Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer
Very rare early 20th century Yale University postcard with the Urim v’Tumim. (Editor’s note: we have slightly altered the image in the interests of modesty.)

Exhibited here is a very rare Yale University Jewish Hebrew Sorority card, circa 1906 (the stamp is canceled on the verso 1909, not shown), depicting the Yale coat of arms seal featuring the Urim v’Tumim written across an open book depicted on the Yale University shield. A banner below carries the Latin translation of this phrase, Lux et Veritas, or “Light and Truth;” this is not an accurate translation, as discussed below.

Yale’s founders and early leaders, who considered themselves the American successors to the ancient Israelites, had high religious and spiritual aspirations for their college. The story behind the seemingly incongruous adoption of a seal bearing a Hebrew inscription by an institution founded by Christian religious leaders is an interesting one.


The oldest surviving Yale seal may be found on the 1749 master’s diploma of Reverend Ezra Stiles, who went on to serve as Yale’s president (1778-1795). Some sources credit him with its design, which is markedly similar to a Harvard seal produced in 1650, although the earlier one bore the Latin phrase “For the Glory of Our Savior.”

The current Yale seal has been in use since 1736, but the phrase Urim V’Tumim has origins that stretch back thousands of years to Biblical times. The Torah says (Exodus 28:30): “Place the Urim v’Tumim in the breastplate of judgment, and they shall be over Aaron’s heart when he comes before G-d. Aaron will then carry the judgment device for the Israelites before G-d at all times…” The Urim v’Tumim consisted of G-d’s Explicit Name; it was called Urim, from the word light, because it enlightened and explained hidden things to the Jewish nation, and it was also called Tumim, from the word tam, meaning complete, or perfect, because it completed and perfected its words, as everything predicted by the Urim and Tumim came true.

Moshe, to whom Hashem revealed the secret of how to make the Urim v’Tumim, placed them into the fold of the breastplate of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). According to Talmud Yomah, 73b, the names of the twelve tribes, the names of the patriarchs (Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov) and the words “Shivtei Yeshurun” (“the twelve tribes of Israel”) were all written on the 12 stones of the breastplate. On each stone were six letters, including the name of the tribe, and thus there were 72 letters in total. When a question was brought before the Kohen Gadol, he would meditate on Urim, which would cause the letters on the stones of the breastplate to light up or protrude, and these letters spelled the answer to the question. However, since they were not in any special order, again the Kohen Gadol would then meditate on Tumim, and he would thus be given Ruach HaKodesh (Divine inspiration) – a lower level of prophecy – to arrange the letters properly and convey the correct answer.

Ironically, and contrary to popular belief, the “Urim v’Tumim” in the Yale seal was not exactly a reference to that of the Torah. Rather, in a tortured interpretation, the college’s founders understood it as signifying their savior as “light and perfection,” which is entirely consistent with Yale’s original 1650 motto, In Christi Gloriam (“for the glory of our savior”). Thus, according to the Torah, the Urim v’Tumim constituted an oracle of sorts that communicated Hashem’s will to the Jewish people through the Kohen Gadol. But to the Puritans who shaped early Yale, that oracle was their savior, as proclaimed by their seal.

In accordance with a March 2001 article published in Yale’s Alumni Magazine, “Clarification of the Hebrew words [Urim v’Tumim] may reside in Yale’s primary divinity text, Johannes Wollebius’s The Abridgement of Christian Divinitie, which was then studied every Friday afternoon by Yale students as part of the long preparation for the Christian Sabbath. Wollebius’s book was of such importance that Samuel Johnson, the English writer, poet, playwright, essayist, moralist, biographer, editor, and lexicographer who The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography calls “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history” – and a member of the Yale Class of 1714 – noted sarcastically, that it was “considered with equal or greater veneration than the Bible itself.” Accordingly, the 1726 Yale college rules mandated that every student shall consider the main end of his study to know G-d and answerably to lead a godly sober life.

Far from coincidentally, the trustees of the college first formally applied for a seal on October 17, 1722, when they met in New Haven to discuss the greatest scandal in the University’s history up to that point. The trustees fired Timothy Cutler, an American Episcopal clergyman and the rector of Yale College, who had issued an Anglican-Armenian declaration publicly challenging the ordination of virtually every minister in New England, and they instituted a requirement that all Yale faculty declare their Christian faith. As such, as the 2001 Yale Alumni Magazine notes, the Wollebius book, with its anti-Armenian screed, would serve as a particularly apt source for the Yale motto. As such, the formal request for a seal that day “had far more than decorative significance; it was likely a declaration of Yale ideals.”

