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  • From Holy Land to New England CanaanRabbi Haim Carigal and Sephardic Itinerant Preaching in the Eighteenth Century
  • Laura Leibman (bio)

It was late Thursday morning, 28 May 1773, and Rev. Ezra Stiles, minister of the Second Congregational Church, was attending Synagogue. It was not the first time Stiles had been to the Newport Esnoga; in fact, he was present on Chanukah 1763 (5524) when the magnificent building of Yeshuat Israel was dedicated.1 Today, however, was special. It was the first day of Shavuot, the holiday commemorating the giving of Torah at Sinai, and Turkish Rabbi Haim Isaac Carigal was going to give a sermon. Carigal entranced Stiles, who had already convinced the synagogue’s Hazzan to teach him Hebrew.2 Stiles had spoken with Carigal numerous times and had asked him probing questions about Carigal’s hometown in Hebron and his extensive travels throughout the Jewish Diaspora (Literary Diary 1.357–58, 360–61, 368, 370, 373–74, 386–89, 398–400).

Six rabbis visited Newport in its heyday between 1759 and 1775 (Gutstein 146–56), but Carigal seems to have interested the omni-intellectual Stiles the most. Carigal’s fluency in a large range of languages and his deep scholarly training made him more than a match for Stiles, the would-be cosmopolitan. Stiles took advantage of their time together to ask Carigal probing questions that had been weighing on him about Jewish mysticism, Jewish law, and biblical tidbits, such as whether one could still see the pillar of salt that had once been Lot’s wife on the shores of the Dead Sea (Literary Diary 1.370). In May of 1773, Stiles took copious notes when he came home from Synagogue services on what he had seen and heard: Carigal’s Turkish robes and hat fascinated him, as did the sermon, although he only caught snatches of the text, as it was given in “Spanish” (Ladino), which Stiles did not speak (Literary Diary 1.354, 362–63, 376–77). Stiles continued to admire the Rabbi from afar after this momentous day; after Carigal left Newport for Barbados, Stiles exchanged letters with the Rabbi, often in Stiles’s rudimentary [End Page 71] Hebrew. Stiles also had a portrait of the Rabbi painted for Yale College after Carigal’s death. When the sermon was translated into English and published in 1773, Stiles kept a copy (Literary Diary 1.375, 399, 423, 426, 427, 589, 591, 631; 3.94; Itinerancies, 31 May 1781, 3.466).

Since so few Jewish sermons were published in the colonies, the translation and publication of Carigal’s text bears some scrutiny. The sermon was translated, printed, and advertised less than two months after it was delivered.3 Carigal appears to have approved of the publication: in fact, he later sent a second sermon from Barbados in 1775 to “Messrs Rivera and [Aaron] Lopez” that he hoped the men would also translate into English. Unfortunately, this sermon has not survived (Friedman 19–20). Although the translator of the first sermon was Abraham (“Miguel”) Lopez,4 the driving force behind the publication was undoubtedly the two men who Carigal hoped would translate his second sermon: Abraham’s wealthy and influential younger half-brother, Aaron Lopez and Aaron’s father-in-law, Jacob Rodriguez Rivera. Indeed, it was to Aaron Lopez and Rodriguez Rivera that Ezra Stiles turned in 1782 when he wanted funding for Carigal’s portrait (Rivera, 20 Dec 1782). Carigal also wrote to Stiles about helping with the translation and publication of his second sermon (Friedman 22); thus, it is likely that Stiles had similarly helped with the publication of Carigal’s first sermon in 1773. For Stiles, the Jewish law discussed in Carigal’s first sermon had crucial ramifications not only for the Jews of Newport but also for Christians. As Stiles explained in a letter to Carigal, when the Messiah returned, “We will also see re-established the Priesthood,” sacrifices, “all of the service of the sanctuary,” and a “Revival of all the Statutes of the Law of Moses” (Letter, 19 July 1773, 19). Carigal’s sermon, then, provided essential religious information, particularly since Stiles and Carigal both believed the Messiah’s...