Menu

The Portuguese Synagogue

Portuguese Jews before the building of the Esnoga

Three Sephardic congregations were founded in Amsterdam. The first, Beth Jacob, was established before 1610, possibly by around 1602. Neve Shalom was founded by Jews of Spanish origin between 1608 and 1612. In 1618 the third congregation was founded, Beth Israel. From 1622 onward, the boards of the three congregations cooperated in many areas. On April 3, 1639 the three congregations combined to form the congregation Talmud Torah, which later came to be known as the Portuguese Jewish Congregation.

Members continued to communicate in Portuguese, while Spanish was the language of culture and scholarship. Few of the newcomers knew Hebrew, so rabbinical approval was granted for services to be conducted in Portuguese. This made it easier for people to return to Judaism. Hebrew prayer books eventually replaced the Spanish translations.

View of Houtgracht (today Waterlooplein). One of the houses depicted is the building named "De Herschepping". This was the location synagogue Beth Israel, were Spinoza was banned in 1618. Painting by Oene de Jongh. Collection Joods Historisch Museum, M009933
View of Houtgracht with its wooden drawbridge. One of the buildings depicted here is De Herschepping, in which the synagogue Beth Israel had its premises in 1618. This was where Spinoza was excommunicated in 1656. Painting by Oene de Jongh. JHM Collection, M009933.

The Portuguese Jewish Congregation kept in contact with fellow religionists in Lisbon, Bordeaux, Bayonne, Hamburg, London, and later also in Brazil –in many cases through relatives. The Amsterdam Jewish community set an example for those forming elsewhere, such as those who left Amsterdam – or Brazil – to settle in New Amsterdam, Suriname, St Eustatius, and Curaçao.

The Portuguese Jews were major players in the Netherlands’ cultural and economic development and loomed large in Jewish history. The congregation produced rabbis, scholars, theorists, artists, bankers, and founders and managers of leading international trading houses. Their luminaries included the celebrated philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who was excommunicated by the congregation in 1656. Historians dispute the reasons for his banishment, but the prevailing view is that his ideas conflicted with those of the rabbinate.

The Great Synagogue, view from Deventer Houtmarkt (today Jonas Daniël Meijerplein), Adolf van der Laan, c. 1710 (JHM Collection, M000060).

The Building of the Portuguese Synagogue

From the latter half of the seventeenth century, Jews were permitted to build synagogues that were visible as such from the street. The Jewish Quarter soon acquired two impressive temples: the Great Synagogue (1671) and the Portuguese Synagogue (1675), also known as the Esnoga. For diverse reasons – partly lack of space and partly a determination to stay in Amsterdam – the Portuguese Congregation decided to build its new temple here.

The Great Synagogue, view from Deventer Houtmarkt (today Jonas Daniël Meijerplein), Adolf van der Laan, c. 1710 (JHM Collection, M000060).

The land on which the present-day synagogue stands was purchased on 12 December 1670 and construction work started on 17 April 1671. The Esnoga was designed by Elias Bouman, who had also helped design the Great Synagogue of the Ashkenazim across the road. Elias Bouman later became the city’s chief architect. The temple’s austere, classicist style of architecture is similar to that of Protestant churches from this period. From the outset the colossal building dominated its surroundings, and so it does today. When finished, it was the largest synagogue in the world. The Esnoga faces a courtyard surrounded by low buildings that enclose the synagogue on three sides. This layout, as well as the shape of the building itself, recalls the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. Amsterdam possessed a wooden model made in 1642 by Rabbi Jacob Juda Leon Templo, a replica of which can be seen at the Bible Museum. The authentic courtyard or Safra was intended to serve as a walking area for adults and a safe play area for children.

 The Courtyard of the Portuguese Synagogue

 

There is no mezuzah at the entrance to the Synagogue. According to the Shulchan Aruch (Jore De'a, 286: 3) a synagogue without a dwelling does not require one. The temple’s interior follows the Iberian-Sephardi pattern: the benches are placed lengthwise and the pine plank floor is still strewn with fine sand – as was customary with wooden floors in the Netherlands – to absorb dust, moisture and dirt from shoes and to muffle the sound of walking.

Interior of the Portuguese Synagogue with its benches placed lengthwise, c. 1920. JHM Collection, collection of Jaap van Velzen, F002722.
Interior of the Portuguese Synagogue with its benches placed lengthwise, c. 1920. JHM Collection, collection of Jaap van Velzen, F002722.

1672

Inscribed above the main entrance, in gilded Hebrew letters, is 1672, the year in which the complex was to have been finished. In fact work was halted at the beginning of 1672, the “Year of Disaster,” until May 27, 1674. The text is taken from Psalm 5, verse 8: “In the abundance of Thy lovingkindness will I come into Thy house” (“Bishenat va'ani berob chasdecha abo beetécha lif'k”). In accordance with Jewish tradition, certain letters are marked to form a perat katan, signifying the year. In addition, the letters of the final few words contain the name Aboab, after Chacham Aboab, whose initiative it was to build the synagogue. The festive consecration of the Esnoga took place on August 2, 1675.