Yale’s mistranslation of “tumim” (which, as discussed above, means “complete,” or “perfect”) as “truth” may be explained through the lens of the theological battles between the “Old Lights,” who believed that while religious knowledge was fundamental to Christian education, it was insufficient to create a well-rounded and informed Christian, and the “New Lights,” who attacked the established order and rejected the idea that education required anything more than religious knowledge. (Ironically, this was also a point of high contention among Orthodox and Charedi Jewish leaders during the 18th and 19th centuries, a debate which continues even today). The Old Lights, who argued that science and mathematics must be taught along with theology and ethics, won the day at Yale, and by mistranslating tumim, its leaders were promoting both the “light” of a liberal education and the “truth” of an old New England religious tradition.

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The seal is emblematic of the importance ascribed by Stiles and Yale College to the students mastering Biblical Hebrew. In its earlier days, Yale expected all incoming students to be able to read and understand Biblical Hebrew, as well as other scriptural and classical languages.

Portrait of Ezra Stiles. Note the Hebrew Tetragrammaton in the blue circle on the wall to the left and the Hebrew words “Talmud B,” “Ibn Ezra,” and “Rashi” on the bookshelf to the right. (Editor’s note: Hashem’s name has been blurred in the interests of preventing shamos.)

Many colonial-era American Christians had a respect for – even a fascination with – the Hebrew language and Jewish faith, and educated American Christians, especially New England clergymen, assumed that an accurate reading of the Old Testament was best done in its original language. The philosemitic attitude of many New England Christian ministers led to early interfaith relationships between Christian and Jewish clergy, including notably the relationship between Stiles, of the Second Congregational Church in Newport, and Rabbi Rephael Hayyim Isaac Carigal, who lived in Newport for several months in the spring and summer of 1773. The two men developed a friendship that historians agree substantially influenced Stiles, turned him into a Hebrew scholar, and led him to make Hebrew a required course in the freshman curriculum.

The Carigal family emigrated to Eretz Yisrael via Salonica in the 17th century. Born in Chevron in 1733, R. Carigal’s father, a rabbi, raised him within the tradition of Sephardic Rabbinical Judaism and educated him in a yeshiva. The primary source of our knowledge of R. Carigal’s life is through the extended writings of Reverend Stiles, who kept a detailed diary of their friendship.

An itinerant clergyman who evoked the 18th century archetype of the “wandering Jew,” R. Carigal received his rabbinic ordination in 1749 at age 16 and commenced world travels, beginning with trips to Turkey and Egypt in (1754-1756). In Curaçao, which he visited 1762-1763, the Jewish community, then the largest in the Americas, was determined to have him serve as its rabbinical leader; although it appears that he may have served as rav there in a visiting capacity, there is no documentation as such in the local records. During his two years on the island, he instituted a program of religious education, established a Talmudic Academy, and checked the kosher meat imported from New York.

Sketch of Rabbi Carigal (1787) by Sir John Honeywood.

R. Carigal returned to Chevron (1764-1768), where he remained for four years before traveling to London (1768-1771), where he was a teacher at the Beit HaMidrash; Jamaica (1771-1772); and – becoming the first rabbi to visit the American colonies – Philadelphia, New York, and for a brief time between 1772 and 1773 in Newport, where he sometimes guest-officiated at the synagogue and delivered sermons in Ladino/Spanish (a blending of Hebrew and Medieval Spanish). He undertook his eclectic world travels to both serve as a shaliach (rabbinic emissary) to raise funds for the religious Jews and yeshivot of Chevron there and promote religious practice in the Diaspora, including specifically Jewish adherence to the Oral Torah and Rabbinic Judaism.

Stiles first met R. Carigal at the Touro Synagogue when the rabbi presided over a Purim service in March 1773. Deeply impressed by him, Stiles wrote that:

There I saw Rabbi Carigal I judge aet. [about] 45 [he was actually 40 years old] lately from the city of Hebron, the Cave of Macpelah in the Holy Land. He had the appearance of an ingenious & sensible Man [who was] one of the two persons that stood by the Chasan [Chazan] at the Taubau or Reading Desk while the Book of Esther was read… [He was] dressed in a red garment with the usual Phylacteries and habiliments, the white silk Surplice; he wore a high furr [sic] cap, had a long beard.”

