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Crypto-Jews in Portugal - A Clandestine Existence

By Eduardo Mayone Dias

from HaLapid, Winter, 2000 


It is conceivable that during the worst periods of persecution by the Inquisition many of the Portuguese Jews forcibly converted to Catholicism in 1497 who could not leave the country, certainly the poorest families, without any means to buy their freedom abroad, may have sought refuge in mountainous areas on the northeastern strip of Portugal bordering Spain, as far away as they could get from the agents of repression. Such was their isolation that many believed their individual communities represented the only Jews in the entire world.

Living among Christians, they had to give the appearance of following the same religion. Mosaic cult could only be observed in their homes under maximum secrecy. It was exclusively by means of a strict code, lasting even to our days, that the basic doctrine and tradition could be preserved in an underground fashion for approximately five hundred years. Still, as Cecil Roth put it:

…it is obviously impossible for any integral Judaism of any sort to flourish under conditions of stealth, uninstructed and isolated, cut off from the outside world and mimetically divided even within itself.1

One of the first tactics to be adopted was abandonment of circumcision, since obviously any circumcised male falling prey to the so-called Holy Office would be immediately suspected of Judaizing. Also gone were all the writings in Hebrew (except medical texts) and all objects utilized in Jewish rituals, such as menorahs, mezuzahs, mizrahs, shofars, ceremonial knives used for circumcision, Torah covers and talliths. (The tallith was sometimes replaced by a scarf with which rezadeiras, the female officiants that had taken the place of rabbis, covered their heads.)

In order to compensate for the loss of sacred texts, some handwritten prayer books were compiled in later years. One of them known as the Rebordelo manuscript (Rebordelo being a village in the province of Tras-os-Montes) is divided into two parts. The first part, containing a vast number of prayers for different occasions, shows a handwriting that seems to date back to the eighteenth century. The second part is composed of a series of recommendations for leading a moral life. In addition, the book transcribes a folk ballad about a Jewish troubadour who elopes with his beloved, whom her father wanted to marry to a rich man, and registers family events such as births, weddings2 and deaths. Apart from these collections, the Old Testament was the only source of Jewish knowledge at the conversos disposal.

Ceremonies likely to attract public attention were forsaken. Thus celebrations such as Sukkoth, Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah ceased to be observed. Purim was celebrated for a time, but it will have to be assumed that it must have had an indoor character. Ritual killings of lambs and cattle were no longer publicly performed. The mikvah vanished from existence and old religious hymns were silenced. It appears that the practice of sweeping the house from the doorway into a room, rather than from inside out, often mentioned in the Inquisition proceedings, was eventually abandoned. (Also common among Sephardic groups in the Diaspora its purpose is to avoid desecrating the mezuzah by sweeping the garbage past it.)

On the other hand, Crypto-Jews had, through the ages, to resort to different camouflage strategies for their survival. The superficial acceptance of Catholicism included perfunctory church attendance and the use of Catholic symbols in an attempt to neutralize possible suspicions. In the former judiaria in the city of Guarda, for instance, crosses sculptured on the façades of some houses can still be seen. Some of the handwritten prayer books were disguised with Catholic formulae and concealed Jewish symbols. A prayer included in one of them is titled Ave Maria (Hail Mary), but its contents have nothing to do with the text of the Catholic counterpart, an obvious attempt to masquerade its true nature. (In recent times jews have said a prayer they also call Ave Maria but actually only expresses praise to the Lord.)

In everyday life maximum care had to be taken to maintain a semblance of Catholic behavior. Some authors refer to the practice of saying the following prayer:

"Adonai, my God, in my thoughts (touching the brow), Adonai, my God, in my lips (touching the lips), Adonai, my God, in my heart (touching the chest)". When the gestures were performed rapidly they gave the appearance of the sign of the cross. When a death occurred a minyan sometimes was gathered, although it was made to appear as attendance at a novena.

Jewish religious practices have been, up to present times, performed inside the house, with doors and windows tightly closed. The Sabbath lamp was often placed at the bottom of a clay jar, so that the light could not be detected from outside. In the town of Braganca in the late 1920s no child under twelve was taken to the meetings organized there for fear that in their innocence they would give away potentially dangerous information.

It has been frequently stated that conversos, after being forced to abandon their Jewish names, chose surnames designating trees or others with a Catholic connotation, the latter to offer apparent proof of their loyalty to the new faith. If this may have possibly been true of Jews voluntarily converting (and some did), the Inquisition proceedings and a survey of present day Crypto-Jews' onomasticon show virtually none of these names, with the partial exception of Pereira (pear tree), Carvalho (oak tree) and Cruz (cross), all of them also common in families without any recognizable Jewish ancestry. (Cruz is so widespread in Covilha that a Portuguese author facetiously remarked that in that town there are more "Crosses" than in the cemetery.) In our more tolerant days, although the old practice of maintaining "Christian" first names (typically Catholic names, such as João or António, abound) is still in force, some Crypto-Jews have chosen for their children such characteristically Jewish given names as Elias, Moises, Isajas, David, Daniel, Abraao, Ester, Sara, Raquel, Judite, Lia or Anaisa. Surnames have always been unfailingly Portuguese.

One dietary option may also represent a form of deception. Aiheiras are heavily seasoned sausages (the word derives from alho, garlic), still very popular in Portugal. Originally made with chicken, turkey and partridge, it is said that they were created by conversos to give the impression that they ate pork, the main ingredient of Portuguese sausages.

Along path of persecution has left its imprint on the minds of the Crypto-Jews up to our day and led to a haunting obsession with secrecy. One recent episode illustrates the impact of centuries of clandestinity. In 1991 a French TV crew was allowed to film the ceremony of the matzah preparation for a documentary titled Les Derniers Marranes (The Last Marranos). Doors and windows had been securely closed. At a certain point in the documentary a knock at the door is heard, to which the participants react in absolute panic, notwithstanding the fact that the Inquisition had been abolished for some hundred and fifty years and that no harm could come from possible intruders. Also almost all of the Crypto Jews David Augusto Canelo, a gentile, interviewed for his 1987 book Os Ultimos Criptojudeus em Portugal (The Last Crypto-Jews in Portugal) asked that their names not be mentioned, for fear of being "tried by the Inquisition".

Under these circumstances research on Crypto-Jewish life is thus extremely difficult for outsiders. Non-Jews are faced with a wall of silence and distrust and even Jews are subject to close scrutiny before they are allowed into the privacy of a family.



1. Cecil Roth, "The Religion of the Marranos", The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol XXII, no.1, July1931, p.1

2. Curiously, there is a reference to a wedding performed first according to the "true" (i.e. Crypto-Jewish) law and then by the "other" (i.e. Roman Catholic) law.


Eduardo Dias, Professor Emeritus of Portuguese at UCLA, spoke on “The Crypto Jews of Purtugal” at the SCJS Los Angeles Conference. This article is a chapter from his forthcoming book, Portugal’s Secret Jews – The End of an Era, to be published by Peregrinacão Publications.




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