it. During renovations on the building, a recess where a synagogue ark once stood, in which the Torah scrolls were kept, was found behind a secret wall.
The niche was identified by historian Elvira Mea, a lecturer at the University of Porto who specializes in Jewish history. She happened to be passing by while guiding a tourist from Israel.
The location of the building precisely matches a description provided by 16th century writer Immanuel Aboab (a great-grandson of Rabbi Aboab), who wrote that the synagogue was located “in the third house along the street counting down from the church.”
Mea, who specializes in the period of the Inquisition, maintains that the synagogue continued to be active even during the period of the Crypto-Jews, who worshiped in it secretly. However, an Israeli journalist of Portuguese extraction, Inacio Steinhardt, who knows Mea personally, disagrees with her.
“It is difficult to believe the Crypto-Jews prayed in a synagogue, because it would have been far too dangerous,” he says. Steinhardt is convinced the Crypto-Jews removed the ark from the synagogue along with its other sacred artifacts and worshiped in their homes.
A group of descendants of Crypto-Jews who heard about the discovery has asked that the building be preserved and turned into a museum dedicated to the history of the city’s Jews. However, Father Moreira has demanded an alternative building as well as compensation for the money that has already been put into the renovations.
Israeli ambassador to Portugal Aaron Ram has appealed to the city of Porto and the local bishop regarding the matter. In addition, the Center for Jewish Art at Hebrew University has asked UNESCO to intervene.
Steinhardt says he is pessimistic regarding the chances of turning the building into a museum because only the Portuguese government is authorized to make any decisions in the matter.