Spanish and Portuguese Jews

"Spanish Jews" redirects here. For the Jews living within Spain at various times, see History of the Jews in Spain.
"Portuguese Jews" redirects here. For the Jews living within Portugal at various times, see History of the Jews in Portugal.
Western Sephardic Jews
יהדות פורטוגל
Judeus da nação portuguesa
Judaeo-Portuguese, Judaeo-Spanish, later English, Dutch, Low German
Related ethnic groups
other Sephardic Jews

Western Sephardim (also known more ambiguously as Spanish and Portuguese Jews, Spanish Jews, Portuguese Jews and Jews of the Portuguese Nation) acronymed S&P are a distinctive sub-group of Iberian Jews, who are descended from Jews who lived in the Iberian Peninsula for centuries, until their expulsion from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497. These event were linked to the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, respectively.

The Alhambra Decree (also known as the Edict of Expulsion) was an edict issued on 31 March 1492, by the joint Catholic Monarchs of Spain (Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon) ordering the expulsion of practicing Jews from the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon and its territories and possessions by 31 July, of that year.[1] The primary purpose was to eliminate their influence on Spain's large converso population and ensure they did not revert to Judaism. Over half of Spain's Jews had converted as a result of the religious persecution and pogroms which occurred in 1391, and as such were not subject to the Decree or to expulsion. A further number of those remaining chose to avoid expulsion as a result of the edict. As a result of the Alhambra decree and persecution in prior years, over 200,000 Jews converted to Catholicism and between 40,000 and 80,000 were expelled, an indeterminate number returning to Spain in the years following the expulsion.[2] Most of the Spanish Jews who left Spain accepted the hospitality of Sultan Bayezid II and, starting with the Alhambra Decree, moved to the Ottoman Empire,[3] where they founded proud communities openly practicing their religion.

Many of the Spanish Jews who left Spain moved also to Portugal, where they were subsequently forcibly converted to the Catholic Church (1497). During the following centuries [4] after the Spanish and Portuguese decrees, some of these conversos started emigrating and settling throughout areas of Western Europe and Latin America up until the 1700s, forming small communities and formally reverting to Judaism.

As a result of the unceasing trials and persecutions of crypto-Judaism by the Portuguese and Spanish Inquisitions, the early members of this distinctive community of Sephardic Jews consisted of persons who themselves, or whose immediate forebears, personally experienced an interim period as New Christians. The early community continued to be augmented by further New Christian emigration out of the Iberian Peninsula occurring in a continuous flow between the 1600s to 1700s. Jewish-origin New Christians, as de jure Christians, fell under the jurisdictional powers of the Inquisition, but once they were in their new tolerant environments of refuge, out of both the Iberian cultural sphere and jurisdiction of the Inquisition, they were able to officially return to Judaism, the Jewish community, and open Jewish practice.

As former conversos or the descendants of former conversos, Spanish and Portuguese Jews developed a distinctive ritual based on a melding of the remnants of the Judaism of pre-expulsion Spain, which they had practiced in secrecy during their time as New Christians, and influenced by the Judaism as practiced by the communities (including Sephardic Jews of the Ottoman Empire and Ashkenazi Jews) which assisted them in their readoption of normative Judaism; as well as by the Spanish-Moroccan and the Italian Jewish rites practiced by rabbis and hazzanim recruited from those communities to instruct them in ritual practice. A part of their distinctiveness as a Jewish group, furthermore, stems from the fact that they saw themselves as forced to "redefine their Jewish identity and mark its boundaries [...] with the intellectual tools they had acquired in their Christian socialization"[5] during their time as New Christian conversos.


Painting of the Amsterdam Esnoga—considered the mother synagogue by the Spanish and Portuguese Jews—by Emanuel de Witte (ab. 1680).

The main 'Western Sephardic Jewish' communities developed in Western Europe, Italy, and the non-Iberian regions of the Americas.

In addition to the term "Western Sephardim", this sub-group of Sephardic Jews is sometimes also referred to also as "Spanish and Portuguese Jews," "Spanish Jews," "Portuguese Jews," or "Jews of the Portuguese Nation."

The term "Western Sephardim" is frequently used in modern research literature to refer to "Spanish and Portuguese Jews," but sometimes also to "Spanish-Moroccan Jews".

The use of the terms "Portuguese Jews" and "Jews of the Portuguese Nation" in areas such as the Netherlands, Hamburg, Scandinavia, and at one time in London, seems to have arisen primarily as a way for the "Spanish and Portuguese Jews" to distance themselves from Spain in the times of political tension and war between Spain and the Netherlands in the 17th century. Similar considerations may have played a role for ethnic Sephardic Jews in the French regions of Bayonne and Bordeaux, given their proximity to the Spanish border. Another reason for the terminology of "Portuguese" Jews may have been that a relatively high proportion of the families in question had Portugal as their immediate point of departure from the Iberian peninsula, regardless of whether the remoter family background was Spanish or Portuguese, as Portugal was the first place of refuge for many Spanish Jews immediately following their expulsion from Spain.

As the term "Sephardim" (when used in its ethnic sense) necessarily connotes a link with Spain, the distinguishing feature of "Portuguese Jews" or "Jews of the Portuguese Nation" was the added link with Portugal. Thus, as a subset of the Sephardim, "Portuguese" and "Spanish and Portuguese" could be used interchangeably. Finally, almost all organised communities in this group traditionally employed Portuguese rather than Spanish as their official or working language.

In Italy, the term "Spanish Jews" (Ebrei Spagnoli) is frequently used, but it includes descendants of Jews expelled as Jews from the Kingdom of Naples, as well as "Spanish and Portuguese Jews" proper (i.e. Jews descended from former conversos and their descendants).

In Venice, Spanish and Portuguese Jews were often described as "Ponentine" (Western), to distinguish them from "Levantine" (Eastern) Sephardim from Eastern Mediterranean areas. Occasionally Italian Jews distinguish between the "Portuguese Jews" of Pisa and Livorno and the "Spanish Jews" of Venice, Modena and elsewhere.

The scholar Joseph Dan distinguishes "medieval Sephardim" (15th and 16th-century Spanish exiles in the Ottoman Empire who arrived as Jews) from "Renaissance Sephardim" (Spanish and Portuguese former converso communities who arrived as New Christians), in reference to the respective times of each grouping's formative contacts with Spanish language and culture.

Relation to other Sephardi communities

The term Sephardi means "Spanish" or "Hispanic", and is derived from Sepharad, a Biblical location. The location of the biblical Sepharad is disputed, but Sepharad was identified by later Jews as Hispania, that is, the Iberian Peninsula. Sepharad still means "Spain" in modern Hebrew.

The relationship between Sephardi-descended communities is illustrated in the following diagram:

Pre-Expulsion Sephardi Jewish Population of Iberia
Spanish Alhambra Decree of 1492, Portuguese Decree of 1497
Iberian Exile in the late 15th century
Conversion to Catholicism up to the late 15th century
North African Sephardim
Eastern Sephardim
Sephardic Anusim
Those Jews fleeing from Iberia as Jews in the late 15th century at the issuance of Spain and Portugal's decrees of expulsion. Initially settled in North Africa.
Those Jews fleeing from Iberia as Jews in the late 15th century at the issuance of Spain and Portugal's decrees of expulsion. Initially settled in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond.
Those Jews in Spain and Portugal who, in an effort to delay or avoid their expulsion (and in most cases in Portugal, in an effort by Manuel I of Portugal to prevent the Jews from choosing the option of exile), are forced or coerced to convert to Catholicism up until the late 15th century, at the expiration of the deadline for their expulsion, conversion, or execution as set out in the decrees. Became conversos/New Christians/marranos in Iberia. As Christians, were under the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church and subject to the Spanish Inquisition.
Migration of Conversos from the 16th to 18th centuries
Clandestine migration of conversos to Ibero-America and their settlement during colonization from the 16th to 18th centuries
Reversion to Judaism from the 16th to 18th centuries
Extension of the Inquisition to Ibero-America in the 16th century
Western Sephardim
Sephardic Bnei Anusim
The first few generations of descendants of Sephardic Anusim who migrated as conversos out of Iberia (to regions beyond the Iberian cultural sphere) between the 16th to 18th centuries where they then reverted to Judaism. Initially settled in the Netherlands, London, Italy, etc.
The later generation descendants of Sephardic Anusim who remained, as conversos, in the Iberian Peninsula or moved to the Iberian colonial possessions across various Latin American countries during the Spanish colonization of the Americas. Subject to the Inquisition until its abolition in the 19th century
Abolition of the Inquisition in the 19th century
Reversion to Judaism in the 20th to 21st centuries
Neo-Western Sephardim
The nascent and growing population of returnees to Judaism among the Sephardic Bnei Anusim population whose recent return began in the late 20th and early 21st centuries in Iberia and Ibero-America.

