Manasseh (Menasseh) ben Israel

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MANASSEH (Menasseh) BEN ISRAEL (1604–1657), Amsterdam scholar, printer and diplomat. Manasseh, who was born a Marrano in Lisbon or La Rochelle, was baptized as Manoel Dias Soeiro. According to an unreliable document of the Portuguese Inquisition, he was born on the island of Madeira. His father, Gaspar Rodrigues Nuñez (a nail-seller), escaped from Lisbon after appearing as a penitent in an *autoda-fé and settled in 1613/14 in Amsterdam, where he took the name Joseph b. Israel and called his two sons Ephraim and Manasseh respectively and his daughter Esther. His mother, Antonia Soeira took the name Rachel. Manasseh made prodigious progress in his education. He became a member of the Ḥevrah for Talmud Torah at the age of 12, began to frequent the yeshivot when he was 14, made his first public oration in Portuguese when he was 15, and at 17 wrote his first book, Safah Berurah, a grammatical work (unpublished and known from two manuscripts). He succeeded R. Isaac *Uzziel as preacher to the Neveh Shalom congregation in 1622. In 1623 he married Rachel Abarbanel. They had three children, Gracia (Hannah), Joseph, and Samuel. His extraordinarily extensive knowledge in the theological rather than the talmudic sphere and his linguistic abilities made him a forerunner of the Jewish scholars of the 19th century who attempted to present Judaism in a sympathetic manner acceptable to the Christian world. He founded the earliest Jewish Hebrew printing press in Amsterdam (1626), where he continued to publish works in Hebrew, Yiddish, Latin, Spanish, Portuguese (and some in Dutch or English) for the remainder of his life. The first book of his press, a Hebrew Sephardi prayerbook, appeared on January 1, 1627 (13 Teveth 5387). It was financed by Ephraim Bueno and Abraham Sarphati and corrected by Isaac Aboab da Fonseca. Today it is known in only very few copies. Penei Rabbah, his index to the Midrashim, appeared in 1628. In 1628–29 he published Joseph Solomon Delmedigo's Sefer Elim and Mayan Gannim on religious, metaphysical and scientific matters with mathematical illustrations. Some chapters were prohibited by the Portuguese parnasim. He issued a number of Hebrew and Spanish biblical texts (from 1627 to 1654), Sephardi and Ashkenazi prayerbooks in Hebrew, Spanish, and Yiddish (from 1630 to 1650) and several Hebrew editions of the Mishnah (1631–32; 1643–44; 1646). The first part of his Conciliador (1632, in Spanish; 1633 in a Latin translation by Dionysius Vossius), reconciling apparently discordant biblical passages, gained him a great reputation in Christian circles (the remaining three parts appeared in Spanish only, 1641–51). This was followed by a series of works also largely directed to non-Jews: De Creatione (1635, Latin only); De Termino Vitae (1634, Latin only); De Resurrectione Mortuorum (1636); and De Fragilitate Humana (1642). Beside other minor works, he produced Thesouro dos Dinim, a code of Jewish law for returned Marranos (1645–47); Piedra Gloriosa, with (in a few copies) containing four etches by Rembrandt (1655); and Nishmat Ḥayyim (1651) on the nature of the soul. The Manasseh b. Israel press, which was not always in his own hands, published about 80 titles. For these works, as well as his synagogue sermons (at which gentile scholars and notables were often present), he was regarded in the world of scholarship as the leading representative of Hebrew learning. In May 1642 he was honored to deliver an official address of welcome to Queen Henrietta Maria of England, her daughter Mary, and their hosts Stadtholder Frederick Henry and his son William (ii) in the Portuguese synagogue at the Houtgracht. Manasseh published his address in the same year in Portuguese (Gratulaçaõ), Latin, and Dutch. He had close personal relationships with luminaries such as Gerardus Joannis Vossius and especially with his son Isaac, Hugo *Grotius, Petrus Serrarius, Caspar Barlaeus, Claudius Salmasius, Paul Felgenhauer, Samuel Bochart and many more. He boasted to have written more than 200 letters to all his friends and relations, which he intended to publish separately. This never happened. Very few of these letters have survived as autographs, of which the Amsterdam University Library possesses six. Though continuing to serve the Amsterdam community in various capacities, he was never its official chief rabbi. In 1640, when he intervened in a quarrel between the synagogue authorities and his brother-in-law, Jonas Abrabanel, he was put under the ban. Despite his publishing activities, his income was never adequate, and in 1640 he planned to immigrate to *Brazil. When after the Puritan revolution the return of the Jews to England was proposed, Manasseh took a prominent share in the negotiations. In 1650 he dedicated the Latin edition of his work, The Hope of Israel, describing the reported discovery of the *Ten Lost Tribes in South America, to the English parliament in an effort to solicit their goodwill. At the same time, he entered into discussions with various Englishmen by correspondence and in person, on the possibility of permitting the return of the Jews; this, in his view, had messianic implications, because it would complete the dispersion of the Jews to Keeh ha-Areẓ ("the end of the earth"), the medieval Hebrew term for Angle-Terre (cf. Deut. 28:64). Because of political circumstances and his own health, Manasseh did not avail himself of an opportunity to go to England in 1652, though his friend Manuel Martinez (David Dormido *Abrabanel) and his son Samuel Soeiro conducted some negotiations on his behalf. Eventually however, he went there in 1655, and submitted his petition to *Cromwell for the recall of the Jews. Although this was not formally granted, assent was given to a subsequent petition which merely asked for permission to establish a synagogue and acquire a cemetery. This arrangement eventually proved providential, since it placed no conditions on the return of the Jews. During his stay in England, Manasseh wrote Vindiciae Judaeorum (1656) to defend the Jews against the attacks which were then being made on them. He was bitterly disappointed at the apparent frustration of his hopes, although Cromwell showed his personal sympathy by granting him a pension of £100 a year. He returned to Holland in the autumn of 1657, but died at Middelburg shortly after his arrival. He was buried at the Portuguese cemetery Beth Haim at Ouderkek on the Amstel, where his tomb (restored by British Jews in 1960) can still be visited. The historical facts about Manasseh b. Israel in R. Menasse's novel Die Vertreibung aus der Hölle (2001) are unreliable. His portrait was engraved by Salom Italia (1642). Whether a portrait etching by Rembrandt of 1636 (Bartsch 269) represents Manasseh is doubtful, and painted portraits of Manasseh by Rembrandt or by Ferdinand Bol are not known.