Print depicting the interior of the Portuguese Synagogue during Purim, view towards the Hechal or Ark, 1737. Constructed by L.F. Dubourg. Collection of Arthur and Jetty Polak, JHM Collection, M08802.


 

Annexes

Over the centuries the Esnoga’s annexes fulfilled diverse roles in the everyday and religious life of the Portuguese Jewish community. They are still furnished as far as possible in the original style, with the furniture and other heritage that the Congregation has preserved for centuries, and they are largely open to the public. These buildings once housed the congregation’s historical secretariat and archives, the boardroom, the seminary auditorium which was converted into a winter synagogue in 1959, the office of the Rabbinate, the areas for hand-washing and the ritual washing of the deceased (taharah), the candle room, and the Tabernacle (cabana/sukkah).

Most of these rooms have permanent exhibitions focusing on various historical and topical aspects of Jewish life from a Portuguese Jewish perspective. An audio guide provides visitors with more information about the rooms’ original uses. The complex also contains the mikvah/ritual bath, the kosher kitchens and the world’s oldest functioning Jewish library, Ets Haim. Some parts of the annexes are still used by the Portuguese Jewish Congregation.

Interieur van de Mahamad (bestuurskamer) van de Portugese Synagoge. Collectie Joods Historisch Museum, F900713. Uit: Fotozuil Joods Leven in Amsterdam, 1999-2002, Anita Frank en Pauline Prior.
Interior of the Mahamad (board room) of the Portuguese Synagogue. JHM Collection, F900713. From Fotozuil Joods Leven in Amsterdam, 1999-2002, Anita Frank and Pauline Prior.

The Portuguese Synagogue in World War II

At the beginning of the Occupation and the persecution of the Jews by Nazi Germany in 1940, the Dutch Jewish community numbered about 140,000, over half of whom lived in Amsterdam. Roughly 4,300 were Sephardim. Unlike the Ashkenazi synagogues, the Esnoga survived World War II. Thanks to the efforts of local people, the synagogue’s status as a historic building, and a great deal of luck, the Esnoga retained all its original  seventeenth-century features and collections. Its first use after the Liberation was on 9 May 1945, when Jewish survivors held a service there. After the war the Jewish community in the Netherlands numbered just 20,000, roughly 800 of whom were Sephardim.

Thanksgiving service in the Portuguese Synagogue shortly after the country’s liberation from the German occupying forces, 1945. Photograph: Boris Kowadlo, Nederlands Fotomuseum. JHM Collection, F001278

Renewal: Back to its Origins

All elements of the Esnoga and the annexes that are monumental in nature were renovated and restored between 2011 and 2012, which involved the removal of all inappropriate additions and paneling.

The main building has undergone high-quality restoration of its façades, roofs, cast iron window frames, and sandstone decorations. Some restoration work was also conducted on the roof structure. The result is a seventeenth-century complex and courtyard that are open to the public. The Esnoga itself, its interior unchanged over the centuries, exudes the Zeitgeist of the seventeenth century. Intimidating in its vastness, serene in its peacefulness, magical in its function, and with a history that is both emotional and awe-inspiring, the synagogue leaves no visitor unmoved.
 

Chandelier in Portuguese Synagogue

 

 Renewal: Back to its Origins

All elements of the Esnoga and the annexes that are monumental in nature were renovated and restored between 2011 and 2012, which involved the removal of all inappropriate additions and paneling.

The main building has undergone high-quality restoration of its façades, roofs, cast iron window frames, and sandstone decorations. Some restoration work was also conducted on the roof structure. The result is a seventeenth-century complex and courtyard that are open to the public. The Esnoga itself, its interior unchanged over the centuries, exudes the Zeitgeist of the seventeenth century. Intimidating in its vastness, serene in its peacefulness, magical in its function, and with a history that is both emotional and awe-inspiring, the synagogue leaves no visitor unmoved.

Bij de restauratie in 2010-2011 werden de kelders onder de bijgebouwen uitgediept. Hier liggen nu de schatkamers. Foto: Peter Lange, Collectie Joods Historisch Museum.
During the restoration of 2010-2011 the cellars beneath the annexes were deepened. They now house the treasuries. Photograph: Peter Lange, JHM Collection.

The Esnoga shares with the synagogue in Prague the distinction of having maintained their original function as synagogues for the longest time. Furthermore, it is extremely rare that the present-day interior largely dates from the time when it was built and has been preserved intact, including its brass chandeliers and candle holders. The Esnoga’s interior has never been adapted to modern times. It has no heating or electric lighting, and is illuminated instead by almost 1,000 candles.

Bijna 1000 kaarsen verlichten de synagoge. Foto: Peter Lange, 2008. Collectie Joods Historisch Museum, F901061
The Portuguese Synagogue is illuminated by 1,000 candles. Photograph: Peter Lange, 2008. JHM Collection, F901061.

 

Deze site is ook beschikbaar in het Nederlands