RABBI MENASHE OF ILYA
By Abba Gordin
Translated from Hebrew by Tali Beged-Dov
Rabbi Menashe was born in the city of Smorgon in 1767, where his
father, rabbi Joseph Ben Porat, served as a spiritual teacher and
judge. From an early age, Menashe was known as a prodegy and a genius
of sorts. His elders foresaw a great future for him and believed he
would become both a leader and a symbol to his People.
In Vilna, the spiritual capitol of Lita, the story was told of a 4
year old boy, the son of the rabbi of Smorgon, that had memorized the
whole sidur (prayer book) by heart from beginning to end, as well as
backwards, from the last chapter to the first.
His critical nature, which was already evident at a very young age,
never failed to provoke and anger in all who knew him, or of him. As a
consequence, his life was plagued by much pain and suffering.
At the tender age of 5, Menashe had already memorized the five books
of the Torah, as well as Rashi's commentarry. Once, he read this next
verse out loud to his teacher "And when the woman saw that the tree
was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and a tree
to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit, and did eat,
and gave also to her husband with her." (Genesis 3:6). He went on to
quote Rashi's commentery from memory, and turned to his teacher and
asked how Rashi could have known Eve's intention when handing Adam the
forbidden fruit. How could Rashi know she did so out of fear that Adam
would live on after her and would then wed another woman? How did he
know she didn't do so because she wanted to share with him this most
wonderous fruit, simply out of her true love and adoration for him?
His teacher responded by telling him that Rashi had based his
commentary on our sages' commentary on this verse. But this response
did not satisfy the young boy, who went on and asked how our sages
knew Eve's intention.
Vexed by his pupil's audacity, he irately replied that there was
nothing our Great Sages did not know, and that it is not for a young
boy, such as himself, to question their teachings.
After a short pause, young Menashe defiantly retorted that it seems
that they made their "speculations" based on their personal
interpretation of the biblical text. He then articulated that he
believed the sages induced this from the words "with her" in the
biblical verse, which were superfluous!
By stating that she "...gave also to her husband with her.", the text
suggests that she avoided eating the forbidden fruit before he did,
because she feared she would perish and he would live on and wed
The young Menashe knew the intrails of Shulchan Aruch, the Jewish book
of laws and regulations, written by Joseoh Kalo, and it was told that
when he was only 8 years old he would often be asked to partake in the
trials of Smorgon to help the judges come to a verdict when they were
perplexed by the case at hand.
The city of Smorgon was well known for its wealth and its many wise
residents, and the reputation of its spiritual teachers' reputation
presceeded them. Yet, when Menashe, son of the famed rabbi Joseph, was
10 years old there was no one to be found that was able to further
educte him in the teachings of the Torah.
In his book on the life of Hagr"a (1914) rabbi Y. L. Hacohen wrote
that upon his father's decree, Menashe went to study at the Great
School of Torah Studies, which was home to some of the finest minds,
who dedicated their every waking hours to the study of the Torah.
There, Menash devoted all his time to his diligent studies of the
Gemara, of Rashi, of addendums, of early interpretations, of
commentaries and of other religious teachings.
The older pupils at the school of Smorgon, who were themselves known
throughout Lita for their great wisdom and knowledge, would look upon
young Menashe with envy, for he surpassed them with his brilliace, his
memory, and his tenacity. The famous verse "...and thou shalt meditate
therein (the Torah) day and night." (Joshua 1:7), was literraly taken
and brought to life by Menashe until the age of 15 when his father
wrote to him on behalf of one of Smorgon's wealthiest and well
respected families, and ordered him to marry this man's daughter. As
was customary at the time, he did not ask the boy if this was how he
felt about this life changing decree, or if the girl was to his
liking. Sadly,when the child's did not appreciate their father's
intension, such pre-arrange marriages often ended in much distress and
pain. After the terms of the transaction were drawn, the two were wed,
and the match left Menashe miserable and distressed. Rabbi Hacohen
wrote in his book that the sire's spoilt daughter would consistently
harrassed and belittle her young groom, who was kind and noble by
She demanded of him to show his appreciation for marrying into a
family of such high stature and to behave accordingly. But Menashe did
not wish to change. By nature, he was drawn to the poor and less
fortunate people of the lower social classes. He chose not to flaunt
his wealth and to interact only with those of a high social standing.
His wife was relentless in her efforts to change him and her father
also actively tried to influence his young son in law to abide to her
demands, but to no avail.