C. Roth, A Life of Menasseh ben Israel, Rabbi, Printer and Diplomat (1934; repr. 1975); L. Wolf, Menasseh ben Israel's Mission to Oliver Cromwell (1901); A. Yaari, Mi-Beit Defuso shel Menasheh ben Yisrael (1947); H. van de Waal. "Rembrandts Radierungen zur Piedra Gloriosa des Menasseh ben Israel," in: Imprimatur, 12 (1954–55), 52–61; L. Fuks and R.G. Fuks-Mansfeld, "Menasseh ben Israel as a Bookseller in the Light of New Data," in: Quaerendo 11 (1981), 34–45; idem, Hebrew typography in the Northern Netherlands 15851815, vol. 1 (1984), 99–135; H.P. Salomon, "The Portuguese background of Menasseh ben Israel's Parents as Revealed through the Inquisitorial Archives at Lisbon," in: Studia Rosenthaliana, 17 (1983), 105–46; Menasseh ben Israel, The Hope of Israel. The English Translation by Moses Wall, 1652. Ed., with introd. and notes by H. Méchoulan and G. Nahon (1987); Y. Kaplan, H. Méchoulan, R.H. Popkin (eds.), Menasseh ben Israel and his world (1989); A.K. Offenberg, "Menasseh ben Israel's Visit to Christina of Sweden at Antwerp, 1654," in: Lias 16 (1989), 265–74; J.H. Coppenhagen, Menasseh ben Israel. A bibliography (1990), with over 2,000 titles.

[Cecil Roth /

A.K. Offenberg (2nd ed.)]