Torah  |  Features  |  New  |  Search  |  E-mail Us

 

The Chacham for the Colonies
He came from Hebron to the New World to serve

by Rabbi Shmuel Singer

This article originally appeared in the Jewish Observer and is also available in book form in the ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications Judaiscope Series. It is reprinted here with permission

Rabbi Raphael Chaim Yitzchak Karigal
5492/1732-5537/1777

There is endless fascination with the American colonial era as the formative years of a leading world civilization. No less intriguing is the story of the origins and early struggles of the Jewish kehillos of this country in that period. These tiny communities began from nothing and set the stage for what has eventually become a leading world Jewish center.

Contrary to popular opinion, there was an active Jewish life in colonial America. While the early American kehillos could not compare with any of their Old World counterparts, neither in numbers nor in Torah scholarship, a handful of loyal Jews did struggle heroically to maintain and perpetuate their Torah heritage. During the colonial epoch, these struggles were only marginally successful, but until the beginning of the nineteenth century at least all official expressions of organized Judaism in the country were faithful to Torah tradition. "Emancipation" was unnecessary, "enlightenment" was unknown, and it was only later, when abandonment of Jewish heritage became more obvious, that the United States became worthy of characterization as a "treifah medinah."

During the colonial period, a number of individuals were in the front rank of Torah leadership in this country. Perhaps the greatest scholar among them, and certainly a most interesting personality, was Rabbi Raphael Chaim Yitzchak Karigal. Rabbi Karigal was a most rare combination - a typical Sephardi Chacham from Eretz Yisrael who spent a number of years in 18th century America. His turbulent life story and far reaching travels provide us with a bird's-eye view of contemporary Jewish life in many parts of the world.

Rabbi Karigal's Hebron

Rabbi Raphael Chaim Karigal was born in 1732 in the ancient Sephardi kehillah of Hebron in Eretz Yisrael. The Jewish Yishuv in Palestine was then concentrated in the four arei hakodesh (holy cities): Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, and Tiberias. The remainder of the land was mostly desolate wilderness. Even these four "cities" were ancient, unhealthy, and decaying towns in which small, oppressed, and persecuted Jewish minorities lived under the uncivilized, brutal rule of Turkish pashas.

The major bright spot in Jewish life in Eretz Yisrael was the people's absorption in and devotion to Torah study. From the time of the Spanish expulsion, Eretz Yisrael had developed into a great Torah center, especially for Sephardic Jewry. It was the home of the great yeshivos of the Sephardi world, and the source of the majority of the Sephardic rabbis and spiritual leaders of the Diaspora. Indeed, at this time Palestine was almost totally a community of scholars, with the exception of a handful of laborers. The talmidei chachamim, both native and foreign born, were supported by donations from Jews the world over. Indeed, it was this situation which led Eretz Yisrael to its position as a spiritual and intellectual center of the Sephardi Diaspora.

Each of the four kehillos took pride in its own scholars and yeshivos, and each enjoyed its own period of prominence over the others. During the mid-1700's, Hebron was second only to Jerusalem, the leading Palestinian community. Among Hebron's great scholars in the mid-eighteenth century was the world famous Chida, Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (1724-1806), the leading Sephardi authority after the time of Rabbi Joseph Karo (1498 - 1566).

It was into this community that Raphael Karigal was born. He studied at a local Hebron yeshiva, Chesed L'Avraham V'emes LeYaakov. This school had been founded in 1659 by the Amsterdam Sephardi millionaire, Avraham Israel Pereira, a Marrano who had escaped from Portugal to Amsterdam and became a leader of its kehillah. His son, Jacob Pereira, continued to support this yeshiva after his father's death, underwriting not only the Yeshiva's budget, but also all the living expenses of its scholars.

Rabbi Karigal's teachers included Rabbi Mordechai Ze'evi, Rabbi Meir Gedaliah, and Rabbi David Melamed, who conferred semichah on him in 1750. Rabbi Karigal then went to Jerusalem where he continued his studies. Among the leading Jerusalem scholars with whom he studied was Rabbi Jonah Navon (1713- 1760) author of "Nechpa Bakesef."

The "Shliach": Hebron's Torah Ambassador at Large

As a measure of his contemporaries' favorable opinion of him, Rabbi Karigal was appointed to be a shliach of Hebron in 1754, when he was only twenty-one. While it was understood that his mission was basically to travel to the Diaspora to raise money for his community's scholars, a shliach was much more than a fundraiser. He would also bring the fruits of the Holy Land's Torah study to the Diaspora. While on his travels, he would be asked difficult questions of halachah, and be requested to resolve communal disputes and problems. He would also check into the health of the local Torah institutions, suggesting improvements in them. Thus, a prominent scholar would be selected as a shliach ... As a case in point, the Chida had spent much of his career traveling the world as a shliach of Eretz Yisrael.

