In 1536, the Catholic Church initiated the Inquisition in Portugal following a mass influx into the country of anusim (Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity) fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. The Portuguese Inquisition included particularly cruel punishments often carried out before large crowds that gathered to watch autos-da-fé. Trials ceased after about 250 years, although Portugal’s Inquisition was not officially abolished until 1821.
Over the centuries, most of the Jews who converted to Christianity in Portugal abandoned any sign of their Jewish roots, yet some continued to keep some form of Jewish observance in private. For example, some would secretly celebrate Yom Kippur and Passover belatedly in order to confuse the authorities, or light Sabbath candles inside pottery vessels to conceal the flames. Children under the age of 12 were not permitted to attend these clandestine religious ceremonies in order to keep them from revealing secrets that might betray their families.
According to Dr. Yochai Ben-Ghedalia, Director of the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel, “These discoveries shed light on the realities of a complex chapter in Jewish history, as well as on the Inquisition’s obsession with revealing any form of deviance, including traces of Jewish tradition. We hope the newly discovered document will help scholars better investigate this fascinating and difficult period of history.”