Tag Archives: Spinoza

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: Manoel Dias Soeiro

Manoel Dias Soeiro (1604-1657) was born in Madeira, an island off of Portugal, where his parents fled from the Portuguese Inquisition. They soon moved to the Netherlands, where Soeiro grew up and became a respected rabbi and author, known by his Hebrew name Menashe ben Israel. In Holland, he established the first Hebrew printing press at the young age of 22, and his writings (in five languages!) would gain great fame, not only in the Jewish community, but among the greatest scholars and philosophers of the age, including Vieira, de Groot, and Huet. A portrait of Soeiro was even painted by Rembrandt! A great kabbalist, Soeiro wrote and published one of the earliest Jewish treatises on reincarnation, called Nishmat Hayim. Among his students was the infamous Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza. In 1638, Soeiro moved to Brazil. At the time, there was a popular notion that the natives were actually the Lost Tribes of Israel. This inspired Soeiro to take up the role of helping Jewish causes around the world. His first stop was England, where virtually no Jews lived since they were expelled in 1290. Soeiro worked hard to open the doors to their return, and in December 1655, the re-admittance of Jews to England was granted. Sadly, Menashe could not continue his work. Upon return to the Netherlands, his son passed away. Unable to contain the grief, Soeiro passed away himself in the midst of the funeral.

Words of the Week

As they set out from their place above, each soul is male and female as one. Only as they descend to this world do they part, each to its own side. And then it is the One Above who unites them again. This is His exclusive domain, for He alone knows which soul belongs to which and how they must reunite.
– Zohar (I, 85b)