Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca (1605-1693) was a rabbinic prodigy, scholar, kabbalist, Hebrew and Spanish translator, poet and writer whose most notable publications include a translation of the Pentateuch into Hebrew. He is perhaps best known, however, for his service as rabbi to the Jewish community in Recife, Brazil, from 1642 to 1654, making him the first ordained rabbi to hold a pulpit in the Americas.

Portrait of Rabbi Isaac Aboab de Fonseca.

Born into a converso (forcibly converted) family in the Portuguese town of Castro Daire, Rav Aboab was descended from a prominent rabbinic family. Settling with his family in Amsterdam in 1613, he was a student of the great scholar Isaac Uziel and, at age 21, he was appointed rabbi (chacham) for Beth Israel, one of three Sephardic communities in Amsterdam. In short order, he was appointed to the chief rabbinical board of the community, which included the likes of eminent Rabbis Saul Levi Mortera and Menasseh ben Israel


In 1642, R. Aboab was appointed rav of Kahal Tzur Israel Synagogue in Recife, a colony in Brazil that had been occupied by the Dutch in 1624. Most of the European inhabitants of the town after the Dutch occupation were Sephardic Jews from Portugal who had first immigrated to Amsterdam to escape persecution by the Portuguese Inquisition. Critics differ on the reason for his acceptance of a pulpit in the New World. Some suggest that he was chosen by the Amsterdam rabbinate because he was its youngest member; others propose that he was an idealist who was excited by the prospect of serving a nascent Jewish community in a new world; and others still, noting that his rabbinical salary in Amsterdam was barely sufficient to sustain him, ascribe an economic motive to his accepting the assignment.

Brazil 2001 postage stamp depicting the historic Kahal Tzur Israel Synagogue in Recife, the first synagogue in America.

In any event, a few years after his arrival in Recife, the Dutch colony came under Portuguese siege, terrifying Jews who had lived under the Portuguese Inquisition and who had good reason to fear a Portuguese victory. At the urging of Joam Vieyra, a Portuguese Jesuit and a veritable 17th century Haman, Portuguese King Pedro IV had decided to recapture Recife because, as Vieyra advised him, it was chiefly inhabited by Jews who scandalized Christianity by daring to open a synagogue there. When Portugal attacked Recife in 1646, the king offered protection to the city’s Jews only if they agreed not to engage in the battle, but the Jewish community, led by R. Aboab, summarily rejected the offer and joined their fellow citizens in the fight against the Portuguese.

During the ensuing battle, R. Aboab composed a famous vidui in which he confessed the community’s sins and led prayers asking G-d to protect the colonists from their enemies. In Zecher Asiti L’Niflaot Kel (“I have made a record of G-d’s mighty deeds”), a renowned poem which remains the oldest surviving Hebrew text written in America, he detailed Jewish suffering under the siege and provided a personal and emotional account of his feelings as a rabbi exiled to “the furthest ends of the world.” He wrote that he had been taken from his happy life in the Amsterdam Jewish community as punishment for his sins; paraphrasing the Yom Tov musaf prayer, he wrote “because of my sins, I have been exiled to a faraway land.” As we shall see below, R. Aboab’s feelings of being alone as “a stranger in a strange land” was shared by many of the first Orthodox rabbis who came to the New World to serve Jewish communities there.

Also troubling to R. Aboab was the extent to which the commercial success of the Jews of Recife rendered them uninterested in Judaism in general and his spiritual leadership in particular. His years there coincided with the height of Dutch commercial activity in the region, with Jews serving an important role in the booming trade and economy, and his writing reflects harsh criticism of Jewish materialism at the expense of a spiritual life. Reading his poems and correspondence today, it is almost incredible how little things have changed in four centuries, as contemporary religious leaders in America are still dealing with the spiritual challenges presented by materialism.

When the Portuguese reoccupied Recife in 1654 after a nine-year struggle, the Dutch governor insisted that, as a condition of surrender, the Portuguese agree to spare its Jewish citizens. The Portuguese agreed not to slaughter them, but only on condition that they leave Brazil, and R. Aboab returned to Amsterdam, where he was appointed chief rabbi of the Sephardic community. (Some Jewish members of the Recife community immigrated to North America and became founders of New Amsterdam.) Jewish Amsterdam thrived under his leadership, but he also became embroiled in two of the greatest controversies of the day, first by signing an edict excommunicating Baruch Spinoza, his fellow Portuguese Jew and, second, by coming out as a strong supporter of Shabtai Tzvi, who proved to be a false “messiah” who caused great damage to the Jewish people.