"Sephardim" properly refers to all Jews whose families have extended histories in Spain and Portugal (i.e. "Sephardim proper", in Hebrew called "Sephardim Tehorim"), in contrast to Ashkenazi Jews and all other Jewish ethnic divisions. However, Mizrahi Jews, who have extended histories in the Greater Middle East and North Africa, have often been called "Sephardim" more broadly in colloquial and religious parlance due to similar styles of liturgy and a certain amount of intermarriage between them and Sephardim proper.

The main factor distinguishing "Spanish and Portuguese Jews" (Western Sephardim) from other "Sephardim proper" is that "Spanish and Portuguese Jews" refers specifically to those Jews who descend from persons whose history as practising members of Jewish communities with origins in the Iberian peninsula was interrupted by a period of having been New Christians (also known as conversos, the Spanish and Portuguese term for "converts" to Catholicism) or anusim (Hebrew for those "forced" to convert from Judaism to another faith).

During their period as New Christians, many conversos continued to practise their Jewish faith in secrecy as best they could. Those New Christian conversos of Jeiwsh origin who maintained crypto-Jewish practices in secret were termed marranos (Spanish "swine") by Old Christian Spaniards and Portuguese.

Conversely, those New Christian conversos who have remained as conversos since that time, both those in the Iberian Peninsula and those who moved to the Iberian colonial possessions during the Spanish colonization of the Americas, became the related Sephardic Bnei Anusim. Sephardic Bnei Anusim are the contemporary and largely nominally Christian descendants of assimilated 15th century Sephardic Anusim, and are today a fully assimilated sub-group within the Iberian-descended Christian populations of Spain, Portugal, Hispanic America and Brazil. For historical reasons and circumstances, Sephardic Bnei Ansuim have not returned to the Jewish faith over the last five centuries,[6] In modern times, some have begun emerging publicly in increasing numbers, especially in the last two decades.

For "Spanish and Portuguese Jews" (Western Sephardim), their historical period as conversos has shaped their identity, culture, and practices. In this respect, they are clearly distinguishable from those Sephardim who descend from the Jews who left Iberia as Jews before the expiration date for the Alhambra Decree, resulting in the 1492 expulsion from Spain and 1497 expulsion from Portugal of all Jews who had not been baptised into the Catholic faith. These expelled Jews settled mainly around the Mediterranean Basin of Southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, namely, Salonika, the Balkans and Turkey, and they became the Eastern Sephardim and North African Sephardim respectively. For centuries, the Sephardic Jewish communities under Ottoman rule provided spiritual leadership to the dispersed Sephardim through their contributions to the Responsa literature.[7][8][9] These Sephardic communities offered refuge to all Jews, including the Sephardic conversos fleeing the Inquisition across Europe as well as their Eastern European coreligionists fleeing pogroms.

Relation to Sephardic Bnei Anusim and Neo-Western Sephardim

See also: Neo-Western Sephardim and Sephardic Bnei Anusim

The common feature shared by Western Sephardim ("Spanish and Portuguese Jews") to Sephardic Bnei Anusim and Neo-Western Sephardim is that all three are descended from conversos. "Western Sephardim" are descendents of former conversos of earlier centuries; "Sephardic Bnei Anusim" are the still nominally Christian descendants of conversos; and "Neo-Western Sephardim" are the increasing in number modern-day former conversos currently returning to Judaism from among the Sephardic Bnei Anusim population.

The distinguishing factor between "Western Sephardim" and the nascent "Neo-Western Sephardim" is the time frame of the reversions to Judaism, the location of the reversions, and the precarious religious and legal circumstances surrounding their reversions, including impediments and persecutions. Thus, the converso descendants who became the Western Sephardim had reverted to Judaism between the 16th and 18th centuries, they did so at a time before the abolition of the Inquisition in the 19th century, and this time frame necesitated their migration out of the Iberian cultural sphere. Conversely, the converso descendants who are today becoming the nascent Neo-Western Sephardim have been reverting to Judaism between the late 20th and early 21st centuries, they have been doing so at a time after the abolition of the Inquisition in the 19th century, and this time frame has not necesitated their migration out of the Iberian cultural sphere.

Although Jewish communities were re-established in Spain and Portugal in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, largely with the help of communities of Spanish and Portuguese Jews such as that in London, these present-day Jews in Portugal and Jews in Spain are distinct from "Spanish and Portuguese Jews" as, for the most part, the modern Jewish communities resident in Spain and Portugal also include other Jewish ethnic divisions recently immigrated to Spain and Portugal, such as Ashkenazi Jews of Northern Europe.

In modern Iberia, practicing Jews of Sephardic origins, such as the Jewish community of Oporto, however, are also not Western Sephardim, but are Neo-Western Sephardim, as they were re-established in the 20th century and early 21st centuries with a campaign of outreach to the crypto-Jews of Sephardic Bnei Anusim origins. The Oporto community's return to Judaism was led by the returnee to Judaism Captain Artur Carlos de Barros Basto (1887–1961), known also as the "apostle of the Marranos". In 1921, realizing that there were less than twenty Ashkenazi Jews living in Porto, and that recent returnees to Judaism like himself were not organized and had to travel to Lisbon for religious purposes whenever necessary, Barros Basto began to think about building a synagogue and took initiative in 1923 to officially register the Jewish Community of Porto and the Israelite Theological Center in the city council of Porto. As mentioned, these communities of modern-day returnees to Judaism are among the first in the emergence of the nascent Neo-Western Sephardim. Neo-Western Sephardim are the modern returnees to Judaism throughout Iberia and Ibero-America emerging from among the population of Sephardic Bnei Anusim, and are distinct from Western Sephardim (those termed "Spanish and Portuguese Jews").

Even more recent examples of such Neo-Western Sephardim communities include the Belmonte Jews in Portugal, and the Xuetes of Spain. In the case of the Xuetes, the entire community of converso descendants was extended a blanket recognition as Jews by Rabbinical authorities in Israel due to their particular historical circumstances on the island which effectively resulted in a strict social isolation of the Xuetes imposed upon them by their non-Jewish-descended neighors up until modern times.[10]

In the last five to ten years, "organized groups of [Sephardic] Benei Anusim have been established in Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and in Sefarad [the Iberian Peninsula] itself".[11] have also now been established. Some members of these communities have formally reverted to Judaism.


In Spain and Portugal

Spanish and Portuguese Jews were originally descended from New Christian conversos (i.e. Jews converted to Roman Catholic Christianity) whose descendants later left the Iberian peninsula and reverted to Judaism.

Although legend has it that conversos existed as early as the Visigothic period, and that there was a continuous phenomenon of crypto-Judaism from that time lasting throughout Spanish history, this scenario is unlikely, as in the Muslim period of Iberia there was no advantage in passing as a Christian instead of publicly acknowledging one was a Jew. The main wave of conversions, often forced, followed the massacre of 1391 in Spain. Legal definitions of that era theoretically acknowledged that a forced baptism was not a valid sacrament, but the Church confined this to cases where it was literally administered by physical force: a person who had consented to baptism under threat of death or serious injury was still regarded as a voluntary convert, and accordingly forbidden to revert to Judaism.[12] Crypto-Judaism as a large-scale phenomenon mainly dates from that time.

Conversos, whatever their real religious views, often (but not always) tended to marry and associate among themselves. As they achieved prominent positions in trade and in the Royal administration, they attracted considerable resentment from the "Old Christians". The ostensible reason given for issuance of the 1492 Alhambra Decree for the conversion, expulsion or execution of the unconverted Jews from Spain was that the unconverted Jews had supported the New Christian conversos in the crypto-Jewish practices of the latter, thus delaying or preventing their assimilation into the Christian community.

