Isaac Aboab de Fonseca
(1605 - 1693)
In 1642, when the 600 Jews
of Recife (Pernambuco), Brazil, felt secure
enough to establish a synagogue and worship openly, they summoned Rabbi Isaac
Aboab de Fonseca of Amsterdam, Holland,
to serve as their first hocham (spiritual
leader). Aboab de Fonseca became, thereby,
the first congregational rabbi in the New
When the Portuguese explorer Cabral landed in Brazil in 1500,
he was accompanied by at least one person
of Jewish birth who had been captured in India
and forcibly baptised. Portuguese conversos
continued to settle in Brazil for more than
a century. Then, in 1630, the Netherlands
drove the Portuguese out of the Pernambuco
When the Portuguese military
departed from Recife and its environs the
representatives of the Holy
Inquisition left with them. Some of the
Portuguese conversos who remained behind took
the opportunity to openly profess their Judaism.
When additional Jews from Amsterdam arrived
in Recife, the Jewish community, estimated
to be as large as 5,000 individuals, organized
congregation Kahal Kodesh Zur Yisroel. Rabbi
Isaac Aboab de Fonseca known to his
followers simply as Aboab served this
congregation through the best and worst of
Born in Portugal in 1605,
Rabbi Aboab was a rabbinic prodigy: even in
his teens, he was considered highly learned,
a charismatic speaker and a respected teacher.
When Aboab was a child, his parents fled Portugal for France and then Amsterdam, where the young boy became
a student of the great hocham Isaac Uzziel.
Aboab possessed a powerful intellect and writing
skills. Historian Leon Kayserling summarized
Aboabs contributions by calling him
"an excellent Hebrew poet who left us
magnificently enduring works," including
several translations of Hebrew kabbalistic writings into Spanish, and vice versa.
At age 21, Aboab was called to the pulpit of Amsterdams Congregation
Bet Israel, one of three Jewish synagogues in the city. In 1639, the
three congregations merged, and Aboab shared the role of hocham. When
he chose to relocate to Recife in 1642, his departure was greeted with
For the first four years under Aboabs leadership, Recifes
congregation Kahal Kodesh Zur Yisroel thrived in an atmosphere of religious
toleration characteristic of the 17th century Dutch. The Portuguese,
however, had retained control of the Bahia region of Brazil and never
ceased longing to recapture Pernambuco. In 1645, a Portuguese Jesuit,
Joam Fernandes Vieyra, convinced the King of Portugal to regain Recife
because "that city is chiefly inhabited by Jews, most of whom were
originally fugitives from Portugal." Vieyra continued, "They
have their open synagogues there, to the scandal of Christianity. For
the honor of the faith, therefore, the Portuguese ought to risk their
lives and their property in putting down such an abomination."
In 1646, Vieyra and his army attacked Recife. Hoping to divide and
conquer, Vieyra offered the citys Jews protection on the condition
that they not participate in the battle. The Jewish community unanimously
rejected his offer and took up arms with their Dutch comrades.
The Portuguese besieged Recife off and on for a total of nine years,
unable to defeat the inhabitants yet unwilling to retreat. During this
prolonged ordeal, Recifes Jews gave their food, property and lives
in defense of their freedom. Throughout the siege, Aboab encouraged
all the resistersJewish and Dutch alikeand led prayers asking
God to protect the colonists from their enemies.
Recife held out through nine years of deprivation. In a poem he later
wrote, Aboab described his congregations ordeal: "Many of
the Jewish immigrants were killed by the enemy; many died of starvation.
Those who were accustomed to delicacies were glad to be able to satisfy
their hunger with dry bread; soon they could not obtain even this. They
were in want of everything and were preserved alive as if by a miracle."
It is the oldest known Hebrew text written in America that has survived
to the present day.
In 1654, the Dutch garrison
could no longer hold out and the governor
agreed to surrender. To their credit, the
Dutch insisted that the Portuguese not slaughter
the Jewish inhabitants as a condition of surrender.
The Portuguese honored this proviso but demanded
that the Jews leave Brazil. Some departed
for Surinam, some for Guadeloupe, but a majority
wished to return to Amsterdam. (One such boatload
of 24 Amsterdam-bound passengers was accosted
by pirates and robbed, then blown off course
and finally landed in New
Amsterdam the first Jews to settle
in North America.) Aboab, abandoning the place
he had called home for 13 years, traveled
with those who successfully returned to Amsterdam.
Held in high esteem by his
former Amsterdam congregants, Aboab was reappointed
as hocham in the synagogue and made teacher
in the citys talmud torah, principal
of its yeshiva and member of the citys
bet din, or rabbinic court. He died in 1693
at the age of 88, having served the Jewish
community of Amsterdam for 50 years after
his return from Recife. In his latter years
a man of letters, teaching and contemplation,
the adventuresome Isaac Aboab de Fonseca had
been, from 1642 to 1654, Americas first
rabbi, first Hebrew poet and a man who risked
his life for Jewish religious freedom.
Jewish Historical Society