By Abba Gordin
Donated by Eilat Gordin Levitan
Rabbi Menashe was born in the city of Smorgon in 1767, where his father, Rabbi Joseph, served as a spiritual teacher and judge. From an early age, Menashe was known as a prodigy 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 (Lithuania), 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 commentary. 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 commentary 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 wondrous 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 another woman.
The young Menashe knew the entrails 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 proceeded 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 educate him in the teachings of the Torah. In his book on the life of Hagra (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 Lithuania for their great wisdom and knowledge, would look upon young Menashe with envy, for he surpassed them with his brilliance, his memory, and his tenacity. The famous verse and thou shalt meditate therein (the Torah) day and night. (Joshua 1:7), was literally 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 children 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 harassed and belittle her young groom, who was kind and noble by nature .
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 or 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, imploring 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 Abraham 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 commentary on that very verse.
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 biblical 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 Abraham 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 saddened by this and regretted 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 in-law, 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 [Menashe's father], 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 mind.
He contacted the boys father and told him he had a fine and virtuous daughter, as well as a large dowery and much possessions 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 preceded 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 him.
Once, as Rabbi Menashe sat in his room, immersed 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 reprimanded them for disturbing the rabbi, immersed in his studies, reminding them that this was a terrible sin. Puzzled, Rabbi Menashe did not know who or what he was talking about. So great was his concentration when immersed 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 profusions 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, counterpoised page by page, and named in Yiddish Labness meytell.
When Rabbi Menashe's in-laws passed away a short time after their wedding, she (his wife) 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. Although they were no longer wealthy, she managed to put food on their table and clean clothes on their backs.
They had two daughters, [one daughter - Rokha (Rokhel) Blitznstein 1794 -1850+] and a son named Joseph [1798-1847]. It was her work and devotion that made it possible for Rabbi Menashe to publish his life's works. Although he was often asked to lead and teach different congregations, he declined. He was skeptical of anyone accepting and following his radical teachings and life altering beliefs, recognizing their innovative nature. Rabbi Menashe knew that nothing was harder for people than rejecting old habits and embracing the new.
I, the writer of these lines, have seen the distress and sorrow of the beings in this world. Their sorrow and destitution make my heart ache. Although they are many and I cannot name them all, I will shortly articulate my observations. Everywhere, oppression is evident. The large devours the small, the strong is empowered, as the weak perishes. Yet, the greatest of all evils is poverty. People fight to make a living every day, while few succeed. Famine is all too common. The masses walk the streets, plagued by hunger and thirst, homeless, seeking shelter from the elements. All this is compounded by sickness and plagues, God help them. This is the reality I witness day after day, and which fills my heart with sorrow. Wherever I turn, this reality haunts me and as much as I try to find a solution, I am forever helpless and distressed. Every day I pray that God will show me the way to bring welfare to all. (taken from Rabbi Menashe's preface to his book Tikun-Klali).
In his treatise, Rabbi Menashe prays to God to find a solution for societies ailments, a way to set right its inherent corruption. Questioning his own intelligence, he ponders the morbid condition of humanity. In Sama DeChayai he is convinced he has found the solution, the way to correct the injustice of the human condition, by the application of the rules of justice and logic.
Prone to question every new phenomenon he encounters, Rabbi Menashe was avid about sacrificing his old ways of thought and action for innovative ones, which never failed to amaze and startle his peers. Aware of the transitive nature of life, he was burdened by the plight of man and by the thought of what would come to be after he was gone. So much so, that he no longer enjoyed the simple things in life. He was dismayed by people's complacence and lack of forethought, thinking only of the present moment, not giving a second thought to what the future holds for them. The rich, content in their riches, the wise, content in their intellectual endeavors, and the warriors in their victories.
Although of different walks of life, they had one thing in common. They all focused on the present. all satisfied with their lives, like animals fattened before they are fed on, unaware of the slaughter that awaits them. These up thoughts would forever occupy Rabbi Menashe's mind, until he came up with what he believed, was a solution which was in accordance both with the Torah and with common sense (Sama DeChayai, page 15).