One day, his father in law went so far as to quote the book of
Genesis, emploring with him that God himself told Abraham that he must
heed everything his wife Sarah bid him (21:12). He went on to say that
Aberaham did all that his wife requested of him, even if it did not
coincide with his own wishes and inclinations and asked why he was
intent on defying his spouse.
Menshe broke his silence and asked his father in law's forgiveness, as
he pointed out that one shouldn't ignore Rashi's commentarry on that
Rashi, he elaborated, noted that in encouraging men to listen to their
wives and to heed their directives, he referred only to those women
who expressed the spirit of God and his way. God did not intend for
any man to follow a woman who did not possess such insight. There for,
it would be wrong to take God's words to Abraham literally and apply
any case in which a man's spouse lacked an inherent knowledge of our
Lord's intensions. Rashi, was also perplexed by this biblcal verse,
and drew upon our sages conflicting commentary which suggests that he
who heeds his wife's every word may unwittingly lose himself on hell
highway. His point being that God's words to aberaham were in no way
meant to be taken literally, and if taken so, they would surely
distance one from God's true intension. Man should, in essence, heed
the words spoken by women imbued with, and expressing the spirit of
God, but in no way should one follow a woman devoid of spirit and of
any comprehension of God.
Some months later Menashe shared his distress with his father, telling
him he could neither love nor respect his wife. His father, who loved
him dearly, was sadenned by this and regreted having made such a rash
decision, which brought his beloved son such distress and sorrow. And
so, he made up his mind to correct his error and spoke to his inlaw,
asking him why should his son pay for his mistakes? Then he went on to
ask If he had wronged him, was it not his responsibility to undo the
unfortunate consequences of his actions?
Menashe's father in law understood this and agreed with rabbi Joseph,
although it broke his heart, and agreed to grant his daughter a
divorce from this fine young man.
Rabbi Menashe returned to his religious studies, until one day, a man
visited Smorgon. This man, rabbi Abraham, was a great scholar and a
tradesman from the town of Ilya. He stayed in Smorgon for a few days
to complete his business there. While there, he heard much praise of
the young Menashe, that was said to be a great pupil and of a sharp
He contacted the boys father and told him he had a fine and virtuous
daughter, as well as a large dowery and much possesions to give him
for years to come. Menashe's father agreed, on one condition, that
rabbi Abraham took his son back to his home for a few days, to see if
Menashe liked the girl and approved of this marriage.
So, as agreed, Menashe returned to Ilya with rabbi Abraham, who then
introduced him to his daughter. The two immediately took a liking to
each other and sent for Menashe's father, and a marriage agreement was
drawn. Soon, the young couple was wed in a majestic ceremony. In Sarah
he found a loyal spouse, who appreciated him, and did all she could to
forward and satisfy all of his needs.
In the city of Ilya, rabbi Menashe's reputation presceeded him, as one
of the greatest scholars of his time. He dedicated all of his time and
energy to his studies of the Torah.
It is told, that when focusing on a given issue his concentration was
so complete and intense that he was oblivious to everything around
Once, as rabbi Menashe sat in his room, emmersed in his studies, a
young men entered the room and began blowing the Shofar very loudly.
Upon hearing the is great racket, a well respected neighbor rushed
over and reprimended them for disturbing the rabbi, immersed in his
studies, reminding them that this was a terrible sin.
n Puzzled, rabbi Menashe did not know who or what he was talking about.
So great was his concentration when imbursed in his studies.
Even though he dedicated all of his time to his studies, he found the
time to observe the people around him, and contemplate the ways of the
world he lived in. His perceptive and curious nature aroused many
questions in his mind. He responded to the happenings he witnessed, by
gentle intervention. He had great faith in the power of the human mind
and believed that if shown the way, any person would instinctively
follow it. He truly believed all social problems could be solved by
the use of common sense, which was given to all people by God. He
believed every one was born with inherent intelligence and that our
minds are our portal to wisdom and to the discernment of truth.
Of his profuseous writings, in which he put down his thoughts in the
form of questions and answers, only two pages remained. These were
from his book "sema dechayai"
(×¡×?×? ×“×—×™×™), written in both Hebrew and Yiddish, counterposed
page, and named in Yiddish "Labness meytell" (×œ×‘× ×¢×¡-×?×™×˜×œ).
When rabbi Menashe's inlaws passed away a short time after their
wedding, she never complained, even when they lost much of their
wealth. She never requested his help with her daily chores, so as not
to take any of his time or energy from his arduous studies. She knew
he was destined for greatness and provided for them and their children
by her own labor. Athough they were no longer wealthy, she managed to
put food on their table and clean clothes on their backs.