The Dutch rabbi, author, publisher, and communal leader Manasseh ben Israel (1604-1657) is best known for his indefatigable efforts to effect the readmission of Jews to England.
His parents had left Portugal in 1603 because of the auto-da-fé, and Manasseh ben Israel was born in France the following year. The family eventually settled in Holland, where Manasseh was ordained a rabbi in Amsterdam at the age of 16. He soon gained a reputation as an excellent preacher, and he sought to augment his meager income by private instruction and by establishing his own press. He claimed proficiency in Hebrew, English, Latin, Spanish, and Portuguese. In 1640 he sought to improve his financial status by moving to Brazil, where he established a small academy, but 2 years later he returned to Holland.
Manasseh ben Israel was interested in Cabala, or Jewish mysticism, which predicted that the Messiah would appear as soon as Jews were dispersed to all parts of the world. He was encouraged by the prevailing Christian belief in the approaching Fifth Kingdom. The Thirty Years War was considered to mark the beginning of the Messianic Age, which had been predicted in the Book of Zohar, a Cabalistic work.
Manasseh ben Israel was most interested in persuading Oliver Cromwell, the English lord protector, to readmit the Jews to England. (They had been expelled in 1290.) Since Cromwell considered the English people to be the descendants of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, Manasseh pointed out that with the readmission of Jews all Israel would be reunited. He wrote Esperanca de Israel (The Hope of Israel) in 1650. He translated it from Portuguese into Latin and dedicated it to the High Court of England. After addressing a historic letter to Cromwell, he went to England in 1655 to plead his cause, to which there were objections which he sought to overcome in an apologetic work called Vindiciae Judaeorum (Defense of the Jews). Cromwell, however, could not persuade Parliament to readmit the Jews officially. Gradually, however, the Jews did return, and their economic value to the country may have been a greater inducement than the religious appeal.
Manasseh was a prolific author, but he never gained a reputation as a great scholar. In El consiliador he sought to reconcile contradictions in the Bible and Talmud and thereby won the great respect of many Christian Bible scholars. He published the Index to Midrash Rabba as well as an edition of the Mishnah. He wrote a series of theological works in Latin on problems such as creation, the soul, resurrection of the dead, and the hereafter. Among the scholars with whom he corresponded was Hugo Grotius, and the great Rembrandt did his portrait.
Further Reading on Manasseh ben Israel
For a biographical account, see Cecil Roth, A Life of Menasseh ben Israel, Rabbi, Printer, and Diplomat (1934). Meyer Kayserling wrote "The Life and Letters of Manasseh ben Israel" in Miscellany of Hebrew Literature (vol. 2, 1877), edited by Albert Löwy. Menasseh ben Israel's Mission to Oliver Cromwell, edited by Lucien Wolf (1901), has a biographical study of Manasseh. Details of his career and general background information can be found in Albert Hyamson, A History of the Jews in England (1908; 2d ed. 1928), and Cecil Roth, A History of the Jews in England (1941; 3d ed. 1964).
Additional Biography Sources
Menasseh Ben Israel and his world, Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill, 1989.
Roth, Cecil, A life of Menasseh ben Israel, rabbi, printer, and diplomat, New York: Arno Press, 1975 c1934.