Legend: Blue = Subjects connected with Judaism;

orange = dual rites, in different religions; brown = reference to the bibliography.

Matron Rabbis or Rabbis?

Sara Molho (2001-2005)

Translated to English (and partly rewritten) by author (2008)


Feminization of the Marrano-Religion in Belmonte

Collecting Research Data

Jewish Travelers Reflect Male-biased Preconditioning

Benjamin Minzs Book

Nahum Slouschzs Book

Male-biased Preconditioning in Other Translations and in Graphic Presentations

Itzhak Navon in Yigal Losins Film

Feminization Expressed in the Texts of Marrano-Prayers

She Who Holds Both Talitot (Jewish prayer-shawls)[1]


Feminization of the Marrano-Religion in Belmonte


In Portugal and its colonies men and women were brought to trial by the Inquisition (1536-1821), and sometimes executed after being found guilty of keeping Jewish/Marrano rites and practices. In Belmonte, too, both sexes could be victims of denunciations and persecutions ending fatally. The accusation was made that even though they pretended to be Christians in the street, at home they really were Judaizantes who practiced rites according to Mosaic-Law, that they really performed rites and practices in both religions.


Under such circumstances a collapse of the Jewish communal-institutions occurred - no more synagogues, neither Rabbis, Khazanim (cantors), nor Religious Slaughterers among others, all male-oriented. In their past, men had to mingle with the Christian social-milieu more often than women, while making a living as peddlers in the neighbourhood. In order to protect their fathers/husbands/sons from the risk of being exposed as heretics, women were willing to discreetly take over religious functions. The probability of women being caught while preserving traditional rites and practices at home was lesser, but not nil.


Since none could possess any Jewish books such as the Hebrew Old Testament, the Aramaic Talmud, or any prayer books, these languages were totally forgotten! Therefore the obligation kept by Jewish males all over the world - of studying and interpreting the Holy Scriptures - could not be accomplished here, and gave way to other commandments housewives used to keep, such as educating the next generation, kashering-food, celebrating religious-feasts, keeping rites of purification etc. Women started to pray for the benefit of the whole family, in Portuguese, actually freeing male-members from this and other obligations (like some minor-fasts too). Centuries later, researchers called these aged ladies khazaniot (female cantors).


A feminization of religious-life imperceptibly emerged among the Belmonte Marranos.[2] Religious tradition was transmitted by heart from then on mainly from mother to daughter, contrary to Jewish conventions of transmitting in writing from father to son. Everybody started to revere the elderly sage-matrons, considering them as authorities concerning religious norms. In fact, I could trace this phenomenon in my own observations.


Since they also lost touch with the Hebrew-calendar (including the complex system of adding a 13th month seven times within 19 years), these sage-matrons did their best by assuming the authority of determining the calendar and the dates of Jewish-feasts, basically accepting the Christian-calendar, but correcting it according to the moon. Therefore from time to time they used to discreetly roam together in the fields, so as to have a good look at the appearance of the moon.


Also, women took over the religious-roles of the rites de passage, be it the clandestine marriage-ceremonies, or mourning and burial rites. Consequently elderly-women were called either Matron-Rabbis or Priestesses, according to the bias of those researchers who later discovered the phenomenon.[3] Sociologists, though, would prefer to treat them according to their own biases of impartiality - as opinion-leaders on religious matters.


After being introduced to our normative Judaism throughout the 20th century, this roaming Board of Sage-Matrons or, on a smaller-scale, the female family-circle - still decided what should be done in religious matters. Inacio Steinhardt[4] cites Benvindas answer to his request at the end of the 80s:


With your permission, madam, could we Frédéric, the photographer and myself - attend your Ceremony of the Marror (bitter-herbs) at your place? Is it all right?

I do not know, sir. I shall consent to whatever you decide with my daughters and my daughters-in-law. Once we did not let in anybody except family-members. But by now you are family, are you not?


Collecting Research Data


Gathering social-findings while living within a group of people is multifaceted. Apart from my own (anthropological) participant observations and personal experiences during the years 1994-2000 and on, I relied on data supplied by informants, whom I consider as a very reliable source of information. It is understandable why I consulted on matters concerning the Marrano-tradition[5] mostly women, my black-aproned sisters, and to a lesser degree men. Some of the women were young, but 3-4 others were elderly. All were kind enough to answer my probing questions, or share with me their own experiences, especially as to these topics:


1.      The Marrano-past, after historical circumstances unknowingly widened the gap between their (Marrano) tradition and mainstream normativeJudaism;

2.      Their personal opinion on the multi-stage process of conversion to normative, Halakhic-Judaism in Belmonte, a very slow process marked by fluctuations;

3.      Their personal experience before and after their personal return to Judaism in the first half of the 90s.


Apart from women who did not convert to Judaism, most women I interviewed both young and old were respectable within the newly-converted group, and manifested devotion to their new normative-Judaism. The middle-aged Isabel Morão Rodrigo[6], always accompanied by her elderly mother, relies on her while relating the stories about the Marrano-past, e.g.: about marriage in Church, after the covert-marriage at home: Isnt it so, my Mother? Am I not right? She would turn to her for confirmation.


