Legend: Blue = Subjects connected with Judaism;

Orange = dual rites, in different religions; Brown = reference to the bibliography


About the Marranos of Belmonte


Sara Molho 2005

Translated by author

Belmonte, as indicated by its name (which is Portuguese for beautiful mountain), is a remote town on a beautiful hill, not far from the north-south highway along Portugals eastern border with Spain. It is situated on an imaginary east-west line between two ancient university-cities: Salamanca in Spain to the east, and Portugals Coimbra to the west. However, westward accessibility to Coimbra was almost barred by the mountains of Serra de Estrela, while eastward contacts with Spain were easier.


Map of Portugal


Apparently, a synagogue was built in Belmonte in 1297, probably to the west of the present statue of Pedro Alvares Cabral (considered the local nobleman who discovered Brazil in 1500). After the expulsion of the Jews of Portugal was declared (in 1496/7), followed by their forced conversion to Catholicism, the synagogue became a church. As time passed, the structure of this church collapsed.



Pedro A. Cabrals statue, which stands before
the probable site of the ancient synagogue


Descendants of crypto-Jews live in this town. Since there is a gap between mainstream Orthodox Judaism and their practices, we call them by their local label Marranos, which has also been adopted by historians. However, in their own eyes they were always Jews, not Marranos, even though they had to put on a Christian mask and practice the rites of both religions: Publicly they practiced Catholicism, but, in the privacy of their own homes, they were (crypto-)Jews. Since they feared the Inquisition would notice they differed from others, their covert way of life ruled out the possibility of openly conducting rites and prayers!


Throughout their 500 years of hiding, their self-image as Jews did not change, even though it stopped being communally overt and became a hidden individual experience practiced at home. Functions of the community's institutions collapsed into the institution of the family a process of privatization brought about the assumption of religious functions and roles by the nuclear family - not even the extended family - instead of the community. Because of their forced conversion, the only common meeting-place for all crypto-Jewish families ceased to be the synagogue! Instead, it was removed to the marketplace, the fair. Up until recently they would meet there as buyers, or rather as merchants: for centuries most of them regularly traveled as peddlers from one fair to another, mostly selling textile or leather products. This cluster of Marrano-families used to cling together in market-places, its members anxiously whispering among themselves their secret personal communications.



The Belmonte Fair today: Christians,
Jews, Gypsies and others - side by side



As noted above, prayers were recited and rites practiced secretly only indoors and solely by the women in the family while the men stringently performed guard duty outside. Religious-roles in the Marrano tradition were performed by women in contrast with the male-biased ancient and/or modern mainstream Judaism, which follows the Halakhah (Jewish Law). In order to protect the male-providers of their families, Marrano rites and practices were essentially practiced solely by mothers and wives. As a result, these matrons were called by some 20th century researchers Sacerdotosas (=Priestesses), Rabbaniot (=Matron-Rabbis), or even Khazaniot (=Matron-Cantors).







Stages in the secret female Marrano rite of preparing the

blessed sacred candle wicks of Yom Kippur (=Day of Atonement)

I Handling the purified linen-thread coil prior to preparing the wicks.

II Tearing the linen-thread by hand (scissors must not be used!).

III Counting ones fingers for completing the number of repetitions (three, five or seven) of short prayers during the preparation of the wicks.

IV For the most important and longest prayer, which is repeated 73 times (for each wick), 73 chick-peas are counted and dropped into a small bowl, one by one after each repetition. Some matrons count them in advance, then, after each recitation, they drop them into another bowl. Other matrons do not: they have to check from time to time to see whether the quota of cited prayers is being correctly completed 73 times.


As time elapsed, the Belmontese Marranos took many risks in order to preserve their Jewish religion; nevertheless, orally, it could not be kept intact, and the transformation of its contents occurred in three ways:


1. Privatization of all communal roles (rabbi/khazan), which were passed on to the nuclear family.

2. Feminization of these roles, since women started to execute most of the rites.

3. Portugalization, because the Hebrew language was totally forgotten, as were other Jewish practices, such as strict adherence to the Jewish calendar; holidays such as Rosh Hashanah [=New Year] or Hanukkah were erased and not observed. The possession of Jewish (religious) books became fatally dangerous! All prayers were memorized and orally transmitted from generation to generation in Portuguese, without any written text. Only the Hebrew name of God - Adonai (or, in its slightly distorted form, Adonaio) is mentioned in their prayers.


