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Jews in America: How Hebrew Came to Yale


Few Americans have heard of Rabbi Haim Isaac Carigal, but every Yale University graduate has seen the evidence of his influence over the history of that institution. Because of Carigal’s relationship with Yale’s fifth president, Reverend Ezra Stiles, in 1777 Hebrew became a required course in the freshman curriculum.

Many colonial-era American Christians had a respect for – even a fascination with — the Hebrew language and Jewish religion. In part, their interest stemmed from a belief that the Hebrew Bible, which they dubbed the “Old Testament,” laid the ground for the Christian “New Testament.” Educated American Christians, especially New England clergymen, assumed that an accurate reading of the Old Testament was best done in its original language. By the 1720s, it was possible to study Hebrew at Harvard College under the tutelage of Professor Judah Monis.

The philo-Semitic attitudes of many New England Christian ministers led to early interfaith relationships between Christian and Jewish clergy. Perhaps the best of documented these is that between Reverend Stiles of the Second Congregational Church in Newport, Rhode Island and Rabbi Carigal, who resided in Newport for six months in the spring and summer of 1773. The two men developed a friendship that personally influenced Stiles and turned him into a Hebrew scholar.

What we know of Rabbi Carigal comes to us mainly through the writings of Reverend Stiles, who kept a detailed diary of their six-month friendship. Carigal matched the 18th century’s archetype of the “wandering Jew.” Born in Hebron, Palestine in 1733, Carigal became a rabbi at age seventeen. At age 19, he traveled to Egypt, and Turkey; in 1757, he toured Italy, Austria, Bohemia, Germany, the Netherlands and England. Between 1761 and 1764, Carigal visited Curacao, Amsterdam, Germany and Italy before returning to Hebron. He visited France and England in 1768, Jamaica in 1771, and Philadelphia, New York and Newport in 1772 and 1773. We do not know with certainty why Carigal traveled so often; most likely it was to raise funds for the religious Jews of Hebron.

Stiles first encountered Carigal at the Newport synagogue when Carigal presided over a Purim service in March 1773. Stiles recorded that Carigal “was dressed in a red garment with the usual Phylacteries and habiliments, the white silk Surplice; he wore a high fur cap, had a long beard. He has the appearance of an ingenious and sensible man.”

Impressed by Carigal, Stiles returned to the synagogue to hear him lead Passover services four weeks later, an event about which Stiles wrote copiously, including the fact that on his shaved head Carigal wore “a high Fur Cap, exactly like a Womans Muff, and about 9 or 10 Inches high, the Aperture atop was closed with green cloth.” Stiles described the singing at the service as “fine and melodious.”

Stiles invited Carigal and Aaron Lopez, a leading Newport Jewish merchant, to visit his home on March 30, 1773. Stiles and Carigal struck up a remarkable friendship. Stiles records no fewer than 28 meetings with Carigal before the latter departed for the Caribbean in September of that year. The topics of their conversations ranged widely through cabbalistic mysticism, the nature of Hebrew and Arabic languages, the question of which language Moses wrote in, the relationship between Turks and Jews in Palestine; ancient coins and books, circumcision among Coptic Christians, the coming of the Messiah and numerous other subjects.

During this period, Carigal tutored Stiles intensively in Hebrew. Stiles already had a basic knowledge of the language; by the time Carigal departed from Newport, Stiles and he were exchanging lengthy letters in Hebrew. Stiles began translating major portions of the Hebrew Bible into English. Carigal was elected rabbi of Congregation Kaal Kodesh Midhi Israel in Barbados. He and Stiles continued corresponding until Carigal’s death there in 1777.

In that same year, Stiles was called to Yale to become its president; a year later, he became the school’s first Semitics professor. While the Revolutionary War had forced the postponement of Yale’s commencement since 1776, in September 1781, the ceremonies were held – although “in constant fear that they will be interrupted by the Enemy” — and Stiles delivered an address in Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic.

A Yale student wrote in 1788, “The President insisted that the whole class should undertake the study of Hebrew…For the Hebrew he possessed a high veneration.” As it turns out, Stiles’s prescription was not popular and by 1790, he modified his edict: “From my first accession to the Presidency ... I have obliged all the Freshmen to study Hebrew. This has proved very disagreeable to a Number of the Students. This year I have determined to instruct only those who offer themselves voluntarily.” While enrollment in his courses dropped, the valedictorians of the classes of 1785 and 1792 did deliver their orations in Hebrew.

There is perhaps no more central symbol of the university’s early devotion to Hebrew learning than its official seal, at the heart of which are the words Hebrew words “Urim” and “Thummim,” (“light and perfection”), which are given equal prominence with the university’s Latin translation, “Lux et Veritas” (“light and truth”).

According to Dan Oren, “Jewish sources considered them [Urim and Thummim] oracular gems worn by the high priest Aaron. And their presence in Leviticus 8:8—the middle verse of the Pentateuch—suggests that they identify the book on the Yale seal as the Bible itself....To the ancient Hebrews, the Urim and Thummim reflected the oracular will of God. To the Puritans who shaped early Yale, that oracular will was represented by Jesus. Their seal proclaimed it!”

Oren also suggested the university translated Thummim as truth rather than perfection in response to a theological battle at the time between those who believed education should focus solely on understanding Jesus and those who “thought religious knowledge was central to an education, but hardly sufficient for one.” Yale, he said, “insisted that its college offered the essentials of proper learning: the ‘light’ of a liberal education and the ‘truth’ of an old New England religious tradition.”

Sources: American Jewish Historical Society;
Dan Oren, “Stamp of Approval,” Yale Alumni Magazine, (March 2001).