Rabbi Menashe was a man of great conscience and of fine perception. One could justly say of him that he had more awareness and sorrow for the human condition in his smallest finger, than others had in their whole body. His comprehension of the Jewish moral code was so complete, that it not only touched upon the righteous interaction of men, but also covered our interaction with the animals, which he loved and befriended. To his mind, we were all children of God, forever bound in the same universe expected to heed God's law. Rabbi Menashe did not condone cruelty to animals, and believed their suffering and ours were not to be differentiated. He compared man not only to a tree whose roots reach deep into the ground that sustains it, as written in the book of Psalms, but also to the worms and the maggots, as expressed by king Solomon there in chapter 22, verse 7: But I am a worm and no man. Rabbi Menashe believed that an unseen bond, impervious to the naked eye and to conventional scrutiny, exists between both man, nature, and all living beings, maggots and all.
His religious ethics surpassed the boundaries of humanity and permeated all realms of existence. Rabbi Menashe extended the Jewish directive for good-will and universal comradely beyond human relations, to include the universe in its entirety. He understood this next verses from the book of Proverbs in this light: The lord is good to all, and his tender mercies are over all his works (there:145:9). O Lord thou preserves man and beast. (there:36:7)
Rabbi Menashe recognized the diversified nature of people.
Some are stoic, unless their own well being and goals are at risk. Others are concerned with the well being of there family and friends, as well. This is true of the majority of people. But the enlightened, those who appreciate the hardship of sorrow and suffering, God bless them, are passionate about the well being and happiness of all who can experience pain, and there heart goes out to all animals as well as all men. (Alphey-Menashe, pg. 58. Vilna, 1904)
Rabbi Menashe believed it was every man's responsibility to make every effort to polish his own personality, and to ford his courage to such a degree that he realizes the interconnectedness of all beings, and see them all as essential parts of one great vessel, (there, page 16).
and as I have noted, it is our inherent responsibility to aspire to, and reinforce all that is good, and to distance the harmful we should distinguish between the transitive good, the longer lasting good, and both these from the eternal, or ultimate, good and to sacrifice the first two, for the achievement of the latter. The enlightened person, one who can picture both the joy and the pain experienced in life, cannot help but wish for the well being of all those who can experience them, and nothing less. Anything else would be almost inconceivable. Such a person that sees the essence of all beings and of life itself, will no doubt sense all the sorrow and the suffering of all the beings, as if they were their own. No shade of distress or agony would be foreign to him, whether he had experienced them himself, or whether he had imagined them.
Rabbi Menashe Ben Porat was such a man. He truly felt that as long as there was one distressed worm in the world, stuck in crevice too narrow for it to advance, to withdraw, or to turn the world was not right nor truly merciful, and he, Rabbi Menashe could not be at peace, nor complacent, nor serene.
Rabbi Menashe's ultimate goal was to correct all that is wrong in the world, and to bring Tikun to all, by spreading good and dispersing harm. He would rarely delve into his personal needs or comfort and always focused on the general good. What am I, and what is my value in comparison to the countless other natural beings living in this world? And if God had blessed me and my family and my friends with health and wealth and success for all times, yet someone in the world was still miserable, I would renounce it all.
How could I enjoy my life when somewhere there is some living being that is unable to realize himself completely, as God intended? Unable to seek and realize the good, as he perceives it, in accordance with his true nature. I am certain that this is not what God meant by directing us to pursue the correction of the world(Tikun Klali). (from the preface of Ha'amek she'ela/Seeking the Truth). Rabbi Menashe could never differentiate his well being from the common good. The transitive nature of life made this bond even stronger for him, perceiving his own life as meaningless in comparison to his mission to rid the world of misery and suffering. He spoke of a story his mother once told him of she had nursed her sick baby girl on Yom Kipur's eve. Agonized by her suffering, she left the girl with a servant, and crept off to the synagogue to pray.