Water tower of Belmonte

The crypto-Jews of Belmonte were discovered in 1917 by Samuel Schwarz, a Jewish engineer who came to work in nearby mines. Before meeting him, the Marranos assumed they were the last Jews upon earth and that they had survived solely because of their disguise. They were not keen to admit they were Jews, even to him, before testing his own Jewishness. Only after they were convinced that he too was a Jew no less than themselves, they accepted him as a son of The Nation, or Our Family, as they used to say. He told the World Jewish Congress and the world at large about their existence. In his book Schwarz (1925) documents the Marranos' unique rites and practices.


Some 80 years after being exposed, most of these Marranos chose to return overtly to normative Judaism. By the end of the 20th century, out of a total of approximately 2,600 inhabitants in Belmonte, about 120 ( ,(10that is to say: between 110-130, were crypto-Jews. Some 85 converted willingly to Judaism in two waves: the first in 1992, which included 70 men, women and children; the second - in 1993 - included about 15 more persons.


(10) 120~ >out of 85~ =N


Only lenient conversion (Giur Lekhumra) was applied to most of them; this signified Judaism's recognition that the lineage of these individuals' Jewish mothers had not been interrupted since 1497. Only a few had to be fully converted according to the more rigid procedures prescribed by Jewish Law, since they had to be considered Christians.


A minority of about (~120 - ~85=) ~35 individuals or slightly more decided to remain Marranos.


(10) 120~ > 85 ~= N


In 1996, after the two waves of conversion, a new synagogue was built on the eastern slopes of Belmonte, the Beautiful Mountain, following the plan of a contemporary Portuguese architect and in accordance with the requirements of Jewish Law (forgotten in past years, but readopted now). This construction project was made possible thanks to two contributions: -


a.      The plot was donated by the heirs of a deceased Matron-Rabbi.

b.      Mr. S. Azulay funded the construction, in memory of his late father (the synagogue is therefore named Beit Eliahu). Even though not a descendent, he was personally very touched by the history of the Belmonte Marranos. The synagogue was publicly inaugurated in December 1996, commemorating the 500th anniversary of the publication of the Royal Decree of Expulsion of the Jews from Portugal. Representatives of the Jewish community of Belmonte, its municipality, and the Governments of Portugal and the State of Israel participated in the ceremony.


The new synagogue, Beit Eliahu, 1997


Within this community, which started to crystallize since the late 1980s, I used to spend yearly some weeks or months between 1994 and 2000, conducting a social research. However, due to circumstances, this time my methods had to be anthropological. I have continued visiting there since 2000, from time to time, trying to understand how these persons, who forcibly became extremely individualistic (see the above reference to privatization) are becoming again - not smoothly nor easily - community-oriented, according to the way of life in mainstream normative Judaism.


The author in front of the
synagogue being constructed, 1996



I will describe hereafter - in writing and by photos taken in Belmonte my experiences among the Marranos, combining a scientific analysis of findings with personal impressions of my journeys and adventures. Of course, I will allude to the writings of 20th-century researchers and travelers who had visited there before me. In comparison with them, my findings are innovative due to the fact that the lives of those who converted to Judaism, as well as the lives of those who did not, were completely changed after the overt return to normative Judaism of the majority: it is a transitional stage for both groups. So, instead of the indoors/outdoors conventional mode of dual-religious practices kept by Marranos in past generations, the 1990s unfolded in both groups a sense of hesitation between alternatives. This is expressed by a whole range of double, and sometimes even triple religious rites and practices (Jewish, Marrano and Christian), typical of contemporary transitional-stages, which - we all hope - precede the anticipated final stage of union with normative Judaism.


Thus, my writing equally reflects two different points of view: -


a. that of a social researcher,

b. that of an individual who was personally and deeply impressed by life among the Marrano descendants, due to a probable similarity between the history of my own family and theirs.



Visitors: a rabbis family and a Lisbon-Marrano:
View from the Castle overlooking the Zezere Valley,
where Belmonte Marranos used to
cross the Red-Sea every Passover, 1996




Sara Molho


Tel Aviv, 2005





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