MANASSEH BEN JOSEPH OF ILYE [Also known as Menashe Ilyer (of Ilya,
Belarus) and Menashe, son of Yosef Ben Porat]
The articles were submitted by his descendant; Evan G. Ward of San
Text from the Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906.
MANASSEH BEN JOSEPH OF ILYE
By : Solomon Schechter Herman Rosenthal
Russian rabbinical writer and philosopher; born at Smorgon,
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 of Smorgon; but he soon divorced her and
married Sara, 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 Shulchan '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 Chasidim, he
credited those of his disciples who asserted that Manasseh showed
Chasidic 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 Chasidim.
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 Michra" (Grodno, 1818) that from
him he had learned to interpret the Talmud by the simple philological
method of the "pesha," 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
Menashe," § 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,
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 Chasidim 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 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-?ayye" into Judæo-German for
the purpose of reaching them. In another work, "Shekel ha-kodesh"
(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.
Here is another excerpt from an article on another site:
Towering above all the disciples of the Gaon, the most outspoken in
behalf of enlightenment is Manasseh of Ilye (1767-1831). At a very
early age he attracted the attention of Talmudists by his originality
and boldness. In his unflinching determination to get at the truth, he
did not shrink from criticising Rashi and the Shulhan 'Aruk, and dared
to interpret some parts of the Mishnah differently from the
explanation given in the Gemara. With all his admiration for the Gaon,
but for whom, he claimed, the Torah would have been forgotten, he also
had points of sympathy with the Hasidim, for whose leader, Shneor
Zalman of Ladi, he had the highest respect. Like many of his
contemporaries, he determined to go to Berlin. He started on his way,
but was stopped at Königsberg
by some orthodox coreligionists, and compelled to return to Russia.
This did not prevent his perfecting himself in German, Polish, natural
philosophy, mechanics, and even strategics. On the last subject he
wrote a book, which was burnt by his friends, "lest the Government
suspect that Jews are making preparations for war!" But it is not so
much his Talmudic or secular scholarship that makes him interesting to
us to-day. His true greatness is revealed by his attempts, the first
made in his generation perhaps, to reconcile the Hasidim with the
Mitnaggedim, and these in turn with the Maskilim. He spoke a good word
for manual labor, and proved from the Talmud that burdensome laws
should be abolished. His Pesher Dabar (Vilna, 1807) and Alfe Menasheh
(ibid., 1827, 1860) are monuments to the advanced views of the author.
In the Hebrew literature of his time, they are equalled only by the
'Ammude Bet Yehudah and the Hekal 'Oneg of Doctor Hurwitz.15
This is the review of the book, The author of the review s who sent me
the two Hebrew articles:
Manasseh of Ilya and Y. Barzilay
I recently finished reading Yitzhak Barzilay's book on R. Manasseh of
Ilya. R. Manasseh was a fascinating character. He was a student of the
Vilna Goan, but wrote a pamphlet arguing for reconciliation between
Hassidim and non-Hassidim. He wrote another work discussing the trop
or cantilation marks and yet another, his mangum opus, on the Talmud.
It is the later work that he is most well known for, although not
necessarily in a positive way. The Tefferet Yisrael (R. Yisrael
Lifshitz) on the Mishna quotes a brief passage from this commentary.
R. Menasseh's comments appear on the first Mishna in Perek Alu
Mitzhut. (Baba Metziah 1:1). He understands the Mishna in a different
fashion than the Talmud, thus provoking some to argue such a position
R. Manasseh was a controversial figure. His book on the
reconciliation, Pesher Davar, was publicly burnt. His work on Talmud,
Alphei Menashe, after either the publisher or some outsider (depending
on the source, there are a couple versions of the story), destroyed it
right before it was completed. R. Manasseh was forced to reproduce the
entire work from memory and find a different printer.
Additionally, although he had a close relationship with the Vilna
Goan, the Vilna Goan severed that relationship after learning R.
Manasseh had been in contact with R. Shneur Zalman of Lida (Ba'al
All this being said, he is ripe for an excellent biography.
Unfortunately, Barzilay does not deviate from his norm, and put out
another poor work. Although Barzilay has written on many other
interesting figures of Jewish history, almost always he fails to do
anything substantive or worthwhile with the subjects.
This work is full of gross supposition that are never supported by any
facts. For instance we have sentences like this "It may be assumed
that in a talented person like Manasseh, his critical faculties must
have awakened rather early, and already in his youth he may have
arrived at some of his nonconformist views with regard to the Halakhah
and its historical development." (p. 24). Therefore, Barzilay wants to
then claim and project back on Manasseh's early years and label him as
a radical even then based only upon "his critical faculties." While
that may be the case, there are also a million other possibilities.
For instance, Manasseh was influenced later in life by someone else or
he came to his "nonconformist views" based upon years of study and
when he was 17 (according to Barzilay, again a guess) he did not hold
Another example, where Barzilay is discussing Manasseh's frequent
trips to his wealthy relatives house who had a terrific library,
Barzilay makes the following statement: "The role of this library in
Manasseh's life and intellectual growth cannot be overestimated . . .
It may be further assumed, with a high degree of probability, that
there also were to be found there the recent works of the Berlin
maskilim, as well as those of the enlightened orthodox Jews from both
Eastern Europe and the Germanies." Barzilay then goes on to cite to
the many subscribers of various haskalah literature as "proof" this
library contained these books. There a basic problem with this
argument. Since Barzilay is able to point to where these books went to
as the subscriber list, lists both person and place, why then isn't
this rich relatives name ever listed if he was a collector of such
works? Instead, Barzilay is satisfied to assume that the books were
there as there were many haskalah books that "found [their] way among
the Jews of Eastern Europe."
These are but two examples from a book that is rife with such sloppy
work. The only redeeming fact of the book is the extensive quotation
from R. Manasseh's works. As mentioned above, this is not the first
book Barzilay wrote that fails miserably. He also did another
biography on R. Shlomo Yehudah Rapoport (Shir), the son-in-law of the
Ketzot HaChoshen and one of the leading figures of 19th century
Eastern European Haskalah. This book is also disappointing.
unfortunate, the only other biography, Ben Porat Yosef, is no gem
either. It was written by Mordechai Plungian an editor at the famed
Romm press. This is more of an anecdotal than scholarly work. However,
this work got Plungian in trouble as some claimed he attempted to make
R. Manasseh into a maskil.
What is particularly strange is that a book review of Plungin's book
appeared in HaMagid. At the JNUL site, which contains old Hebrew
newspapers, the version they have appears to have that portion blacked
out. The review in question appeared in HaMagid on March 8, 1858.
The full citation for Barzilay's book is Manasseh of Ilya: Precurser
of Modernity Among the Jews of Eastern Europe (Manges Press, 1999).
Bibliography: M. Plungiansky, Sefer ben Porat, Wilna, 1858;
Golubov, R. Manasseh ben Porat, in Voskhod, 1900, xi. 77..S. S. H. R.