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22 August 2017
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LSJS
London School of Jewish Studies

Isaac Aboab da Fonseca: the man behind the Great Synagogue

On the 4th of April 124 years ago Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca passed away. His death was deeply felt by the members of the Amsterdam Spanish & Portuguese Community such that, many years later, the name Aboab and the date of his death were still to be found on the engraved border of all marriage contracts of the Sephardi Community.

When he was still a young boy, Isaac Aboab da Fonseca fled with his parents from the Inquisition in Portugal, via France, to Amsterdam in 1612. There he became an outstanding pupil of the famous Chacham Isaac Uziel, who originated from Fez and came to Amsterdam in 1615.

Isaac was a keen student and, at the young age of 21, he was appointed as Chacham of the congregation Bet Israel, one of the three existing communities in Amsterdam. In 1639 when the three communities united he became a member of the Rabbinate together with Menasseh ben Israel, Saul Levi Morteira and David Pardo.

Following the Dutch conquest of Brazil, Isaac Aboab travelled in 1642 to Recife (Pernambuco) where he became the first Rabbi of America. Many Jews followed him and left Amsterdam for Pernambuco. They played an important role in the export of sugar.

In 1654, after the war when Brazil fell in the hands of Portugal and lost its position in the West Indian Company, Aboab together with most of the Portuguese Jews returned to Amsterdam where he took up his original position as Rabbi.

When Menasseh ben Israel went to England (1656), Aboab was in charge of the Rabbinate. And when Chacham Morteira passed away (1660) Aboab became head of the Rabbinate and the Talmud Torah.

Aboab who had become an ardent follower of Shabbatai Zevi was one of the signatories on the letter of praise to Sabbatai Zevi.

In 1671 Aboab initiated the plans for the building of the Great Synagogue. The building started in 1672 and the Synagogue was inaugurated in 1675.  Aboab’s name is to be recognised in the Hebrew teMenorat Hamaorxt above the entrance of the Synagogue. Today the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue still stands in its full glory in the centre of Amsterdam. SynagogueAboab wrote several books and translated some works written by other authors from Spanish and Portuguese into Hebrew.

Isaac Aboab was mentioned as the corrector in the first Hebrew book printed by Menasseh ben Israel in 1627 in Amsterdam. Aboab’s own most famous work, Menorat Hama’or, was printed in Amsterdam in 1700 and the Library at LSJS has a copy. He also wrote a translation and a commentary on the Pentateuch in Spanish, which was printed during his lifetime in Amsterdam in 1681.

Isaac Aboab da Fonseca died at the ripe old age of 88 on the 4th of April 1693.