The First Rabbi in Brazil

Ralph G.Bennett

Finally, we know that some immigrants, like those on the Mayflower of American history, left their old country in search of the new for religious reasons. One of the Jews arriving in Brazil for that reason was Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, the first Jewish author in the Americas and the first rabbi in Brazil. That he would make such a trip is not surprising: his family has a history of religious leadership and scholarship dating back to the 15th century. In fact, "our" Rabbi Isaac was the third famous cleric in his family to bear that name.

His ancestor, Isaac Aboab the elder, had lived in Portugal or Spain in the early 1400's. He wrote a famous book in which he attempted to provide a moral guide for Jews to help them handle any dilemmas which might arise in daily living. He discussed all matter of problems, from humility and modesty to clean speech and study of the Torah. Isaac the elder's descendant, Rabbi Isaac Aboab the younger, was later famous as a rabbi and Bible commentator in Castile, Spain. After Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, he led a group of Jews to settle in Oporto, Portugal. He died in Oporto shortly after arriving in Oporto.

"Our" Rabbi Isaac, known as Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, was Isaac the younger's great-great grandson, and he was born in Oporto, Portugal in 1605. But his family soon moved first to St. Jean de Luz, France, and then to Amsterdam to escape the Inquisition.

Isaac was an outstanding student, and became an assistant to the Rabbi of the large Sephardic congregation in Amsterdam. In 1641, he joined a group of Amsterdam Jews who moved to Recife, Brazil, and therefore became the first rabbi in the new world. For thirteen years, he led the large congregation there, which numbered in the thousands. In 1646 when the Dutch held back a Portuguese assault of Recife, Aboab da Fonseca composed a hymn of gratitude, which earned him the distinction of being the first Jewish author in the Americas. Ironically, that battle proved to be inconsequential, for we know the Portuguese eventually triumphed and the Dutch surrendered in 1654. Rabbi Aboab da Fonseca returned to Amsterdam where he became the leader of the Sephardic congregation, whose previous Rabbi had recently died. Aboab da Fonseca's sermons were so moving that he is credited with inspiring the building of the magnificent Sephardic synagogue in Amsterdam.

He went on to publish many more books, including a translation of the Pentateuch from Hebrew into Spanish, with a commentary. He died in 1693 at the age of 88.

As we have seen, for a very brief period in its distant past, Brazil's history intersected with Jewish history. For just a few decades, the Dutch controlled Brazil. These Jews in Brazil, whether they had come for economic, religious, or personal reasons, received rights they were unaccustomed to. They were able to conduct business, amass property, and worship freely. Furthermore, since much of the early history of European expansion in the New World involves Spanish conquistadors and priests, it is fascinating to find a small window where the story is so very different. For these reasons, the period of Dutch control and Jewish influence in Brazil, though brief, stands out in Jewish, as well as Brazilian history.