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The History of Spanish and Portuguese Jews


Spanish and Portuguese Jews are a distinctive sub-group of Sephardim who have their main ethnic origins within the crypto-Jewish communities of the Iberian peninsula and who shaped communities mainly in Western Europe and the Americas from the late 16th century on. These communities must be clearly distinguished from:

  • the descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497, who settled in Morocco and the countries of the Ottoman Empire, and
  • the present day Jewish communities of Portugal and Spain, which were founded with the assistance of the "Spanish and Portuguese" communities outside the peninsula, but also include other ethnic groups.

Spanish and Portuguese Jews have a distinctive ritual based on that of pre-expulsion Spain, but influenced by the Spanish-Moroccan rite on the one side and the Italian rite on the other.


As well as "Spanish and Portuguese Jews", one sometimes comes across designations such as Portuguese Jews, Jews of the Portuguese nation, Spanish Jews (mainly in Italy) and Western Sephardim.

The use of the terms Portuguese Jews and Jews of the Portuguese nation in some areas (mainly in the Netherlands and Hamburg/Scandinavia) seems to have arisen primarily as a way for the Spanish and Portuguese Jews to distance themselves from Spain in the times of political tension and war between Spain and the Netherlands in the 17th century. Similar considerations may have played a rôle in the case of Bayonne and Bordeaux given their proximity to the Spanish border. Another reason for this coinage may have been that a relatively high proportion of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews had Portugal as their immediate point of departure from the Iberian peninsula, as the decree forbidding Judaism in Portugal took place some years later than the expulsion from Spain. It could be argued that, while all Sephardim had a link with Spain, the distinguishing feature of the group in question was the added link with Portugal: thus "Portuguese" and "Spanish and Portuguese" could be used interchangeably.

In Italy, the term Spanish Jews (Ebrei Spagnoli) is frequently used, but includes the descendants of Jews expelled from the kingdom of Naples as well as Spanish and Portuguese Jews proper (i.e. conversos and their descendants). In Venice, Spanish and Portuguese Jews were often described as Ponentine (western), to distinguish them from Levantine (eastern) Sephardim.

The term Western Sephardim is frequently used in modern research literature, but may be problematic in that it can be found to refer to either Portuguese and Spanish Jews or Moroccan Jews or, in some cases, both of these. This term is also occasionally used to separate European Sephardim (which includes the Balkan Sephardim (also known as Ottoman Sephardim, Eastern Sephardim, and the Judeo-Spanish) of the former Ottoman empire) from Mizrahi Jews.

The scholar Joseph Dan distinguishes "medieval Sephardim" (Spanish exiles in the Ottoman Empire) from "Renaissance Sephardim" (Spanish and Portuguese communities), referring to the respective times of their formative contacts with Spanish language and culture.


Characteristic language traits of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews are the use of both Spanish and Portuguese languages — and often a mixture of the two — in parts of the synagogue service. Otherwise, the use of Spanish and Portuguese quickly diminished amongst the Spanish and Portuguese Jews after the 1600s, and from the mid 1800s on, Spanish and Portuguese were in practice replaced with local languages in everyday use. Local languages used by Spanish and Portuguese Jews include Dutch (in the Netherlands and Belgium); Low German in the Hamburg/Altona area; and English in Great Britain, Ireland, USA and Jamaica.


Because of the relative high proportion of immigrants through Portugal, the majority of Spanish and Portuguese Jews of the 16th and 17th centuries spoke Portuguese as their first language. Portuguese was primarily used for everyday communication in the first few generations, and was the usual language for official documents such as synagogue by-laws; for this reason, synagogue officers still often have Portuguese titles such as Parnas dos Cautivos and Thesoureiro do Heshaim. As a basic academic language, Portuguese was used for such works as the halakhic manual Thesouro dos Dinim by Menasseh Ben Israel. Portuguese is also used — some times purely, other times in a mixture with Spanish and Hebrew — in connection with announcements of mitsvót in the esnoga, in connection with the Mi shebberakh prayer, etc. The Judeo-Portuguese dialect was preserved in some documents, but it is not used in everyday speech. It has had some influence on the Judeo-Italian dialect of Livorno, known as Bagitto.