After the issuance of Spain's Alhambra Decree in 1492, a large proportion of the unconverted Jews chose exile rather than conversion, many of them crossing the border to Portugal. In Portugal, however, the Jews were again issued with a similar decree just a few years later in 1497, giving them the choice of exile or conversion. Unlike in Spain, however, in actual practice Portugal mostly prevented them from leaving, thus they necessarily stayed as ostensible converts to Christianity whether they wished to or not, after the Portuguese King reasoned that by their failure to leave they accepted Christianity by default. For this reason, crypto-Judaism was far more prevalent in Portugal than in Spain, even though many of these families were originally of Spanish rather than Portuguese descent.


Scholars are still divided on the typical religious loyalties of the conversos, in particular on whether they are appropriately described as "crypto-Jews". Given the secrecy surrounding their situation, the question is not easy to answer: probably the conversos themselves were divided, and could be ranged at different points between the possible positions. The suggested profiles are as follows:

  1. Sincere Christians, who were still subject to discrimination and accusations of Judaizing on the part of the Inquisition; some of these appealed to the Pope and sought refuge in the Papal States.[13]
  2. Those who had honestly tried their best to live as Christians, but who, on finding that they were still not accepted socially and still suspected of Judaizing, conceived intellectual doubts on the subject and decided to try Judaism, on the reasoning that suspicion creates what it suspects.[14]
  3. Genuine crypto-Jews, who regarded their conversions as forced on them and reluctantly conformed to Catholicism until they found the first opportunity of living an open Jewish life.[15]
  4. Opportunistic "cultural commuters" whose private views may have been quite sceptical and who conformed to the local form of Judaism or Christianity depending on where they were at the time.[16][17]

For these reasons, there was a continuous flow of people leaving Spain and Portugal (mostly Portugal) for places where they could practise Judaism openly, from 1492 until the end of the 18th century. They were generally accepted by the host Jewish communities as anusim (forced converts), whose conversion, being involuntary, did not compromise their Jewish status.

Conversos of the first generation after the expulsion still had some knowledge of Judaism based on memory of contact with a living Jewish community. In later generations, people had to avoid known Jewish practices that might attract undesired attention: conversos in group 3 evolved a home-made Judaism with practices peculiar to themselves, while those in group 2 had a purely intellectual conception of Judaism based on their reading of ancient Jewish sources preserved by the Church such as the Vulgate Old Testament, the Apocrypha, Philo and Josephus. Both groups therefore needed extensive re-education in Judaism after reaching their places of refuge outside the peninsula. This was achieved with the help of

Ceuta and Melilla

There are still Jewish communities in the North African exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. These places, though treated in most respects as integral parts of Spain, escaped the Inquisition and the expulsion, so these communities regard themselves as the remnant of pre-expulsion Spanish Jewry.

In Italy

As Sephardic Jewish communities were established in central and northern Italy, following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and from the Kingdom of Naples in 1533, these areas were an obvious destination for conversos wishing to leave Spain and Portugal. The similarity of the Italian language to Spanish was another attraction. Given their Christian cultural background and high level of European-style education, the new emigrants were less likely to follow the example of the 1492 expellees by settling in the Ottoman Empire, where a complete culture change would be required.[18]

On the other hand, in Italy they ran the risk of prosecution for Judaizing, given that in law they were baptized Christians; for this reason they generally avoided the Papal States. The Popes did allow some Spanish-Jewish settlement at Ancona, as this was the main port for the Turkey trade, in which their links with the Ottoman Sephardim were useful. Other states found it advantageous to allow the conversos to settle and mix with the existing Jewish communities, and to turn a blind eye to their religious status. In the next generation, the children of conversos could be brought up as fully Jewish with no legal problem, as they had never been baptized.

The main places of settlement were as follows:

  1. The Republic of Venice often had strained relations with the Papacy; they were also alive to the commercial advantages offered by the presence of educated Spanish-speaking Jews, especially for the Turkey trade. Previously the Jews of Venice were tolerated under charters for a fixed term of years, periodically renewed. In the early 16th century, these arrangements were made permanent, and a separate charter was granted to the "Ponentine" (western) community. Around the same time, the state required the Jews to live in the newly established Venetian Ghetto. Nevertheless for a long time the Venetian Republic was regarded as the most welcoming state for Jews, equivalent to the Netherlands in the 17th century or the United States in the 20th century.
  2. Sephardic immigration was also encouraged by the House of Este in their possessions of Reggio, Modena and Ferrara. In 1598 Ferrara was repossessed by the Papal States, leading to some Jewish emigration from there.
  3. In 1593, Ferdinando I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, granted Spanish and Portuguese Jews charters to live and trade in Pisa and Livorno.

On the whole, the Spanish and Portuguese Jews remained separate from the native Italian rite Jews, though there was considerable mutual religious and intellectual influence between the groups. In a given city, there was often an "Italian synagogue" and a "Spanish synagogue", and occasionally a "German synagogue" as well. Many of these synagogues have since merged, but the diversity of rites survived in modern Italy.

The Spanish Synagogue (Scola Spagnola) of Venice was originally regarded as the "mother synagogue" for the Spanish and Portuguese community worldwide, as it was among the earliest to be established, and the first prayer book was published there. Later communities, such as in Amsterdam, followed its lead on ritual questions. With the decline in the importance of Venice in the 18th century, the leading role passed to Livorno (for Italy and the Mediterranean) and Amsterdam (for western countries). Unfortunately, the Livorno synagogue – considered to be the most important building in town – was destroyed in the Second World War: a modern building was erected on the same site in 1958–62.

Many merchants maintained a presence in both Italy and countries in the Ottoman Empire, and even those who settled permanently in the Ottoman Empire retained their Tuscan or other Italian nationality, so as to have the benefit of the capitulations of the Ottoman Empire. Thus, in Tunisia there was a community of Juifs Portugais, or L'Grana (Livornese), separate from, and regarding itself as superior to, the native Tunisian Jews (Tuansa). Smaller communities of the same kind existed in other countries, such as Syria, where they were known as Señores Francos. They were generally not numerous enough to establish their own synagogues, instead meeting for prayer in each other's houses.

In France

In the 16th and early 17th centuries, conversos were also seeking refuge beyond the Pyrenees, settling in France at Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Tarbes, Bayonne, Bordeaux, Marseille, and Montpellier. They lived apparently as Christians; were married by Catholic priests; had their children baptized, and publicly pretended to be Catholics. In secret, however, they circumcised their children, kept Shabbat and feast-days as best they could and prayed together.

Henry III of France confirmed the privileges granted them by Henry II of France, and protected them against accusations. Under Louis XIII of France, the conversos of Bayonne were assigned to the suburb of Saint-Esprit. At Saint-Esprit, as well as at Peyrehorade, Bidache, Orthez, Biarritz, and Saint-Jean-de-Luz, they gradually avowed Judaism openly. In 1640 several hundred conversos, considered to be Jews, were living at Saint-Jean-de-Luz; and a synagogue existed in Saint-Esprit as early as 1660.

In pre-Revolutionary France, the Portuguese Jews were one of three tolerated Jewish communities, the other two being the Ashkenazi Jews of Alsace-Lorraine and the Jews of the former Papal enclave of Comtat Venaissin; all three groups were emancipated at the French Revolution. The third community originally had their own Provençal rite, but adopted the Spanish and Portuguese rite shortly after the French Revolution and the incorporation of Comtat Venaissin into France. Today there are still a few Spanish and Portuguese communities in Bordeaux and Bayonne, and one in Paris, but in all these communities (and still more among French Jews generally) any surviving Spanish and Portuguese Jews are greatly outnumbered by recent Sephardic migrants of North African origin.

In the Netherlands[19]

During the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands, converso merchants had a strong trading presence there. When the Dutch Republic gained independence in 1581, the Dutch retained trading links with Portugal rather than Spain, as Spain was regarded as a hostile power. Since there were penal laws against Catholics,[20] and Catholicism was regarded with greater hostility than Judaism, New Christian conversos (technically Catholics, as that was the Christian tradition they were forced into) were encouraged by the Dutch to "come out" openly as Jews. Given the multiplicity of Protestant sects, the Netherlands was the first country in the Western world to establish a policy of religious tolerance. This made Amsterdam a magnet for conversos leaving Portugal.

