Rabbi Moshe Rephael Aguilar was a Rabbi in the Jewish community of Amsterdam in the 17th century. Most of the Jews of that community were sons of illustrious anusim, Jews who lived in Portugal, often for 3 or 4 generations, appearing to be Christians, while practicing Judaism and transmitting it to their children in complete secrecy. Knowing that if they were discovered by a servant, a neighbor, etc. they would be accused to the Inquisition, and if found guilty of “judaizar” (practicing Judaism) all their assets were confiscated and the culprits were sentenced to death. The execution, usually, was a horrible death: being burned alive at the stake. These public events were known as “autos de fe”.
These Jewish heroes who risked their lives daily to preserve Judaism, founded a new community in Amsterdam, which became one of the most important and affluent Sephardic communities of all time. Among other things, the Jews of Amsterdam were the first to reach the Americas, Brazil, Curacao, United States, etc.
Why Amsterdam? Because in 1597 the Prince of Orange (Netherlands) did something that until then was unprecedented in the annals of history: it declared a total religious freedom in his lands. And although the context of that freedom of religion had to do more with easing the tensions between Catholics and Protestants, Jews had the opportunity, for the first time in centuries, to settle in a city where they could observe their religion without persecutions.
Back to Rab Moshe Aguilar, he was apparently born in Portugal around the year 1615. He studied in Amsterdam with Rabbi Shaul Halevi Mortera (see here). As a young man he excelled in his studies and was elected to receive a generous grant that the community gave to the most outstanding students, this scholarship was called with the Hebrew name “aspaqa” (stipend).
In 1641 he traveled to the city of Recife, Brazil, with his teacher, colleague and friend, Rabbi Isaac Abohab of Fonseca, the first rabbi of the Americas (see this). In Brazil he officiated as a Hazan (Cantor). In 1654, when the Portuguese finally captured Brazil from the Dutch, the Jews had to flee. The Portuguese brought the Inquisition to America, and if a “Portuguese” or a descendant of Portuguese was discovered “judaizing,” he would be extradited to Lisbon, judged and sentenced to death. In fact, a nephew of Rab Agulilar, Isaac de Castro Tartas, זצוק”ל was caught by the Inquisition in Brazil and extradited to Portugal. (I might write about him BH next week).
In 1661 Rabbi Aguilar returned to Amsterdam where he was assigned as a Rabbi in the Talmud Torah. A position he held until the end of his days.
Rabbi Aguilar wrote a total of 22 books. 5 of them in Hebrew and 17 in Spanish or Portuguese.
Some of his books are:
“Epitome Grammatica hebrayca” (a treatise on Hebrew grammar) which is subtitled “for use in schools, in the manner taught in the Midrash of Talmud Torah K. K. Amsterdam”. Rabbi Aguilar, although not a man of economic resources, paid out of his pocket for the printing of this book.
“Dinim de shehita y bedica” to teach the community the basic rules of the ritual slaughter of animals. This was essential because many families in those days had to take care by themselves of slaughtering their animals.
He also wrote “zekher rab” a book in Hebrew, which collected all the Midrashim in the Talmud. And “sefer hama’asim” a book which collected all the stories told in the Talmud. These two books were not published and the manuscripts were never found.
The most famous book of Rab Aguilar is called “A Treaty of the immortality of the soul,” which he wrote in Portuguese. This book was written in response to the Jewish heretic Uriel de Acosta, who same as Espinosa, denied the principles of the Jewish faith, and amongst these, the immortality of the soul.
Rabbi Aguilar also wrote an important book called “Treatise on Rhetoric”. Rhetoric should be understood in this context as the art of elaborating and delivering a speech. This book was written for his students, many of them future rabbis, in order to learn how to prepare their rabbinical sermons (darushim) using classic rhetoric tools. This would assist them in presenting their ideas with order and elegance, essential to teach Jewish subjects, especially for people with little knowledge of Judaism.
Rabbi Aguilar died in 1679 and his Darush was given by the famous Rabbi Shelomo Olivera