Born in Madeira, Portugal, as a Marrano (a new Christian living secretly as a Jew), Manoel Dias Soeiro escaped the Inquisition, settling in Amsterdam with his family. Here he was reinitiated into the Jewish covenant and renamed Menasseh ben Israel. Rabbi, scholar, printer and diplomat, Menasseh ben Israel (1604-1657) of Amsterdam was one of the most influential personalities in modern Jewish history.

A native of Lisbon, Gaspar Rodrigues Nunez had once been a prosperous, if back-sliding, New Christian. Having fallen under the suspicion of the Inquisition in the early 17th century, he joined the swelling numbers of Jewish refugees from Portugal and Spain; sometime around 1610 he escaped Portugal with his wife and three children, settling in Amsterdam, a haven for Jewish and non-Christian exiles. He took the name Joseph b. Israel and called his two sons Ephraim and Menasseh respectively.

The son who had been born to him in 1604 Madiera on his journey of flight from the Inquisition and had been baptized Manoel Dias, was now initiated into the Jewish covenant and renamed Menasseh ben Israel. Menasseh demonstrated prodigious talent in his studies. He began to frequent the yeshivot at age 14, and made his first public oration in Portuguese when he was 15. His linguistic ability was phenomenal, and he mastered many languages well, allowing him to read a vast variety of works. At the age of 17 Menasseh wrote his first book, Safah Berurah, a grammatical work (unpublished). By the age of 18 Menasseh ben Israel was already recognized as a gifted preacher, succeeding R. Isaac Uzziel in the Neveh Shalom Synagogue in 1622.

It was not long before he had earned a reputation as one of Europe's leading Hebrew scholars. With the idea of getting his writings into print and supplementing his meager income, he started a small printing press in 1626, at the age of 22. This was the earliest Hebrew printing press in Amsterdam, and here he produced more than 70 books in Hebrew, Spanish and Portuguese.

Ben Israel's first learned production, a Hebrew grammar, was the first of many scholarly works, among them the Conciliador which sought to reconcile apparently contradictory passages of Scripture. A true man of letters, Ben Israel was highly regarded by the scholarly Gentile world for his theological works and linguistic interpretations of the Bible. The two greatest of his contemporary countrymen, Hugo Grotius (Dutch jurist and humanist) and Rembrandt, were among his admirers (Rembrandt produced a portrait of Ben Israel as well as four etchings for the latter's mystical work, La Piedra Gloriosa).

Although Ben Israel served the Amsterdam community in various capacities — preacher, teacher, merchant, printer and publisher, he was never its official rabbi, and despite his publishing activities, he never seem to have sufficient income. In his later years, Ben Israel also served as diplomat and political leader. He is known for his petition to Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, and the British Parliament, to readmit the Jews of England (they had been expelled in 1290). Menasseh died at Middelburg, Holland in the autumn of 1657, shortly after his return from England.

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