There were originally three Sephardi communities: the first, Beth Jacob, already existed in 1610, and perhaps as early as 1602; Neve Shalom was founded between 1608 and 1612 by Jews of Spanish origin. The third community, Beth Israel, was established in 1618. These three communities began co-operating more closely in 1622. Eventually, in 1639, they merged to form Talmud Torah, the Portuguese Jewish Community of Amsterdam, which still exists today. The current Portuguese Synagogue, sometimes known as the "Amsterdam Esnoga", was inaugurated in 1675.

At first the Dutch conversos had little knowledge of Judaism and had to recruit rabbis and hazzanim from Italy, and occasionally Morocco and Salonica, to teach them. Later on Amsterdam became a centre of religious learning: a religious college Ets Haim was established, with a copious Jewish and general library. This library still exists. The transactions of the college, mainly in the form of responsa, were published in a periodical, Peri Ets Haim (see links below). There were formerly several Portuguese synagogues in other cities such as The Hague. Since the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands and destruction of Jews in the Second World War, the Amsterdam synagogue is the only remaining synagogue of the Portuguese rite in the Netherlands. It serves a membership of about 600. The synagogue at the Hague survived the war undamaged: it is now the Liberal Synagogue and no longer belongs to the "Portuguese" community.

The position of Jews in the Spanish Netherlands (modern Belgium) was rather different.[21] Considerable numbers of conversos lived there, in particular in Antwerp. The Inquisition was not allowed to operate. Nevertheless their practice of Judaism remained under cover and unofficial, as acts of Judaizing in Belgium could expose one to proceedings elsewhere in the Spanish possessions. Sporadic persecutions alternated with periods of unofficial toleration. The position improved somewhat in 1713, with the cession of the southern Netherlands to Austria, but no community was officially formed until the 19th century. There is a Portuguese synagogue in Antwerp; its members, like those of the Sephardic rite synagogues of Brussels, are now predominantly of North African origin, and few if any pre-War families or traditions remain.

In Germany, Northern Europe and Eastern Europe

There were Portuguese Jews living in Hamburg as early as the 1590s. Records attest to their having a small synagogue called Talmud Torah in 1627, and the main synagogue, Beth Israel, was founded in 1652. From the 18th century on, the Portuguese Jews were increasingly outnumbered by "German Jews" (Ashkenazim). By 1900, they were thought to number only about 400.

A small branch of the Portuguese community was located in Altona, with a congregation known as Neweh Schalom. Historically, however, the Jewish community of Altona was overwhelmingly Ashkenazi, as Altona belonged to the kingdom of Denmark, which permitted Jews of all communities to settle there when Hamburg proper still only admitted the Portuguese.

Spanish and Portuguese Jews had an intermittent trading presence in Norway until the early 19th century, and were granted full residence rights in 1844.[22] Today they have no separate organizational identity from the general (mainly Ashkenazi) Jewish community, though traditions survive in some families.

Around 1550, many Sephardi Jews travelled across Europe to find their haven in Poland, which had the largest Jewish population in the whole of Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. For this reason there are still Polish Jewish surnames with a possible Spanish origin. However, most of them quickly assimilated into the Ashkenazi community and retained no separate identity.

In Britain

There were certainly Spanish and Portuguese merchants, many of them conversos, in England at the time of Queen Elizabeth I; one notable marrano was the physician Roderigo Lopez. In the time of Oliver Cromwell, Menasseh Ben Israel led a delegation seeking permission for Dutch Sephardim to settle in England: Cromwell was known to look favourably on the request, but no official act of permission has been found. By the time of Charles II and James II, a congregation of Spanish and Portuguese Jews had a synagogue in Creechurch Lane. Both these kings showed their assent to this situation by quashing indictments against the Jews for unlawful assembly.[23] For this reason the Spanish and Portuguese Jews of England often cite 1656 as the year of re-admission, but look to Charles II as the real sponsor of their community.

Bevis Marks Synagogue was opened in 1701 in London. In the 1830s and 40s there was agitation for the formation of a branch synagogue in the West End, nearer where most congregants lived, but rabbis refused this on the basis of Ascama 1, forbidding the establishment of other synagogues within six miles of Bevis Marks. Dissident congregants, together with some Ashkenazim, accordingly founded the West London Synagogue in Burton Street in 1841. An official branch synagogue in Wigmore Street was opened in 1853. This moved to Bryanston Street in the 1860s, and to Lauderdale Road in Maida Vale in 1896. (A private synagogue existed in Islington from 1865 to 1884, and another in Highbury from 1885 to 1936.) A third synagogue has been formed in Wembley. Over the centuries the community has absorbed many Sephardi immigrants from Italy and North Africa, including many of its rabbis and hazzanim. The current membership includes many Iraqi Jews and some Ashkenazim, in addition to descendants of the original families. The Wembley community is predominantly Egyptian.

The synagogues at Bevis Marks, Lauderdale Road and Wembley are all owned by the same community, formally known as Sahar Asamaim (Sha'ar ha-Shamayim), and have no separate organisational identities. The community is served by a team rabbinate: the post of Haham, or chief rabbi, is currently vacant (and has frequently been so in the community's history), the current head being known as the "Senior Rabbi". The day-to-day running of the community is the responsibility of a Mahamad, elected periodically and consisting of a number of parnasim (wardens) and one gabbay (treasurer). . Under the current Senior Rabbi, Joseph Dwek, the name of the community has been changed from "Congregation of Spanish and Portuguese Jews" to "S&P Sephardi Community".[24]

In addition to the three main synagogues, the Montefiore Synagogue at Ramsgate associated with the burial place of Moses Montefiore. A synagogue in Holland Park is described as "Spanish and Portuguese" but serves chiefly Greek and Turkish Jews, with a mixed ritual: this is connected to the main community by a Deed of Association. The Manchester Sephardic synagogues are under the superintendence of the London community and traditionally used a predominantly Spanish and Portuguese ritual, which is giving way to a Jerusalem Sephardic style: the membership is chiefly Syrian in heritage, with some Turkish, Iraqi and North African Jews. The London community formerly had oversight over some Baghdadi synagogues in the Far East, such as the Ohel Leah Synagogue in Hong Kong and Ohel Rachel Synagogue in Shanghai. An informal community using the Spanish and Portuguese rite, and known as the "Rambam Synagogue", exists in Elstree and a further minyan has been established in Hendon. Newer Sephardic rite synagogues in London, mostly for Baghdadi and Persian Jews, preserve their own ritual and do not come under the Spanish and Portuguese umbrella.

Like the Amsterdam community, the London Spanish and Portuguese community early set up a Medrash do Heshaim (Ets Haim). This is less a functioning religious college than a committee of dignitaries responsible for community publications, such as prayer books.[25] In 1862 the community founded the "Judith Lady Montefiore College" in Ramsgate, for the training of rabbis. This moved to London in the 1960s: students at the College concurrently followed courses at Jews' College (now the London School of Jewish Studies). Judith Lady Montefiore College closed in the 1980s, but was revived in 2005 as a part-time rabbinic training programme run from Lauderdale Road, serving the Anglo-Jewish Orthodox community in general, Ashkenazim as well as Sephardim.[26]

The Third Cemetery of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, Congregation Shearith Israel (1829–1851) on West 21st Street in Manhattan, New York City is now surrounded by tall buildings

In the Americas

From the 16th to the 18th centuries, a majority of conversos leaving Portugal went to Brazil. This included economic emigrants with no interest in reverting to Judaism. As the Inquisition was active in Brazil as well as in Portugal, conversos still had to be careful.

Dutch Sephardim were interested in colonisation, and formed communities in both Curaçao and Paramaribo, Suriname. Between 1630 and 1654, a Dutch colony existed in the north-east of Brazil, including Recife. This attracted both conversos from Portuguese Brazil and Jewish emigrants from Holland, who formed a community in Recife called Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue, the first synagogue in the Americas. On the reconquest of the Recife area by Portugal, many of these Jews (it is not known what percentage) left Brazil for new or existing communities in the Caribbean such as Curaçao. Others formed a new community, Congregation Shearith Israel, in New Amsterdam (later renamed as New York) in 1654, the first Jewish synagogue in what became the United States. Numerous conversos, however, stayed in Brazil. They survived by migrating to the countryside in the province of Paraíba and away from the reinstated Inquisition, which was mostly active in the major cities.

