Museum of Portuguese Jewish History

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The Enlightenment, movement of the 18th –19th centuries is referred to as Haskalah (Hebrew: השכלה), among the European Jewish communities of the time.

Many Jews advocated adopting enlightenment values, pressing for better integration into European society, and increasing education in secular studies, Hebrew language, and Jewish history. Haskalah in this sense marked the beginning of the wider engagement of European Jews with the secular world, ultimately resulting in the first Jewish political movements and the struggle for Jewish emancipation.

Haskalah differed from Deism of the European Enlightenment by seeking a modernized philosophical and critical revision within Judaism.

Age of Haskalah Enlightenment  18th to 19th  Centuries

  1. Due to earlier forced conversions and policies that forbade Judaism, there is very little activity documented among the secret Jewish communities in Portugal during this evolutionary period. However, some Portuguese Jews successful in their attempts to relocate to thriving Jewish centers like the Netherlands and England became notable scholars, writers and leaders in their newly adopted countries. Maintaining an identity that was associated with Portuguese Jewry was important to these refugees who contributed ground breaking achievements in fields of commerce, science, philosophy and literature, which brought great success to their former kingdom of residence.

  2. In the 18th century, Jewish decent was a common assumption for those who encountered a Portuguese citizen outside of their kingdom. Portuguese identity was also vital during The War of the Spanish Succession, (1701–1714), when The European Grand Alliance, which included Portugal, England and Holland fought against the possible unification of Spain and France under one Bourbon monarch, Philip V of France. For Jews, this was a dangerous time to be aligned with Spain, and a “national Portuguese identity” helped against prejudice that could lead to implications of Spanish espionage. In fact, Portuguese Jews were instrumental in supporting the Grand Alliance with their mercantile exchanges in north Africa and the Azores Islands, which allowed for a steady supply of provisions for English and Dutch ships around the Iberian coast.

  3. Isaac Aboab da Fonseca    (February 1, 1605 – April 4, 1693)

  4. A rabbi, scholar, kabbalist and writer. In 1656, he was one of several elders within the Portuguese-Israelite community in the Netherlands who excommunicated Baruch Spinoza for the statements the philosopher made concerning the nature of God. Isaac Aboab da Fonseca was born in the Portuguese town of Castro Daire as Simão da Fonseca. His parents were Secret, Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity. Although the family had ostensibly converted to Christianity, this did not put an end to local antisemitic suspicions. When Isaac was seven, the family moved to Amsterdam. From that moment on, the family "reconverted" back to Judaism, and Isaac was raised Jewish from that moment on. Together with Manasseh ben Israel, he was given lessons by the scholar Isaac Uziel.

  5. At the age of eighteen, Isaac was appointed rabbi (chacham) for Beth Israel, one of three Sephardic communities which existed at that point in Amsterdam.

  6. In 1642, Aboab da Fonseca was appointed rabbi at the Dutch colony of Pernambuco (Recife), Brazil. Most of the white inhabitants of the town were Sephardic Jews from Portugal who had been banned by the Portuguese Inquisition to this town at the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. In 1624, the colony had been occupied by the Dutch. By becoming the rabbi of the community, Aboab da Fonseca was the first appointed rabbi of the Americas. The name of his congregation was Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue and the community had a synagogue, a mikva and a yeshiva as well. However, during the time he was rabbi in Pernambuco, the Portuguese re-occupied the place again in 1654, after a struggle of nine years. Aboab da Fonseca managed to return to Amsterdam after the occupation of the Portuguese. Members of his community immigrated to North America and were among the founders of New York City.

  7. On April 4, 1693, Isaac Aboab da Fonseca died at the age of eighty-eight in Amsterdam. In 2007, the Machon Yerushalaim published a book about Rabbi Fonseca's works, including the author's expositions about the community of Recife at that time. The book is called Chachamei Recife V'Amsterdam, or The Sages of Recife and Amsterdam.

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  9. Rabbi Menasseh    (16571657)

  10. Born on Madeira Island in 1604, with the name Manoel Dias Soeiro, a year after his parents had left mainland Portugal because of the Inquisition. The family moved to the Netherlands in 1610. The Netherlands was in the middle of a process of religious revolt throughout the Eighty Years' War (1568–1648). The family's arrival in 1610 was during the truce France and England at The Hague.

  11. Menasseh rose to eminence not only as a rabbi and an author, but also as a printer. He established the first Hebrew press in Holland. One of his earliest works, El Conciliador, won immediate reputation; it was an attempt at reconciliation between apparent discrepancies in various parts of the Old Testament. Among his correspondents were Gerhard Johann Vossius, Hugo Grotius, and Pierre Daniel Huet. In 1638, he decided to settle in Brazil, as he still found it difficult to provide for his wife and family in Amsterdam. Even though he may have visited the Dutch colony's capital of Recife, he appears to not have moved there. His financial situation finally improved in Amsterdam with the arrival of the Portuguese Jewish entrepreneurs, the brothers Abraham and Isaac Pereyra. Rabbi Manasseh was then employed by them to direct a Yashiva they had founded in the city.

  12. Disputed portrait of Menasseh Ben Israel by Rembrandt In 1644, Menasseh met Antonio de Montesinos, who convinced him that the South American Andes' Indians were the descendants of the lost ten tribes of Israel. This supposed discovery gave a new impulse to Menasseh's Messianic hopes. But he was convinced that the Messianic age needed as its certain precursor the settlement of Jews in all parts of the known world. Filled with this idea, he turned his attention to England, whence the Jews had been expelled since 1290. He found much Christian support in England. During the Commonwealth the question of the readmission of the Jews was often mooted under the growing desire for religious liberty. Besides this, Messianic and other mystic hopes were current in England. In 1650, there appeared an English version of the Hope of Israel, a tract which deeply impressed public opinion. Oliver Cromwell had been moved to sympathy with the Jewish cause partly by his tolerant leanings, but chiefly because he foresaw the importance for English commerce of the presence of the Jewish merchant princes, some of whom had already found their way to London. At this juncture, Jews received full rights in the colony of Surinam, which had been English since 1650.

  13. Soon after Menasseh left London Cromwell granted him a pension, but he died before he could enjoy it. Death overtook him at Middleburg in the Netherlands in the winter of 1657 (14 Kislev mediated by 5418), as he was conveying the body of his son Samuel home for burial.

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Age of Haskalah Enlightenment    18th to 19th  Centuries        Aboab da Fonseca Gallery                      English   |   Português