The date was May 28, 1773, the first day of Shavuot 5533. The place the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. The rabbi who delivered the sermon was a visitor from Hebron, Palestine, named Raphael Hayyim Isaac Carregal. The synagogue was filled for the holiday not only with the members of Congrgation Yeshuat Israel (initially called Nefutse Yisrael),but also the governor, a number of judges and the well-known minister, Rev. Ezra Stiles.
Stiles recorded in his diary that Carregal looked quite imposing. “He was dressed in his furr (sic) cap, scarlet robe, green silk damask vest, and a chintz undervest – girt with a sash or Turkish girdle, besides the alb (talit) with tzizith.”
Carregal’s Sermon, timed by Stiles’ watch, was 47 minutes long, and it was given in a Spanish dialect, most probably Ladino, with Hebrew interspersed. “His oratory, elocution and gestures were fine and oriental,” Stiles wrote. “It was very animated.”
Such a sermon would normally have gone the way of many sermons – spoken never recorded. But the Jews of Newport were so fascinated by it, they wanted to see it translated and printed in English.
One member of the congregation, Abraham Lopez, prepared the translation and later in 1773 it was printed by the Newport Mercury and sold throughout the city, thus becoming the first sermon to be preached and published in the US.
Carregal was born in Hebron in 1729 and was ordained in 1749. In 1754, already a married man, he initiated his career as a “messenger of God” from the Holy Land. He began his first 11-year venture by traveling throughout the Middle East and the Caribbean Islands. At each stop, he collected money for the schools of Hebron and for the city’s poor. As can be seen from Carregal’s personal records, some of the money was for his own family’s needs as well.
Arriving in Curacao in 1762, he was asked to remain and to serve as rabbi for the community. In that capacity, he instituted a program of religious education and even established a “talmudic academy.”
Carregal also checked the imported kosher meat, invoiced as “smoke sassangers” and “peackle Jewish beeff” when it arrived from New York.
The knowledgeable rabbi from Hebron was unusual for the western hemisphere.
During his tenure in Curacao, he was highly respected both for his Jewish learning and for using it in a very energetic fashion. The congregation rewarded him to show its appreciation for his work. When he left in 1764 to return to Hebron, he had a bill of exchange to a Venetian Jewish banker for almost 4000 guilden, a considerable sum for those days.
A real adventurer, Carregal did not remain in the holy land for long.
By 1768 he was again at sea, and his first major stop was London, where he remained for over two years. Anxious to return to colonial America, he landed in Philadelphia in 1772. From there he moved quickly to New York for a six-month stay, and then sailed north to Newport, Rhode Island, arriving in the New England seaport just before Purim in 1773.
One of the first to hear of Carregal’s arrival was Reverend Ezra Stiles, a Christian Hebraist of note. As a student of the holy tongue, Stiles was always anxious to meet rabbinic visitors to the city and improve his knowledge of the Hebrew language. A few years later when Stiles became president of Yale College, he also taught Hebrew at the school.
Stiles insisted that his students learn the Psalms in Hebrew. He told them, “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.”
When in March 1773, Stiles heard that “a Hebrew rabbi from the holy land” had arrived, the minister made sure to be in the synagogue for Purim services so he could meet the guest.
In his history of the Touro Synagogue, Professor Melvin Urofsky, quoted Rev. Stiles’ description of Carregal at Purim services: “There I saw Rabbi Carregal I judge aet. (about) 45, lately from the city of Hebron, the Cave of Macpelah in the Holy Land. He 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 brown furr Cap, had a long Beard.”
Stiles noted in this fashion: “He has the appearance of an ingenious & sensible man, learned and truly modest far more so than I ever saw a Jew.”
The two became fast friends and met on many occasions for a variety of discussions. The 19th century Christian historian, Hannah Adams, in her book History of the Jews, indicated that Stiles met with Carregal “for the purpose of acquiring pronunciation of Hebrew, of ascertaining the meaning of ambiguous in the original of the Old Testament, of conversing on past events relating to this extraordinary, as recorded in sacred history, and of tracing its future destiny by the light of prophecy.” Carregal was in Adam’s words, Stiles’ “Chocham Rabbi.”