It was then that his father was preparing to go pray at the synagogue, dressed in white, covered by his Talit, that he heard the little girl cry, and realized his wife had left the girl with the servant and left the house. He then removed his Talit and outer garment, and sat down by the infant's cradle, to gently rock it and give her medicine. He sent the servant to tell his wife that he would remain at home, and would not leave the baby's side, until she returned. His point being that nursing the sick is of greater importance than the practice of religion.
Rabbi Menashe often cried out to God, imploring him to help him understand the miserable reality of human existence. He couldn't understand why God would create a world in which man was so powerless against plagues, hunger, and poverty. A world in which parents can't afford to feed their young. And if one generation sins, why must the next pay for their sins? And why some should live in lavish wealth, while others fight day in and day out, to just barely survive? (from Sama DeChayai)
Tormented by these social queries, he knew no peace, until he found what he believed was the answer. Given his radical approach to these issues, it was no wonder that he was targeted by many fanatics. One day, Rabbi Menashe visited a town nearby the city of Smorgon, where he was born. Although Rabbi Menashe did not appreciate the resident rabbi, nor did he agree with his teachings, he decided to visit him, as not to appear disrespectful. He was startled to find him sitting alone in his court house. Why, asked Rabbi Menashe, would your honor agree to sit alone in judgment? Have you forgotten the written rules forbidding this? (Avot:84, chapter 8). But can you not see, replied the rabbi, that I am not alone? I have before me the great book Shulchan Aruch, the cornerstone of all laws. So, you see, we sit here together in judgment. Rabbi Menashe then replied, with the slightest smile on his lips, I am surprised that your honor would share his court with one who is oblivious of his existence ?
When the great controversy broke out between the Hasidim and the traditionalists who bitterly opposed them, Rabbi Menashe took no part in their fanatical persecution of this innovative school of thought. Unwilling to judge them simply because his peers found them abominable, he decided to go and see for himself what the Hasidic school of thought was about, and if there was any basis for the claims made against them, and visited the city of Liyadi, home of rabbi Sneyor Zalman.
In doing so, he acted in accordance to our sages directive, not to judge another unless you are in his position, and able to see things from where he stands. When he returned, he said he found fault both in the traditionalists and in the Hasidim, and that both would eventually bare the consequences of their actions. The traditionalists were wrong for thinking that because we have the Torah and our traditional writings, we don't need a rabbi, and the hasidim, for arguing that because they have a rabbi, they no longer need the books. Another source, quotes him as saying, the one group is wrong in believing they have no need for a rabbi, and the other is wrong in believing they have found one. The truth being that we all need a rabbi, but where is he to be found?.
Rabbi Menashe admired and venerated the Gaon of Vilna, Rabbi Eliyahu, for turning his back on the interpretive reading of the Torah, and returning to the literal understanding of the holy texts. He believed that too many rabbis were so busy with their elaborate interpretations of the Torah, that they lost sight of its literal meaning. Rabbi Menashe also said that if rabbi Eliyahu had not made this bold return to the primary meaning of its texts, the Torah would have been lost from our People forever. And he didn't do so because he lacked ingenuity or because he was not familiar with the countless interpretations of his peers. The opposite was true. In spite of his brilliance and his sharp perception, he valued simplicity, and made a point of not looking beyond the immediate sense of the texts he studied, and relishing in their literal meaning.
Rabbi Menashe was very interested in mechanics, and mechanical inventions, that saved the time and effort of manual jobs, and believed they were omens of man's forthcoming salvation from too much hard labor, which drained him both physically and emotionally. When he heard that a gentile in his town had bought a machine that breaks the seeds and distributes them across the field, he was fascinated, and studied it for hours, until he understood completely how it was built and how it operated. Seeing this, he wondered, if there existed such a machine, that could replace long days of arduous manual labor, why not build a machine to till the fields, to replace the people slaving to do the same job? He then ingeniously invented a mechanical plow. One machine that plowed more in one day, than it would have taken twenty men, with twenty bulls to till in the same time.
