Jews Come to America
The first mention of the discovery of the New World
and the first description of it in Hebrew literature is in Iggeret
Orhot Olam (A Tract on the Paths of the World), Venice, 1586. It
was written in 1524 by Abraham Farissol (1451-1525), a contemporary
of Columbus. Bible scholar and polemicist, he served as a cantor in the Ferrara synagogue and
was also a copyist of manuscripts. Aware of the world about him and
much taken by the great voyages of discovery, Farissol turned his attention
to geography and cosmography. His small volume is divided into thirty
chapters which deal with "the distant islands recently discovered by
the Portuguese; on the River Sambatyon and the Jews who lived beyond
it (i.e., the Ten Lost Tribes); the boundaries of the Land of Israel
... and the earthly Garden of Eden." In Chapter 29 he reports on Columbus's
discovery of the New World in 1492:
It is now an established fact that the Spanish ships which were sent
on an expedition by the King of Spain ... almost gave up hope of ever
returning .... But divine providence had decreed for them a kinder
fate than death amid sea .... Those at the topmost mast discerned
a strip of land ... When they had sailed along its shores ... and
saw its exceeding large size, they called it because of its great
length and breadth, "The New World." The land is rich in natural resources.
They have an abundance of fish ... large forests ... teeming with
large and small beasts of prey, and serpents as large as beams. The
sand along the shores of the rivers, contain pure gold ... precious
stones ... and mother of pearl.
Farissol attempts a crude "map" of the New World, no
more than lines forming a shieldlike figure and some typographical markings. Orhot Olam was translated into Latin, published in Oxford, in
1691, as Tractus Itinerum Mundi, and was republished many times
in Hebrew. The most notable edition is that of Prague, 1793, which contains
The shieldlike figure is labeled "New Land" in Hebrew,
in this pioneer work in Hebrew on geography. The author, Abraham Farissol,
informs the reader of "the three areas of habitation, Asia, Africa and
Europe ... also of the far-off islands recently discovered by the Portuguese
... of the River Sambatyon, and of unknown places where Jews reside,
the borders of the Land of Israel and Paradise on earth" and of the
discovery of a New World, a fourth area of habitation.
Abraham Farissol, Iggeret Orhot Olam Venice,
1586. Hebraic Section.
In the Rare Book and Special Collections Division are
two books bearing the same title, Jewes in America, by the same
author, but published in London ten years apart, in 1650 and 1660. The
author, Thomas Thorowgood, a British divine, has as the subtitle of
the first edition: "Probabilities that the Americans are Jewes." These
are the first of many books and articles identifying the American Indians
as the descendants of the Ten Tribes of Israel, who were exiled by the
Assyrian monarch Sennacherib in 722 BCE and "lost."
Thorowgood argues that, "The Indians do themselves
relate things of their Ancestors suteable to what we read in the Bible
... They constantly and strictly separate their women in a little wigwam
by themselves in their feminine seasons ... they hold that Nanawitnawit
(a God overhead) made the Heavens and the Earth." He further proposes
that, "The rites, fashions, ceremonies, and opinions of the Americans
are in many things agreeable to the custom of the Jewes, not only prophane
and common usages, but such as he called solemn and sacred." His final
and crowning proof, "The Relation of Master Antonie Monterinos, translated
out of the French Copie sent by Manasseh Ben Israel," begins:
The eighteenth day of Elul, in the yeere five thousand foure hundred
and foure from the creation of the World (1644), came into this city
of Amsterdam Mr. Aron Levi, alias, Antonie Monterinos, and
declared before me Manassah Ben Israell, and divers other chiefe
men of the Portugall Nation, neer to the said city that which followeth.
The title of Jewes in America continues: "Probabilities
that the Americans are Jewes." One of the earliest of the many books
asserting that the American Indians are descended from the Ten Lost
Tribes of Israel. The author documents his assertion with the account
of "Aaron Levi, alias Antonie Monterinos," who returned to Amsterdam
from Brazil with a tale that he had met representatives of the descendants
of the Ten Lost Tribes, now resident in South America.
Thomas Thorowgood, Jewes in America, London,
1650. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
What follows is a fanciful tale by Montezinos (his
correct name) of meeting in Brazil representatives of a mysterious mighty
nation of Indians who claimed descent from Abraham, Isaac, Jacob,
and Israel, and from the Tribes of Reuben and Joseph. They announced their readiness now to rise up
and drive the Spanish and Portuguese invaders from their continent.
Two years later, in 1652, Roger L'Estrange countered
with his Americans No Jewes (London, 1652). In answer, the 1660
edition reaffirmed, "that those Indians are Judaical, made more probable
by some Additional ... learned conjectures of Reverend Mr. John Eliot."
Eliot, the "Apostle to the Indians," was more interested in promoting
his missionary endeavors among the Indians than in proving their Jewishness,
so his lengthy epistle is not so much a defense of the Thorowgood thesis,
as of the New England Colonists and a call for aid from the mother country
for their New World emissaries who are bringing the word of the Lord
to the natives.
To bring the "good news" to the natives of the New
World, Eliot translated the Bible into the Massachusetts dialect of the Algonquian language. It was published
in Cambridge in1663 under the title The Holy Bible Containing the
Old Testament and the New Translated into the Indian Language and Ordered
to be Printed by the Commissioners of the United Colonies in New England.
. . , Cambridge, 1663. The first Bible printed in America,
it appeared 120 years before the first English edition. A second edition
appeared two years later. If, indeed, Eliot believed the Indians to
be the descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes, his was a work of restoring
the Book to the People of the Book. in full, or in part, in either edition,
the Eliot Bible is a book of great rarity, and the Library's copy is
in uncommonly fine condition.
If Thorowgood was right (see exhibit item 215), then
the first Bible printed in America was for the descendants of that people
which gave the Bible to the world. Be that as it may, before us is the
title page of an edition published in Cambridge in New England in 1663, Translated into the Indian Language and Ordered to be Printed by the
Commissioners of the United Colonies in New England ... The translator
was John Eliot, "Apostle to the Indians," and his and its purpose was
the conversion of the Indians to Christianity. The first English Bible
in America was not published for 120 years, and the first Hebrew for
The Holy Bible ... Translated into the Indian
Language .... Cambridge (New England), 1663. Rare Book and Special
Twenty-three years earlier, a translation of the Psalms into English, the so-called Bay Psalm Book, was published in Cambridge,
New England. Printed by Stephen Daye in 1640, it is the very
first book published in the English settlements of America. Its title
reads: The Whole Book of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English
Metre. The Preface by Richard Mather contains five Hebrew words,
the first appearance of Hebrew in any work printed in the New World.
The Library of Congress has one of the eleven extant copies of this
work, which, if not the rarest of American imprints, is surely the most
from the Bay Psalm Book.
Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully
Translated into English Metre],
Massachusetts: Stephen Daye, 1640.
Rare Book and Special Collections
Sources: Abraham J. Karp, From
the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress,
(DC: Library of Congress,
1991). Photo of Bay Psalm Book appears in the
Haven to Home exhibit.