"A laurel upon his grave"
A short description of the life and works of Chacham Isack Aboab da Fonseca.
Recently it was discovered that the
Portuguese community Kahal Zur Israel most certainly was
the eldest Jewish community on the American continent.
Ishac Aboab da Fonseca, chacham of Kahal Zur Israel,
represents therefore the first “officiating” rabbi in
the New World. This, consequently, sparked a renewed
interest in the personality of chacham Aboab.
So we now know that not all that we read about his life, is correct, for instance the erroneous detail, widely published, that Aboab was the rabbi of the Amsterdam community Beth Israel.
Reason the more to take a plumb into sources of the Municipal Archive of Amsterdam
and sketch his life and work on the basis of recently discovered archival material.
Chacham Aboab died in Amsterdam on Adar II 27th, 5453, being April 4th 1693 at the ripe old age of 88. At his funeral the next day in Ouderkerk, the poet-rabbi Solomon d'Oliveyra spoke at his graveside and commemorated Aboab in poetic words. (1) He started his speech with a metaphor about a broken clock: "the clock does not work anymore, the wheels have fallen out and the cords are broken, everything is mixed up".
This confusion is perhaps also the
state of mind of the speaker and his audience and that
is very well imaginable: Isack Aboab had served the
Portuguese community for over 70 years and during this
period he was for many a source of wisdom, a beacon and
a source of strength. The seventeenth century was a
"Golden Age" of prosperity and freedom for the Republic
of the Netherlands, Amsterdam and the Portuguese Jews.
At the same time, however, it was for the Sefardim a
century of uncertainty, distress and conflicts to which
Aboab was witness. To begin with, there was the
uncertainty of the earliest period of settling in
Amsterdam. Then there was the laborious strain around
the 'Uniao", the uniting of the three separate
communities Bet Israel, Bet Jakob and Neve Salom into
one, the Talmud Torah in 1639.
Around 1641 Aboab and his companions left for Recife in Brasil; they survived the rough conditions that prevailed during the Portuguese siege.
In most cases the year of 1642 is mentioned as the year of his departure.
Because of the fact, that his function in the Amsterdam community was taken over by Menasse ben Israel already in May 1641, there is reason to assume that his departure occurred earlier. (2)
After his return to Amsterdam, Aboab was involved in the commotion around Baruch Spinoza in 1656. He was also swept along in the ecstasy around Shabtai Zvi in 1666 and afterwards experienced disenchantment with his ideas. In the end Aboab was the driving force behind the building of the new synagogue.
Aboab has left behind many works, both written as well as translated; he cooperated with writers, poets and printers and portraits have been painted of him. In the notary archives of the city of Amsterdam minutes have been found proving that he participated in the daily life of the city.
After his demise his library has been sold. A description of his collection has been kept.
In short, Aboab has left behind a long trail and his biography echoes the story of the Sefardy Jews in Amsterdam of the seventeenth century.
Isaac Aboab was born in 1605 in
Castrodaira, Portugal; his parents were David Aboab and
Isabel da Fonseca. Out of fear of the Inquisition the
family had themselves baptized; Isaac got the name Simao
da Fonseca. Nevertheless, the family was not safe; they
fled the persecution to St. Jean-de-Luz, very near the
border in France and from there to Amsterdam,where they
arrived about 1612. His father became a member of Neve
In some texts it is stated that David Aboab died in Saint-Jean de Luz. As no source is given for this information, we assume that the David Aboab, mentioned as a member of Neve Shalom, was the father of I.Aboab. He paid 5 guilders to the community Neve Shalom in the year 1616, this according to the manual of that community that begins in 1616.
According to this source he remained a paying member until 1638.
Isaac Aboab was educated by Chacham Uziel, who was a native of Fez in Barbary. Aboab turned, like his teacher, into a follower of the Cabala.
He is referred to as Ishac Aboafe/Aboab. Only in a later stage did he add his mother’s name Da Fonseca, to his own name .So as to distinguish between him and the other
Aboab’s he is usually mentioned with both names in one.(3)
The first time his name appeared in a source is in the manual of the treasurer of Neve Salom.In the year 5380 (1619/20) he paid for the first time a small annual contribution to the community. The following year, in 5381, he received a salary of about 15 guilders: he taught at the Talmud Torah and he dedicated himself to the Study of the Law. (4) At that time he was not yet seventeen years old.
