Photo Credit: Jewish Press

I recently acquired a first edition of Torat Hayim published in Salonica, Greece. This work records a question sent to the sefer’s author, R. Haim Shabtai, from the Recife community in Brazil.

Jews arrived in Brazil along with the area’s very first European settlers while it was under Portuguese rule. The Catholic Inquisition soon followed them and persecuted many of the Marranos who attempted to find a new home in the New World.

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By the time the Dutch took control in 1630, they found many New Christians (Jews forced by the Portuguese to convert to Christianity) present, many of whom continued to practice Judaism in private.

By the late 1630s, Dutch Jews in the Recife, Brazil area, founded the first Brazilian synagogue – and the first synagogue in the New World – Kahal Kadosh Tzur Israel. Later, a second synagogue was founded, Kahal Kadosh Magen Abraham in Maurícia.

By 1654, when the Dutch lost control of Brazil, and the remaining Jews were forced to flee, there were between 350-1,450 Jews in Recife. Twenty-three of them found their way to New York and founded the first Jewish community there.

The question the Recife Jews asked R. Haim Shabtai concerned the appropriate season to say the prayer for rain given Brazil’s tropical climate. This question is the very first from the new world recorded in rabbinic literature.

R. Haim Shabtai (1557-1643) served as rabbi in Salonica for many decades. The three volumes of Torat Hayim contain responses to questions sent to him from throughout the world, including Turkey, Tzefat, Venice, Sofia, Rhodes, and Brazil.

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Israel Mizrahi is the owner of Mizrahi Bookstore in Brooklyn, NY, and JudaicaUsed.com. He can be reached at JudaicaUsed@gmail.com.