In the Caribbean, there were at one point Spanish and Portuguese synagogues in various other Dutch- and English-controlled islands, such as Jamaica, St. Thomas, Barbados, St. Eustatius and Nevis. With the elimination of the Inquisition after the Spanish American wars of independence, which many Caribbean Sephardim hadsupported, many of these communities declined as Jews took advantage of their new-found freedom to move to the mainland, where there were better economic opportunities. Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica and Honduras, among others, received numbers of Sephardim. Within a couple of generations, these immigrants mostly converted to Catholicism in order to better integrate into society. Only in Panama and Suriname did viable communities endure on the Central- and South-American mainland. In the 21st century among the Caribbean islands, only Curaçao and Jamaica still have communities of Spanish and Portuguese Jews.

In the British Thirteen Colonies, synagogues were formed before the American Revolution at Newport, Rhode Island and Philadelphia, as well as in cities of the southern colonies of South Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia. Since then, many of the former Sephardic synagogues in the southern states and the Caribbean have become part of the Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist movements, and retain only a few Spanish and Portuguese traditions.

Despite the Dutch origins of the New York community, by the 19th century all of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities in the United States and Canada were very much part of the London-based family. The 19th and early 20th century editions of the prayer book published in London and Philadelphia contained the same basic text, and were designed for use on both sides of the Atlantic: for example, they all contained both a prayer for the Royal family and an alternative for use in republican states. The New York community continued to use these editions until the version of David de Sola Pool was published in 1954. On the other hand, in the first half of the 20th century, the New York community employed a series of hazzanim from Holland, with the result that the community's musical tradition remained close to that of Amsterdam.

First Cemetery of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, Shearith Israel

The Spanish and Portuguese synagogues of the United States conserve varying degrees of Sephardic tradition, but the majority of their membership is now ethnically Ashkenazi. Newer Sephardic and Sephardic-rite communities, such as the Syrian Jews of Brooklyn and the Greek and Turkish Jews of Seattle, do not come under the Spanish and Portuguese umbrella. The Seattle community did use the de Sola Pool prayer books until the publication of Siddur Zehut Yosef in 2002. Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, a community in Los Angeles with a mainly Turkish ethnic background, still uses the de Sola Pool prayer books.


Interior of the Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam, with the tebáh (bema) in the foreground and the Hekhál (Torah ark) in the background.

Most Spanish and Portuguese synagogues are, like those of the Italian and Romaniote Jews, characterised by a bipolar layout, with the tebáh (bema) near the opposite wall to the Hechál (Torah ark). The Hekhál has its parochet (curtain) inside its doors, rather than outside. The sefarim (Torah scrolls) are usually wrapped in a very wide mantle, quite different from the cylindrical mantles used by most Ashkenazi Jews. Tikim, wooden or metal cylinders around the sefarim, are typically not used. These were reportedly used,, however, by the Portuguese Jewish community in Hamburg.

The most important synagogues, or esnogas, as they are usually called amongst Spanish and Portuguese Jews, are the Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam and those in London and New York. Amsterdam is still the historical centre of the Amsterdam minhag, as used in the Netherlands and former Dutch possessions such as Surinam. Also important is the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London, the historical centre of the London minhag. The Curaçao synagogue (built in 1732 and known as the Snoa, the Papiamento form of esnoga) of the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel congregation is considered one of the most important synagogues in the Jewish history of the Americas.

Since the late 20th century, many esnogas or synagogues in the Iberian Peninsula have been discovered by archaeologists and restored by both private and governmental efforts. In particular, the synagogues of Girona, Spain and Tomar, Portugal have been impressively restored to their former grandeur, if not their former social importance. (See the article Synagogue of Tomar.) Both Spain and Portugal have recently made efforts to reach out to descendants of Jews who were expelled from the peninsula in the 15th century, inviting them to apply for citizenship.


"Spanish and Portuguese Jews" typically spoke both Spanish and Portuguese in their Early Modern forms. This is in contrast to the languages spoken by Eastern Sephardim and North African Sephardim, which were archaic Old Spanish derived Judaeo-Spanish dialects of Judaeo-Spanish ("Ladino") and Haketia (a mixture of Old Spanish, Hebrew, and Aramaic, plus various other languages depending on the area of their settlement). Their Early Modern languages also differ from modern Spanish and Portuguese, as spoken by Sephardic Bnei Anusim of Iberia and Ibero-America, including some recent returnees to Judaism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

The use of Spanish and Portuguese languages by Western Sephardim persists in parts of the synagogue service. Otherwise, the use of Spanish and Portuguese quickly diminished amongst the Spanish and Portuguese Jews after the 17th century, when they were adapting to new societies.

In practice, from the mid-19th century on, the Spanish and Portuguese Jews gradually replaced their traditional languages with the local ones of their places of residence for their everyday use. Local languages used by "Spanish and Portuguese Jews" include Dutch in the Netherlands and Belgium, Low German in the Altona, Hamburg area, and English in Great Britain, Ireland, Jamaica, and the United States.

In Curaçao, Spanish and Portuguese Jews contributed to the formation of Papiamento, a creole of Portuguese and various African languages. It is still used as an everyday language on the island.

Spanish and Portuguese Jews who have migrated to Latin America since the late 20th century have generally adopted modern standard Latin American varieties of Spanish as their mother tongue.


Because of the relatively high proportion of immigrants through Portugal, the majority of Spanish and Portuguese Jews of the 16th and 17th centuries spoke Portuguese as their first language. Portuguese was used for everyday communication in the first few generations, and was the usual language for official documents such as synagogue by-laws; for this reason, synagogue officers still often have Portuguese titles such as Parnas dos Cautivos and Thesoureiro do Heshaim. As a basic academic language, Portuguese was used for such works as the halakhic manual Thesouro dos Dinim by Menasseh Ben Israel and controversial works by Uriel da Costa.

Portuguese is used – sometimes purely, other times in a mixture with Spanish and Hebrew – in connection with announcements of mitsvot in the esnoga, in connection with the Mi shebberakh prayer etc.[27] In London, for example, mitsvot are announced using Portuguese designations for the different roles played: for example, for lifting up or unwrapping the first or second Sefer Torah, "que levantara/desenfaxara o primeiro/secundo sefer Torah"), whereas in New York these roles are instead announced in Hebrew. On Kol Nidre in London, the announcement of the order of who is to carry the Sefarim forms part of a Portuguese declaration beginning "a ordem dos Sefarim de esta noite". These Portuguese phrases are generally pronounced phonetically according to the spelling as interpreted by a Spanish speaker, rather than as a Portuguese speaker would, though a recording of the correct Portuguese pronunciation was made for the use of the Amsterdam community.

The Judaeo-Portuguese dialect was preserved in some documents, but has not been used in everyday speech since the late 18th or early 19th century: for example, Portuguese ceased to be a spoken language in Holland in the Napoleonic period, when Jewish schools were allowed to teach only in Dutch and Hebrew. Sermons in Bevis Marks Synagogue were preached in Portuguese till 1830, when English was substituted. Judaeo-Portuguese has had some influence on the Judeo-Italian language of Livorno, known as Bagitto.

Castilian (Spanish)

Castilian Spanish was used as the everyday language by those who came directly from Spain in the first few generations. Those who came from Portugal regarded it as their literary language, as did the Portuguese at that time. Relatively soon, the Castilian Ladino took on a semi-sacred status ("Ladino", in this context, simply means literal translation from Hebrew: it should not be confused with the Judaeo-Spanish used by Balkan, Greek and Turkish Sephardim.) Works of theology as well as reza books (siddurim) were written in Castilian rather than in Portuguese; while, even in works written in Portuguese such as the Thesouro dos Dinim, quotations from the Bible or the prayer book were usually given in Spanish. Members of the Amsterdam community continued to use Spanish as a literary language. They established clubs and libraries for the study of modern Spanish literature, such as the Academia de los Sitibundos (founded 1676) and the Academia de los Floridos (1685).