Rabbi Menashe showed his mechanical plow to the gentile, and to others, but they were not interested in the invention of a Jewish rabbi, who knew nothing about agriculture. He also went to rich Jewish land owners with his plowing machine, but they laughed to his face, saying they had no need for such gadgets, and suggesting he showed his invention to the farmers, and not to them.
One day, a rabbi approached him with a book full of elaborate disputes of some textual interpretations. Rabbi Menashe invited him to his house on Saturday eve. During dinner, the guest went on and on about different interpretations of a given text, but Rabbi Menashe rejected them all and offered simple literal explanations for these same verses.
When the soup was served, the guest was startled to find a before him a fork, and no spoon. He asked Rabbi Menashe if this too was one of his inventions, eating soup with a fork? The Rabbi replied mockingly that he thought he would prefer it, hinting at his useless interpretations. If fish are eaten with a spoon, and not a fork, i thought you would prefer to eat your soup with a fork ..
Like the Maharal and the Gaon of Vilna, Rabbi Menashe opposed the talmudic, interpretive readings, which would ignore the obvious, and would come to ridiculous conclusions, based on dubious conjectures. He even wrote a book named Understanding a Text's Literal meaning.
Rabbi Menashe often rejected Rashi's interpretations, and provoked many of his peers, including Hagra, who criticized him for this and stood by Rashi's traditional interpretations.
But nothing in Rabbi Menashe's writings warranted the attacks against him, by those fanatics, who would not stand for any explanation that slanted even slightly from the traditional school of thought, and were known to have killed people for lesser transgressions. In this context, Rabbi Menashe, spoke of Abraham, our forefather, who rejected his elders paganism ways. Condemning them, he chose not to explain their beliefs and their actions as being of an occult nature, which lay beyond the grasp of simple comprehension, as some people do now (hinting to the Cabbalist and Hassidic schools of thought).
A wise man will not opt to believe everything he hears. Even if it is told by a reputable person. Especially if what he says is of an outrageous nature. A wise man will believe only what he can judge for himself, and will not take as a fact anything he cannot see for himself, say if they are said to exist in a distant land. A gullible person, on the other hand, will believe anything. Even something he could easily judge for himself, if he only opened his eyes. This is even more evident when it comes to the issue of beliefs. The stranger a proposition is, the more prone a foolish man is to believe it. For, how could such wise men be wrong? He lacks the power of judgment and the common sense to think that they based their beliefs on the words of their friend, who was led astray by taking the word of another person, to begin with. And so, in this manner, one person takes the word of another, who, with no ill intent, takes as a fact the mistaken beliefs of his predecessors (there, page 17).
And so, the stranger the doctrine, the more people will profess that it is a deep, unfathomable/clandestine truth, beyond the grasp of the human intellect. By doing so, the queries of the thinking man are disregarded, and the more inept a man is, and the stronger his belief is in these non-truths, the more he will tend to consider himself a holy person. While the enlightened, thinker that wants to study the issue with his mind, is cast out as a non-believer, and not of the Jewish People, for they have always been distinguished by their undying devotion to their beliefs (there, page 51).
In his books, written between 1822-1823, Rabbi Menashe insisted it was essential to change the school's curriculums. He advocated the addition of secular classes, to the traditional religious studies, as well as the teaching of trading skills and of practical crafts. He didn't want the younger generations to grow up to be intellectuals, with no understanding of economy. He also hoped to weaken the existing economical structures, and encouraged the involvement of the students in agriculture, believing that as an institution, schools must rely on a sound and stable economical system. In his book Shekel Hakodesh, Rabbi Menashe expressed his strong objection to pre-arranged marriages of children, and also harshly criticized many other traditions that were practiced in his days, and were founded on superstitions, that plagued the thought of orthodox jewelry. He perceived the Jewish faith as a guide for living life in a way that could be grasped by human rationality, and was mapped out by men who told us what is good and righteous (referring to the prophets).