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While no congregation in the United States had a rabbi until 1840, many colonial congregations did employ a chazzan, shochet, and shammash. Zalma Rehine (1757-1842) was reputedly the first rabbi to come to the United States and, although he was an active founder and member of Congregation Beth Shalom in Richmond who taught young children there, I have found no source confirming his ordination. After leaving his native Rehjne in Westphalia, he landed in Baltimore on the eve of Yom Kippur in 1788 and, adopting the name of his Prussian hometown, he settled in Richmond, where he ran a dry goods business and became a widely respected and prosperous merchant. He married Rachel Judah (1800), whose mother was the sister of Reverend Gershom Seixas, one of the most important Jewish religious leaders in early America, and he became a U.S. citizen on June 2, 1807.

A great Southern patriot, Rehine helped found the Richmond Light Infantry Blues (1793), in which he served as a second corporal until 1800. During the infamous Chesapeake-Leopard Affair of 1807, which nearly led to a U.S. war against Great Britain when the Royal Navy vessel fired upon an American ship off Norfolk and boarded it, the 50-year-old businessman joined his fellow Blues on a five-day, 120-mile march to Portsmouth. (Despite a total lack of British contrition, President Thomas Jefferson eventually backed away from military engagement, which later became a contributing factor to the War of 1812.)

Rehine was also heavily involved in local community activities. He joined an annexation campaign to extend Richmond’s western boundary (1804); he signed a petition to the Virginia legislature to protest activities by ship captains in Virginia who were snatching slaves; and he was a leader in the effort to improve the navigability of the James River.

Rehine left Richmond for Baltimore in 1829 where, at a time when the entire city had less than 200 Jews, he organized a minyan. The first communal religious service by Baltimore Jews took place when 13 Orthodox Jews met during the High Holy Days at his home, a Revolutionary War-era house at Fells Point. On January 29, 1830, the Maryland House of Delegates passed an act incorporating the congregation as an official entity within the City of Baltimore, and the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, the first synagogue in Baltimore, grew out of this nucleus.

Rehine’s maternal nephew was Isaac Leeser (1806-1868), a visionary American Orthodox rabbi, author, translator, editor, publisher, educator, pioneer of the Jewish pulpit in the United States, and founder of the Jewish press in America who single-handedly provided American Jews with many of the basic religious texts, institutions, and conceptual tools they would need to create the religious and cultural foundation of the American Jewish community. Born in Prussia, Leeser accepted an invitation to immigrate to America from his Uncle Zalma, who promised his nephew a good life in the United States (1824).

Rehine served as his nephew’s guide to life in the new land, not only teaching him about America but also recognizing his potential as a leader in the Jewish community. Leeser worked five years in his uncle’s employ, quickly becoming acclimated to life in America, and he dedicated his first published book – a translation of J. Johlson’s Instruction in the Mosaic Religion (1830) – to him.

Rehine’s letter to Isaac Leeser.

The two Jewish leaders, who remained very close, maintained a lifetime series of correspondence, much of which provide rare and important insights into the circumstances of American Jewry and the issues facing the Jewish community in the United States during the first decades of the nineteenth century. In this August 8, 1832, correspondence written in his quaint and phonetically misspelled English, Rehine writes to Leeser:

[T]he news of yesterday from Philadelphia is alarming, I hope it will not be so with those who live or you do (?) but should it be that people leave the place of the cholera and you can get off, come here, at present, we are all well and are not any more afraid. I have seen many who say that if it should come here, they would not leave the Town as it is only bad among the poor [Rehine is correct; in fact, the disease disproportionately affected the lower class] it may not affect you or any of our friends, we are all well we abstain from our eating fruit and not much [greens?] water very poor stuff for my drink let me know by next mail how you are and all our friends Aunt and all the family send their love to you and all the rest of our friends . . .

America suffered perhaps its greatest cholera epidemic in 1832, during which many thousands of people died, including 3,500 in New York City alone. The disease is reported to have hit Philadelphia on July 5, 1832, and Baltimore on August 4, only a few days before Rehine’s letter.

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While the details of Rehine’s ordination are sketchy, at best, there is no question that Rav Abraham Joseph (Reiss) Rice (1800-1862) was the first ordained rabbi to serve in a rabbinical position in the United States.

There is little evidence of communal Jewish life or rabbinical leadership until the middle of the nineteenth century, when German Jews began a large American emigration to escape Germany’s tyrannical antisemitic laws. Over a short time, the American Jewish population rose from 6,000 in 1825 to 50,000 in 1848 to 150,000 on the eve of the Civil War. In particular, many thousands of young Jews immigrated to America, where they established families and contributed to the growth of the new nation, and an unmet need for rabbinic leadership soon developed.

The Aruch Lanair, Rav Yaakov Ettlinger (1798-1871), one of the undisputed leaders of world Orthodox Judaism at the time, convinced his colleague, Rav Rice, to leave his respected position as rosh yeshiva in Bavaria to provide much needed religious leadership in the United States. Arriving in 1840, he was welcomed by America’s Orthodox Jews, even as he bitterly criticized the “charlatans” who, with no knowledge of Bible or Talmud, had the temerity to hold themselves up as “rabbis.”