Castilian (Spanish)

Castilian (Spanish) was used as the everyday language by those who came directly from Spain in the first few generations. Those who came from Portugal regarded it as their literary language, as did the Portuguese themselves at that time. Relatively soon, the Castilian Ladino took on a semi-sacred status, and works of theology as well as reza books (siddurim) were often written in Castilian rather than in Portuguese. ("Ladino", in this context, simply means literal translation from Hebrew: it should not be confused with the Judaeo-Spanish vernacular of Balkan, Greek and Turkish Sephardim.) Members of the Amsterdam community continued to use Spanish as a literary language, and established clubs and libraries for the study of modern Spanish literature, such as the Academia de los Sitibundos (founded 1676) and the Academia de los Floridos (1685). Today there is no tradition of using Spanish, except for the hymn Bendigamos, the translation of the Biblical passages in the prayer-book for Tishngáh be-Ab and in certain traditional greetings.


 The Hebrew of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews as we know it from the 1800s and 1900s is characterised primarily by the pronunciation of בֿ (Beth Rafé) as a hard b (e.g., Abrahám, Tebáh, Habdaláh) and the pronunciation of ע (‘Ayin) as a voiced velar nasal (Shemang, Ngalénu). The hard pronunciation of Beth Rafé differs from the v pronunciation of Moroccan Jews and the Judeo-Spanish Jews of the Balkans, but is shared by Algerian Jews and Syrian Jews. The nasal pronunciation of ‘Ayin is shared with traditional Italki pronunciation, but not with any other Sephardi groups. Both these features are declining, under the influence of hazzanim from other communities and of Israeli Hebrew.

The sibilants ס, שׂ, שׁ and צ are all transcribed as s in earlier sources. This, along with the traditional spellings Sabá (Shabbat),Menasseh (Menashe), Ros(as)anáh (Rosh Hashana), Sedacáh (tzedaka), massoth (matzot), is evidence of a traditional pronunciation which did not distinguish between the various sibilants — a trait which is shared with some coastal dialects of Moroccan Hebrew. Since the 1800s, the pronunciations  (for שׁ and [ts] for צ have become common — probably by influence from Oriental Sephardic immigrants, from Ashkenazi Hebrew and, in our times, Israeli Hebrew.

The תֿ (Tav rafé) is pronounced like t in all traditions of Spanish and Portuguese Jews today, although the consistent transliteration as th in 17th century sources may suggest an earlier differentiation of תֿ and תּ. (Final תֿ is occasionally heard as d.)

The accentuation of Hebrew adheres strictly to the rules of Biblical Hebrew, including the secondary stress on syllables with a long vowel before a Shevá. Also, the shevá na‘ in the beginning of a word is normally pronounced as a short eh (Shemang, berít, berakháh). Shevá na‘ is also normally pronounced after a long vowel with secondary stress (ngomedím, barekhú).

Vocal shevá, segol (short e) and tsere (long e) are all pronounced like the 'e' in "bed": there is no distinction except in length. (In some other Sephardi dialects segol is open, while tsere is closed /e/, like French é. In both Ashkenazi and modern Hebrew, vocalshevá is the indistinct vowel in French "le" and English "the" and sometimes disappears altogether.)

The differentiation between kamatz gadol and kamatz katan is made according to purely phonetic rules without regard to etymology, which occasionally leads to spelling pronunciations at variance with the rules laid down in the grammar books. For example, כָל (all), when unhyphenated, is pronounced "kal" rather than "kol" (in "kal ngatsmotai" and "Kal Nidre"), and צָהֳרַיִם (noon) is pronounced "tsahorayim" rather than "tsohorayim". This feature is shared by other Sephardic groups, but is not found in Israeli Hebrew. It is also found in the transliteration of proper names in the Authorised Version, such as "Naomi", "Aholah" and "Aholibah".



