Menasseh Ben Israel

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Menasseh Ben Israel
File:Menasseh ben Israel 1642.jpg
Engraved portrait by Salomo d'Italia, 1642
Born 1604
Madeira Island, Kingdom of Portugal
Died November 20, 1657
Middleburg, Dutch Republic
Resting place Ouderkerk a/d Amstel
Occupation Rabbi

Manoel Dias Soeiro (1604 – November 20, 1657), better known by his Hebrew name Menasseh ben Israel (מנשה בן ישראל), also, Menasheh ben Yossef ben Yisrael, also known with the Hebrew acronym, MB"Y, was a Portuguese rabbi, kabbalist, writer, diplomat, printer and publisher, founder of the first Hebrew printing press (named Emeth Meerets Titsma`h) in Amsterdam in 1626.


Portrait of Menasseh Ben Israel by Rembrandt[1]

Menasseh was born on Madeira Island in 1604, with the name Manoel Dias Soeiro, a year after his parents had left mainland Portugal because of the Inquisition. The family moved to the Netherlands in 1610. The Netherlands was in the middle of a process of religious revolt against Catholic Spanish rule throughout the Eighty Years' War (1568–1648). The family's arrival in 1610 was during the truce mediated by France and England at The Hague.

Menasseh rose to eminence not only as a rabbi and an author, but also as a printer. He established the first Hebrew press in Holland. One of his earliest works, El Conciliador, published in 1632,[2] won immediate reputation; it was an attempt to reconcile apparent discrepancies in various parts of the Hebrew Bible. Among his correspondents were Gerardus Vossius, Hugo Grotius, António Vieira and Pierre Daniel Huet. In 1638, he decided to settle in Brazil, as he still found it difficult to provide for his wife and family in Amsterdam. He may have visited the Dutch colony's capital of Recife, but did not move there. One of the reasons his financial situation improved in Amsterdam was the arrival of two Portuguese Jewish entrepreneurs, the brothers Abraham and Isaac Pereyra. They hired Rabbi Manasseh to direct a small college or academy (a yeshibah in Spanish-Portuguese parlance of the time) they had founded in the city.[3]

In 1644, Menasseh met Antonio de Montezinos, a Portuguese traveler and Marrano Sephardic Jew who had been in the New World. Montezinos convinced him of his conclusion that the South America Andes' Indians were the descendants of the lost ten tribes of Israel. This purported discovery gave a new impulse to Menasseh's Messianic hopes, as the settlement of Jews throughout the world was supposed to be a sign that the Messiah would come. Filled with this idea, he turned his attention to England, whence the Jews had been expelled since 1290. He worked to get them permission to settle there again and thus hasten the Messiah's coming.

With the start of the Commonwealth, the question of the readmission of the Jews had found increased Protestant support, but it was often mooted under the growing desire for religious liberty. In addition, Messianic and other mystic hopes were then current in England. His book, the Hope of Israel, had first been published in Amsterdam in Hebrew (Mikveh Israel) and in Latin (Spes Israelis).[4] In 1651 he offered to Christina, Queen of Sweden to become her Hebrew books agent. In 1652 his book was translated into English and published in London, prefixed with a dedication to the Parliament and the Council of State;[5] his account of descendants of the Lost Tribes being found in the New World deeply impressed public opinion and stirred up many polemics in English literature.[4] Despite their historic misfortunes and movements, Menasseh characterizes the condition of Jewry at the time by saying:[6]

”Hence it may be seen that God hath not left us; for if one persecutes us, another receives us civilly and courteously; and if this prince treats us ill, another treats us well; if one banisheth us out of his country, another invites us with a thousand privileges; as divers princes of Italy have done, the most eminent King of Denmark, and the mighty Duke of Savoy in Nissa. And do we not see that those Republiques do flourish and much increase in trade who admit the Israelites?"

Oliver Cromwell was sympathetic to the Jewish cause, partly because of his tolerant leanings but chiefly because he foresaw the importance for English commerce of the participation of the Jewish merchant princes, some of whom had already made their way to London. At this juncture, the English gave Jews full rights in the colony of Surinam, which they had controlled since 1650. There is some debate among historians, particularly Jewish historian Ismar Schorsch, concerning whether or not Menasseh’s personal motives for pursuing the readmission of the Jews by England were primarily political or religious. Schorsch argues that the idea of England being a final place for Jews to inhabit in order to bring about the coming of the Messiah was hardly present in Hope of Israel, but rather was developed by Menasseh later in order to appeal to English Christians with Millenarian beliefs.[7]

File:Menasseh T.JPG
Menasseh's grave in Ouderkerk aan de Amstel

In 1655, Menasseh arrived in London. During his absence from the Netherlands, the Amsterdam rabbis excommunicated his student, Baruch Spinoza. In London, Menasseh published his Humble Addresses to the Lord Protector, but its effect was weakened by William Prynne's publication of Short Demurrer. Cromwell summoned the Whitehall Conference in December of the same year.

Some of the most notable statesmen, lawyers, and theologians of the day were summoned to this conference to discuss whether the Jews should be readmitted to England. The chief practical result was the declaration of judges Glynne and Steele that "there was no law which forbade the Jews' return to England." Though nothing was done to regularize the position of the Jews, the door was opened to their gradual return. On December 14, 1655, John Evelyn entered in his Diary, "Now were the Jews admitted." When Prynne and others attacked the Jews, Menasseh wrote his major work, Vindiciae judaeorum (1656), in response.

Soon after Menasseh left London, Cromwell granted him a pension, but he died before enjoying it, at Middelburg in the Netherlands in the winter of 1657 (14 Kislev 5418). He was conveying the body of his son Samuel home for burial. His tomb is in the Beth Haim of Ouderkerk aan de Amstel.


File:De Resurrectione Mortuorum, Menassah Ben Israel.jpg
De Resurrectione Mortuorum by Menassah Ben Israel

Menasseh ben Israel was the author of many works. His major work Nishmat Hayim is a treatise in Hebrew on the Jewish concept of reincarnation of souls, published by his son Samuel six years before they both died.[8] Some scholars think that he studied kabbalah with Abraham Cohen de Herrera, a disciple of Israel Saruk. This would explain his familiarity with the method of Isaac Luria.

The Conciliator was, as above, a work written to reconcile the apparent contradictions in numerous passages throughout the Bible. To achieve this aim, Ben Israel "utilized an astounding range of sources"; primarily the Talmud and the classic Jewish commentaries but frequently quotes from the early Christian authorities as well as Greek and Latin authors of antiquity. Written in Spanish, in Amsterdam, 1632, it was aimed primarily to strengthen the faith of the Marranos in the veracity of the Tanach according to Jewish interpretation.[9] It was translated by Elias Haim Lindo and published by Duncan and Malcolm, in 1842, and again in 1972, with footnotes and introductory material by Sepher-Hermon Press.[10]

His other works include:

  • De termino vitae written in Latin 1639, translated into English by Thomas Pocock (London, 1709)
  • De Creatione Problemata, in Spanish, Amsterdam 1635.
  • De Resurrectione Mortuorum, Book III 1636 - written originally in Spanish but later translated into Latin, 1636[11]
  • De la Fragilidad Humana (On Human Frailty) (1642)
  • Nishmat Hayyim Hebrew
  • a ritual compendium Thesouros dos dinim.
  • Piedra gloriosa - with four engraved etchings by his acquaintance Rembrandt, who is also thought by some to have painted his portrait. These are preserved in the British Museum.[12]
  • Hope of Israel (London 1652). Printed in Lucien Wolf (ed.), Manasseh ben Israel’s Mission to Oliver Cromwell (London 1901), p. 50-51.
  • Vindiciae Judaeorum, Or, A Letter in Answer to Certain Questions Propounded by a Nobel and Learned Gentleman: Touching the Reproaches Cast on the Nation of the Jews ; Wherein All Objections are Candidly, and Yet Fully Clear'd. Amsterdam 1656.

Other works can be found in the Biblioteca Nacional – Rio de Janeiro/Brazil, for example:

  • Orden de las oraciones del mes, con lo mes necessario y obligatorio de las tres fiestas del año. Como tambien lo que toca a los ayunos, Hanucah, y Purim: con sus advertencias y notas para mas facilidad, y clareza. Industria y despeza de Menasseh ben Israel


Menasseh's wife, Rachel, was a granddaughter of the Abarbanel. Menasseh had three children by her. According to family legend, Menasseh's wife was a descendant of King David, and he was proud of his children's Davidic ancestry.[13] Both of Menasseh's sons predeceased their father. Menasseh's eldest son was Samuel Abarbanel Soeiro, also known as Samuel Ben Israel, who worked as a printer and assisted his father with matters in England. He died in 1657. Menasseh's youngest son, Joseph, died at age 20, in 1650, on a disastrous business trip to Poland. Menasseh also had a daughter, Gracia, born 1628, who married Samuel Abarbanel Barboza in 1646, and died in 1690.

Moses Jacob Ezekiel, the American sculptor, in his autobiography claimed to be a descendant of Menasseh Ben Israel. His claim is unconfirmed.

See also


  1. The British historian Cecil Roth published a massive biography of Menasseh ben Israel in 1934 (see References below), where this etching is also printed. However, in his 1970 entry on MbI for the Encyclopedia Judaica (also in the References below; Roth was editor in chief of the first edition of that encyclopedia in 1970) he wrote about it:

    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.

  2. Menasseh Ben Israel. El Conciliador (The Conciliator). Amsterdam, 1632. Reprinted in The Conciliator of R. Manasseh Ben Israel: A Reconcilement of the Apparent Contradictions in Holy Scripture: To Which Are Added Explanatory Notes, and Biographical Notices of the Quoted Authorities. Translated by Elias Hiam Lindo. London, 1842. Reprinted by, e.g., Nabu Press, 2010. ISBN 1148567577.
  3. For the economic ties binding Manasseh Ben Israel's intellectual activities to the mercantile activities of the brothers Pereyra throughout the entire period, see for example Roth, op. cit., pp. 62–63, and pp. 316–317; Méchoulan and Nahon, op. cit., p.40, p. 70.
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  5. Lucien Wolf (ed.), Manasseh ben Israel’s Mission to Oliver Cromwell (London 1901)
  6. Manasseh ben Israel, ‘The Hope of Israel’ (London 1652), printed in Lucien Wolf (ed.), Manasseh ben Israel’s Mission to Oliver Cromwell (London 1901), p.50-51.Noted in Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews, p.246
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  8. At least some parts of that work were translated into English by Dr. Raphael Polyakov and are available at
  9. Sepher-Hermon Press - Product Description.
  10. Kitto - The first volume was translated into Latin by Vossius, Amst. 1633, and the whole has been translated in English by Lindo, London 1842.
  11. Meyer Waxman 1930 History of Jewish Literature: Volume 2 - Page 697 2003 reprint "Resurrectione Mortuorum (Concerning the Resurrection of the Dead) , written originally in Spanish but later translated into Latin (1636)
  12. Schwartzapfel, Beth. "Rembrandt Revised." Forward, 5 January 2007. Retrieved 6 July, 2015
  13. Albert Montefiore Hyamson, A History of the Jews in England (1908), p. 182


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  • Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. [English transl. by F. de Sola Mendes, London, 1877.]
  • Roth, Cecil, and A. K. Offenberg. "Manasseh (Menasseh) ben Israel." Encyclopaedia Judaica. Ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. 2nd ed. Vol. 13. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. 454-455. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

External links