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Menasheh of Ilya

(1767–1831), rabbi, thinker, and harbinger of the Haskalah. Born in the small town of Smorgon’, Belorussia, Menasheh of Ilya married at age 15 but was divorced after a short time; he remarried at 17 and went to live with his new wife in her hometown, Ilya. From a very young age he attracted attention as a self-taught scholar of exceptional ability; he subsequently adopted the approach to study pursued by the school of the Gaon of Vilna.

Apart from his extensive Talmudic and halakhic learning, Menasheh also devoted much time to the study of mathematics, philosophy, Hebrew grammar, and astrolonomy. He was able to make use of the extensive library of Yosef Mazal (d. 1848) in nearby Viazyn, where he was exposed to Jewish philosophical literature, especially Maimonides and the writings of the first maskilim in Central Europe, including Moses Mendelssohn and Naftali Herts Wessely. In his efforts to enrich his intellectual horizons, Menasheh wandered to the centers of Haskalah in Mogilev, Königsberg, and Brody. In 1827 he served briefly as rabbi of the Smorgon’ community.

Menasheh formulated his worldview by integrating his wide and deep knowledge of traditional literature with his knowledge of secular subjects. In fact, by the end of the eighteenth century he was, with Yisra’el of Zamość and Menaḥem Mendel Lefin, one of the most important, conspicuous, and significant figures in the circle of the forerunners of the Haskalah in Eastern Europe.

Menasheh was deeply immersed in the religious thinking and experience of traditional Jewish society in Eastern Europe, but was drawn as well to the intellectual world of the European Enlightenment. Against this background, he adopted a rationalist worldview and aspired to apply it to greatest extent possible. In his approach to parshanut (exegesis), for example, he rejected attempts to integrate derash (nonliteral explanations) or kabbalistic principles into the interpretation of texts, and in light of this approach did not hesitate to reject the views of classic Jewish commentators. Furthermore, in his view, halakhic rulings also had to meet the criteria of rational analysis and had to reject influences stemming from pilpul (casuistry in the interpretation of Jewish legal texts), customs, or popular beliefs. This approach accounts for Menasheh’s negative attitude toward the Hasidic movement, which attached great importance to kabbalistic principles.

In addition, Menasheh argued that general fields of knowledge were important in and of themselves, not merely as aids for interpreting religious texts and understanding halakhic matters. Consequently, he maintained that, along with adhering to strict observance of Jewish law, daily life should be arranged in accordance with the conclusions emerging from general education. Accordingly, he attributed great importance to adding secular learning into the educational programs for young Jews. In Menasheh’s writings one can also find views reflecting the influence of the literature of the general European Enlightenment, giving expression to new humanistic, social, and economic outlooks from the schools of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, and others.

Menasheh tried to disseminate his ideas through both sermons and written works. Some of his more important writings were Pesher davar (1807); Binat mikra’ (1818), on the meaning embedded in biblical cantillation; Alfe Menasheh (1822); and the pamphlet Sama’ de-ḥaye (1823). Some of his writings remained in manuscript, including Ha‘amek she’elah, Derekh ha-pashut, Sidre ḥokhmah, and Ve-Adaber shalom.

Menasheh’s independent and unique position is evident, according to a number of sources, in his call for the use of egalitarian criteria in matters involving the drafting of Jewish soldiers into the Russian army, contrary to the standard practice of taking conscripts only from poor families. The innovative character and complexity of Menasheh’s approach made him suspect in the eyes of many—especially among the conservative circles of East European Jewry, who were not only uneasy with the specific contents of Menasheh’s ideas, but also feared that his ideas harbored radical principles. To many, Menasheh seemed to deviate from the religious and social consensus. His critics disparaged his writings to the point where his opponents burned them.

To a certain extent Menasheh of Ilya was ahead of his time. Posthumously, the integration Menasheh presented—of strict adherence to a religious outlook while embracing the principles of the European Enlightenment—became a cornerstone in the worldview of the maskilim in Eastern Europe until the second half of the nineteenth century.

Suggested Reading

Yitzhak Barzilay, Manasseh of Ilya: Precursor of Modernity among the Jews of Eastern Europe (Jerusalem, 1999); Immanuel Etkes, “Li-She’elat mevasre ha-Haskalah be-Mizraḥ Eropah,” in Ha-Dat veha-ḥayim, pp. 25–44 (Jerusalem, 1993); Joseph Klausner, Historiyah shel ha-sifrut ha-‘Ivrit ha-ḥadashah, vol. 3, pp. 25–32 (Jerusalem, 1953); Mordecai Plungian, Sefer ben Porat (Vilna, 1858); Yitsḥak Spalt‘er, “Toldot ha-ga’on ha-meḥaber,” in Alfe Menasheh, part 2, pp. 7–13 (Vilna, 1904).



Translated from Hebrew by I. Michael Aronson