During this period the development of
the Jewish printing industry started in Amsterdam.
Menasse ben Israel (1604-1657) initiated in 1626 the
first Jewish printing house in Amsterdam. He printed
Spanish, Hebrew and Latin books. He was quickly followed
by other Jewish printers/publishers. The arrival around
1640 of the important Venetian printer Emanuel
Benveniste meant that Amsterdam had overtaken Venice as
the center of the world market for Hebrew books. This
came about as a result of the great freedom that Jews
enjoyed there, as well as the economic growth in the
Republic. The Jewish printing industry provided work for
printers, proofreaders, agents and bookbinders – and the
books were sent to all over Europe, as well as to the
Ottoman Empire and Asia. Isaac Aboab earned his living
in the printing industry as well, along with other
activities. The first Hebrew book was printed in
Amsterdam in 1627 by Menasse ben Israel, with Aboab's
assistance who did the proofreading for this prayer
In the historical writings of the period it is almost always mentioned that Isaac Aboab was chacham at Beth Israel in the period before the union in 1639. From the archives it seems, however, that he was engaged by the Neve Salom community. In 1633/34 he received 200 guilders a year as chazzan. The following year, in 5395, chacham Aboab received 300 guilders a year. (5) In 1638, one year before the Uniao, he still received this salary as chacham. (6) Chacham Menasse ben Israel received 150 guilders, the same as 'Ruby' Jacob Gomes.
In 1639, along with the Uniao and the
founding of Talmud Tora, Menasse Ben Israel, David
Pardo, Saul Levi Morteira and Isaac Aboab were appointed
chachamim. Aboab was instructed to teach the Hebrew
language and the first lessons in Gemara. (7) He also
had to provide the 'Derashot de noite'.
He did not serve long at the new Talmud Tora of the community. From the colony Pernambuco in Northern Brazil came the news that Jews could live there in all freedom. The Dutch had conquered this colony in 1624 from the Portuguese. Together with, amongst others, Mozes Raphael de Aguilar, Aboab left around 1641 or 1642 for Brazil. He served in the community Kahal Zur Israel in Recife. It came recently to light that Kahal Zur Israel, probably founded in 1636, was the oldest Jewish community on the American continent, and not the community Mikve Israel in Curacao, as was supposed until now. At the height of its existence in 1645, Kahal Zur Israel had 1,630 members. Aboab was for a long time the rabbi of this prosperous community; as a matter of fact he was the first rabbi serving in the New World.
However, the Portuguese tried to re-conquer the colony from the Dutch. The siege took a long time and the hardship was great. Afterwards Aboab wrote his memories about this time in a Hebrew work "Zecher Asiti Lenifla'oth El": Reminded was I of G'd's Miracles.
The writings of Ishac Aboab, together with the minutes book of the community of Recife (1649-1654) were assembled and published in Hebrew by Joseph David Weitman, rabbi of the community Beth Jacob in Sao Paolo. (8)
Upon his return to Amsterdam in September 1654 he was immediately reinstated in his position of chacham because of seus meritos pasados y presentes – his past and present merits. (9) He earned a salary of 450 guilders and had to hold one sermon per month.
In 1655 he published an important translation. Isaac Aboab, as mentioned, was a cabalist; he was a follower of the Lurian mystical tradition. In his teachings, Isaac Luria (1522-1570) put the emphasis mainly on the deep meaning of daily pious
deeds, which would bring the world nearer to a state of perfection. (10) Luria was a native of Safed (Tsefat), where he headed a group of Cabalists. With their philosophy they made the town of Safed famous.
An important representative of the Lurian thought was Abraham Cohen Herrera (ca.1570-1635), who lived part of his life in Amsterdam. Cohen Herrera wrote in Spanish the cabalist-mystical work Puerta del Cielo –Gate to Heaven. Aboab translated this work into Hebrew, entitled 'Shaar Hashamayim’ thus bringing it to the attention of a larger public. The book was printed in 1655 by Emanuel Benveniste.
After the departure of chacham Menasse ben Israel to England in January 1656, Aboab took over some of his tasks. He now had to hold two sermons per month at a salary of 600 guilders. In his position as chacham he was involved in July 1656 in the pronouncement of the ban of Spinoza. After the death of chacham Saul Levi Morteira in 1660, Aboab became head of the rabbinate.
