Jewish Synagogue in Tomar for The Medival Enthusiast

Tomar is a historic, small town in central Portugal. This town is well-known for its remnants of the Templar fortress, and there is a magnificent monastery inviting tourists. It is located about 145 km towards Lisbon and everyone flocks to the site. However, what many people don’t know about is the Jewish Synagogue in Tomar. This is the oldest prayer house of the Jews in Portugal.

Jewish Synagogue in Tomar for The Medival Enthusiast

The Synagogue was built in the 15th-century when the local Jewish community gained prominence. The Synagogue is situated in the Jewish quarter’s central location. The Synagogue’s building architecture has eastern influence but is a simple design featuring groined vaults supporting the four columns, while there are twelve corbels, capitals decorated with plant and geometric motifs, dotting symbolic references. The twelve corbels denote the twelve Israeli tribes, and the columns represent the four Israeli matriarchs – Sarah, Abraham’s wife, Rebecca her niece, Isaac’s wife, and Rachael and Leah, the daughters and sisters of Laban. The family’s relationship is reflected by the capitals between the Matriarchs – such that the similar ones are for sisters, while the different ones are for the niece and the aunt. In the upper corners, there are two orifices featuring clay jar mouths. The face of these clay jar mouths is fitted downwards within the walls such that it promotes the acoustics of the temple. One of them is visible partially. The Synagogue, apart from serving its original function, also served as an assembly, school, and court in Tomar for the Jewish community. In 1496, the Synagogue was closed by King Manuel I by passing a decree where he expelled the Jews and turned the Synagogue into a prison. It was referred in the 17th century as the Ermida de S. Bartolomeu, and it served in the 19th century as a granary, hayloft, wine cellars, warehouse, and store. In 1921, it was categorized as a National Monument by Portuguese Archeologists association. In 1923, a Jewish mining engineer, Samuel Schwarz, bought the Synagogue and renovated it. The Polish, Samuel Schwarz had come six years earlier to Portugal. In 1939, he donated the Synagogue to the Portuguese state that has now made it a Jewish Museum. The Museum comprises of many Portugal tombstones. The excavation work revealed coins from the reign of King Afonos V, confirming the probable date of the Synagogue construction. The ceramics and the system used in the domestic needs of the Synagogue, like to heat water for ritual purification bath, the Mikvah, is also found here. There are other pieces allied with religious items, Jewish culture, a documentary collection and remembrances from visitors.

The Museum’s patron in the period 1450-1515, was Abraao Ben Samuel Zacuto. He was from Salamanca; he was also a mathematician, astronomer, rabbi, and doctor.  He was compelled by his Jewish roots to seek protection in Portugal, and he provided invaluable service. During the time King Manuel I hired him to work for the country until the Jews expulsion in 1496. He died in Turkey, and he wrote the history of the Jewish People while he spent time in Tunis.

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