Recently, my wife and I visited Newport, Rhode Island. The highlight of our visit was the Touro Synagogue. We were very fortunate to receive a personal tour given by the rabbi of the shul, Rabbi Eskovitz. What a warm and pleasant person he turned out to be, and as he let us in, we couldn’t help but be gripped with the awesome thrill of being in the oldest shul in North America. Built in 1763, making it 245 years old, this synagogue was originally a Sephardic shul and has unmistakable features to prove it.
The most outstanding of these is on the floor of the raised bima. There is a hidden trap door which leads to a secret tunnel underneath the shul. This was put there because the Sephardim still had a fear of the Inquisition which, as a matter of fact, was not officially terminated until the year 1820. They continued to harbor a dread that emissaries from the pope would seek them out and they therefore built within the shul itself an escape hatch!
I wondered why they put this hatch by their bima. My first thought was that it was because the bima is centrally located, giving equal access to every member of the shul. This in itself is a beautiful Torah sentiment. They didn’t put the trap door in the front to provide quicker access for the rabbi and the notables - because in the Jewish faith, every Jewish life is of equal importance. Then, I thought further that they placed their escape route at the bima for it represents the merit of Torah; that the Torah should protect them in case they needed to make a quick getaway. It is for this reason that we blow the shofar on Rosh HaShannah by the bima - that the merit of the shofar should be synthesized with the power of Torah.
In front of the shul are beautiful brass candlesticks. Remember, originally the shul was illuminated by hundreds of candles. On these brass candlesticks is an engraving which states that they were dedicated by “Habochor, Chanoch ben Yoseif,” meaning, “The bachelor, Chanoch, the son of Yoseif.” This is highly unusual! Why would a person put on an engraving - meant to last for decades - that he was a bachelor? Naturally, one hopes eventually to get married. Rabbi Eskovitz explained to me that, at that time, there were hardly any girls of marriageable age in Newport. Sadly, many people succumbed to the overwhelming temptation to intermarry. However, those who courageously kept true to their faith and remained single their entire lives, used the title of ‘habochor’ as a mark of great distinction and mesiras nefesh, great self-sacrifice. What a remarkable testimony to the fact that we are “Am kedoshecha, Your (Hashem’s) holy nation. It is interesting that nowadays when we say ‘a bochor,’ it is a title of honor bestowed upon a boy who chooses to learn in yeshiva; thus, he is known as a ‘yeshiva bochor.’ Now we know that there is another meaning to the title of bochor; namely, the courageous bachelors who, two and a half centuries ago, remained staunchly committed to Yiddishkeit, sacrificing the love of a woman and the chance for a family to remain true to our faith.
As one walks into the shul, in the middle of the left side wall, there is a raised bench where George Washington sat when he visited. I found it interesting that they made him a place of respect, but not on the mizrach vandt, not on the eastern wall, where the rabbi and other scholars and community activists sat. I believe this was done to make the statement of “Hamavdil bein Yisroel u’vein ha-ahmim” - Hashem, Who differentiates between the Jews and every other nation. We gave the president of our medina shel chesed, our country of kindness, honor. Still, we made clear that, “Hein am levodod yishkon” - We are a nation that dwells apart.
I asked Rabbi Eskovitz if there were any fireplaces in order to heat the shul, for I didn’t see any evidence of them. Astonishingly, he told me that there were none. How remarkable that these people would come to daven in the dead of the winter when the shul, especially in the morning, must have been the temperature of an icebox when they came to say their prayers. This is something for us to remember when we are a little too hot or a bit too cold in our more modern and comfortable shuls. What they used to do to daven in the olden days! It added, to me, a new dimension to the verse “B’beis Elokim nehaleich b’ragesh” - With feeling to the House of G-d I went. (By way of contrast, we went afterwards to the Breaker’s Mansion nearby - and there they had twenty-three working fireplaces!)
On the men’s level, the shul has twelve windows based on the Zohar in memory of the twelve shevatim, reminiscent of the twelve paths carved into the Red Sea, pointing to the twelve distinct styles of the Bnei Yisroel. The central candelabra had exactly twelve candles as well. I found it interesting that the central candelabra was not placed directly over the bima, where we would think they would place it for maximum lighting. Rather, it was in front of the bima, probably as a safety measure in case it fell, or in case a candle fell, or even so that the wax should not drip down directly upon the holy Sefer Torah; that it should not catch flame or be defaced in any way.
The oldest item we saw in Newport was not the shul. Rather, encased in the ancient Aron Kodesh is a Sefer Torah that was secreted out of Spain together with the Torah giant, the Abarbanel, in 1492. When I saw this Torah scroll, I got the shivers - because one side of my family tree traces itself back to the Golei Sephard - those people who courageously gave up everything to leave Spain rather that be forced to accept the Christian faith.
With the permission of the rav, I had the historical zechus to give the first Daf Yomi shiur ever given in the oldest shul in North America. With the rav listening in, I recorded daf yud (10) from Masechtas Nedarim for the Kol Haloshon network, which is a global multi-lingual teleconferencing system. (You can actually hear this lecture by dialing (718) 906-6400, and following the prompts for Rabbi Moshe Meir Weiss’s Daf Yomi lectures. You will need to press “1” for English, then “2” for the Gemora, and then “1” again to select my shiurim. Over a thousand of my recorded shiurim are archived on this system so, for example, if you would like to learn Masechtas Brachos, all sixty-three dafim are available for your learning pleasure.)
Across the street from the shul, there is an adjacent building also from antiquity which has a plaque of the Ten Commandments. There are several interesting features to this plaque. Firstly, the Ten Commandments are translated into Ladino, the language of choice for the Jews of Spanish descent. The Sefer Meam Loez, for example, was originally written in Ladino. On the right side, with the first five commandments, was a painting of a scholar meant to depict Moshe, while on the left side, with the last five commandments, was an obvious drawing of Aharon, for the person is wearing the breastplate of the Kohein Gadol. It is obvious that the artist meant to depict that the first five, which are ‘Bein adom l’Makom’ - Between man and Hashem, are therefore more associated with Moshe who had the unequalled relationship with Hashem, while the remaining five commandments, which are, ‘Bein adom l’chaveiro’ - Between man and his fellow man, are more associated with Aharon, who was the quintessential Oheiv shalom v’rodeif shalom - Lover of peace and pursuer of peace.
Unquestionably, the most meaningful part of our stay in Rhode Island was the privilege of visiting this ancient Beis HaK’nesses. It is a wonderful place to visit and I highly recommend Rabbi Eskovitz as a most knowledgeable, patient, and kind host. May the mesiras nefesh of the builders of this Beis HaK’nesses and its courageous members be a merit for all of us as we remember them, and we should be blessed with long life, good health, and everything wonderful.
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