His books were burned by the extremists, whose fanaticism outweighed their sensibility, and neither had anything to do with the love of God, but rather with the fear of common sense and of science (rabbi Yizchak Spalter of Smorgon, in Alphey Menashe, page 70). [Menashe's great grandson]
Rabbi Menashe often visited the nearby city of Vyajin, to see his relative, Rabbi Joseph Mazel, who was a well respected man of means. He always sent his horse drawn carriage to take him to and from his house. When there, Rabbi Menashe would lose himself in the lord's lavish library, feverishly reading the religious book's of the Spanish authors, as well as books in philosophy, in scientific research and in kabala. Aware of his insatiable thirst for learning, Rabbi Joseph bought more and more books for him to study, so much so, that his library became the largest in the state.
By the request of his friend, Rabbi Shmaryahu Luria, Rabbi Menashe went to lecture a few times in the large temple in the town of Mohilov, situated on the shores of the Denayphir river.
His lectures were always very vivid and eloquent. Everyone would come to hear him and listen to his potent lessons. But one day a fanatic orthodox student was present, and when Rabbi Menashe mentioned the writings of the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, he began screaming out loud that it was a mortal sin to speak of foreign places and beliefs before the tabernacle, where the scrolls of the Torah were kept. The minister of the temple, of course, chastised and reprimanded him, and Rabbi Menashe waited until the everyone was silent, before he continued his lecture, unaffected.
And not only did the heckler not apologize to Rabbi Menashe, he had the audacity to approach and tell him to never repeat such a sermon, which went against the spirit of the Jewish faith. Rabbi Menashe ignored him, and did not respond, as though he had not heard his insolent remark.
Rabbi Shmaryahu Luriya was thrown by his reaction, and on their way back to his home, respectfully asked him how could he ignore such audacity. Rabbi Menashe did not respond.
But as they were making their way home something happened to Rabbi Shmaryahu. A calf thwarted him, and he fell to the ground. Once he stood again, Rabbi Menashe asked him in jest, why did he not reprimand the calf for his audacity. Rabbi Shmaryahu replied, saying that the calf lacked intelligence, and that its actions were hardly premeditated. Rabbi Menashe smiled at him and said the same is true of the young student that had hackled him earlier. He too, lacked intelligence, and was not unlike the calf.
At one of the town assemblies, in Ilya, rabbi Joshua Tseitlis of Shkalov, a local writer, malevolently told all present that Rabbi Menashe had said that some of Rashi's interpretations, as well as parts of the addendums, were superfluous. And that he had also stated that portions of the Mishna were not interpreted correctly, or literally, by the Talmudic sages.
The town's people were enraged and wanted to banish Rabbi Menashe, who said in his defense that everything rabbi Joshua said was true, but that his sole intention was to uncover the truth. Afterwards, Rabbi Menashe visited rabbi Joshua to prove to him that it was appropriate for him to criticize his predecessors, just as they had criticized theirs. His excommunication was retracted once the crowd realized that Rabbi Menashe was truly one of the greatest thinkers of his time. But the persecutions did not cease. Even though he continued the tradition of the Gaon of Vilna, which valued the literal meaning of the sacred texts, and discarded the complexities and the implications of the homiletic interpretations. Yet, what was alright for the Gaon, was not permissible where Rabbi Menashe was concerned, and he was forever hounded like a sheep by a pack of menacing wolves. Because of these endless persecutions, Rabbi Menashe left his home in Ilya, and traveled from town to town seeking a teaching position. One day he arrived at the city of Brisk, where rabbi Shaul Katzanelboygen served as head rabbi. He welcomed Rabbi Menashe graciously and appointed him to teach his children. But with one stipulation, that he would never mention any of his personal interpretations.