Rav Abraham Rice cabinet card.

Rav Rice’s first American pulpit was at the famous Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, the oldest synagogue in the United States but, with the Newport Jewish population in serious decline, he assumed the pulpit in Congregation Nidchei Yisrael (the “Disbursed of Israel”) of Baltimore, a strong and growing Jewish community. Fielding and answering halachic questions not only from his community but from across the new nation, he effectively became chief rabbi of the United States.

In Baltimore, Rav Rice established all institutions necessary to support a Torah lifestyle, including a mikva, kosher bakeries, and a yeshiva of higher learning. His prime directive, however, was the education of Jewish youth in the United States and, toward that end, he founded the first Jewish all-day school in America under Ashkenazic auspices. His ambitious Hebrew religious morning curriculum included Hebrew language and grammar, Tanach, Siddur, mitzvah observance and Jewish history, and the afternoon secular curriculum included English reading, writing, and spelling, mathematics, and geography.

Rav Rice adopted some notable innovations in Jewish education. First, although the day school was originally open only to boys, he realized that American girls also needed a religious education and he admitted them to the school a few years later. Second, his belief in the importance of meeting the educational needs of Jewish youth was such that he entrusted the selection of his English teachers to a committee of American-born and educated Christians who, he believed, were in a superior position to assess the educational needs of future Jewish American citizens.

His involvement with all matters halachic was legion. However, two of his halachic rulings generated great controversy, particularly because he issued them in opposition to the leading European rabbis. First was his decision to permit the use of the “Caribbean etrog” to bless lulav on Sukkot, without which American Jews could not have fulfilled the mitzvah; he determined that these etrogim were not grafted and were not growing “upside down,” thereby making them halachically permissible for use.

Second, the introduction of kosher for Passover machine-made matzah is incorrectly credited to Dov Behr Manischewitz when, in fact, the first such machine was invented by Frenchman Isaac Singer. Although its use was approved by local French rabbis, the issue became a hot-button issue for 19th century halachic authorities. Rav Rice waded into the dispute by not only approving the use of machine-made matzah, but by actually establishing a matzah bakery for production and distribution of machine-made matzah for Passover use.

A renowned Talmudist and a man of fierce principle, Rav Rice insisted that all the traditional piyutim be retained in communal prayers, and his passionate battles against assimilation and lax observance, particularly of the Shabbat and kashrut laws, were met with great displeasure among many congregants, who considered their rabbi to be an extremist unfit for a modern American synagogue. The clash came to a head when he proclaimed that non-Sabbath observers were ineligible to receive aliyot, which generated intense congregational opposition not merely on religious grounds, but also because many members were poor and the regular weekly auction of Shabbat aliyot was a major source of revenue for the synagogue. The resistance was such that Rav Rice was forced to back down, but he further angered his congregants by announcing that it was prohibited to answer “amen” to any of the blessings recited by such Shabbat violators.

After an incident in 1842 where he objected to Masonic rites being held at a Jewish funeral, some members left the synagogue and founded the Har Sinai Verein, the first American enduring Reform congregation. Finally, finding it impossible to resist the demand for unacceptable reforms at Nidchei Yisrael, he resigned his position in 1849. He founded his own strictly Orthodox synagogue, which he served without pay, and began a minyan in his home, which evolved into Congregation Shearith Israel, which has remained strictly Orthodox for its complete history. [On a personal note, my beloved late father-in-law, Dr. Joshua Greenspon, was a loyal member of the synagogue for many decades and I was privileged to daven there many times; even to this day, the shul has preserved all its piyutim and German minhagim.]

A vehement opponent of Reform Judaism, Rav Rice was a frequent contributor to Isaac Leeser’s The Occident, where he regularly advanced authentic Torah Judaism. In one famous piece, he took on Isaac Meyer Wise, the founder of Reform Judaism in America who, in his History of the Jews (1853), had denied the historical truth of the Bible. He campaigned for the establishment of a national bet din as a central religious authority to combat the alarming spread of Reform Judaism.

In 1862, after receiving assurances that the synagogue would strictly adhere to his rulings, Rav Rice accepted an invitation to return to Nidchei Yisrael as its rabbi. However, the years of being a rav and talmid chacham who viewed himself as being exiled to a land whose religious life was “on the lowest level” – to the point where he wrote about his doubts that it was even permissible for a Jew to live in the United States – and his intense national campaign against Reform Judaism took a toll on his health, and he died a few months later at age 62. Sadly, a few years later, Nidchei Yisrael, his former synagogue, introduced an organ, adopted the Reform prayer book, and became a Reform temple. Even more heartbreaking, Rav Rice’s own children became non-observant and alienated from Torah-true Judaism.


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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