On November 20, 1657, Menasseh ben Israel, a Zelig-like character who played a central role in gaining permission for the Jews to return to England, and who appears on at least the margins of many other milestones in 17th-century Jewish history, died.
Menasseh was born and baptized Manoel Dias Soeiro in 1604 on Madeira, a Portuguese-owned island in the Atlantic, west of Morocco. His parents had fled there from Portugal a year earlier after his father, Gaspar Rodriguez Nunez, a converso Jew, understood that he faced arrest as a Judaizer - a Christian who was secretly observing Jewish customs.
In 1610, the family moved again, this time to Amsterdam, where Jews had recently been granted permission to live openly, and Manoel and his brother were renamed Menasseh and Ephraim.
Menasseh studied with Rabbi Uzziel of Fez at Amsterdam’s Neveh Shalom Synagogue and showed great talent: He made his first public oration at age 15 and published his first book, a Hebrew grammar called “Safah Berurah,” at 17.
In 1626, Menasseh established the Netherlands’ first Hebrew printing press, which published books by himself and others. Early publications included a siddur (daily prayerbook) in 1627, an edition of the Mishnah and Midrash Rabbah, a book of Torah commentary. Menasseh’s own four-part “El Conciliador,” written in Spanish, served to reconcile seeming discrepancies within the Hebrew Bible.
That last work is one that also had a non-Jewish readership, and joined other books by Menasseh, with Latin-language titles like “De Creatione,” “De Termino Vitae,” and “De Resurrectione Mortuorum,” that served to explain Jewish thought to Christians. Menasseh also corresponded widely with non-Jewish scholars.
Despite his many vocations, Menasseh had a hard time supporting his wife, the former Rachel Abarbanel, and their three children, so in 1638, he resolved to seek his fortune in the Dutch colony in Brazil. It is not known if he ever actually traveled to the New World but, in the meantime, the brothers Abraham and Isaac Pereira offered him the leadership of a new yeshiva, which enabled Menasseh to remain in Amsterdam. There, one of his students was Baruch de Spinoza.
Mystical quest – to England
Menasseh ben Israel was also a student of kabbala and, as such, subscribed to the Jewish mystical belief that the Messiah’s coming would be precipitated by the spreading of the Children of Israel to the far corners of the world. An encounter with the converso Portuguese Jewish traveler Antonio de Montezinos, who had been to the New World, convinced him that the native Americans who Montezinos met there were descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel.
In contemporary geographical terms, this left England – referred to in medieval Hebrew as “Ktzeh Ha’olam” (“end of the earth,” a term that appears in Deuteronomy 28) – from which Jews had been expelled in 1290, as the place Jews needed to reenter if the messianic age was to arrive.
Thus, in 1651, Menasseh sent his son, Samuel, and brother-in-law, David Abravanel Dormido, to England to seek to negotiate with the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, on the question of readmission. Failing at that mission, Samuel urged Menasseh himself to come to London. Menasseh did so that year, and was therefore absent when Spinoza was banished from the Jewish community of Amsterdam in July 1656.
At the urging of Menasseh, who dedicated the Latin edition of his book “Mikveh Israel” to the English Parliament, Cromwell convened the Whitehall Conference in December 1655 to discuss the question of the Jews’ readmission.
Although the conference was unable to come to definitive agreement on the subject, and Cromwell chose not to push its participants on it, there was consensus that “there is no law against their [the Jews] coming,” which served as the wedge for just that to happen, and for permission being given to Jews to establish both a synagogue and a cemetery in London.
Menasseh barely lived to enjoy the privilege. He was in the Netherlands when he died, on this day in 1657, having accompanied the body of Samuel, his son, home for burial. Menasseh is buried in the Beth Haim cemetery in Oudekerk aan Amstel, outside Amsterdam.