On Rabbi Karigal's initial trip as a shliach, he toured the Jewish communities of nearby Egypt for three months. He then left by ship for Izmir, Turkey, continuing on to the leading kehillos of Constantinople, Salonika, and Adrianople; traveling on to the east, to the kehillos of Syria, Iraq, and Persia. In Persia his last stop was the large community of Isfahan. This trip, under the difficult travel conditions of the time, lasted two years, after which he returned to Hebron.

In 1757, the Hebron kehillah dispatched Rabbi Karigal on a second, even more difficult and far-reaching trip - to Western Europe. Rabbi Karigal first sailed to Italy. He spent much time in the various kehillos of Italy, where he was highly regarded and his opinion was eagerly sought. The famous controversy was then raging over the writings of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (author of Mesilas Yesharim) and their delvings into the doctrines of Kabbalah. Rabbi Karigal was invited to help mediate this dispute and actively sought to resolve it.

Rabbi Karigal then traveled north to Vienna, Prague, and a number of German communities. After visiting the wealthy Sephardi kehillos of London and Amsterdam, in 1762, Rabbi Karigal prepared to return to Hebron. Just at that time, the parneisim (community leaders) of the Amsterdam kehillah learned of the death of Rabbi Raphael Mendes de Sola, Rav of the Sephardi community of the Caribbean island of Curacao. Curacao, a Dutch colony, was under the influence of the Amsterdam kehillah and turned to it for guidance. Rabbi Karigal had won the admiration of the parneisim of Amsterdam and they urged him to accept the newly vacated position. Rabbi Karigal accepted this appointment and left for Curacao.

The Curacao kehillah of this period consisted of rich international Sephardi merchants. An idea of their wealth can be gained from the salary paid to their new Rav: 750 pesos a year - a huge sum, exceeding the salary of Rabbi Shlomo Shalem, the Chacham of the world famous Amsterdam kehillah.

Rabbi Karigal remained in Curacao for only two years. One might assume that his longing to return to Eretz Yisrael impelled him to leave. While there, however, he established a local yeshiva where he taught a number of students. In 1764, he returned to Amsterdam and traveled on to Eretz Yisrael and Hebron.

In 1768, Rabbi Karigal again left Hebron. Difficulties in making a living and supporting his growing family forced him to accept another shlichus abroad. He went to Marseilles and Paris, eventually settling in London. During his two-and-a-half years in London, he taught at the Sephardi bais hamidrash there. In 1772, he left England for the Caribbean island of Jamaica, which boasted an active Sephardi community. A year later, he set sail for the North American continent to visit its Jewish kehillos for the first time. Thus, in 1771 Rabbi Karigal arrived in Philadelphia, whose tiny local kehillah received him with great honor. After a month, he left for the much larger Jewish community of New York.

For some reason his stay in New York was a brief one, and after a few months Rabbi Karigal left for Newport, Rhode Island, a major Jewish community.

As the Northern apex of the famous triangular trade with Africa and the West Indies, it was an important center of international commerce. These trade opportunities attracted Jewish settlers. In addition, Rhode Island had been founded by Roger Williams with the guarantee of religious freedom, which made it possible to carry on an organized and active Jewish life.

The Newport kehillah - "Khal Kadosh Yeshuat Yisrael" - had been founded in 1658, the second Jewish community to be established in North America. (New York had been the first, in 1654.) Like all colonial kehillos, it followed Sephardic practices in both minhag and organizational structure. The beautiful Touro Synagogue, which was constructed by the kehillah in 1763, is still standing. It is a National Historical Site and the oldest synagogue extant in the United States. The outstanding beauty of its architectural lines is still impressive today.