In 1666 a large part of the Sefardic
community in Europe got carried away by the belief in
the arrival of a Messiah, namely Shabtai Zvi
(1626-1676). In Venice and Hamburg people became
overwhelmed by the prophecies, visions and wonders
connected to the supposed Messiah. Also in Amsterdam the
poor as well as the rich became intoxicated. They tied
green ribbons to their clothes (green was the color of
identifying Shabtai Zvi) and atoned in public for their
sins. In the synagogues musical instruments were now
allowed. Prominent Amsterdam Sefardim made arrangements
to leave for the Holy Land in order to join the Messiah.
Aboab too was in this state of intoxication and believed
strongly in the 'new king'.
The disenchantment was great when Shabtai Zvi was taken prisoner by the sultan in Constantinople and after being put to the choice in September 1666, between death and conversion to the Islam, he chose the latter. The board in Amsterdam ordered all publications and books referring to him to be destroyed. His name was cursed and all traces of him were obliterated.
Belief in tradition and authority were to take the place of shaken expectations (11).
Aboab's wife Ester died in 1669. She
was buried in a new part of the cemetery, which had been
bought in 1663. There was plenty of space in that part.
Up till that year one was buried in order of entry, but
after this expansion of the cemetery there was the
possibility to reserve burial spots in advance. Chacham
Aboab made use of this possibility and had the tomb of
his wife covered with a double stone. On the right side
the following text by Aboab was engraved:
I shall stow away Ester
Until the time comes
That she shall return and
Her soul shall rejoice in happiness.
Because her end came in the night
(Translation by Moshe Mossel, Jerusalem.The original Hebrew text can be found in the book by D. Henriques de Castro Mz-Selected Gravestones from the Dutch Portuguese Jewish Cemetery at Ouderkerk aan de Amstel with Descriptions and Biographical Notes. p. 40 of the Engish version (12))
Above the text is a wreath of leaves with the text ' a virtuous woman is the jewel of her husband '. Underneath the text on the tombstone a reclining hour-glass is engraved.
Aboab remarried with Sara, whom he also survived. David Henriques de Castro discovered in the nineteenth century a small blue tombstone very near the double tombstone. According to this stone she passed away in 1690. (13)
In 1670 when it turned out that the
synagogue at the Houtgracht became too small, Aboab took
the initiative to argue for the building of a new
synagogue instead of enlarging the existing one. On
November 23rd, 1670 he held an enthusiasm-inspiring
sermon after which the amount of approximately 40,000
guilders was offered. His exertions were rewarded and it
was decided to buy a piece of land near the synagogue at
the Houtgracht. The construction suffered delays because
of the war against England and a heavy storm. However,
on Friday, August 2nd, 1675 the building was inaugurated
in the presence of Mayors, Aldermen and other notables.
The imposing building was lit up with candles. Three
encircling were made carrying Tora Scrolls and Chacham
Aboab carried the first Tora Scroll. The songs that were
sung during the three rounds were composed by Aboab
himself and Solomon d'Oliveyra.
The name of Aboab is intertwined ingeniously in the Hebrew words above the entrance to the synagogue. The text reads as follows: 'But I shall enter Your House
through your greatness and mercifulness'. (Psalm 5:8).
According to tradition a date/year can be made up from the letters/numbers of an aphorism. These words are then often indicated by little stars or other signs. In this case the last word is 'bet-cha': meaning Your House, the letters beth-yud-tav-kav having the value of 2+10+400+20. These total up to (5)432 = 1671/1672.
It is not clear whether this year refers to the real start of the building activities or to the date that the building actually should have been completed.
The name of Aboab is spread over two words, one after the other. The fifth word Avu=aleph-beth-wav-aleph and the first letter of the last word, the already mentioned beth-cha. In this way his name, spelled aleph(a)-beth(b)-wav (like o)-aleph-beth is cleverly intertwined in the text.
The building still is impressive. The Czech writer Egon Kisch wrote: It is in no way a house of assembly for outcasts, the house neither withered nor tending to hide, a beautiful building, a Jewish cathedral. (14)
Isaac Aboab was and is still being honored for his contribution to the realization of the house of prayer. "Honor to his memory for this meritorious work! For this a laurel was put on his grave!" wrote David Henrigues de Castro (15).