With the assertive Aurora da Costa Diogo I chatted a lot, asking questions about the Marrano-rites, often learning a lot from her, for instance: about the cleansing-rites on the (X2) 40 days-of-purification preceding either Yom-Kippur (Day of Atonement) or Passover. The Israeli Rabbi S.S. and his wife, too, might investigate or consult her in my presence, seeking sometimes for her help. Her authoritative tone might stem from the fact that her late mother, born in the nearby town of Covilhã, was considered as an energetic Matron-Rabbi [7], whose influence spread beyond the boundaries of her nuclear-family, encompassing all the Marranos in Belmonte. As a matter of fact, she moulded their religious norms.


Jewish Travelers Reflect Male-biased Preconditioning


Benjamin Minzs Book


As mentioned, Aurora da Costas mother was revered by Marrano circles far beyond her own nuclear-family.[8] We can learn about it even from Jewish travelers literature. Her religious authority used to be so obvious that the learned Yiddish-journalist Benjamin Minz, writing about his visit to Belmonte in the early 30s, erroneously concluded that rather her husband is the Rabbi of the community, as he labelled him.[9] However, it should be stressed that even after Samuel Schwarzs appearance in Belmonte (1917) religious-authority continued to be held by the Matron-Rabbis! My own findings indicate that even after conversion to Judaism in the 90s, husbands/sons/grandsons went on seeking the guidance of their wives, mothers, grandmothers or mothers-in-law (especially if they were senior, but sometimes even if not). No doubt it even occurred among families whose male members were personally involved in the (male) creation of the new Community-Council. Such deeply imprinted practices - lasting for about 500 years - cannot be uprooted at once!


It seems that we belonging to whatever section of normative-Judaism - cannot easily accept the fact that women constitute the religious-authority in the Marrano-ambience. Because of our male-biased preconditioning, typical of mainstream-Judaism, some of us not only Benjamin Minz ignore/misunderstand/forget the notion that religious-roles are feminized in Belmonte. Those of us who are sometimes mistaken include even such important researchers as Nahum Slouschz or Itzhak Navon, let alone those of lesser importance, like myself and my generation.


Nahum Slouschzs Book


Thanks to the same male-biased preconditioning, when Nahum Slouschz translated into Hebrew the Marrano-prayers which he added to his book (1932) - in fact, most of them borrowed from Schwarzs (1926) book in Portuguese - he applied the masculine-gender in Hebrew. That is not so! Most prayers were uttered (in Portuguese) by women, the Matron-Cantors, not by men - therefore the verbs should be conjugated either neutrally or clearly in the feminine-gender![10] Even though Slouschz studied and wrote about feminization of religious-roles, on p. 141 he treats the person praying as masculine. On the same page, dealing with the Benediction for the New Moon, he remarks that it seems this benediction (only?) had been created by a woman, since in his translation he refers to the person praying as: Gods devoted maidservant. Again, on page 170 he deals with womens crucial role in the clandestine Marrano betrothal-ceremonies - in the masculine gender. In another prayer Slouschz translates from Schwarzs appendix, he calls this hymn a womens hymn (again: only this one?). According to him it might allude to the last chapter, in Psalms 150.[11]


, , ,






, ,




, ,





This is Schwarzs original Portuguese hymn, along with its English translation:[12]


Levantai-vos meninas cedo

Get up early young girls

Já quere amanecer,

Dawn is aproaching,

Louvaremos ao Altisimo Senhor,

Let us praise the Most High God,

Que nos ha de fortalecer.

Who would strengthen us.

Louvai o ao som da viola

Halleluia to the sound of viola

Ele é tudo som e tudo gloria.

He is all sound and all glory.

Louvai o Senhor meninas

Halleluiah young girls

Louvai-o com vozes finas,

Halleluiah with fine voices,

Louvai o Senhor donzeias

Halleluiah maidens

Louvai-o com vozes belas

Halleluiah with pretty voices

Louvai o Senhor casadas

Halleluiah married women

Louvai-o com vozes claras

Haleluiah with clear voices

Louvai o Senhor viuvas

Halleluiah widows[13]

Louvai-o com vozes puras

Halleluiah with pure voices

O Senhor de todos os amores

The Lord of all the loves

Louvai meninas e flores.