In England the use of Spanish and Portuguese continued until the early 19th century: In 1740 Haham Isaac Nieto produced a new translation into contemporary Spanish of the prayers for the New Year and Yom Kippur, and in 1771 a translation of the daily, Sabbath and Festival prayers. There was an unofficial translation into English in 1771 by A. Alexander and others by David Levi in 1789 and following years, but the Prayer Books were first officially translated into English in 1836, by hakham David de Aaron de Sola. Today Spanish and Portuguese Jews in England have little tradition of using Spanish, except for the hymn Bendigamos, the translation of the Biblical passages in the prayer-book for Tisha B'Av, and in certain traditional greetings.


Main article: Sephardi Hebrew

The Hebrew of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews from the 19th century and 20th century is characterised primarily by the pronunciation of בֿ (Beth rafé) as a hard b (e.g., Abrahám, Tebáh, Habdaláh) and the pronunciation of ע (ʿAyin) as a voiced velar nasal (Shemang, Ngalénu). The hard pronunciation of Beth Rafé differs from the v pronunciation of Moroccan Jews and the Judaeo-Spanish Jews of the Balkans, but is shared by Algerian and Syrian Jews. The nasal pronunciation of 'Ayin is shared with traditional Italian pronunciation, but not with any other Sephardi groups. Both these features are declining, under the influence of hazzanim from other communities and of Israeli Hebrew.

The sibilants ס, שׂ, שׁ and צ are all transcribed as s in earlier sources. This, along with the traditional spellings Sabá (Shabbat), Menasseh (Menashe), Ros(as)anáh (Rosh Hashana), Sedacáh (tzedaka), massoth (matzot), is evidence of a traditional pronunciation which did not distinguish between the various sibilants—a trait which is shared with some coastal dialects of Moroccan Hebrew.[28] Since the 19th century, the pronunciations [ʃ] (for שׁ and [ts] for צ have become common—probably by influence from Oriental Sephardic immigrants, from Ashkenazi Hebrew and, in our times, Israeli Hebrew.

The תֿ (taw rafé) is pronounced like t in all traditions of Spanish and Portuguese Jews today, although the consistent transliteration as th in 17th-century sources may suggest an earlier differentiation of תֿ and תּ. (Final תֿ is occasionally heard as d.)

In Dutch-speaking areas, but not elsewhere, ג (gimel) is often pronounced [χ] like Dutch "g". More careful speakers use this sound for gimel rafé (gimel without dagesh), while pronouncing gimel with dagesh as [ɡ].[29]

Dutch Sephardim take care to pronounce he with mappiq as a full "h", usually repeating the vowel: vi-yamlich malchutéhe.

The accentuation of Hebrew adheres strictly to the rules of Biblical Hebrew, including the secondary stress on syllables with a long vowel before a shva. Also, the shvá nang in the beginning of a word is normally pronounced as a short eh (Shemang, berít, berakháh). Shva nang is also normally pronounced after a long vowel with secondary stress (ngomedím, barekhú). However it is not pronounced after a prefixed u- (and): ubne, not u-bene.

Vocal shva, segol (short e) and tzere (long e) are all pronounced like the 'e' in "bed": there is no distinction except in length.[30] In some communities, e.g. Amsterdam, vocal shva is pronounced [ɡ] when marked with gangya (a straight line next to the vowel symbol, equivalent to meteg), and as [i] when followed by the letter yodh: thus va-nashubah and bi-yom (but be-Yisrael).[31]

The differentiation between kamatz gadol and kamatz katan is made according to purely phonetic rules without regard to etymology, which occasionally leads to spelling pronunciations at variance with the rules laid down in the grammar books. For example, כָל (all), when unhyphenated, is pronounced "kal" rather than "kol" (in "kal ngatsmotai" and "Kal Nidre"), and צָהֳרַיִם (noon) is pronounced "tsahorayim" rather than "tsohorayim". This feature is shared by other Sephardic groups, but is not found in Israeli Hebrew. It is also found in the transliteration of proper names in the King James Version such as Naomi, Aholah and Aholibah.


Although all Sephardic liturgies are similar, each group has its own distinct liturgy. Many of these differences are a product of the syncretization of the Spanish liturgy and the liturgies of the local communities where Spanish exiles settled. Other differences are the result of earlier regional variations in liturgy from pre-expulsion Spain. Moses Gaster (died 1939, Hakham of the S&P Jews of Great Britain) has shown that the order of prayers used by Spanish and Portuguese Jews has its origin in the Castilian liturgy of Pre-Expulsion Spain.

As compared with other Sephardic groups, the minhag of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews is characterised by a relatively low number of cabbalistic additions. The Friday night service thus traditionally starts with Psalm 29, "Mizmor leDavid: Habu LaA.”. In the printed siddurim of the mid-17th century, “Lekhah Dodi" and the Mishnaic passage Bammeh madlikin are also not yet included, but these are included in all newer siddurim of the tradition except for the early West London and Mickve Israel (Savannah) Reform prayerbooks, both of which have Spanish and Portuguese roots.

Of other, less conspicuous, elements, a number of archaic forms can be mentioned—including some similarities with the Italian and Western Ashkenazi traditions. Such elements include the shorter form of the Birkat hammazon which can be found in the older Amsterdam and Hamburg/Scandinavian traditions. The Livorno (Leghorn) tradition, however, includes many of the cabbalistic additions found in most other Sephardi traditions. The current London minhag is generally close to the Amsterdam minhag, but follows the Livorno tradition in some details—most notably in the Birkat hammazon.

One interesting feature of the tradition (at least in New York and Philadelphia) is that, when reading the haftarah on Simhat Torah and Shabbat Bereshit, the Hatan Torah and Hatan Bereshit chant two extra verses pertaining to bridegrooms from Isaiah 61:10 and 62:5 at the end of the standard haftarot for the days themselves. This seems to be a unique remnant of the old tradition of reading Isaiah 61:10–63:9 if a bridegroom who had been married the previous week was present in synagogue.


Ashkibenu (Hashkiveinu) and Yigdal from the Spanish and Portuguese Jews' Congregation in London, harmonised by Emanuel Aguilar.


The ritual music of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews differs from other Sephardic music in that it is influenced by Western European Baroque and Classical music to a relatively high degree. Not only in Spanish and Portuguese communities, but in many others in southern France[32] and northern Italy,[33] it was common to commission elaborate choral compositions, often including instrumental music, for the dedication of a synagogue, for family events such as weddings and circumcisions and for festivals such as Hoshana Rabbah, on which the halachic restriction on instrumental music did not apply.

Already in 1603, the sources tell us that harpsichords were used in the Spanish and Portuguese synagogues in Hamburg. Particularly in the Amsterdam community, but to some degree also in Hamburg and elsewhere, there was a flourishing of Classical music in the synagogues in the 18th century. There was formerly a custom in Amsterdam, inspired by a hint in the Zohar, of holding an instrumental concert on Friday afternoon prior to the coming in of the Shabbat, as a means of getting the congregants in the right mood for the Friday night service. An important Jewish composer was Abraham Caceres; music was also commissioned from non-Jewish composers such as Cristiano Giuseppe Lidarti, some of which is still used.

The same process took place in Italy, where the Venetian community commissioned music from non-Jewish composers such as Carlo Grossi and Benedetto Marcello.

Another important centre for Spanish and Portuguese Jewish music was Livorno, where a rich cantorial tradition developed, incorporating both traditional Sephardic music from around the Mediterranean and composed art music: this was in turn disseminated to other centres.[34]

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in particular in Italy at the time of the Italian unification, hazzanim sometimes doubled as opera singers, and some liturgical compositions from this period reflect this operatic character.


Already in the 17th century, choirs were used in the service on holidays in the Amsterdam community: this choir still exists and is known as Santo Serviço. This custom was introduced in London in the early 19th century. In most cases, the choirs have consisted only of men and boys, but in Curaçao, the policy was changed to allow women in the choir (in a separate section) in 1863.

Instrumental music

There are early precedents for the use of instrumental music in the synagogue originating in 17th century Italy as well as the Spanish and Portuguese communities of Hamburg and Amsterdam and in the Ashkenazic community of Prague. As in most other communities (until the rise of the Reform movement in the 19th century) the use of instrumental music was not permitted on Shabbat or festivals.

