This Day in Jewish History

1605: The First Rabbi in the New World Is Born

Born in Portugal, Isaac Aboab da Fonseca served as a hakham in Amsterdam and migrated to Recife, where the sheer success of the Jewish community annoyed the Portuguese to the point of war.

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February 1, 1605, is the birthdate of Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, celebrated as the first rabbi in the New World for his time as spiritual leader of the Jewish community in the Dutch colony of Recife, in Brazil.

Isaac Aboab was born Simao da Fonseca to two Converso Jews in the Portuguese town of Castro Daire. When he was 7, the family moved, first to France, then to Amsterdam, where they were able to resume their life as Jews.

Showing great intellectual promise at an early age, Isaac studied with Isaac Uzziel, a respected scholar and a student of kabbala.

During his 20s Aboab was a teacher and hakham (rabbi) in Amsterdam. The city had three Sephardi synagogues: there is some historical disagreement if he was hakham at Beit Yisrael or at Neve Shalom. In any case, in 1641 or 1642 he sailed to the colony of Pernambuco (whose capital was Recife), which the Dutch had conquered from Portugal in 1624. Fortunately, at that time, the Inquisition no longer officiated there, but that reprieve was not to last.

By 1645, there were some 1,500 Jews in Recife, about half of its European population. Rabbi Aboab was the spiritual leader of the Kahal Zur Israel synagogue, which had a yeshiva and mikveh and a tzedakah fund. (The remains of the Kahal Zur Israel synagogue were discovered by archaeologists in 1999, and today can be visited in Recife.)

The fact that the Jewish community of Pernambuco thrived was galling to the Portuguese, who aspired to retake the colony. A Jesuit priest, Joam Fernandes Vieyra, appealed to the Portuguese king, lamenting that Recife’s Jews "were originally fugitives from Portugal,” and that the openly Jewish life they were leading was "to the scandal of Christianity.” He urged him to have “the Portuguese … risk their lives and their property in putting down such an abomination."

Thus began the nine-year Portuguese siege of Recife, led by Vieyra.

The Jews of the colony fought with the Dutch through the long conflict, and a poem written by Aboab about the ordeal is the oldest-surviving Hebrew text written in the New World. He described how he and his congregants “were in want of everything and were preserved alive as if by a miracle."

In 1654, the Portuguese retook Recife, and expelled the Jews. Some of the colony’s Jews moved to other Dutch colonies in the Americas, including New Amsterdam (which became New York). Rabbi Aboab returned to the Netherlands, where he was appointed chief rabbi of the of the Sephardi Jewish community of Amsterdam.

In that capacity, he was one of those who officiated in 1656 in the excommunication of Baruch Spinoza, on grounds of heresy. He was also among those who believed in the messianic mission of Shabtai Zevi, a frenzy that peaked in 1666, when Zevi converted to Islam.

Like the rest of Amsterdam’s Jews, Aboab recanted his faith in Shabtai Zevi, whose name was obliterated from all publications where it appeared. Aboab was also involved in a number of other theological controversies during his long tenure as community leader.

Isaac Aboab da Fonseca died on April 4, 1693, and was buried in the Dutch Portuguese Jewish Cemetery at Ouderkerk aan de Amstel.