After the northern provinces of the Netherlands proclaimed their independence of Catholic Spain (Union of Utrecht, 1579), Marranos of Spanish and Portuguese origin became attracted to Amsterdam where little inquiry was made as to their religious beliefs. Around 1590, Portuguese Jewish merchants began to settle in Amsterdam, which was quickly becoming one of the most important international commercial centers, but they did not openly reveal themselves as Jews. The number of Marranos from Spain and especially Portugal taking refuge in Amsterdam increased in subsequent years. While the initial wave of Jewish immigrants was comprised primarily of these former conversos seeking a haven, from the 1620s there were increasing numbers of Ashkenazi Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe arriving in Amsterdam as well.

Economic life

The role of the Jewish Portuguese merchants in the economic life of Amsterdam remained modest until the end of the war against Spain in 1648. Subsequently many other ex-Marranos settled in Amsterdam, and became extremely prosperous; this vitality continued up until the mid-18th century. Jewish merchants in Amsterdam were one of the first groups to engage in recognizably modern capitalist-type activities. Their foreign interests included trade with the Iberian peninsula, England, Italy, Africa, India, and the East and West Indies. Jews in Amsterdam also engaged in industry, especially in the tobacco, printing, and diamond industries (the last eventually passing almost entirely into Jewish hands), as well as in the stock market.

Ashkenazi settlers in Amsterdam were at first in poor economic circumstances, depending socially and economically on the Sephardi community. In the early years, many Ashkenazi Jews became peddlers, old clothes dealers, or shopkeepers; only a few achieved some wealth. Later, they developed trade with Eastern Europe and Germany, working as foreign exchange brokers, as agents in procuring loans for the German states from Dutch banks on comparatively cheap terms, or as diamond brokers for foreign courts.

Legal status and self-rule

The legal status of these Jews long remained unclarified. While the Reform Church opposed Jewish settlement in Amsterdam, the civic authorities favored it. On November 8, 1616, the Amsterdam authorities officially recognized the right of the Jews to reside in the city, without defining their status. Despite the ambivalent approach of renowned jurist and theologian Grotius Jews who had been consulted on the subject of Jewish rights, his views undoubtedly reflect the beginning of a new attitude toward the Jews.

Although not formally recognized as citizens (and for a number of years their synagogues continued to be concealed behind residential facades), the newcomers enjoyed religious freedom and protection of life and property, especially in relation to foreign powers. The city council — as originally stipulated by Grotius — demanded only that Jews not defame the Christian faith, nor attempt to convert Christians nor have sexual relations with Christians. These restrictions, formulated in a special decree issued in 1616, remained in effect until 1796; in time, only the most fanatic members of the Calvinist church councils maintained their vigilance against infractions; on occasion, when they summoned the Jews before the courts, the civic authorities managed to quash the complaints. Until the Jews officially attained full civic emancipation, they were also debarred from practicing all trades organized in guilds, but the municipality rejected any attempt to ban Jews from other professions.

Authority over the Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jewish communities in Amsterdam was vested in member of the congregational boards, the parnasim. Following the approval by the city council statutes, the parnasim were held directly accountable to the city for the maintenance of law and order among the Jews; law and order were imposed via a system of sanctions, the most severe of which was excommunication. This accommodation between the secular authorities and the Jews, unparalleled in European history, resulted in an internal organization and power structure which differed fundamentally from those of Jewish communities elsewhere. Unlike their counterparts in Germany and Eastern, the Jews of Amsterdam were able to take a limited, but nonetheless active part in their dealings with the authorities. By keeping a tight rein on its community members and their activities, the parnasim maintained a good working relationship with the authorities; this, of course, made the parnasim the most powerful body within the Jewish community.

Communal, intellectual and religious life

The Spanish-Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam grew and prospered. In 1612 it numbered close to 500 souls; the number had doubled by 1620, and in 1672 it reached slightly more than 2,500. Although Jewish immigrants were not confined to certain neighborhoods or streets, most of the Portuguese Jews lived on Vlooyenburg, an island near the eastern city boundaries that had been artificially constructed in the Amstel river towards the end of the 16th century. The first prayer houses, still accommodated in private residences, were also located on Vlooyenburg.

The Beit Ya'akov congregation was founded at the beginning of the century, and Neve Shalom around 1608; When a split developed in the former, apparently because of bitter religious controversy, Beit Israel was founded, led by freethinking physician Abraham Farrar; there were now three Sephardi congregations in Amsterdam. The magnificent synagogue dedicated in 1675 became the model for Sephardi synagogues in many other places.

The Ashkenazi Jews were eventually also drawn to Vlooyenburg. And so, with the gradual expansion of the Jewish community during the 17th and 18th centuries, Vlooyenburg became the heart of the Amsterdam Jewish Quarter, where the majority of the Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews lived. At its center — and facing each other — were the imposing High-German and Portuguese synagogues (completed in 1671 and 1675 respectively). Although the two communities occupied the same quarter, definite distinctions were drawn between "poor" and "rich", or "Portuguese" and "Ashkenazi" streets and canals.

The Sephardi conversos (or marranos) arriving in Amsterdam lacked any real knowledge of Jewish law, rituals, prayers and customs. Sephardi rabbis and scholars from the Ottoman Empire, North Africa and Italy such as Rabbis Isaac Uziel and Joseph Pardo; prominent Ashkenazi rabbis such as Saul Levi Mortera and R. Moses Uri Halevi of Emden; and Samuel Palache, the ambassador of Morocco to the Netherlands, did much to assist Jews to settle in the country and to return to Jewish life and observance.

The intellectual life of the community, in both its religious and secular aspects, attained a high level. As a center of Jewish learning throughout the Marrano Diaspora, Amsterdam Jewry wielded a powerful influence and became a focus of intellectual ferment. The Talmud Torah school was celebrated for the breadth of its syllabus and excellence of its teaching, covering not only talmudic subjects, but also Hebrew grammar and poetry; the school produced gifted Hebrew writers and poets. The community was also known for its prolific printers, rabbis, scholars, physicians, philosophers, playwrights, and kabbalists. Most of the religious literature in Spanish and Portuguese intended for the guidance of the Sephardi communities was composed and printed in Amsterdam.


Judith Belinfante, "Jewish freedom and its limits in Amsterdam 1592-1796," in: Jewish Life in the Golden Age of Amsterdam 1592-1796 (Tel Aviv: Beth Hatefutsoth, Museum of the Jewish Diaspora).

Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing, 1971)

Yosef Kaplan, "The return to Judaism: Spanish and Portuguese Jews in the west in the early modern era," in: Odyssey of the Exiles: The Sephardi Jews 1492-1992, eds. Ruth Porter, Sarah Harel-Hoshen (Tel Aviv: Beth Hatefutsoth and Ministry of Defence Publishing House, 1992).




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