Halleluiah young girls and flowers.


Psalms 150 is not a feminine hymn, it is general. Therefore it is surprising that Slouschz does not wonder why the parallel masculine age-groups and/or personal-status are altogether missing in this Belmonte-hymn. I presume they were dropped since in Belmonte almost all prayers were chanted by women of all age-groups and/or personal-status. In the Marrano-ambience it was the womens duty to chant Halleluiah, instead of men and for them, too!


Male-Biased Preconditioning in Other Translations and in Graphic Presentations


Minz or Slouschz are not to be blamed. I myself slipped into the same pitfall of the male-precondition! In the first drafts of my translation to Hebrew of A Prayer to My Guardian Angel, cited in A. Canelos booklet[14], I too automatically applied the masculine conjugation instead of the neutral Portuguese first person. All of us are preconditioned! It took me some time to realize my own mistake and correct it.


Supposedly, also the translator (into Hebrew) of Brenner et als documentary film Les Derniers Marranes,[15] about Passover among the Marranos - acted according to my own precondition as well, (or maybe he translated the written text without comparing it to the photographs themselves?). Regarding the film, one obviously notes that it is a housewife, dressed in white, who is chanting the prayer while kneading dough preparing the Matzah (unleavened-bread), though the Hebrew-text written beneath it is erroneously again in the masculine gender.


Another comparable example is the graphic illustration on the invitation to the inauguration of the new synagogue in Belmonte at the end of 1996. It is not important whether the artist was gentile or Jewish, since either way he surely used stereotypes describing normative-Judaism not Marrano - as demonstrated here:


Trilingual invitation to the inauguration of the Belmonte synagogue,
on the 500th anniversary of the publication of the Decree of Expulsion
of the Jews from Portugal (12.1496-12.1996)


One could spot visual elements that could have never occurred in Belmonte in the last 500 years! Namely: A gathering of Jewish men arround a table in order to study the Holy Scriptures. They wear particularly Jewish hats (some of them typical of Sephardi religious-sages, others probably Ashkenazi). But all these Jewish symbols have nothing to do with daily life in secretive Belmonte. After the publication of the Decree of Expulsion (1496) and its application (1497), Marranos could not congregate overtly in safety anywhere in town. The word synagogue (Greek) is originally composed of two Hebrew words: Beit-Knesset, literally signifying a house of assembly. As a matter of fact, the only safe places Marranos could assemble peacefully were the noisy, colourful, crowded marketplaces.[16]


Please note: I do not criticize neither the artist, nor the one who ordered his graphic-work! God forbid! It only goes to show that their notions belong to mainstream-Judaism, rather than to the divergence of Marranism. These stereotypes could not exist in Portugal, since they endangered lives, even more so after the establishment of Portugals Inquisition (1536). Judaizantes were persecuted and sentenced to death for even less than that! Under this permanent threat they felt compelled to keep dual-religious practices, one of them covertly. Thus crypto-Judaism was created.


Itzhak Navon in Yigal Losins film


In Y. Losins (1992) documentary film,[17] one sees Mr. Itzhak Navon, former 5th President of Israel, standing among a group of Belmonte Marranos. At that time they were not yet converted to Judaism; conversions would start only 2-3 years later. One gets the impression that he desires to hear a Marrano-prayer. Although Navon accumulated a lot of knowledge on the subject before arriving, he turns instinctively (precondition!) to a man, wishing he would recite the prayer. But - being a male - the perplexed person is not sure he could fulfill the honourable visitors request: knowing prayers was never a male prerogative in Belmonte for the last 500 years! Therefore he looks around - maybe a woman might approach and save him, while he starts murmuring in hesitation a refrain connected to Navons request: Adonaio, Adonaio Calling God by name is the introductory refrain to the Marrano-parallel in Portuguese of the biblical Song on Crossing the Red-Sea[18], covertly sung in Belmonte on the eve of the Marrano-Passover. Alas, God alone knows whether this poor man remembers how to go on chanting On a normative Yom-Kippur in the early 60s, a few Belmonte Marranos appeared at Lisbons synagogue to participate in the normative rites performed there. According to I. Steinhardt, who documented the event, they explained:


We do fulfill religious-commandments. But it is womens obligation to know the laws and preserve our mothers religion. Thus they referred all those asking probing questions - too difficult to be answered by men - to their wives, who gathered upstairs, in the synagogues womens gallery.[19]


Feminization Expressed in the Texts of Marrano-Prayers


I described above how historical circumstances compelled women to fulfill male important religious-roles. It resulted in a unique prestigious-status of women within the family. Could ancient Marrano-prayers reflect similar attitudes traceable even today?


