After 1492, Portugal absorbed the bulk of the Jewish People who had been expelled from Spain. The most famous of the new arrivals was arguably Rabbi Yitzchak Aboab. In the sixteenth century, Rabbi Emmanuel Aboab, his great-grandson, describes how while still in Spain, Rabbi Yitzchak Aboab was widely respected and how after the decree of expulsion was issued, it was he who met with King Joao II of Portugal to negotiate an agreement for the Jewish refugees to settle in Portugal.
It was on the basis of this agreement that thirty families were allowed to settle in Porto. In the words of Rabbi Emmanuel Aboab, they were given “comfortable houses in Rua S. Miguel and in the center, there was a Synagogue, which I remember seeing as a child, before it was destroyed.” Given that Rabbi Emmanuel Aboab was born in 1555, the building must have stood for more than half a century after the decree of expulsion from Portugal in 1496-1497 when it ceased to be allowed to function as a synagogue.
The memories of the proud Jewish history in Spain before 1492 and in Portugal before 1497 and the traumatic events that brought them to an excruciating and screeching end, remained etched in the collective consciousness of the next generation of Jews born in Portugal. Rabbi Emmanuel Aboab writes in reference to the details of what transpired during the expulsions, “I heard many times [references to these events] from my father who was very interested in researching this topic as well as from other elders, the wise of our people.” He continues, “I have a lot of information on what transpired, all of which could be written about in a detailed book.”
Rabbi Emanuel Aboab tells us in the name of his father, about the concluding steps in the tragedy. He mentions that after the initial announcement of the decree of expulsion in 1496, the Jewish People were told that they would have three ports open to them to depart from Portugal, Lisbon, Setubal and Porto. Afterwards, however, the king changed the agreement, “forbidding departure from any location besides Lisbon.” This is what set the stage for everyone to gather in Lisbon, where ultimately, they were also forbidden to depart. This is when the final episode of mass conversions was sprung upon them.
After settling in Porto in 1492, Rabbi Yitzchak Aboab would eventually pass away soon thereafter and before these tragic events were to occur. Rabbi Emmanuel Aboab pointedly writes, “Rabbi Yitzchak Aboab merited to depart to the world that is fully good, and not to see the bitter events that transpired in Portugal.” Regarding his burial, he writes, “I understand that he is buried in the city of Porto.”
Rabbi Avraham Zacuto who was a student of Rabbi Yitzchak Aboab gives us a firsthand account of his teacher’s passing. “My teacher Rabbi Yitzchak Aboab, may his memory be for blessing, who was sharp and wise, passed away in Portugal in 1493, seven months after the Expulsion. I was there, and I gave a eulogy for him, based on the verse, ‘Behold I send an angel before you’, (Exodus 23:20) from the Parshah of Mishpatim.”
It seems that Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel also studied under the guidance of Rabbi Yitzchak Aboab. This detail comes to us in the commentary of Rabbi Yosef Karo titled Kesef Misheh, on the Mishnah Torah of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as The Rambam or Maimonides. There, in the laws of blessings, Rabbi Yosef Karo tells us of a question that was posed to Rabbi Yitzchak Aboab in the presence of Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel who was at the time studying.
Rabbi Emmanuel Aboab tells us that in all of Sefarad, Rabbi Yitzchak Aboab was simply known “The Rav”, a title which had only once formerly been attached to one individual, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, also known as The Ramban or Nachmanides.
Rabbi Emmanuel Aboab concludes his account by stating that Rabbi Yitzchak Aboab’s students moved across the globe after the expulsion, “some to Africa, others to the Holy Land, and some to different places in Turkey, and with their wisdom brightened many places and locations in the diaspora.” In our times we are blessed to see Portugal once again becoming a strong center of Jewish life, with many Jewish People from the countries listed by Rabbi Aboab once again residing in Portugal.