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Rav Menashe Ben Yisroel

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Rav Menashe Ben Yisroel - The Portuguese Marrano Who Gave Birth to English Jewry
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A descendant of the Abarbanel, Rav Menashe Ben Yosef Ben Yisroel was born as a marrano in Portugal in 1604. As a young child, Rav Menashe arrived on the safe shores of Holland via France after his entire family escaped the inquisition before his father was almost set to be burnt at the stake in an auto-da-fe. Rav Menashe learned Torah under Rav Yitzchok Uziel who started the Spanish Kehilah of Neve Shalom consisting many marranos who while steadfastly Jewish still needed to be weaned away from their Christian Hashkafos.

When Rav Yitzchok died in 1620, Rav Menashe who was still a teenager, was chosen as his Rebbi's successor. Aside from being a Talmid Chochom, Rav Menashe was well rounded with mastery in medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and classical literature. He also spoke ten languages. Rav Menashe was a close friend of the famous painter Rembrandt who drew a portrait of him and also helped him with art for some of his published writings. He also opened his own printing house to print Jewish literature.

Struggling financially Rav Menashe was set to move to Brazil where more opportunity existed at the time. However just before his journey a position in the Amsterdam Kehilah opened up when one of the assistants Rabbi's was hired by a Kehilah in Brazil. Rav Menashe was named his successor and remained in Amsterdam. In 1644 with the backing of the wealthy Pereira family he opened up a Yeshiva.

The aspect of Rav Menashe's life that is most famous is his attempt in 1655 to convince Oliver Cromwell to allow the Jews to return to England from where they had been expelled in 1290. His motive for this was his belief that in order for Moshiach to come Jews had to be present in all four corners of the world. Since England was the one European country without any Jews he made it his mission to bring the Jews back. Although he found favor in the eyes of many English people including Cromwell, his mission was not completely successful due to staunch opposition from certain members of the English parliament.

While it took another century for Jews to be officially admitted back into England, he did win unofficial permission for Jews to return with Cromwell allowing Jews to return and practice their religion. Nevertheless Rav Menashe left England defeated and broken. To add to his troubles his son Shmuel who accompanied him to England was niftar right before their return trip and Rav Menashe sailed with his coffin back to Holland where he himself died shortly afterward at the age of 53 in Kislev 5418/1657 as a broken man.

Rav Menashe left behind some classic works that were exceeding popular and were translated into many languages. They include Nishmas Yisroel, Teshuas Yisroel, and Mikve Yisroel which talks about the 10 lost Shevatim and the Indian tribes in America.

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