One example is found in a Marrano blessing. It seems that the morning female Halakhic prayer, saying: Blessed be He for having made me according to His will (in contrast to the derogative male equivalent: Blessed be He for not having made me a woman), inspired the female Marrano Blessing for Hand Washing, but here she is not degraded at all:[20]


The angels praise God who created me and gave me a good life, who granted me water to wash, a towel to dry with, eyes to see, hands to gesticulate, ears to hear, and has made me a woman...


Given their duty to pass on their tradition to the forthcoming generations from mother to daughter, it seems appropriate, if not necessary, to implore God to protect women in particular. This is reflected in the Marrano Grand-Prayer for Yom-Kippur, based on a normative one (although women prayed, again Slouschz erroneously uses the masculine gender at the beginning not cited here):


May Thou take my daughters into Thy holy and divine consideration, o Lord, and grant them a blessed-lot, so they would be able to comprehend Thy holy and divine Law, and to serve and praise Thou; better trust the Lord than any human dignitaries[21]


She Who Holds Both Talitot (Jewish prayer shawls)[22]


At the end of the 80s, about 6-8 Marrano young men started the process of return to the male-oriented normative Judaism. However, they would not have done anything before seeking the permission, and assuring the support, of their mothers and wives in advance, as some of them told me afterwards. As to these Matron-Rabbis, they did not put up any obstacles, and willingly consented to give up their prestigious role, without evoking any leadership-struggle or personal-crisis. Actually, they always considered their role as a temporary one, which should be given back whenever possible.


After the 1992-93 formal return, wives were sometimes compelled to remind their husbands it is time to go to synagogue to pray, since men were not yet accustomed to fulfill newly-acquired duties as praying, let alone the gathering of a Minyan (a quorum of 10 males needed for praying) at the synagogue.


Unconverted Marrano women preparing the sacred-wicks
together with their converted to normative-Judaism relatives, 1994


One should not ignore the actual double practicing of rites, though very different from the past one. Then the overt Christian religious-rites competed with the covert Marrano tradition; but my observations - shortly after the return - revealed rather a dissimilar double-practice: that of the covert Marrano ramification versus the overt mainstream-Judaism.[23]


One example is of mourning-rites in the case of a deceased person in 1997. The double mourning-rites held at his home included on one hand the male Minyan-reunions[24], and on the other - at different times and in a somewhat covert manner - the female Marrano mourners reunions[25], which included also several newly-converted ladies, along with their unconverted relatives.


Another example is that of Marranos who did not return to Judaism, but despite it, they used to celebrate meticulously their own Marrano Kippur or Passover according to the Hebrew calendar. Some of these women (more often than men, since they are considered responsible for the well-being of their families!) even tend to approach the synagogue and participate in normative-rites as much as they can! It did occur several times in my presence around 2000 and on. This fact still places women in their high prestigious status as ever.


According to both examples, women are apparently still holding both Talitot - that of the Marrano-past together with the contemporary Halakhic new religion. This applies to those who did convert to Judaism as well as to the unconverted women. Many other examples pointing to the same conclusions are unfolded elsewhere on this site. Nevertheless, it must be stressed that this type of performing double sets of religious rites (Marrano versus Halakhic, both Jewish in their eyes) is altogether rather scarce. Many observers assume it is temporary and might soon vanish for ever.



An attire similar to that of the
Elderly Matron-Rabbis




All rights reserved to Sara Molho, 2001-2008

Publication of this article is permitted, but without changes,

and with full mention of the source:



[1] See bibliography for reference to my lecture bearing the same title. It is a paraphrase on a Talmudic paragraph dealing with two men claiming possession over one sole Talit (a religious shawl needed only by males for praying) firmly held by both. Here a sole woman of Marrano-descent, seems to be holding more than one Talit, by practicing dual-religious rites so as to worship the same God in both the Marrano and the normative way.

[2] This Marranic variation existed also in other places, including north-east Portugal, South-America, as well as south-USA. I do not call these highly-woven clusters of families Marranic-communities, since all communal, social and religious structures collapsed due to the threat of expulsion, and all functions and male roles derived from them were transferred to the hands of female family members. Thus the phenomenon of women as religious opinion-leaders, almost-Rabbis was created. At best these clusters-of-families should be cautiously considered as quasi-communities.