But although he valued his employment, Rabbi Menashe could not help but defy the rabbi's request. One day, when reading a verse from the Gmara (Shabbat 14:1) about rabbi Yochanan and the rites of handling the Torah book, after he had quoted the traditional reading, saying that he who held an uncovered Torah book (unclothed), would be berried bare, meaning, without his last rites, Rabbi Menashe swerved. He elaborated on his own interpretation, by which the person referred to in the Mishna was bare, and not the Torah book, which he held, and as punishment he would be berried unrobed, without his Tachrichim (wrapping). For this diversion from the Amoraic interpretation, Rabbi Menashe lost his job. Rabbi Menashe moved on to the town of Brodi, and visited the home of rabbi Yaacobke, the Gaon. He told him of his innovative teachings and of his objections to Rashi's interpretations. His host was not pleased by what he heard and refused to listen. He could not understand how a relatively unknown person, such as Rabbi Menashe, had the gall to dispute the works of better and greater men.
Rabbi Menashe explained that his opposition did not rely on who he was, or where he lived, it relied solely on the explicit meaning of the written texts. But the rabbi would not be moved. Given the rabbi's rejection of Rabbi Menashe and of his beliefs, no one else wished to listen to him. Despondent, he returned to Ilya. One time, Rabbi Menashe wanted to travel to Berlin, to meet with the members of Baaley Hamehashef and ask their advice about his situation, and on how he should deal with his ceaseless persecution. After much hardship, he arrived at Koenigsberg, where he met a group of Jewish men from Lithuania. They tried to convince him not to visit Berlin, because many of the Jews were corrupted, saying that they wore short pants, instead of suits, and shaved their beards and sideburns. Rabbi Menashe disregarded their warnings. But they were adamant, and influenced the officials to deny him passage, leaving him no option but to return home. But Rabbi Menashe did not return empty handed. He had in his possession many books that he had received from the scholars of Brodi. Unknown to anyone, he began learning foreign languages. But he was spied on, and when word of this got to the town's people, he was again chastised and persecuted.
Not long after that, Napoleon came to power, and Russia became interested in the fate of the Jewish communities. In 1801 Alexander the czar was enthroned, and made a revolution with his new decree regarding the Jews. He ordered that their restrictions be lessened and their freedom enhanced. In 1804 Jewish children were allowed to attend public schools, and Jews were granted the right to own lands. And Jewish tradesmen were permitted for the first time to live anywhere in Russia.
In 1807, Alexander established the Sanhedrin (the supreme Jewish judicial body during and shortly after the period of the Second Temple), and Jews from other countries were invited to participate in its meetings.
At that point, the Pravo-Slavian church declared war on Napoleon, claiming that he had made an alliance with Jews , and the Russian minister of interior affairs said that the Sanhedrin meeting that was to be held in Paris was a mortal threat to all European countries.
Rabbi Menashe made a point of closely following world events. In the library of rabbi Joseph Maazel he found a lot of information about the French revolution. And in march of 1789 a Hebrew journal was published, that covered all major world events.
In 1797 the Jews in Holland were granted equal political rights. This was documented in a report written by Hirsh Ilfeld about the Jewish controversy. Rabbi Menashe was then inspired to write a book in which he argued that the Jewish communities deserved equal rights. He explained that they were well educated and did not require schooling, as many other communities did, in order to qualify as civilized people. Thus, he wrote, they were a community worthy of comprehensive citizenship.
Rabbi Menashe wanted to send his book to the government in Petersburg, but first consulted his friend, rabbi Joseph Maazel. Rabbi Joseph then called together the town's people to listen to a reading of the book. The entire community gathered and listened as the manuscript was read out to them in its entirety. After having heard it, they were startled and overcome with anxiety. They believed the publication of the book was a dangerous threat to them all, and that if the rulers would learn of its contents, they would persecute the Jews even more passionately than they did at the time. Then, by the decree of the community's leaders, the book was burned and no copy of it survived.
