Photo by Rafael de Gilberto, courtesy Abraham Zacuto museum, Tomar

The synagogue of Belmonte

by mlopesazevedo

The synagogue in Belmonte, Bet Eliahu was inaugurated on the 4th of December, 1996, 500 years after the edict of expulsion proclaimed on or about December 5, 1496, but never carried out; instead all Jews in Portugal were forcibly baptized in 1497. The noted author, Elias Lipiner estimates that about 40 persons were given permission to leave, including the king's physician and astrologer, Abraham Zacuto.

The Jews of Belmonte, who withstood nearly 300 years of the iron monster, the Inquisition (1536-1821), survived. Marrying amongst each other, outwardly Catholic, they secretly maintained the essentials of Judaism, the women transmitting prayers from mother to daughter while the men kept track of the Jewish calender and the high holidays. With the opening up of Portuguese society after the Carnation revolution of April 1974, and an article in the New York times in 1977 , world interest in the Marranos of Belmonte increased .

The first written reference to Jews in Belmonte is in the town's royal charter granted in 1199. Although the reference is not clear evidence of Jewish presence in Belmonte, there were Jewish communities in the nearby towns of Covilhã, Guarda, Gouveia and Trancoso. A stone found in 1910 by the “discoverer” of Marranos, a Polish mining engineer named Samuel Schwartz, probably belonged to the first synagogue of Belmonte. The Hebrew inscription dated 5057 (1297) from Habacuque 2.20 reads as follows:

And Adonai is in his temple;

Sacred, silence;

Before him all the earth.

The stone is presently in the municipal museum of Castelo Branco, a copy of the sone is on display in the Abraham Zacuto museum in the Tomar synagogue.

The inauguration of the new temple on December 4, 1996 represented a victory over the Inquisition, a victory of tolerance over evil, a symbol of the heroism and tenacity of the Marranos of Belmonte who clung to their Jewish identity against all odds. Following the approval of the municipal government, the first stone of the synagogue was laid in January 1993, witnessed by Dan Tichon, president of the Israeli parliament and other Jews from around the world. The guest of honour was Salomon Azoulay, whose financial generosity made the project possible.


Canelo, Augusto David, Os Últimos CriptoJudeus em Portugal, Camara Municipal de Belmonte,, 2d, 2001,

Garcia, Maria Antonieta, Judaísmo no Feminino, Tradição popular e ortodoxis em Belmonte,

Instituto de Sociologia e Etnogia das Religiões, Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Lisboa, 1999