The period of about 1670 till about
1685 was a turbulent one in the history of the Talmud
Torah. There were constant conflicts about money between
the management and the members of the community (family
Del Sotto), about the prohibition to buy poultry from
the Ashkenazi Jews (Abarbanel), about choices of marital
partners (families Curiel and Aboab), about the place
persons were assigned in the new synagogue (Isack
Henriques Coutinho), or about the text of the hashkava
at the grave of a deceased (families Pereira and de
The conflicts had one similarity: rebellion against the authority of the parnassim. (16) These quarrels always came down to the same: the families who were in opposition wanted to establish their own community and home synagogue. Obviously the parnassim strongly opposed and were supported by the Amsterdam municipal authorities. The aldermen passed a ruling in 1680 at the request of a Portuguese Jew who was not permitted to establish a home synagogue: that as long as he wanted to be Jewish he would have to keep to the regulations of the church.
Aboab fulfilled an important role in all these conflicts. It appears from the events that the members of the community mostly did not listen at all to the parnassim, but in the end they recognized the authority of the chachamim. In all these conflicts Aboab stood steadfast behind the parnassim and tried to restore the peace. He was successful: in the end the rebellious families returned to the Talmud Torah.
One of the quarrels was about the text of the hashkava used for David de Mercado who died in 1682. A group of family members and friends, amongst whom Jacob Israel Pereira and his sons did not agree with the leadership nor with the Chief Rabbis. The documents have been kept in the notary's archives; we can follow this conflict almost by the day.
Chacham Aboab also handed a declaration to the notary. He told in Dutch what he had experienced at the cemetery in Ouderkerk and in the synagogue. In the cemetery a quarrel broke out about the text of the hashkava. The family and friends of David de Mercado wanted to perform the hashkava as it was phrased originally: haham asalem. Aboab translated this for the notary as 'a wise and perfect preacher'. But because the leadership and the rabbis were of the opinion that David de Mercado had been a member of the community just like all the others, they refused to honor him this
way. A row broke out and many hard words were said. Because chacham Aboab and chacham Sasportas(who would succeed Aboab after his death) could not calm the people's mood they both left Ouderkerk in haste in a boat. A few days later the quarrel was continued in the synagogue. There was a great row and the parnassim did not succeed to restore order. At last the chachamim raised their voices to tell them to be quiet and so they calmed down.
Isaac Aboab was absorbed in his
studies until his death.
When he was about 75 years old he wrote a commentary to the Pentateuch: Paraphrasis comentada sobre el Pentateucho. The book was published by Jacob de Cordova in 1681.
During the last years of his life Aboab was blind. Even though the light in his eyes was darkened, he saw the Light better through study and contemplation, said Solomon d'Oliveira in a speech at his grave. (17)
Aboab was laid to rest next to his first wife Ester. The double tombstone now got the text on the left side: 'Tombstone of the very wise and excellent rabbi (…) spiritual head and leader of theological studies at the Holy Community in Amsterdam, who was called to the divine fields of heaven on Saturday, 27 Adar II of the year 5453 (April 4th, 1693). For 70 years he was head of this community and reached the age of 88 years (…). (18) Above the text are engraved a pomegranate branch and an olive branch hanging from a crown, beneath the text lies an hourglass and between both sides stands a column with an open book and a little crown as well as on one page a burning candle. Beneath this is a text from Yesaya:- 'and your virtue is your vanguard', and out of a cloud appears an arm of which the hand holds a crowned F. The F refers to Fonseca. A two-armed lamp is placed above both slabs with the text (19).
As previously mentioned, his collection of books was put up for sale. From the catalogue printed in 1693 by David Tartas, we know that had owned more than 400 books, most of which were in the Hebrew language. In this collection there obviously were not only a great number of cabala works, but also philosophical works from Jewish authors like Maimonides and non-Jewish ones like Aristotle.
His name lived on, also in a literary sense. After his death his name and the date of his death were printed on each side of the Sephardic Ketuba, the marriage settlement. These forms were still in use after tens of years.
Lydia Hagoort and Ben Noach
Translation from the Dutch original:-Nina Mayer
Final editing and integration of footnotes:-Trudi Asscher, Ben Noach
The Dutch original with complete footnotes was published in MISJPOGE, the quarterly of the Netherlands Society for Jewish Genealogy(NKvJG).
The article can be found at : - http://www.nljewgen.org/?page_id=1257
All rights reserved.
To the notes in Dutch (in PDF format):-
The lintel above the entrance to the Snoge in Amsterdam (see chapter VIII)