The Newport Welcome

In Newport, Rabbi Karigal was received with great honor, as the most outstanding talmid chacham to have visited the town until then. He served the kehillah there as their unofficial Rav during his stay, as he had in New York and Philadelphia. While his visit to Newport was a relatively short one, his strong influence remained long after his departure. Undoubtedly his presence in Newport contributed to its standing as America's leading, most active Jewish community until after the Revolution. While in Newport, Rabbi Karigal came into contact with one of the leading non-Jewish intellectuals of colonial life, Rev. Ezra Stiles. Stiles was president of Yale College and a famous Protestant minister. He was very impressed with the demeanor and bearing of Rabbi Karigal and left detailed descriptions of Rabbi Karigal and his actions in his letters and diary. The character and learning of a true talmid chacham were so unusual in eighteenth century America that Stiles became one of Rabbi Karigal's greatest admirers. He asked him many questions concerning the Jewish religion and the Hebrew language and carefully recorded the answers he received. Stiles wrote a number of Hebrew letters to Rabbi Karigal, which were preserved. He went so far as to minutely describe the physical appearance and costume of Rabbi Karigal. Indeed, Stiles commissioned the painting of a picture of the Chacham as a remembrance. It is this portrait that we have today.

We quote from the diary of Reverend Ezra Stiles (preserving his spelling, syntax, etc.):

(March 30th, pp. 357-8)

This Afternoon the Rabbi came to visit me in Company with Mr. Lopez. We conversed largely on the Gemara, the 2 Talmuds (of which he preferred the Babylonish), the Changes of the Hebrew Language in different Ages ...

The Rabbi's Dress or Aparrel: Common English Shoes, black Leather, Silver flowered Buckles, White Stockings. His general Habit was Turkish. A green Silk Vest or long under Garment reaching down more than half way the Legs ... (A description of unusual detail followed, culminated with a depiction of the classical Turkish Tallis.) When he came into the Synagogue he put over all, the usual Alb or white Surplice, which was like that of other Jews, except that its Edge was striped with Blue straiks, and had more Fringe. He had a White Cravat round his Neck. He had a long black Beard, the upper Lip partly shaven - his Head shaved all over. On his Head a high Fur (Sable) Cap, exactly like a Woman's Muff, and about 9 or 10 Inches high, the Aperture atop was closed with green cloth. He behaved modestly and reverently.

... Whether Moses Wrote All the Pentateuch
(April 22nd 6 23rd, p.368)

I visited the Rabbi. I asked him whether Moses wrote all the Pentateuch, particularly the Account of his own Death? also Gen. 36,31? - he answered, yes; that he wrote of Things future and present, as Isaiah wrote of Cyrus. He spake with the deliberate Confidence of Demonstration - and he is a Man of great Modesty and Candor, and most remote from a disposition to obtrude his own Assertions without being ready to offer the Reasons.

(July 15th)

Spent the Afternoon with the Rabbi ... I asked him whether the Rabbins of this Age thought themselves to have any particular Reasons for expecting the Messiah immediately? He said not; but he thought it was high Time for him to come.

While in Newport Rabbi Karigal busied himself, as he had on his other travels, with strengthening local Jewish life. Thus, he spoke regularly to the kehillah on Shabbos and Yom Tov, inspiring this small isolated community to be loyal and faithful to their Torah heritage. He was also active in other Jewish matters. He was in communication by letter with Isaac Pinto, a member of the New York kehillah who was the first known American translator of parts of the Siddur into English. Pinto had requested Rabbi Karigal's help in translating certain verses of the Torah into English.

On the festival of Shavuos in 1773, Rabbi Karigal gave a spirited sermon in Newport. This address dealt with the lot of the Jewish people in exile and inspiring their faith in the eventual coming of Moshiach. Rabbi Karigal was witnessing the deterioration of the local community's Jewish ideology on this score due to the strong Christian influence surrounding them, and therefore felt the need to choose this topic. While his speeches as Hebron shliach in Europe and Asia had been given in Hebrew, in Newport he spoke in Spanish which was still the language of the Jews in North America. This was probably due to the relative Jewish ignorance of the community and their inability to follow an involved Hebrew discourse. The parneisim of Newport were so impressed with this drashah that they had it published in English translation in 1773 - the first Jewish discourse to be published in America.

Farewell to the New World

Rabbi Karigal left Newport on July 21, 1773, and set sail for the Dutch colony of Surinam, in South America, which had a flourishing Jewish community. In 1774, he was invited to the kehillah of the British island of Barbados in the Caribbean. Barbados had had no Rav since the death of the previous occupant of that office twenty-two years before, and its Jews eagerly took advantage of the rare presence of a talmid chacham in the Western Hemisphere, electing him as their spiritual leader. Rabbi Karigal accepted this appointment and served as Rav in Barbados until 1777. It was in that year that this intrepid Torah pioneer and traveler ended his voyage in this world and died at the young age of forty-five. He left us with a fascinating and inspiring record of a life spent traveling and working for the growth of Torah and Judaism all over the globe.

(The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Tzemach Dovid)

  Torah  |  Features  |  New  |  Search  |  E-mail Us