Portuguese Synagogue (Amsterdam)

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Portuguese Synagogue
Exterior of the Portuguese Synagogue.
Portuguese Synagogue (Amsterdam) is located in Amsterdam
Portuguese Synagogue (Amsterdam)
Location within Amsterdam
Basic information
Location Netherlands Amsterdam, Netherlands
Geographic coordinates 52°22′03″N 4°54′19″E / 52.3675°N 4.9054°E / 52.3675; 4.9054Coordinates: 52°22′03″N 4°54′19″E / 52.3675°N 4.9054°E / 52.3675; 4.9054
Affiliation Orthodox Judaism
Rite Sephardi
Status Active
Website portugesegemeente.nl
Architectural description
Architect(s) Elias Bouwman
Architectural type Synagogue
Groundbreaking April 17, 1671
Completed August 2, 1675
Painting of the interior of the Esnoga by Emanuel de Witte (c. 1680)

The Portuguese Synagogue, also known as the Esnoga (Ladino: אסנוגה), or Snoge, is a late 17th-century Sephardic synagogue in Amsterdam, completed in 1675. Esnoga is the Ladino word for synagogue.

The Amsterdam Sephardic community was one of the largest and richest Jewish communities in Europe during the Dutch Golden Age, and their very large synagogue reflected this. The synagogue is a popular tourist attraction.


The Sephardi Jews were issued with the Alhambra Decree in 1492, whereby they were given the choice of exile from Spain, or conversion to Catholicism, or failing to do either, be executed. Of the Jews who chose exile, some sailed south (North African Sephardim), others went east (Eastern Sephardim), and many more crossed the border west to Portugal. In Portugal, however, only a few years later they were forced to convert to Catholicism in 1496 under the Portuguese decree against the Jews. While in theory, those Jews now in Portugal who did not convert to Catholicism were meant to be expelled by 1497, the Portuguese king, not wanting a similar Jewish flight and brain drain as happened in Spain, in practice blocked Portugal's ports of exit, and subsequently reasoned that those who stayed behind agreed to become Christians by default. These Jews then became the Jewish-origin New Christians or conversos (i.e. "converts" to Catholicism).

For the next few hundreds of years thereafter, the Inquisition continued to investigate the conversos and their descendants in Spain and Portugal on suspicions that, in secret, they continued to practice Judaism as crypto-Jews. Many in fact were crypto-Jews behind closed door, while publicly professing to be good Catholics. The term Marrano (Spanish for swine) was applied to Jewish-origin New Christians who practiced Judaism in secret. The persecutions and trials of New Christians of Jewish heritage by the inquisition lasted well into the late 1800s. Furthermore, the legal distinction between so-called Old Christians (of untainted Spanish or Portuguese blood) and New Christians (those with Jewish origins) was maintained for centuries, with a person's pedigree always on record.

Because of this institutionalized anti-Semitism, many of the New Christian crypto-Jews (marranos) who actively maintained Jewish practices in secret, and even some sincere Christian-practicing New Christians of Jewish origin who nevertheless kept being hounded, persecuted and executed from charges of crypto-Judaism laid simply by reason of their Jewish ancestry, wished to enjoy a freedom from persecution and freedom of religion, which was offered by refuge in Amsterdam.

It is in this historical context that a substantial migration of conversos out of the Iberian Peninsula took place between the 1600s up until the early 1800s. Many of these New Christian conversos of Jewish origin (persecuted after rightly or wrongly being accused of relapsing to Judaism) left the Iberian peninsula in a constant stream. Once in Amsterdam, they returned to Judaism openly and publicly. They called themselves Portuguese Jews, even though some came also from Spain, and most of even the Portuguese-born contingent had recent ancestry in Spain. They wanted to avoid being identified with Spain, which was at war with the Dutch Republic at the time during the Eighty Years' War. This branch of Sephardi-descended returnees to Judaism are also known as Western Sephardim.

Construction and building[edit]

On December 12, 1670, the Sephardic Jewish community of Amsterdam acquired the site to build a synagogue and construction work began on April 17, 1671, under the architect Elias Bouwman. On August 2, 1675, the Esnoga was finished.

The inscription above the entrance is from Psalm 5:8: "In the abundance of Thy lovingkindness will I come into Thy house". The sign also contains "1672", the year the building was intended to be completed, and "Aboab", the name of the chief rabbi who initiated the construction project.

The building is free-standing and rests on wooden poles; the foundation vaults can be viewed by boat from the canal water underneath the synagogue. The entrance to the main synagogue is off a small courtyard enclosed by low buildings housing the winter synagogue, offices and archives, homes of various officials, the rabbinate, a mortuary, and noted Etz Hayim library. The interior of the synagogue is a single, very high rectangular space retaining its original wooden benches. The floor is covered with fine sand, in the old Dutch tradition, to absorb dust, moisture and dirt from shoes and to muffle the noise. Only five synagogues in the world have a sand floor, and this is the only one with such a floor surviving outside the Caribbean region.

During the 1955–1959 renovation, the former Etz Hayim seminary auditorium was redesigned as a winter synagogue; central heating and electric lighting were added. The benches were taken from a synagogue originally built in 1639 and the Hechal dates from 1744.

Baruch Spinoza was expelled for his writings from this synagogue community.

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