As a general rule, Spanish and Portuguese communities do not use pipe organs or other musical instruments during services. In some Spanish and Portuguese communities, notably in France (Bordeaux, Bayonne), US (Savannah, Georgia, Charleston, South Carolina, Richmond, Virginia) and the Caribbean (Curaçao), pipe organs came into use during the course of the 19th century, in parallel with developments in Reform Judaism. In Curaçao, where the traditional congregation had an organ set up in the late 19th century, the use of the organ on Shabbat was eventually also accepted, as long as the organ player was not Jewish. In the more traditional congregations, such as London and New York, a free-standing organ or electric piano is used at weddings or benot mitzvah (although never on Shabbat or Yom Tob), in the same way as in some English Ashkenazi synagogues.

Current practice

The cantorial style of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews adheres to the general Sephardi principle that every word is sung out loud and that most of the ritual is performed communally rather than solistically (although nowadays in the New York community, the Pesukei dezimra (zemirot) throughout the year, Hallél on festivals or the new moon, and several of the selichot during Yom Kippur are chanted in a manner more similar to the Ashkenazi practice of reading only the first and last few verses of each paragraph aloud). The hazzan's rôle is typically one of guiding the congregation rather than being a soloist. Thus, there is traditionally a much stronger emphasis on correct diction and knowledge of the musical minhág than on the solistic voice quality.[35] In the parts of the service where the ḥazzán would traditionally have a more solistic rôle, the basic melodies are embellished according to the general principles of Baroque performance practice: for example, after a prayer or hymn sung by the congregation, the ḥazzán often repeats the last line in a highly elaborated form. Two- and three-part harmony is relatively common, and Edwin Seroussi has shown that the harmonies are a reflection of more complex, four-part harmonies in written sources from the 18th century.

The recitative style of the central parts of the service, such as the Amidah, the Psalms and the cantillation of the Torah is loosely related to that of other Sephardi and Mizraḥi communities, though there is no formal maqam system as used by most of these.[36] The closest resemblance is to the rituals of Gibraltar and Northern Morocco, as Spanish and Portuguese communities traditionally recruited their ḥazzanim from these countries. There is a remoter affinity with the Babylonian and North African traditions: these are more conservative than the Syrian and Judaeo-Spanish (Balkan, Greek, Turkish) traditions, which have been more heavily influenced by popular Mediterranean, Turkish and Arabic music.

In other parts of the service, and in particular on special occasions such as the festivals, Shabbat Bereshit and the anniversary of the founding of the synagogue, the traditional tunes are often replaced by metrical and harmonized compositions in the Western European style. This is not the case on Rosh Hashanah and Kippúr (Yom Kippur), when the whole service has a far more archaic character.

A characteristic feature of Oriental Sephardic music is the transposition of popular hymn tunes (themselves sometimes derived from secular songs) to important prayers such as Nishmat and Kaddish. This occurs only to a limited extent in the Spanish and Portuguese ritual: such instances as exist can be traced to the book of hymns Imre no'am (1628), published in Amsterdam by Joseph Gallego, a hazzan originating in Salonica.[37] Certain well-known tunes, such as El nora aliláh and Ahhot ketannáh, are shared with Sephardi communities worldwide with small variations.


Spanish and Portuguese traditional cantillation has several unique elements. Torah cantillation is divided into two musical styles. The first is the standard used for all regular readings. A similar but much more elaborate manner of cantillation is used on special occasions. This is normally referred to as High Tangamim or High Na'um. It is used for special portions of the Torah reading, principally the Ten Commandments[38] but also Chapter 1 of Bereshit (on Simchat Torah), the Shirat ha-Yam, the Song of Moses, the concluding sentences of each of the five books and several other smaller portions.[39]

Spanish and Portuguese Torah cantillation has been notated several times since the 17th century. The melodies now in use, particularly in London, show some changes from the earlier notated versions and a degree of convergence with the Iraqi melody.[40]

The rendition of the Haftarah (prophetic portion) also has two (or three) styles. The standard, used for most haftarot, is nearly identical with that of the Moroccan nusach. A distinctly more somber melody is used for the three haftarot preceding the ninth of Ab (the "three weeks".) On the morning of the Ninth of Ab a third melody is used for the Haftarah—although this melody is borrowed from the melody for the Book of Ruth.

There is a special melody used for the Book of Esther: in London it is a cantillation system in the normal sense, while in New York and Amsterdam it is chant-like and does not depend on the Masoretic symbols. The books of Ruth, read on Shavuot, and Lamentations, read on the Ninth of Ab, have their own cantillation melodies as well. There is no tradition of reading Ecclesiastes.

Most Spanish and Portuguese communities have no tradition of liturgical reading of the Shir haShirim (Song of Songs), unlike Ashkenazim who read it on Pesach and Oriental Sephardim who read it on Friday nights. However in the two weeks preceding Pesach a passage consisting of selected verses from that book is read each day at the end of the morning service. The chant is similar but not identical to the chant for Shir haShirim in the Moroccan tradition, but does not exactly follow the printed cantillation marks. A similar chant is used for the prose parts of the book of Job on the Ninth of Ab.

There is no cantillation mode for the books of Psalms, Proverbs and the poetic parts of Job. The chant for the Psalms in the Friday night service has some resemblance to the cantillation mode of the Oriental traditions, but is not dependent on the cantillation marks.

Communities, past and present

City Synagogue or Community[41]
Website Comments


Belgium and the Netherlands

Amsterdam Congregation Talmud Torah, Visserplein (1639) synagogue opened 1675
Antwerp Portuguese synagogue, Hovenierstraat (1898)
synagogue opened 1913; membership and ritual now mainly North African
The Hague
now the Liberal Synagogue


Bayonne see French Wikipedia article
Paris Temple Buffault (1877) membership mainly Algerian
formerly used the Provençal rite, then assimilated to the Bordeaux Portuguese minhag

Germany and Denmark

Hamburg Beth Israel (1652)

Altona Neweh Schalom (c. 1700–1885)


Copenhagen The Portuguese congregation of Copenhagen (1684)


Community active between 1675–1902


Gibraltar Sha'ar Hashamayim (1724)
known as "Esnoga Grande"; synagogue opened 1812
Ets Hayim (1759)
known as "Esnoga Chica"
Nefutsot Yehuda (1799)
known as "Esnoga Flamenca"
Abudarham Synagogue (1820)
named after Solomon Abudarham

Great Britain

London Bevis Marks Synagogue (synagogue opened 1701) (whole community); (Bevis Marks) community Sahar Asamaim dates from 1656, owns all three synagogues
Wigmore Street branch synagogue (1853-1861)
Bryanston Street branch synagogue (1866-1896) (wrongly shown as "Bryanston Road") replaced Wigmore Street synagogue
Lauderdale Road synagogue (1896) replaced Bryanston Street branch synagogue
Wembley Synagogue (1977) community formed in 1962
Holland Park Synagogue mixed rite, Greek and Turkish
Rambam Sephardi Synagogue, Elstree in process of formation
Andrade Synagogue (1865-1884) private synagogue in Islington
Mildmay Park Synagogue (1885-1935) private synagogue in Highbury
Manchester Sha'are Hayim (formerly Withington Congregation of Spanish and Portuguese Jews), Queenston Road, West Didsbury (community formed 1906 or before; synagogue opened 1926)

Sha'are Sedek, Old Lansdowne Road, West Didsbury (1924) formerly independent; later merged into Sephardi Congregation of South Manchester
Hale Sha'are Sedek in formation
Salford Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue (Sha'are Tephillah), formerly at Cheetham Hill (the old building is now the Manchester Jewish Museum)
Leeds Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of Leeds (est. 1924; dissolved in late 1940s)


Dublin Crane Lane Synagogue; Dublin's Old Hebrew Congregation (1660–1791)
Also known as Crane Lane Synagogue, Marlborough Green Synagogue.
Cork Portuguese congregation
Founded either 1731 or 1747, extinct by 1796


Venice Scola Spagnola (1550)
Pisa Jewish community of Pisa (1591–3) original synagogue built 1595; rebuilt c. 1860
Livorno Comunità ebraica di Livorno (1593) original synagogue built 1603; present synagogue opened 1962
Florence Great Synagogue of Florence
Rome Tempio Spagnolo, Via Catalana
uses one room of the Great Synagogue of Rome


Lisbon Sha'aré Tikvá
Sinagoga Mekor Haim (Kadoorie Synagogue)

Belmonte Bet Eliahu

see History of the Jews in Belmonte
Ponta Delgada, Azores Sinagoga Porta do Céu (Sahar Hassamain) (1836-1950s)
see Portuguese Wikipedia article
Angra do Heroísmo, Terceira, Azores Sinagoga Ets Haim
see Portuguese Wikipedia article



Jerusalem Congregation Sha'are Ratzon (1981) Located in the Istanbuli Synagogue in Jerusalem's Old City and following (mostly) the London minhag with occasional guest hazzanim


Chennai Madras Synagogue
dwindling mixed Portugal, spanish & Dutch Sephardic community. Madras Synagogue closed down in 1800 by Henriques De Castro and Franco Family as members reduced.