Although all Sephardic liturgies are similar, each group has its own distinct liturgy. Many of these differences are a product of the syncretization of the Spanish liturgy and the liturgies of the local communities where Spanish exiles settled. Other differences are the result of earlier regional variations in liturgy from pre-expulsion Spain. Moses Gaster (died 1939, Hakham of the S&P Jews of Great Britain) has shown that the order of prayers used by Spanish and Portuguese Jews has its origin in the Castilian liturgy of Pre-Expulsion Spain.

As compared with other Sephardic groups, the minhag of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews is characterized by a relatively low number of cabbalistic additions. The Friday night service thus traditionally starts with Psalm 29, “Mizmor leDavid: Habu LaA.”. In the printed siddurim of the mid-17th century, “Lekha Dodi” and the Mishnaic passage Bammeh madlikin are also not yet included, but these are included in all newer siddurim of the tradition except for the early West London and Mickve Israel (Savannah) Reform prayerbooks, both of which have Spanish and Portuguese roots.

Of other, less conspicuous, elements, a number of archaic forms can be mentioned — including some similarities with the Italian Jewish and Western Ashkenazi traditions. Such elements include the shorter form of the Birkat hammazón which can be found in the older Amsterdam and Hamburg/Scandinavian traditions. The Livorno (Leghorn) tradition, however, includes many of the cabbalistic additions found in most other Sephardi traditions. The current London minhag is generally close to the Amsterdam minhag, but follows the Livorno tradition in some details — most notably in the Birkat hammazón.



The ritual music of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews differs from other Sephardi music in that it is influenced by Western European Baroque and Classical music to a relatively high degree. Already in 1603, the sources tell us that harpsichords were used in the Spanish and Portuguese synagogues in Hamburg. Particularly in the Amsterdam community, but to some degree also in Hamburg and elsewhere, there was a flourishing of classical music in the synagogues in the 1700s. Important composers of the time include Abraham de Casseres, Christoph Giuseppe Lidarti and others. There was formerly a custom in Amsterdam, inspired by a hint in the Zohar, of holding an instrumental concert on Friday afternoon prior to the coming in of the Sabbath, as a means of getting the congregants in the right mood for the Friday night service.

The same process took place in Italy, where the Venetian community commissioned music from non-Jewish composers such as Carlo Grossi and Benedetto Marcello. Another important centre for Spanish and Portuguese Jewish music was Livorno, where a rich cantorial tradition developed, incorporating both traditional Sephardic music from around the Mediterranean and composed art music: this was in turn disseminated to other centres.


Ashkibénu from the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation in London, harmonised by Emanuel Aguilar.


Already in the 17th century, choirs were used in the service on holidays in the Amsterdam community. This custom was introduced in London in the early 1800s. In most cases, the choirs have consisted only of men and boys, but in Curaçao, the policy was changed to allow women in the choir (in a separate section) in 1863.

Instrumental music

There are early precedents for the use of instrumental music in the synagogue originating in 17th century Italy as well as the Spanish and Portuguese communities of Hamburg and Amsterdam and in the Ashkenazic community of Prague. As in most other communities (until the rise of the Reform movement in the 19th century) the use of instrumental music was not permitted on Shabbat or festivals.

As a general rule, Spanish and Portuguese communities do not use pipe organs during services. In some Spanish and Portuguese communities, notably in France (Bordeaux, Bayonne), USA (Savannah, Charleston, Richmond) and the Caribbean (Curaçao), pipe organs came into use during the course of the 19th century, in parallel with developments in Reform Judaism. In Curaçao, where the traditional congregation had an organ set up in the late 1800s, the use of the organ on Shabbat was eventually also accepted, as long as the organ player was not Jewish. In the more traditional congregations, such as London and New York, a free-standing organ or electric piano is used at weddings or benot mitzvah (although never on Shabbat or Yom Tob), in the same way as in some English Ashkenazi synagogues.

