Menasseh (Manasseh) ben Israel (1604–1657)

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Menasseh (Manasseh) ben Israel, the Jewish scholar, philosopher, and theologian, was probably born in Madeira. His father, a victim of the Spanish Inquisition, escaped with his family to La Rochelle and then to Amsterdam, where Menasseh studied in the growing Jewish community. At eighteen he became a teacher and preacher. Although very successful in his rabbinical career, Menasseh could not support his family with his salary and so became a printer, establishing Holland's first Hebrew press. He printed his own first published work, an index to the Midrash Rabbah (1628). Most of his subsequent works are in Spanish, Portuguese, or Latin.

Menasseh's vast erudition in Jewish and Christian theology and philosophy and classical and contemporary literature attracted notice in 1632, when the first part of his El Conciliador appeared in Frankfurt (the second, third, and fourth parts appeared in Amsterdam, 16411651; the book was translated into English by E. H. Lindo, London, 1842). This work attempted to reconcile the apparent conflicts and contradictions in the Bible and brought Menasseh into the company of Gerhard Johannes and Isaac Vossius, Hugo Grotius, and many other scholars, who came to regard him as the leading expositor of Jewish thought to the Christian world. He corresponded with Christian and Jewish scholars everywhere, and many came to Amsterdam to confer with him.

Menasseh ben Israel was greatly interested in the Jewish and Protestant kabbalistic, mystical, and Messianic views of his time and was involved with some of the strangest seventeenth-century visionaries. This led to his most famous work and the best-known episode of his career. A Portuguese Jew from South America told him of finding some of the lost tribes of Israel in the jungles there. Using this material and other "data," Menasseh ben Israel published his Hope of Israel in Latin, Spanish, and English (1650), in which he argued that because the Israelites were spread almost everywhere on Earth, the Messianic age was at hand. If the Jews were readmitted to England, then all might be ready for the Messiah. Several influential Puritans, including Oliver Cromwell, held similar views, and they invited Menasseh ben Israel to London to discuss the readmission of the Jews. Menasseh ben Israel stayed in England from 1655 to 1657, but after much controversy no official solution emerged, although the unofficial readmission of Jews to England did begin. Disappointed, Menasseh ben Israel died shortly after leaving England.

Although his works are not of the first rank, Menasseh ben Israel was extremely influential in developing and disseminating a modernized form of Jewish learning and in making Christian scholars aware of then-current streams of Jewish thought.

See also Grotius, Hugo; Jewish Philosophy; Kabbalah.


The Hope of Israel appeared in Spanish in 1650 (Amsterdam) and was translated by Menasseh ben Israel into Latin the same year. An English translation by M. Wall appeared in London in 1650. The latest English edition was published in London in 1901.

Cecil Roth, A Life of Menasseh ben Israel (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1934), contains an excellent bibliography of works by and about Menasseh ben Israel. Also consult the articles "Manasseh ben Israel" in Jewish Encyclopedia (London and New York, 1904), Vol. VIII, pp. 282284, and Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 19591960), Vol. XII, pp. 898899.

other recommended titles

Coppenhagen, J. H., ed. Menasseh ben Israel (16041657): A Bibliography. Jerusalem: Misgav Yerushalayim, 1990.

Méchoulan, H., and R. H. Popkin. Menasseh ben Israel and His World, edited by Y. Kaplan. Leiden: Brill, 1989.

Roth, C. A Life of Menasseh ben Israel. Philadelphia: Jewish Publications Society, 1934.

Richard H. Popkin (1967)

Bibliography updated by Oliver Leaman (2005)