Thereafter, he met R. Carigal several times, asking penetrating questions about his hometown in Chevron and his extensive travels throughout the Jewish Diaspora. Stiles returned to the synagogue to hear him lead Passover services, an event about which he wrote copiously a few weeks later:

The Chocam Rabbi was there… was one called up to the Reading of the Law [and] behaved modestly and reverently. He wore A green silk Vest or long under Garment reaching down more than half way the Legs or within 3 inches of the Ankles… [with a] Girdle or Sash of different Colors red and green [that] girt the Vest around his Body… [and which had an] Opening above the Girdle [where] he put in his handkerchief and Snuff-box, and Watch… [He] had a long black Beard, the upper Lip partly shaven – his Head shaved all over [and on which] he wore a high Fur Cap, exactly like a Woman’s Muff, and about 9 or 10 Inches high, the Aperture atop was closed with green cloth.

Along with this continuing fascination with the rabbi’s attire, Stiles also described the singing at the Passover service as “exceeding fine & melodious.”

Stiles invited Carigal to visit his home on March 30, 1773, with the two clergymen going on to establish a remarkable friendship. Stiles recorded 28 meetings between the two before the rabbi sailed for his Caribbean trip in September of that year. As reflected in Stiles’s journal, the topics of their conversations ranged from kabbalistic mysticism, the nature of Hebrew and Arabic languages, the question of which language Moses wrote in, the relationship between the Turks and Jews in Eretz Yisrael, ancient coins and books, circumcision among Coptic Christians, and the arrival of the Messiah.

During this period, R. Carigal provided intensive Hebrew tutoring to Stiles, who already had a basic knowledge of the language. Stiles was particularly impressed by R. Carigal’s Hebrew pronunciation, which he viewed as more authentic than his previous Hebrew teacher, Chazan Isaac Touro. By the time of R. Carigal’s departure from Newport, he and Stiles were exchanging lengthy and scholarly letters in Hebrew and Stiles had begun translating major portions of the Hebrew Bible into English. Even after R. Carigal began serving as rav of Congregation Kaal Kodesh Midhi Israel in Barbados, the two friends continued to correspond until R. Carigal’s death there in 1777.

Stiles’s deep knowledge of Hebrew enabled him to translate large portions of the Hebrew Old Testament into English, and he believed, as many Christian scholars at the time, that facility with the Biblical text in its original language was crucial to its proper interpretation and understanding. Stiles was called to Yale to serve as its president in 1778 and, a year later, he became the first Semitics professor at the college. While the Revolutionary War had forced the postponement of Yale’s commencement since 1776, the ceremonies were reinstated in September 1781 – although “in constant fear that they will be interrupted by the Enemy” – and Stiles delivered an address in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. As 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.” In particular, Stiles insisted that his students learn Tehillim in Hebrew, telling them that “when you arrive in heaven, you will hear the Psalms in the original language. As your teacher, I would be most embarrassed if you could not understand what the angels were singing.”

By 1790, however, Stiles, facing strong student resistance to his mandatory Hebrew policy, understood that he had failed to instill an interest in the language in the Yale student body and accordingly, he reversed his requirement:

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, as expected, enrollment in his courses dropped, the valedictorians of the classes of 1785 and 1792 delivered their orations in Hebrew.

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Rabbi Carigal’s Shavuot sermon at the Newport Synagogue.

In the presence of Rhode Island Governor Joseph Wanton and several important dignitaries, R. Carigal famously delivered the sermon at the Touro Synagogue on May 28, 1773, the first day of Shavuot. Stiles wrote that these VIPs “were seated in the Seat of the Parness or President of the Synagogue” and that R. Carigal “preached a Sermon about 47 minutes long in Spanish interspersed with Hebrew [in which his] Oratory, Elocution and Gestures were fine and oriental [and during which he] was very animated [and had] a Dignity and Authority about him, mixt [sic] with Modesty.”

Strangely, according to a May 12, 2021 Jerusalem Report article:

The guest rabbi [Carigal] was not the only highlight of the service. Abraham Rivera, the small, undersized son of Jacob Rivera, another [Newport] community leader, chanted the Haftorah from Ezekiel even though he had not reached his 13th birthday. Since the Haftorah emphasizes the “dry bones” coming back to life, this little boy represented symbolically what Ezekiel had prophesized by the “shores of Babylon” many centuries before.

A splendid story… except that the famous Haftorah from Ezekiel 37 with the prophesy of the reanimated “dry bones of Israel” is read on Shabbat Chol HaMoed Passover. (The Haftorah for the first day of Shavuot is from Ezekiel, but it is Ezekiel 1:1-28, which is the prophet’s account of his Vision of the Celestial Chariot, evocative of the Sinaic Revelation witnessed by the entire Jewish People on the first Shavuot in history.)

