Tag Archives: Mikveh

Jew of the Week: Isaac Aboab da Fonseca

America’s First Rabbi

Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, the first rabbi to set foot in America

Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, the first rabbi to set foot in America

Isaac Aboab da Fonseca (1605-1693) was born in Portugal to a family of Conversos, or “Marranos” – Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity during the Inquisition. Despite the conversion, their persecution persisted, and Conversos often continued to practice Judaism in secret. In 1581, the Dutch Republic separated from the Spanish Empire, triggering a large migration of Sephardic Jews to the area. By 1603, Dutch law officially made it legal for Judaism to be practiced openly. In 1612, da Fonseca’s family moved to Amsterdam, where they could finally practice Judaism once again. Da Fonseca went to study under the tutelage of the great doctor, poet, mathematician, and rabbi Isaac Uziel, who had opened a new Talmudic academy a few years earlier. Da Fonseca showed his genius early on, and was made a rabbi by the age of eighteen. Some twenty years later, he was invited to serve as the chief rabbi of the Dutch colony of Pernambuco in Brazil. This colony had a population of about 600 Sephardic Jews that fled the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition. Da Fonseca’s arrival in 1642 likely made him the first rabbi to set foot in the Americas. During his thirteen years there, the colony established a proper synagogue, mikveh, and yeshiva – perhaps the very first in the New World – and the Jewish population grew to as many as 5000. During this time, he also wrote what is thought to be the first Hebrew text produced in America. Unfortunately, a Jesuit priest convinced the Portuguese to reconquer the colony and destroy its Jews who “have their open synagogues there, to the scandal of Christianity”. The Jews took up arms alongside the small Dutch army, and resisted the Portuguese forces for nine years. The Portuguese ultimately prevailed, but the Dutch would not surrender until the Portuguese agreed to let the Jews go. The majority sailed back to Amsterdam with da Fonseca. (One of these ships was attacked by pirates, lost its way, and ended up in the nascent colony of New Amsterdam. These first Jews in North America helped establish what would later become New York City.) Back in Amsterdam, da Fonseca soon became the city’s chief rabbi. He was on the panel that excommunicated the famous philosopher Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza. In his old age, Rabbi da Fonseca became known as a great mystic and Kabbalist. He passed away at 88 years of age. In 2007, the Jerusalem Institute published a book of his writings and teachings.

Words of the Week

If you want to change the world, change yourself.
– Jack Ma

Jew of the Week: Rebbe Nachman of Breslov

The Tomb of Rebbe Nachman in Uman, Ukraine

The Tomb of Rebbe Nachman in Uman, Ukraine

Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) was born in Ukraine, and was the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism. From a very young age, Nachman was drawn to spirituality and the study of Jewish wisdom. By the time he was just six years old, he made it a habit to visit his great-grandfather’s grave every night, and immerse himself in a mikveh. By 13, he was already married, and attracted his first disciples. He was soon known simply as Rebbe Nachman. A few years after a pilgrimage to Israel, Rebbe Nachman moved to Breslov and officially founded a new movement of Hasidic Judaism. There he met his most famous disciple, Nathan Sternhartz, known as Reb Noson. Over the following eight years, Reb Noson recorded and published the bulk of Rebbe Nachman’s teachings, which revolutionized the Hasidic world, and the religious Jewish world at large, enlightening thousands with novel interpretations and practical wisdom for living a better life. Rebbe Nachman also produced a number of hymns and songs, including the popular “All the World is a Very Narrow Bridge” (kol ha’olam kulu, gesher tzar me’od) and “It Is A Great Mitzvah To Always be Happy” (mitzvah gedolah li’yot b’simcha tamid). His teachings emphasized simple living permeated with constant joy, and he encouraged people to sing and dance, even during prayers. A major part of his system involves meditation (hitbodedut) and for each person to have a personal dialogue with God, as they would with their best friend. Rebbe Nachman is also famous for his storytelling, and to this day many read his tales, which are full of deep lessons and morals. In 1810, a fire destroyed Rebbe Nachman’s home (along with most of the town of Breslov), and he moved to the town of Uman. Shortly after, he passed away from tuberculosis, aged just 38 years. Since then, countless Jews have been making yearly pilgrimages to his grave in Uman, particularly during the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. In recent years, the Ukrainian town of Uman (with a population of under 90,000) has built an entire industry around these travelers, which number over 25,000 every Rosh Hashanah alone. Rebbe Nachman passed away on the 4th day of Sukkot, which this year falls on the coming Sunday.

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Words of the Week

Gems from Rebbe Nachman:

“Wherever I go, I’m always going to Israel.”

“All the world is a very narrow bridge, but the main thing is to have no fear at all.”

“You are never given an obstacle you cannot overcome.”

“The essence of wisdom is to realize how far from wisdom you are.”

“If you believe that you can damage, then believe that you can fix.”