In 1807 Rabbi Menashe published his essay Pesher Davar (the meaning of it all), where he encouraged the Jewish community to actively seek employment in their local communities. In it, he articulated the books' objective, and explained how he wished to consolidate the great leaders of the Jewish congregations, alluding to the Gaon of Vilna, rabbi Eliyahu and rabbi Shneyor Zalman, writer of the Tanyah and the leader and founder of the Chabad movement. Once again, the book was eradicated, and only a single copy survived (in the British Museum). But unlike Rabbi Menashe's other writings, it was not burned in public, nor was its author ostracized. This was due to the distinguished position he had acquired in the community. Yet, none the less, his book was perceived as an outrageous insult to the Gaon of Vilna and was destroyed.
When Rabbi Menashe wrote his book Alphey Menashe, he could not find anyone in Lithuania who was willing to set and publish it, for fear of the assured repercussions. He managed to find a publisher in Vohlin, who began printing it, but then a fanatic from Lithuania arrived and defamed Rabbi Menashe and his work. After hearing this, the publisher retracted his obligation to Rabbi Menashe, and to avoid his incrimination for aiding the culprit author, burned the few pages he had already printed. He also burned the original manuscript.
In his steadfast dedication to his ideas, Rabbi Menashe rewrote the text and published it in Vilna, in 1822. He was then called to appear before rabbi Shaul Katzanelboygen, who served as arbitrator at the time. Rabbi Shaul demanded that he emit the passage in his book where he stated that in their day and age rabbis were called upon and permitted to change the laws of the Jewish constitution. He threatened Rabbi Menashe that if he failed to do so, he would burn his book in the entrance to his center of Torah studies. In order to save the complete text, Rabbi Menashe erased the passage.
As he explained, all Rabbi Menashe wanted was that the opposing leaders of the Jewish communities would join together and agree on all the amendments that had to be made, and only then we (the Jewish congregation) would follow them, without hesitation (Alphey Menashe).
But the resistance to his ideas was relentless. Fanatics found his notes to Sehma Dechayai, brought them to Vilna, and burned them in public. The text enraged them because in it Rabbi Menashe criticized the corruption existing in the world of commerce, and the immoral nature of the tradesmen who benefited from it. In their defense, the vandalisms claimed that in his book, Rabbi Menashe was empowering their sworn enemies, and may as well have armed them with live ammunition.
Given the lack of support he found in the larger cities, Rabbi Menashe returned to the city of Smorgon, where he was born. Surprisingly, he was honored and revered by the town's people, who took no notice of all the allegations made against him. It is said that a prophet, however great, is never appreciated where he was born and raised, it was there, in the city of Smorgon, that he was recognized as the brilliant and conscionable man he truly was.
Every Friday, he would gather the uneducated people of Smorgon, and teach them basic Hebrew grammar so that they too could properly read Hebrew texts. And on Saturday evenings, he gathered them and taught them ethics and the importance of helping and caring for one another. The city's dignitaries and students implored with him to fill the position of the official rabbi of Smorgon. Rabbi Menashe had always despised the closed mindedness of the rabbinate. But, given his weariness and his disheartened disposition, After decades of relentless persecution, he accepted. And there, for the first time in his life, he was comforted by the reverence the local community showed him, and by their recognition and appreciation of his truly unprecedented stature and integrity.
Throughout his residency in Smorgon, Rabbi Menashe gave his devoted congregation daily lessons in the Talmud and the Bible. Both accomplished scholars and admiring young pupils would come from Smorgon and from all the neighboring towns to listen to his enlightening teachings.