R. Carigal had delivered his address extemporaneously and without note but, at Stiles’s urging, he later wrote it out (in Spanish). This sermon, one of the only two published by R. Carigal, was translated into English and published less than two months later by Abraham Lopez, a leading Newport Jewish merchant.

The translation of the discourse into English reflected a linguistic shift within American Judaism at the time. Most Jews who originally arrived in Newport were Iberian immigrants but, by the 1770s, the community had evolved to include second generation Jews born and raised in the American colonies who primarily communicated in English. The first Jewish lecture published in the United States, it attests to the persistence of American Jews in establishing themselves in America.

R. Carigal’s Shavuot sermon reflects the eighteenth-century Sephardic Kabbalistic tradition of interpreting Shavuot as restoring holiness to the Jewish people through strict adherence to law. Focusing on the themes of sin, the restoration of the Jews to Eretz Yisrael, and the ultimate rebuilding of the Temple, he attributed the trials and tribulations of the Jewish people through the centuries to their failure to heed the Torah’s commandments and he ascribed their loss of Jerusalem to their failure to study the Torah. Nonetheless, he said, the Jews have not been rejected by G-d, nor abandoned by Him, noting that if the Jews would only repent and rededicate themselves to Jewish observance, G-d would restore them to Eretz Yisrael and rebuild the Beit HaMikdash.

Since it was Shavuot, z’man matan Toratenu (“the time that our Torah was given to us by G-d”), R. Carigal devoted great emphasis to the importance of Torah study which, he explained, was the ultimate source of morality, the greatest antidote for sin, and the best method to ensure the Jews’ return to their homeland, which has been assured by our prophets. He concluded by expressing the strong belief that in Messianic times – which, ironically, he predicted would take place within the next forty years – the entire world as one will accept Jewish monotheism.

R. Carigal reciprocated Stiles’s synagogue visit with a visit to his church on Sunday, June 27, 1773, where he heard Stiles preach that “The seed of Jacob are a favorite people of the most High and the subjects of the peculiar care of Heaven, and of most marvelous Dispensations. That notwithstanding G-d’s chastisements of their Iniquity and Imperfections in Calamities, Captivities and Dispersions; yet G-d hath not forgotten his Covenant with Abraham and his posterity.” One can only shake one’s head ruefully in contemplation of how far the antisemitic Yale University has fallen since the exemplary example set by the Reverand Mr. Stiles well over two centuries ago.

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Rabbi Carigal’s gravestone in the Nidhe Israel Cemetery in Bridgetown, Barbados.

On July 21, 1773, R. Carigal sailed for Suriname and, in 1774, he went to Barbados, where he became the congregational rabbi in 1774. During the next three years, he and Stiles corresponded regularly in Hebrew; fortunately, these letters have been preserved, including a historic 1775 letter from Stiles that contained a poignant description of the Battle of Bunker Hill. Having not seen his family for over nine years, he finally attained a level of financial security to permit him to bring them to Barbados but, before he could do so, he succumbed to an illness and died in 1777 at age 48, leaving behind his widow, Hori, in London and his son, David, in Chevron.

Like many Jewish gravestones in the West Indies, the inscription on Carigal’s stone is in three languages: Hebrew, Portuguese, and English, with the English legend reading:

Here lyeth the remains of the Learned & Revd Rabbi Ralph Haim Isaac Carigal

Worthy Pastor of the Synagogue NY who departed this life on the 19 of May 1777 Aged 48 Years.

Although the stone was carved in a beautiful marble with great care, it does not feature many of the characteristic symbols found on gravestones in the Nidhe Israel cemetery: there are no angels, no tree of life, and no scenes of resurrection like those found on other graves in the cemetery. According to an article by Laura Liebman, an English Professor at Reed College,

the restraint shown on the stone speaks to the Rabbi’s origins in the Ottoman Empire: although Turkish stones are often gorgeous and elaborate… they do not tend to have images of humans and divine beings (angels, hand of G-d) found on the stones of the Jewish Atlantic World.

Portrait of Rabbi Carigal by Samuel King.

After R. Carigal’s death, Stiles determined to commission a painting of “that illustrious Hebrew” that would hang at Yale. Toward that end, he solicited the assistance of Aaron Lopez – a leading Jewish merchant, slave trader, and philanthropist who became the wealthiest man in Newport – writing that such a memorial “would be honorable to your nation as well as ornamental to this university.” Deeply moved by Stiles’s love for R. Carigal, Lopez engaged Samuel King to paint the portrait (see exhibit), which was hung in the Yale library as a great and lasting testament to the friendship of the two clergymen.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].