Surabaya Surabaya Synagogue
dwindling mixed Dutch Sephardic, Baghdadi, and Yemenite community. Closed down in 2009 because of political upheavals.



Montreal Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of Montreal (1768) current synagogue opened 1947


New York City Congregation Shearith Israel (1654) first synagogue built 1730; current building dates from 1897
Newport, Rhode Island Touro Synagogue "Congregation Jeshuat Israel" (1658) synagogue opened 1763; reopened 1883
Philadelphia Mikveh Israel (1745) congregation founded in 1740; current building dates to 1976
Houston, Texas Qahal Qadosh Ess Hayim (2005)
Miami, Florida Comunidad Nidhé Israel, judios Hispano-portugueses de Florida (2007)
Richmond, Virginia Beth Shalome (1789–1898) since merged into congregation Beth Ahabah, which is now Reform
Charleston, South Carolina Congregation Beth Elohim (1750) now Reform
Savannah, Georgia Congregation Mickve Israel (1733) now Reform
New Orleans Nefutzot Yehudah since merged into Touro Synagogue (New Orleans) (1828), now Reform

Central America and the Caribbean

Willemstad, Curaçao Mikve Israel-Emanuel (1730) now Reconstructionist
Jamaica Neveh Shalom (1704) , merged into the United Congregation of Israelites (1921)
Aruba Beth Israel
St. Thomas, Virgin Islands Beracha Veshalom Vegmiluth Hasidim, Charlotte Amalie (1796) now Reform
Barbados Nidhe Israel Synagogue, Bridgetown (1651) now Conservative
El Salvador Sephardic Orthodox Jewish Council of El Salvador "Shearit Israel" (2008) , the only orthodox synagogue in El Salvador
Dominican Republic Beth HaMidrash Sefardi Nidhé Israel "Casa de Estudio Sefardíes de la Republica Dominicana" (2009) the only traditional Sephardic Center in the Dominican Republic
Trinidad & Tobago B'nai Shalom (2001) the Jewish society of Trinidad & Tobago, which uses Sephardi minhag; many members are of Sephardic origin
Panama Kol Shearith Israel (1876)


Paramaribo Sedek Ve Shalom Synagogue (1735)
community merged with Neveh Shalom; Conservative
Neveh Shalom Synagogue (1716 to 1735)
sold to Ashkenazim in 1735
Jodensavanne Congregation Bereche ve Shalom (1639 to 1832)


Recife Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue (1637 to 1654)
recently restored as museum and community centre

Prominent rabbis

Other prominent personalities

Descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews

See also


  1. "Edict of the Expulsion of the Jews (1492)"
  2. Pérez, Joseph (2012) [2009]. History of a Tragedy. p. 17.
  6. Jewish Virtual Library,
  9. "Chuetas of Majorca recognized as Jewish"; Jerusalem Post 07/12/2011
  10. Moshe, ben Levi (2012). La Yeshivá Benei Anusim: El Manual de Estudios Para Entender las Diferencias Entre el Cristianismo y el Judaismo. Palibrio. p. 20. ISBN 9781463327064.
  11. Raymond of Penyafort, Summa, lib. 1 p.33, citing D.45 c.5.
  12. Netanyahu, Benzion (2002). The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain (2nd ed.). London: Bloomsbury. ISBN 978-0-940322-39-4.
  13. An extreme rather than a typical example is Uriel da Costa.
  14. This is the view of them taken in the rabbinic Responsa of the period.
  15. Glick, Thomas F. (1998). "On Converso and Marrano Ethnicity". In Gampel, Benjamin. Crisis and Creativity in the Sephardi World (1391–1648). New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 59–76. ISBN 978-0-231-10922-2.
  16. Melammed, Renee Levine (2005). A Question of Identity: Iberian Conversos in Historical Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-517071-9.
  17. See also History of the Jews in Thessaloniki#Economic decline.
  19. See Roman Catholicism in the Netherlands#History and Holland (Batavia) Mission.
  22. Henriques, The Jews and the English Law.
  26. Many of these phrases are given in I. Oeb Brandon (1892): see J Meijer, Encyclopaedia Sefardica Neerlandica p 211.
  27. This is corroborated by the frequent use, in Judaeo-Spanish, of ש without diacritic to mean Spanish s (to distinguish it from ç, rendered by ס). On the other hand, s is often pronounced [ʃ] in Portuguese.
  28. The pronunciation of "g" as [χ] in Dutch was originally a peculiarity of Amsterdam: the historic pronunciation was [ɣ]. The use of [ɣ] for gimel rafé is found in other communities, e.g. among Syrian and Yemenite Jews. Coincidentally, "g" following a vowel is pronounced as the approximant consonant [ɣ˕] in modern Spanish (but not in Portuguese).
  29. In the Tiberian vocalization segol is open [ɛ] and tzere is closed [e], like French é; while in Ashkenazi Hebrew tzere is often [ej] as in "they". In both Ashkenazi and modern Hebrew, vocal shva is the indistinct vowel in French "le" and English "the" and sometimes disappears altogether.
  30. This rule forms part of the Tiberian vocalization reflected in works from the Masoretic period, and is laid down in grammatical works as late as Solomon Almoli's Halichot Sheva (Constantinople 1519), though he records that it is dying out and that "in most places" vocal shva is pronounced like segol.
  31. For example the Provençal community of Comtat-Venaissin: see Louis Saladin, Canticum Hebraicum.
  32. See for example Adler Israel, Hosha'ana Rabbah in Casale Monferrato 1732: Dove in the Clefts of the Rock, Jewish Music Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem: Jerusalem 1990 (Yuval Music series Volume: 2)
  33. Seroussi (in Bibliography).
  34. Traditionally, an auditioning cantor in an Ashkenazi synagogue is asked to sing Kol Nidre, a solo piece demanding great vocal dexterity, range and emotional expression, while in a Sephardi synagogue he is asked to sing Bammeh madlikin, a plainsong recitative which demands accuracy more than anything else.
  35. An example of this recitative style can be heard in the first part of the 2002 BBC TV serial Daniel Deronda, where (now emeritus) Reverend Halfon Benarroch can be heard chanting the psalms that begin the Afternoon Service.
  36. Link to .pdf file; another link; on screen version. The book does not of course set out the tunes, but it names the songs that they were borrowed from.
  37. In printed Hebrew Bibles, the Ten Commandments have two sets of cantillation marks: the ta'am 'elyon or "upper accentuation" for public reading and the ta'am taḥton or "lower accentuation" for private study. The term "High Tangamim" for the melody in question is borrowed from the ta'am 'elyon, for which it is used.
  38. These passages are listed in Rodrigues Pereira, חָכְמַת שְׁלֹמֹה (‘Hochmat Shelomoh) Wisdom of Solomon: Torah cantillations according to the Spanish and Portuguese custom. Many other Sephardic traditions use special melodies for these portions as well. However, the Spanish and Portuguese melody is different from most others. Anecdotally, the Spanish and Portuguese High Tangamim are similar to the melody of Kurdish Jews.
  39. That is, the older melody used in Mosul and in most of the Iraqi Jewish diaspora, as distinct from the Baghdadi melody, which belongs to the Ottoman family: see Cantillation melodies and Sephardic cantillation.
  40. Dates shown refer to the founding of the community rather than the synagogue building, unless shown otherwise. Italics mean community no longer exists.
  41. Jewish Virtual Library – Aaron Nunez Cardozo



Caribbean Jews

Synagogue Architecture

Law and ritual

Reza books (siddurim)




English-speaking countries

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