[3] In I. Steinhardts article Benvinda etc. on this site, he refers to the fact that local Marranos, too, adopted the use of these labels - invented by the researchers to describe the role of women.

[4] See his same article as in the above footnote on the Hebrew version of this site.

[5] They would sincerely call it Jewish, since the label Marranos is not a result of their self-image, but a derogatory label applied by outsiders (a 17th century Spanish Catholic priest). I utilize this label not only because it is still commonly used, but because it has also penetrated the historical/sociological domains of research.

[6] Most of the names I use in chapters signed by me - are taken from the local-repertory, but are fictitious, in order to protect the privacy of people. Real names appear seldom, only after receiving permission form the interviewees.

[7] Or, in the neutral sociological slang: an opinion-leader on religious-matters or a sociometric-star.

[8] In contrast to beautiful Benvinda in I. Steinhardts article (see above), who used to be the religious-leader only of her own family.

[9] See Minzs (1932) translation to Hebrew, p. 203. Though this Matron-Rabbis husband was indeed quite a respectable person, at that time there were no male-Rabbis to be found in Belmonte, not even foreign visitors. Nor could these tightly-woven families be sociologically defined a community, since they lacked its specific characteristics. (see in English/Hebrew versions of this site: S. Molhos (2006) commentary of a chapter in A. Garcias book (1993) The Jews of Belmonte the Paths of Memory.

[10] See also Dov Stuczynskis (2005) introduction to his translation into Hebrew of Schwarzs book pp. 71-72, where he discusses the gender issue.

[11] See his book (1932) no. 7, p. 145

[12] See his book (1993 version) no. 7 too, p. 68.

[13] Please note that divorcees are not mentioned at all. The institution of divorce does not exist in the Christian world. Contrary to Judaism, when one pretends to be a Christian, one cannot benefit from the possibility of divorcing!

[14] See Canelo in the bibliography, as well as the sub-chapter Angels on this site.

[15] See in the bibliography: F. Brenner, as well as Y.H. Yerushalmi or N. Zand.

[16] Since marketplaces substituted synagogues as to social-interaction among Marranos, I named a lecture given on 11.5.1998 in Jerusalem: The Fair is the Synagogue. Meeting together, Marrano merchants and/or customers diffused in my presence personal discreet communications at the twice-a-month local markets, the regional wholesale-markets or the semiannual-fairs. Some informants (male merchants) suggested that, apart from regular messages, also hushed coded ones were passed between Marrano-interlocutors there. I cannot confirm that it used to be a regular channel for decades. One should bear in mind that my observations started in 1994, after the much publicized return to Judaism (1992-3). To my great surprise, I often experienced the opposite attitude at marketplaces: that of being overtly greeted, and even embraced and kissed in front of gentiles (or Goios in the Marrano-slang, like Gypsies or Christian-merchants). No wonder that later on these persons recognized and greeted me as the Jewish friend of their colleagues from the adjacent-stands.

[17] See Hebrew bibliography.

[18] See prayer no. 52 in the appendixes of both Schwarzs and Slouschzs books, on p.93 and p.166 accordingly.

[19] See I. Steinhardt (1964) in the bibliography. The translation and emphasis in the cited text is mine (S.M.). As to the contents, there are always exceptions to any rule: nowadays there are several men that do remember by heart Marrano-prayers, as there existed in the past. I met 2-3 of them, and I could identify few deceased ones from past generations. One of the contemporary literate ones I met has even written down all (unwritten) prayers he could pick, so as to have a Marrano-Siddur.

[20] See Slouschzs book, p. 146 no. 8 bis., as well as Schwarzs original (1993) p. 69.

[21] See Slouschzs translation to Hebrew on p. 158. Schwarzs original text is this: -

"...ás minhas filhas que as tomes, Senhor, á tua Santa e Divina conta, que lhes des, Senhor, uma sorte boa, com que tenham conhecimento da tua Santa e Divina Lei, para que te possam servir e louvar; que mais vale confiar em Adonai que em principes, filhos de homens..." See pp. 85-86.

[22] See footnote 1.

[23] See in the English version of this site, especially table V in sub-chapter 5: Different Kinds of Scales and Ladders; or also the detailed case-studies in the Hebrew version to be translated to English - at the beginning of sub-chapter 6, among others.

[24] He was converted to Judaism after his death, according to his newly-converted sons request, although his wife and daughter remained Marranos.

[25] A few friendly ladies sometimes invited me to participate, giving me the correct timetable (often-being changed); sometimes they did not.

All rights reserved to Sara Molho, 2001-2008

Publication of this article is permitted, but without changes,

and with full mention of the source: