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Menasseh ben Israel

Menasseh ben IsraelBorn: c. 1604
Birthplace: Lisbon, Portugal
Died: 20-Nov-1657
Location of death: Middelburg, Netherlands
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Religion: Jewish
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Religion

Nationality: Netherlands
Executive summary: Vindiciae Judaeorum

Jewish leader, was born in Lisbon about 1604, and was brought up in Amsterdam. His family had suffered under the Inquisition, but found an asylum first in La Rochelle and later in Holland. Here 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 won immediate reputation. It was an attempt at reconciliation between apparent discrepancies in various parts of the Old Testament. Among his correspondents were Vossius, Hugo Grotius and Pierre-Daniel Huet. In 1638 he decided to settle in Brazil, as he still found it difficult to provide in Amsterdam for his wife and family, but this step was rendered unnecessary by his appointment to direct a college founded by the Pereiras.

In 1644 Menasseh met Antonio de Montesinos, who persuaded him that the North American Indians were the descendants of the lost ten tribes of Israel. This supposed discovery gave a new impulse to Menasseh's Messianic hopes. But he was convinced that the Messianic age needed as its certain precursor the settlement of Jews in all parts of the known world. Filled with this idea, he turned his attention to England, whence the Jews had been expelled since 1290. He found much Christian support in England. During the Commonwealth the question of the readmission of the Jews was often mooted under the growing desire for religious liberty. Besides this, Messianic and other mystic hopes were current in England. In 1650 appeared an English version of the Hope of Israel, a tract which deeply impressed public opinion. Cromwell had been moved to sympathy with the Jewish cause partly by his tolerant leanings, but chiefly because he foresaw the importance for English commerce of the presence of the Jewish merchant princes, some of whom had already found their way to London. At this juncture Jews received full rights in the colony of Surinam, which had been English since 1650. In 1655 Menasseh arrived in London. It was during his absence that the Amsterdam Rabbis excommunicated Baruch de Spinoza, a catastrophe which would probably have been avoided had Menasseh -- Spinoza's teacher -- been on the spot. One of his first acts on reaching London was the issue of his Humble Addresses to the Lord Protector, but its effect was weakened by the issue of Prynne's able but unfair Short Demurrer. Cromwell summoned the Whitehall Conference in December of the same year. To this conference were summoned some of the most notable statesmen, lawyers and theologians of the day. 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, therefore, nothing was done to regularize the position of the Jews, the door was opened to their gradual return. Hence John Evelyn was able to enter in his Diary under the date Dec. 14, 1655, "Now were the Jews admitted." But the attack on the Jews by Prynne and others could not go unanswered. Menasseh replied in the finest of his works, Vindiciae Judaeorum (1656). "The best tribute to its value is afforded by the fact that it has since been frequently reprinted in all parts of Europe when the calumnies it denounced have been revived." (L. Wolf). Among those who used in this way Menasseh's Vindiciae was Moses Mendelssohn. Soon after Menasseh left London Cromwell granted him a pension, but he died before he could enjoy it. Death overtook him at Middelburg, as he was conveying the body of his son Samuel home for burial.

Menasseh ben Israel was the author of many works, but his English tracts remain the only ones of importance. His De termino vitae was translated into English by Pococke, and his Conciliator by G. H. Lindo. Among his other works were a ritual compendium Tesoro dos dinim, and a treatise in Hebrew on immortality (Nishmath hayim). He was a friend of Rembrandt, who painted his portrait and engraved four etchings to illustrate his Piedra gloriosa. These are preserved in the British Museum.

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