MANASSEH BEN JOSEPH OF ILYE (known also as Ben Porat):
Russian rabbinical writer and philosopher; born at Smorgony, government of Wilna, 1767; died at Ilye, in the same government, 1831. At seven years of age he was acquainted with some original sources in rabbinical literature, but his father would not permit him to study Hebrew grammar and the Bible lest these might interfere with his Talmudic studies. According to the custom of that time Manasseh was married early; at the age of thirteen he became the husband of the daughter of a wealthy citizen ofSmorgony; but he soon divorced her and married the daughter of a merchant in the village of Ilye, where he spent most of his life. His erudition early drew a circle of friends and disciples around him, and in discussing with them the rabbinical laws and regulations he did not hesitate to criticize such authorities as the Shulḥan 'Aruk and Rashi. He even dared to interpret some parts of the Mishnah in contradiction to the explanation given by the Gemara; for such daring he probably would have been put under the ban had not an influential rabbi, Joseph Mazel of Wyazyn, come to his rescue. The latter took great interest in Manasseh and threw open to him his extensive and valuable library of rabbinical and philosophical literature.Relation to Elijah of Wilna.
Manasseh became acquainted also with Elijah Gaon of Wilna, whom he visited once a year; but when Elijah discovered that Manasseh visited Zalman of Liozna, the leader of the northern Ḥasidim, he credited those of his disciples who asserted that Manasseh showed Ḥasidic leanings, and held aloof from him, though Manasseh explained to the gaon that only a love of knowledge induced him to visit Zalman, and that his views differed widely from those of the Ḥasidim. Manassch really sympathized somewhat with the latter, expecting that their movement might develop into something better than the existing rabbinical orthodoxy. In his writings Manasseh holds Elijah of Wilna in high esteem, declaring in "Binat Miḳra" (Grodno, 1818) that from him he had learned to interpret the Talmud by the simple philological method of the "peshaṭ," while the majority of Talmudic teachers used the less scientific methods of the "derash. "He even says that but for Elijah of Wilna the Torah would have been forgotten in Israel ("Alfe Menashsheh," § 102; comp. § 177).
The suspicions of the Orthodox members of Manasseh's community increased when he began to study philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy. He had formed the resolution to go to Berlin for the purpose of becoming acquainted with the circle of Moses Mendelssohn; but at Königsberg he was stopped by some of his Orthodox coreligionists, who induced the Prussian authorities to refuse him a passport. Thus he was forced to return home, where, with the sole aid of some old manuals, he studied German, Polish, natural philosophy, and mechanics.Shows Advanced Tendencies.
Manasseh had large ideas of educating the Russo-Jewish youth, but the rabbis of his time were not prepared to accept them. In his "Pesher Dabar" (Wilna, 1807) he complains "that the Jews are divorced from real life and its practical needs and demands; that the leaders of the Jews are short-sighted men who, instead of enlightening their followers, darken their intellect with casuistic restrictions, in which each rabbi endeavors to outdo his predecessors and contemporaries. The wealthy class thinks only of its profits, and is not scrupulous with regard to the means of getting money. Even those who are honest and endeavor to help their poorer brethren do it in such an unintelligent way that they do harm rather than good. Instead of educating the children of the poor to become artisans, they add to the number of idlers, and are thus responsible for the dangerous consequences of such an education." Plungiansky (see bibliography) is of the opinion that these words were directed against Elijah; and from the preface to "Pesher Dabar" it is evident that Manasseh desired to make peace between the leader of the Ḥasidim and the gaon. The consequences to the author of this daring appeal to the rabbis were serious; many rabbis destroyed his book, and some of his disciples and nearest friends left him.
Manasseh's father-in-law having lost his fortune, Manasseh left his native town and went to Brody, where he made the acquaintance of R. Jacob Landau, who expressed his disapproval of Manasseh's radical criticism of Rashi. He went next to Brest-Litovsk, where R. Aryeh Löb Katzenellenbogen engaged him as teacher to his sons, on the express condition that he adopt the interpretation of Rashi. Manasseh, however, could not abandon his critical methods, and, being dismissed, returned to Ilye. During his stay in Volhynia, on his way to Brody, Manasseh had begun to print his "Alfe Menashsheh," but when the printer became acquainted with the radical spirit of the work he threw both proofs and manuscript into the fire. Manasseh at once proceeded to rewrite his book, and owing to his remarkable memory was able to complete it; he published it in Wilna in 1827 (republished in Warsaw in 1860 In this work Manasseh demonstrates that in accordance with the rabbinical teachings the Rabbis have the power to amend certain Jewish legal decisions when there is a necessity for it. Manasseh was compelled to suppress the paragraph containing this (§ 20) because Samuel Katzenellenbogen threatened that if it were not withdrawn he would order the work publicly burned in the synagogue-yard.
When the Russian government ordered the establishment of rabbinical schools, Manasseh wrote a work on higher mathematics, mechanics, and strategics and asked his friends to induce some scholar to translate this work into Russian in order to show the government what a Jew could produce on those lines. His friend Joseph of Wyazyn feared, however, the unfavorable comment of the officials, who might say that the Jews, instead of working on farms, were preparing war plans. It was resolved therefore to burn the manuscript. Judah Löb of Kovno, Samuel Eliasberg, and Wolf Adelsohn may be mentioned among Manasseh's friends.
Manasseh was undoubtedly a great scholar, and his mind was remarkable for subtlety and power of analysis; he was also a friend of the people, and translated his "Samma-de-Ḥayye" into Judæo-German for the purpose of reaching them. In another work, "Sheḳel ha-Ḳodesh" (Shklov, 1823), he defends himself against the accusation of being an ambitious innovator. He says that his opponents can not even understand that one can risk his peace by antagonizing influential rabbis out of mere love for one's people. He asserts that he never sought wealth, fame, or pleasure, and that he lived on bread and water; but that the thirst for self-perfection would not allow him to rest until he had fulfilled his mission. In the same book he shows that it iserroneous to suppose that the earthly life is only a vale of tears and misery and the antechamber to a future life.
Manasseh was one of the first victims of the cholera epidemic of 1831. He did not live to realize any of his aspirations, but he prepared the ground for the Maskilim, who disseminated his ideas. Besides the above-named works Manasseh left one on mathematics and some other writings in manuscript.
- M. Plungiansky, Sefer ben Porat, Wilna, 1858;
- Golubov, R. Manasseh ben Porat, in Voskhod, 1900, xi. 77.