MANASSEH BEN ISRAEL:
By: Joseph Jacobs
Dutch polyhistor; born at La Rochelle about 1604 (see Bethen-court in "Jew. Chron." May 20, 1904); died at Middleburg, Netherlands, Nov. 26, 1657. After the auto da fé of Aug. 3, 1603, his parents had thought it prudent to leave Lisbon. They soon passed on from La Rochelle to Amsterdam, where Manasseh was brought up under Isaac Uzziel of Fez, the rabbi of the new congregation Neveh Shalom; the latter died in 1620 and was succeeded by Manasseh. Two years later Manasseh married Rachel Soeiro. He soon became distinguished as one of the best orators of the Amsterdam pulpit, rivaling even Isaac Aboab. The contrast between their preaching was acutely indicated by a Spanish priest of the time, Fra Antonio Vieyra, who reported, after hearing both, that "Manasseh said what he knew and Aboab knew what he said." Neither preaching nor private tuition being sufficient to provide him with a suitable livelihood, Manasseh started the first Hebrew press in Amsterdam (indeed, in all Holland), in which he produced a Hebrew prayer-book (Jan. 12, 1627) set up from entirely new type, an index to the Midrash Rabbah (1628), a Hebrew grammar of his teacher's, Isaac Uzziel (1628), and an elegant and handy edition of the Mishnah.
Meanwhile Manasseh ben Israel was occupied with the compilation of his chief work, "El Conciliador," a laborious enumeration and discussion of all the passages contained in the Old Testament which seem to conflict with one another. Manasseh brought his very extensive rabbinical knowledge to bear upon each of these, and wrote, in fluent Spanish, an exposition of the recognized Jewish method of reconciling the seeming inconsistencies. The book was almost the first written in a modern language by a Jew which had an independent interest for Christian readers, and it accordingly gave Manasseh a wide-spread reputation in the learned world. Some of the best scholars of his time had correspondence with him—Isaac and Dionysius Vossius, Hugo Grotius, Caspar Barlæus, Cunæus Bochart, Huet, and Blondel; Anna Marie de Schurman consulted him. His Jewish acquaintance was even more numerous, and included Emanuel Frances, and the Buenos, Abravanels (relatives of his wife), Pintos, Abudientes, and Henriques. He corresponded also with Zacuto Lusitano, Daniel Caceres, and Diego Barrassa (to whom he dedicated one of his works), and assisted Joseph Delmedigo to publish a selection of his works at Amsterdam.
Notwithstanding this wide fame, Manasseh ben Israel still found it difficult to obtain a living for himself, wife, and three children; he determined, therefore, on settling in Brazil, whither, in 1638, he had sent his brother-in-law, Ephraim Soeiro, on a joint venture. At this time the three synagogues of Amsterdam were reorganized, and, as seems probable, Manasseh ben Israel lost his position as rabbi of the Neveh Shalom. In preparation for his departure he dedicated the second part of the "Conciliador," which appeared about that time, to members of the Jewish community of Pernambuco. At this moment the brothers Pereira came to his aid and established a yeshibah, placing him at the head (1640). Manasseh was thus enabled to devote himself entirely to authorship and to his ever-widening correspondence with Jewish and Christian literati.
Manasseh was most profoundly interested in Messianic problems, being convinced, for example, of the Davidic origin of the Abravanel family, from which his own wife was descended. He was full of cabalistic opinions, though he was careful not to expound them in those of his works that were written in modern languages and intended to be read by Gentiles. In particular, he was convinced that the restoration to the Holy Land could not take place until the Jews had spread into and inhabited every part of the world. In 1644 he came in contact with Antonio de Montesinos (Aaron Levi), who convinced him that the North-American Indians were the Lost Ten Tribes. He appears to have directed his attention to the countries in Europe where Jews were not permitted to live, trusting that by obtaining their admission the coming of the Messiah would be accelerated. He entered into correspondence with Christina, Queen of Sweden, ostensibly regarding matters of Hebrew learning, but probably with the design of getting her help in obtaining for the Jews admission into Sweden. But his chief attention was directed to securing the readmission of Jews into England, with many leading theologians of which country he was in active correspondence on this point.
Manasseh attracted the notice of many Protestant theologians who likewise were convinced of the speedy coming of the Messiah and who naturally desired to know the views of Jewish theologians on a topic so specifically Jewish. Among these Christian theologians were Abraham von Frankenberg, the Silesian mystic, and Johannes Mochinger. But it was especially several of the more mystical-minded of the Puritans in England who had become interested in the question, and Manasseh entered into correspondence with several of them, including John Dury, Thomas Thorowgood, and Nathaniel Holmes. The first-named had written to Manasseh on the subject of the Israelitish descent of the American Indians, thereby redirecting his attention to Antonio de Montesinos' views. Manasseh determined, therefore, to write a treatise on the Lost Ten Tribes, and in support of the readmission of the Jews into England published his "Esperança de Israel" (Hope of Israel; 1650). This work appeared first in Spanish, then in a Latin translation; to the latter he wrote a prefatory epistle addressed to the Parliament or Supreme Court of England in order to gain its favor and goodwill for the Jews. The pamphlet aroused much interest in England, several replies being written, especially with regard to the identity of the North-American Indians with the Lost Ten Tribes. One of the replies, "An Epistle to the Learned Manasseh ben Israel" (London, 1650), waswritten by Sir Edward Spencer, member of Parliament for Middlesex; another appeared anonymously under the title "The Great Deliverance of the Whole House of Israel" (ib. 1652). Both these replies insisted upon the need of conversion to Christianity before the Messianic prophecies about Israel could be fulfilled, and it was, perhaps, for this reason that the matter was dropped for a time.
Meanwhile Cromwell's attention had been drawn to the subject, and before the negotiations with Holland were broken off by the Navigation Act of 1652 Cromwell's representative at Amsterdam was put into communication with Manasseh; the latter addressed the English council of state on the subject of the readmission, and a pass was issued to enable him to go to England. After the cessation of the war between Holland and England, Manasseh sent his son Samuel and his nephew David Dormido to consult with Cromwell. They being unsuccessful, Samuel returned to Amsterdam in 1655 to persuade his father to attempt the task himself.
Manasseh arrived in London in October of that year, and immediately printed his "Humble Addresses to the Lord Protector," the result being a national conference held at Whitehall in December, 1655. It does not appear that Manasseh spoke at this conference, though his pamphlet was submitted to it. A formal declaration was made by the lawyers present at the conference that there was nothing in English law to prevent the settlement of Jews in England, though the question of its desirability was ingeniously evaded by Cromwell (see Cromwell). Prynne wrote his "Short Demurrer" against the proposal, and this was answered by Manasseh ben Israel in his "Vindiciæ Judæorum" (London, 1656). Meanwhile the opening of the Robles case had brought the question to a practical issue, though not in the sense Manasseh was striving for. He appears to have quarreled with the London Jews, and had to go for help to Cromwell, who, at the end of 1656, made him a grant of £25, and in the following year gave him a pension of £100 a year. In September, 1657, his son Samuel died; with the aid of a grant from Cromwell, Manasseh took the body to Holland to be buried at Middleburg, where he himself died two months later. Though he had not succeeded in obtaining formal permission for the resettlement of the Jews in England, he had by the publicity of his appeal brought the subject prominently before the ruling minds of England, and thus indirectly led to the recognition of the fact that there was nothing in English law against the readmission.His Works.
The pamphlets connected with the return of the Jews to England have been republished, with an introduction, by Lucien Wolf through the Jewish Historical Society of England (London, 1901); the first part of the "Conciliador" appeared at Frankfort-on-the-Main in 1632; the remaining three parts at Amsterdam in 1641, 1650, and 1651. Manasseh wrote also: a series of works in Latin on various theological problems, giving the usual rabbinic solutions, all printed at Amsterdam—"De Creatione" (1635), "De Resurrectione Mortuorum" (1635), "De Termino Vitæ" (1639); an essay in Spanish, "De la Fraglidad Humana" (1642); and a list of the 613 commandments in Portuguese, entitled "Thesoro dos Dinim" (1645). Several of his works have been translated: "Conciliador" into Latin by Vossius (Amsterdam, 1632), and into English by E. H. Lindo (London, 1642; reprinted, Edinburgh, 1904). His "Esperança de Israel" was translated into English by M. Wall, and had three editions between 1650 and 1652; into German by M. Drucker (1651); into Hebrew by Eliakim ben Jacob (1697). His "Vindiciæ Judæorum" was translated into German, with a preface by Moses Mendelssohn (reprinted 1782). Manasseh contemplated writing a large number of other works "on the influence of tradition," "on the divine origin of the Mosaic law," "a summary of Jewish theology," a "bibliotheca rabbinica," and a "Hebrew-Arabic lexicon"; none of these works saw the light, nor did the "Historia Heroyca," which he intended as a sequel to Josephus. Of special interest is his book on the statue of Nebuchadnezzar—"Estatua de Nebuchanassar" (Amsterdam, 1657 ?). This was illustrated by four plates by Rembrandt, explained by Manasseh in his prefatory remarks. Rembrandt etched a portrait of Manasseh, and another engraving of him was executed by Salom Italia in 1642. There is a portrait by Rembrandt at St. Petersburg alleged to be of Manasseh, but its dissimilarity to the authorized portrait renders it impossible that the two can be of the same person.
Manasseh claimed to read and understand ten languages, and printed works in five—Hebrew, Latin, Portuguese, English, and Spanish. His erudition was wide, but he had no claims to accuracy or thoroughness, and he is now chiefly remembered for his untiring labors toward the readmission of the Jews into England.
- M. Kayserling, in Jahrb. für die Gesch. der Juden, pp. 85-188 (transl. by F. de Sola Mendes, in Miscellany of the Society of Hebrew Literature, second series, pp. 96 et seq., London, 1877; also separately);
- Lucien Wolf, Introduction to Manasseh ben Israel's Mission to Oliver Cromwell;
- Steinschneider, Cat. Bodl. Nos. 6205, 8703;
- D. P. Huet, Huetiana, pp. 225-227, Paris, 1722;
- Lady Magnus, Jewish Portraits, pp. 68-89;
- M. Weiskopf, in Arch. Isr. 1902, pp. 53-54, 61-62, 77-78;
- E. N. Adler, in J. Q. R. April, 1904.