By Rabbi Shlomo Pereira
From the 13th to the late 19th century, Jewish communities in the Land of Israel relied on charity funds from the Diaspora for their livelihoods. Most Jews resided in the so-called four Holy cities of Safed, Hebron, Jerusalem, and Tiberias, dedicating their time to prayer and the study of Torah, Talmud, or Kabbalah, with limited opportunities for earning a living.
The presence of a Jewish population in the Land of Israel fostered a stronger connection for the Diaspora to their ancestral roots, solidifying its general and Jewish identities. In return, the Diaspora provided the communities in the Land of Israel with financial support through a worldwide communal system known as Chalukah, or “distribution.”
Beginning in the early 17th century, four major Jewish communities regularly sent emissaries to the Diaspora to collect and facilitate the transfer of funds needed for their sustenance. In the latter half of the 18th century, this system achieved a high level of coordination and efficiency under the authority of the Committee of Officials for Palestine, based in Istanbul.
At around the same time, these communities in the Land of Israel, primarily Sephardic, began dispatching emissaries to North America. The Jewish community there, also largely Sephardic, was entering a period of stability and prosperity. It is within this context that R. Karigal, an emissary from Hebron, established a close friendship with Rev. Stiles during his visit to Newport, Rhode Island, in 1773.
R. Raphael Chaim Yitzchak Karigal (1733-1777) was born in Hebron in 1733. His academic journey led him to the Chesed L’Avraham V’emes LeYaakov Sephardic yeshiva in Hebron, and then briefly to Jerusalem. He demonstrated extraordinary talent by achieving rabbinic education and ordination at the remarkably young age of 17.
R. Karigal’s appointment as an emissary of Hebron to the Diaspora in 1754 was equally impressive. His appointment at the young age of 21 demonstrated the high regard in which his contemporaries held him. Although the primary mission of an emissary was to fundraise, its role extended to bringing the teachings of the Land of Israel to the Diaspora, addressing complex Jewish legal questions, resolving communal disputes, and helping with the development of the local Torah institutions, all of which required substantial knowledge and maturity.
In 1754, R. Karigal’s travels took him first on a two-year journey across the Middle East that included visits to Egypt, Greece, Iraq, Persia, Syria, and Turkey, and then, in 1757, on a five-year trip through Europe, making stops in Italy, England, Germany, and Holland.
In 1761, he departed from Holland to Curaçao, where he spent two years at the behest of the Dutch Jewish communities, temporarily replacing R. Rafael Mendes de Sola, who had just passed away. In 1764, R. Karigal returned to Holland, eventually moving on to Germany and Italy.
Still, in 1764, after a ten-year absence, he returned to Hebron, where he spent the next four years. In 1768, he ventured to France and England, where he taught in London for over two years. His journey continued with stops in Jamaica for a year (1771–72) and then in the British colonies of North America for another year (1772–73). Here, he visited for a month, first Philadelphia and then New York City, and finally Newport, where he stayed for about four and a half months.
Following his stay in the American colonies, R. Karigal sailed to Suriname and subsequently took on a rabbinic role in Barbados in 1775. This appointment was significant for the Barbadian Jewish community, which had been without a rabbi for over two decades. R. Karigal served as their spiritual leader until his passing in 1777.
Notably, during his visit to Newport, R. Karigal formed a close friendship with Rev. Ezra Stiles (1727-1795), an educator, theologian, and ordained Christian minister. Rev. Stiles, a founder of Brown University in 1764 and later president of Yale University from 1778 to 1795, first encountered R. Karigal during the 1773 Purim service at the by then already venerable Newport synagogue Khal Kadosh Yeshuat Yisrael.
On March 30, 1773, impressed by R. Karigal’s depth of knowledge and character, Rev. Stiles invited him and respected local Jewish merchant Aaron Lopez to his home. R. Karigal and Rev. Stiles developed a profound connection, meeting 28 times in four and a half months until R. Karigal’s departure.
Their discussions spanned a wide range of topics, from Holy Land politics to Jewish mysticism. R. Karigal also tutored Rev. Stiles in Hebrew, resulting in extensive correspondence in Hebrew between them.
In his diary, Rev. Stiles documented their interactions in great detail, expressing deep admiration for his Jewish friend. He described R. Karigal's attire, manner, and personality, dedicating many pages to detailing his passage through Newport. In 1781, Rev. Stiles commissioned a portrait of R. Karigal by artist Samuel King for Yale University, which is still on display.
In addition, in 1773, two of R. Karigal’s sermons were published in Newport, marking the first Jewish sermons printed in North America. R. Karigal's legacy lives on as a scholar, emissary, and most of all, as a bridge between communities across continents.
Rabbi Shlomo Pereira is the director of adult education at the Chabad of Virginia, Richmond. He can be reached at shlomo@ chabadofva.org. Photos: Rabbi Raphael Haijm Isaac Karigal (1733–1777) Yale University and Cover of R. Karigal first sermon.