Tomar, a small, historic town north-east of Lisbon, is best known for the remnants of an impressive Templar fortress and a superb monastery, but less known is Tomar’s synagogue, the oldest existant Jewish prayer house in Portugal.
There must have been a Jewish settlement in Tomar already during the early 14th century, as it is mentioned in an inscription on a gravestone of a rabbi Josef of Tomar who died in Faro in 1315. An official Spanish document issued in Zamora on October 26, 1475 by In October 1475 D. Alfonso V mentions the Jewish community of Tomar in an official Spanish document.
The synagoge of Tomar must have been built in the 15th century, between 1430 and 1460. It was located in the middle of the Judearia (Jewish quarter), on what was later named the Rua nova que foi judaria, the New street that was the Jewish quarter.
The synagogue of Tomar was in use until 1496. Then, King Manuel I ‘‘The Fortunate’ of Portugal issued an edict, giving Jews the choice to convert to Christianity or to leave Portugal.
In 1497 the synagogue of Tomar, Portugal, stopped being a house of worship and was sold and sold and sold until in 1516 it became a prison and in 1543 an Inquisition Tribunal was established in Tomar. The years of the 16th century, when it was transferred to the city hall. An Inquisition tribunal was established in Tomar in 1543, but its activity was stopped in 1548, and it is said that the synagogue was used as a Christian chapel in the early 17th century and then became a hay loft, sold and sold again eventually to a grocer, who used it as his warehouse.
interior-3Finally, probably with the help of its then owner, Joaquim Cardoso Tavares, it was declared a national monument. That was in 1921.
And then came Samuel Schwarz (Szwarc) a Polish mining engineer, who purchased the building in 1923. Samuel Schwarz dedicated himself to restoring Jewish life in Portugal and at his own expense undertook the restoration of the synagogue and in 1939 the building became a museum.
Schwarz and his wife were granted Portuguese citizenship and thus, survived WWII.He dedicated himself to restoring and organizing Jewish life in that country, even serving for a time as President of the Jewish Community of Lisbon. Samuel Schwarz undertook at his own expense the works of cleaning and excavation of the synagogue of Tomar.
Plans to transferring the building to the State of Portugal could not be realised because of a lack of funds. Only in 1939, following a donation by Samuel Schwarz, the building was converted into a museum. In return Samuel Schwarz and his wife were granted Portuguese citizenship that protected them during the Second World War.
The Museu Luso-Hebraico Abraham Zacuto (the Abraham Zacuto Portuguese Jewish Museum), named after Abraham Zacuto (c.1450-c.1522), the author of the celebrated Almanach Perpetuum. Published in Leiria in 1496 that contains mathematical tables that were used by many Portuguese navigators during the early 16th century and later. There are different archaeological findings that attest the Jewish presence in Portugal during the Middle Ages. Among numerous gravestones that form the bulk of the collection, there is an inscription, dated 1307, from the main synagogue of Lisbon, and a second most interesting 13th century inscription from Belmonte, upon which the Divine Name is represented by three dots in rather the same manner as on the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Tomar was one of the places we never missed on our trips and at the time, we had to go to such and such a number on I-forget-which street, to have an old lady open the door for us and lock it after our visit.
I have no idea how it is today, but I still have the synagogue in my heart and in my mind, I still see the four pillars – symbol of the four mothers of Isræl – Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah – that carry ceiling of the twelve arches, supposed to represent the twelve Tribes of Isræl.
Something absolutely fascinating are the acoustics in Tomar’s synagogue. Why? Because they are near perfect and brought about by clay jars sealed upside down into the walls in the four upper corners of the room. And that, believe it or not, was the ingenious traditional method to improve the acoustics used during the Middle Ages for.
The Torah scrolls are being kept in a wooden cupboard. Old stone carvings that apparently ornamented the original structure are exhibited around the room walls.
In 1985 a second small room was discovered, partially below the current street level. This, it turned out, used to be the mikveh – the ritual bath. In this room you’ll find a treasure of artifacts, mostly ceramic bowls and it seems that a well, has been discovered in the patio next to the mikveh.
If ever you find yourself in Portugal, don’t miss this very special building. It is one of the very few of that era that is still standing. Pogroms are international and have destroyed so many beautiful buildings.
Text by Deborah Rey, You can read the original post on her blog