Current practice

The cantorial style of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews adheres to the general Sephardi principle that every word is sung out loud and that most of the ritual is performed communally rather than solistically. The Hazzán’s rôle is typically one of guiding the congregation rather than being a soloist. Thus, there is traditionally a much stronger emphasis on correct diction and knowledge of the musical minhág than on the solistic voice quality. In the parts of the service where the Hazzán would traditionally have a more solistic rôle, the basic melodies are embellished according to the general principles of Baroque performance practice. Two- and three-part harmony is relatively common, and Edwin Seroussi has shown that the harmonies are a reflection of more complex, four-part harmonies in written sources from the 18th century.

The recitative style of the central parts of the service, such as the Amidah, the Psalms and the cantillation of the Torah is related to that of other Sephardi and Mizrahi communities. The closest resemblance is to the ritual of Gibraltar and Northern Morocco, as Spanish and Portuguese communities traditionally recruited their ִhazzanim from these countries. There is a remoter affinity with the Babylonian and North African traditions: these are more conservative than the Syrian and Judaeo-Spanish traditions, which have been more heavily influenced by popular Mediterranean and Arabic music.

In other parts of the service, and in particular on special occasions such as the festivals, Shabbat Bereshit and the anniversary of the founding of the synagogue, the traditional tunes are often replaced by metrical and harmonized compositions in the Western European style. This is not the case on Rosh Hashanah and Kippúr (Yom Kippur), when the whole service has a far more archaic character.


Most Spanish and Portuguese synagogues are, like those of the Italkim and the Romaniotes, characterized by a bipolar layout, with the tebáh (bimah) near the opposite wall of the Hekhál (Ark). The Hekhál has its parokhet (curtain) inside its doors, rather than outside. The sefarim (Torah scrolls) are usually wrapped in a very wide mantle, quite different from the cylindrical mantles used by most Ashkenazi Jews. Tikim — wooden or metal cylinders around the sefarim — are usually not used, though it is reported that these were in use in the Portuguese Jewish community in Hamburg.

The most important synagogues, or esnogas, as they are usually called amongst Spanish and Portuguese Jews, are the Amsterdam Esnoga and those in London and New York. Amsterdam is now usually considered the “mother synagogue” for the entire Spanish and Portuguese community, though in early days the leading role belonged to the Scuola Spagnola in Venice. It is also the historical centre of the Amsterdam minhag, as used in the Netherlands and former Dutch possessions such as Surinam. Also important is the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London, the historical centre of the London minhag. The Snoa (1732) of the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel congregation in Curaçao is considered one of the most important synagogues in the Jewish history of the Americas. Communities in the United States, such as New York, have been influenced by both the Amsterdam and the London traditions: in the nineteenth century Philadelphia maintained particularly close relations with Bevis Marks and the two communities published identical prayer books.

Prominent rabbis

  • Menasseh ben Israel
  • Jacob ben Aaron Sasportas
  • Saul Levi Morteira
  • Isaac Aboab da Fonseca
  • Jacob Abendana
  • David Nieto
  • Raphael Meldola
  • D. A. de Sola
  • Isaac Leeser
  • Sabato Morais
  • Moses Gaster
  • David de Sola Pool
  • Shem Tob Gaguine
  • Solomon Gaon
  • Marc D. Angel
  • Yaaqob haLevi de Oliveira
  • Mordekhai Levi Lopes
  • Eliezer Tabor

Other prominent personalities

  • Don Isaac Abarbanel,
  • Salomon ibn Verga,
  • Abraham Zacuto,
  • Elijah Capsules,
  • Abraham Cohen Herrera,

·         Baron Diego Pereira D' Aguilar

  • Ephraim Lópes Pereira d'Aguilar, 2nd Baron d'Aguilar
  • Jorge Sampaio
  • Camilo Pissaro

·         Abraham ben Salomon de Torrutiel Ardutiel,

  • Yosef ben Tzadiq of Arévalo
  • Doña Gracia Nasi
  • Joseph Nasi
  • Balthazar (Isaac) Orobio de Castro
  • Uriel da Costa
  • Baruch Spinoza
  • Isaac Pinto
  • Gershom Mendes Seixas
  • Sir Moses Montefiore
  • Grace Aguilar
  • Isaac D'Israeli
  • Moses Angel
  • Philip Guedalla
  • Labor MK Ophir Pines-Paz
  • U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo