When the Jewish Museum of Belmonte opened in 2005, it became the first museum in Portugal entirely dedicated to the history of Judaism. Besides, the various rooms and corridors of its permanent exhibition pay special attention to the Jewish community that settled in the town of Belmonte.
If you ever visit Belmonte – one of the “12 Historical Villages of Portugal” – it’s essential that you include the Jewish Museum of Belmonte in your itinerary. This space has a unique collection of pieces that encompasses centuries of Jewish history, culture, and traditions!
So, do you want to know more about the Jewish Museum Of Belmonte: Best Tips For Visiting In 2023? Keep reading!
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- Brief History of the Jewish Museum of Belmonte
- What to See at the Jewish Museum of Belmonte
- Practical Guide to the Jewish Museum of Belmonte
- More Posts about Portugal
- More Posts about Museum Guides
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Brief History of the Jewish Museum of Belmonte
The Jewish Museum of Belmonte was inaugurated on April 17th, 2005, with an exhibition of more than one hundred pieces. In its permanent collection, there are not only relics linked to religious practices but also objects used in everyday life – both at home and at work.
Most of the exhibits resulted from donations from several Hebrew families, more precisely from the regions of Beira Interior and Trás-os-Montes. However, the Jewish Museum of Belmonte is, in its essence, dedicated to the crypto-Jewish community that settled in this town in the 13th century.
What to See at the Jewish Museum of Belmonte
With many dozens of pieces on display at the Jewish Museum of Belmonte, it’s quite difficult to choose the “most must-see”. Still, there are some objects and relics that deserve special attention, either for their state of conservation or for their importance in Jewish practices.
The most extraordinary thing about the Jewish Community of Belmonte is that it managed to survive through tumultuous centuries of religious persecution! After all, the Jews of Belmonte had to claim to be Christians while continuing to practice Judaism in secret – the so-called Crypto-Judaism.
Also called the Hanukkah menorah, the Hanukkiah is a nine-branched candelabrum used during the eight-day Hanukkah or “Festival of Lights”.
On this Jewish holiday, Jews celebrate the “Miracle of the Olive Oil”, referring to the oil that miraculously burned for eight days in the Menorah of the Temple of Jerusalem, in the 2nd century BC.
At the Jewish Museum of Belmonte, there are several Hanukkiahs on display and they all come in different sizes and shapes. However, the concept is always the same: eight branches plus a ninth in the center and more prominent called Shamash, which serves as a lighter for the remaining candles.
The Menorah is one of the best-known symbols of Judaism, along with the Star of David. This sacred seven-branched lampstand was first used in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple in Jerusalem.
The specimen on display at the Jewish Museum of Belmonte dates from the 20th century and is a faithful representation of the original Menorah – which was made of solid gold and had a central shaft, with three branches protruding from each side.
In 1949, the newly created State of Israel adopted the Menorah as its official emblem, after having integrated the Star of David (or Magen David, meaning “Shield of David”) into its national flag the year before.
Sefer Torah is the hand-copied scrolls of parchment from the Torah, the Holy Scriptures of Judaism.
As one of the holiest works of the Jewish religion, the Sefer Torah is kept in the synagogues, inside an ornate “ark” known as the Aron Kodesh.
The sacred book on display at the Jewish Museum of Belmonte dates from the 20th century and contains the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy (Pentateuch).
Besides, it includes a small 19th-century pointer – called Yad – that served to accompany the reading of the Torah.
The Shofar at the Jewish Museum of Belmonte may be from the 20th century, but the truth is that this wind instrument is one of the oldest on record! However, to the Jews, the Shofar represents much more than a simple traditional musical instrument: it’s also considered one of the sacred objects of Judaism.
Created from the horn of a kosher animal (usually a ram), the Shofar was played at solemn religious celebrations or during times of war. These days, it’s mainly present at important events in the Jewish calendar, such as the Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year.
The Tefillin is a set of small black leather boxes – from a kosher animal – where scrolls with Torah passages are kept.
Interestingly, this object is also known in English as Phylactery (from the Greek Phylaktérion), which means “protection”. And the truth is, many Jews consider the Tefillin a kind of amulet!
In the Jewish religion, Tefillin is used during morning prayer on weekdays. Basically, the faithful wrap one of the leather straps on their left arm and another on their forehead, to recite the verses.
The model at the Jewish Museum of Belmonte is from the 20th century. And as you can see from the photo, the Tefillin includes a graphical explanation on how to put it on.
The Votive Epigraph of the Jewish Museum of Belmonte is probably the most enigmatic piece in its collection. This is because no historian or archaeologist has yet managed to understand who this stone belonged to, what year it is, or what the meaning of its inscription is!
According to Samuel Schwarz (a Polish mining engineer of Jewish origin, who is known for the rediscovery of the Jewish Community of Belmonte and the restoration of the Synagogue of Tomar), the inscription dates from 1297 and belonged to the ancient Synagogue of Belmonte.
This historian, archaeologist, and writer based in Portugal at the beginning of the 20th century stated that the inscription means: “And Adonai is in his sacred temple, the whole earth silences before Him.”
Last but not least, you can admire a very special piece in the Jewish Museum of Belmonte: an example of Holy Bread.
This bread is baked without yeast and made only from wheat flour (or other cereals such as oats, rye, or barley) and water. Popularly, this type of bread is called unleavened bread.
The Holy Bread is an obligatory presence on Pesach, the “Jewish Passover” or “Festival of Liberation” – as it’s the holiday that commemorates the liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt.
In Belmonte, the crypto-Jews always cooked a Holy Bread on Pesach, which was then kept in a small wooden box. In other words, some of the pieces of bread were several years old, if not decades old!
Practical Guide to the Jewish Museum of Belmonte
The Jewish Museum of Belmonte is located in the heart of the historic center and a few meters from other tourist attractions, such as the Belmonte Castle or the Museum of the Discoveries. If you’re driving and this is your first stop in Belmonte, I recommend that you park at the Largo de São Tiago or at the Loja do Cidadão.
That being said, I’m going to give you some tips and suggestions – as well as the main practical information (ie opening times and ticket prices) – so that you can make the most of the Jewish Museum of Belmonte and optimize your visit to this unique place!
1. Buy a Combined Ticket
Did you know that the historical village of Belmonte has five municipal museums? In addition to the Jewish Museum of Belmonte, you can visit the Olive Oil Museum, the Museum of the Discoveries, the Zêzere Ecomuseum, and the Santiago Church & Cabral Pantheon. And of course, you can also explore Belmonte Castle.
So, when buying tickets, first decide how many of these you want to visit – because the combined ticket can be cheaper! For example, entry to the Jewish Museum of Belmonte costs €4 (or €3 for children and young people aged 6 to 18, Youth Card or Student Card holders, and retired people), but the “5 Museums Ticket” costs €8 (or €7) and the “5 Museums + Castle Ticket” costs 10€ (or 8€).
2. Visit the Jewish Museum of Belmonte with a Tour Guide
Visiting the Jewish Museum of Belmonte (or any museum) with a tour guide is always a different experience. Because not only do you have the opportunity to discover the history of the museum and its collection in a much more interesting way, but you also have the unique opportunity to ask questions at the moment.
Today, many museums, monuments, and other historic buildings are already equipped with plaques, signs, summaries, and descriptions, not to mention maps and audio guides in several languages. But a competent tour guide can make your visit even more special!
I was lucky to be able to visit the Jewish Museum of Belmonte (and other monuments of this Historical Village of Portugal, such as the Bet Heliahu Synagogue and the Roman Tower of Centum Cellas) with a Jewish tour guide. And I can say that it was a unique experience, which I highly recommend!
3. Avoid Lunchtime (and Mondays)
In my opinion, one of the biggest inconveniences of Portuguese museums and monuments is the fact that they open relatively late – and not early in the morning, as it happens in countries like France, Germany, or Italy – and that many of them close during lunchtime.
When I travel, I like to get up early to avoid the waiting lines and to be able to photograph places without many people. I also prefer to opt for a sandwich or other quick meal at lunch, to visit the tourist attractions when everyone goes to the restaurants and cafes.
Unfortunately, the Jewish Museum of Belmonte has a very “limiting” schedule, but that is very common in Portugal: from 10 am to 1 pm and from 2:30 pm to 5:30 pm, with the last entry being at 5 pm. The museum is also closed on Mondays (like the vast majority of museums), so you can only visit it from Tuesday to Sunday.
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