The presence of Carregal in Newport brought a real sense of pride to the community. For the holiday of Shavuot, it was decided by Aaron Lopez, leader of the town’s Jews, that Carregal should give the sermon.
We can only imagine the excitement. Christian notables, including Gov. Joseph Wanton, Judges Oliver and Auchmuty , and Ezra Stiles were invited so that they could see Newport Jewry putting its best foot forward.
The guest rabbi was not the only highlight of the service. Abraham Rivera, the small, undersized son of Jacob Rivera, another 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.
Rabbi Carregal’s Shavuot sermon dealt with themes such as sin, study and the restoration of the Holy Land. He indicated that “the calamities endured by the Jews had not been casualties or accidents; they derived from the sins which the community as a whole had committed and of which its members were still guilty – that is, not following the injunctions of God.”
Citing the Talmud, he said that the “loss of Jerusalem was owing to the contempt and ignorance with which they treated everyone who applied himself to the divine study.”
Although the Jews were in exile for their “crimes and abominations,” Carregal assured his listeners that the Jewish people had not been rejected by God. All the ancient nations who were God’s instruments to punish the Jews had already been destroyed. Now if the Jews would show contrition, they would experience God’s mercy in that they would be restored to the holy land and the Temple would be rebuilt.
Since it was Shavuot, the time of the giving of the Torah, there was a marked emphasis in the sermon on the need for study at home and in the synagogue. Study was the best antidote to sin, for through it, the individual learned what God expected of him morally. This was highlighted in the Ten Commandments, given on the day of Shavuot, Carregal said.
He emphasized that the observance of the Law was destined to restore the Jewish people to its homeland: “Let us have a firm belief in the innumerable prophecies that predict our restoration.”
God would bring about the return, he stressed, when His people obeyed His moral law in their commercial dealings, in study and in loving their neighbors as themselves. Carregal concluded with the belief that in time, all the world will accept the ethical monotheism of Judaism and the “one voice: “In that day the Messiah might appear “daily, probably within the next 40 years at least.”
But it is doubtful if anyone other Stiles took him seriously. The Jewish stalwarts of Newport were relatively happy just where they were.
According to Urofsky, “Carregal used no notes, but spoke extemporaneously. As he later told Stiles, he worked it out in his head and ‘sealed’ it there. At the urging of Stiles and others, Carregal wrote it out in Spanish and then it was translated into English.”
After five months in Newport, Carregal sailed to Surinam and then to the isle of Barbados, where he became the congregational rabbi in 1774. During the next three years, he corresponded with Stiles in Hebrew (fortunately the letters were preserved).
One particular letter sent by Stiles in 1775 contained a moving description of the Battle of Bunker Hill, and concluded with the famous dictum, “The day is with the Lord.”
After settling into his post, Carregal felt that he was financially secure enough to bring his wife and children from Hebron to Barbados. Sadly, he had not seen them for over nine years. But before he could realize this goal, he contracted a disease and died in 1777. He was buried in the cemetery of Bridgetown, Barbados, where his grave can be visited.
Now another step was taken to remember the rabbi. Stiles, who had become the president of Yale College, wrote Aaron Lopez of Newport in 1781 that “the affectionate respect I bear to the memory of Rabbi Carregal has made me wish that his picture might be deposited in the library of this college.”
Lopez agreed, touched by Stiles’ desire to “dignifie”(sic) the rabbi’s portrait by placing it in so distinguished a locale. The portrait was painted by Samuel King shortly thereafter and deposited in the Yale library as a testament to their friendship.
More than 250 years have passed but Rabbi Carregal of Hebron’s impact on colonial America and on Jewish history remains. His sermon can be read since it was reprinted in 1976 to mark the bicentennial of the US.
You can visit the Touro synagogue in Newport preserved in a most pristine fashion. Carregal’s presence in Newport and his sermon provided an important spiritual link for this tiny American Jewish community. ■
The writer dedicates this article to Iyar on her 13th birthday celebration.