The elders of Smorgon spoke of how every day before his sermon, Rabbi Menashe would read verses from the book of Psalms, tearfully beseeching the Lord to guide him, so that he would not misinterpret any of the verses he read, and would remain true to the meaning of the sacred texts. And when he read before his congregation, he did so with awe, love, and humility. Rabbi Menashe always encouraged his congregation to be kindhearted and charitable in their daily lives, and to love all living creatures. He also emphasized the importance of avoiding at all cost the practice of gossip and hate. Rabbi Menashe mediated in personal disputes, and everyone honored his opinion, both if his judgment relied on the holy books and civil law, and if it expressed his very personal logic, insight and intuition. Each day he presided as rabbi and arbitrator of Smorgon, his brilliance and virtuous nature were unwavering and evident to all.
But, sadly, he held his position in Smorgon for only eighteen months. At the time Jewish children were being abducted from their families throughout Russia and forced to serve in the Russian army. Rabbi Menashe saw that the elders and leaders of the Jewish communities were assisting the dark forces for profit. They would mostly kidnap the children of poverty stricken families, as well as poor orphans, and hand them over to the Russian monarchy.
The notorious czar Nicholas the I (1796-1855), took the throne in 1825, had expedited the process when in 1827 he issued a law regarding the recruitment of Jews to the Russian army. In it he declared that 18 year olds would serve in his army for no less 25 years. He also decreed that Jewish children who were recruited at the age of 12, would be designated as junior soldiers until they reached the age of 18, and that the years they served during those years would not apply to the 25 years of service they were required to serve. Every year, the Jewish community was ordered to supply a certain quota of children between the ages of 12 to 18, and seldom would they hear from or see them ever again. Rabbis and of registered tradesmen, as well as pupils and graduates of public schools, craftsmen, factory workers and farmers were exempt from service and were not drafted. The word of the decree spread and shocked the Jewish community of Lithuania. They mourned the news and were horrified by its implications.
The decree was first announced on the Jewish new year of 1828. Everyone was anguished and demoralized by it. Children as young as 8 years were taken from their families, and were transported to far away destinations. Many of them died of starvation or froze in the process.
To meet the quota, the leaders of the Jewish communities opted to draft the children of underprivileged families and of anyone they did not favor. Many left their homes and hid, to avoid having their children abducted, and many cities and towns remained empty. Yet, even in these trying times of the cantonic horror, the saints and geniuses of the Jewish communities continued their feverish Torah studies and religious practices. The light of the Hasidic school of the rabbi of Lubavitz never dimmed, and the fiery Torah studies in Volozhin never ceased. As thousands of Jewish children were being tortured in nameless barracks throughout the Siberian wastelands, the religious rites and the Torah studies of Jews and Hasidim throughout Russia continued. Until, the despair and horror so overwhelmed the Jewish People, there were no more intellectuals left to go out to the Siberian wilderness to try to comfort and cheer up the destitute children of Israel.
Rabbi Menashe, who had witnessed the demoralization of his People, publicly condemned all the Jews who participated in the abductions, as well as anyone who abetted them. The leaders of the Jewish communities came to Rabbi Menashe and warned him that his actions could be construed as treason by the wretched Russian authorities. And that as a consequence, they may penalize the entire Jewish community. Rabbi Menashe told them that if he as head rabbi and arbitrator could not publicly express how he felt, and could not shout out against the oppression of his People, that he would have the moral obligation to resign from his lofty position. Although he had no other source of income, it was on that same day that Rabbi Menashe resigned from the rabbinate of Smorgon. Rabbi Menashe went back to grinding tobacco leaves with the machine he had once invented and made barely enough money to sustain himself and his family on bread and water. In 1831, at the age of 64, Rabbi Menashe fell ill with cholera and on the fourth day of Menachem Av [July 14, 1831], he returned his soul to his maker. Rabbi Menashe devoted the last three years of his life to writing. He did not leave his house and worked feverishly day and night. He put all his manuscripts in a chest for safekeeping. Tragically, the chest perished along with all of Rabbi Menashe's writings in the fire that consumed Smorgon in 1884. Nothing survived*, but the memory of this great man of undying faith, boundless love, and a beautiful vision that preceded its time.
*In 1807 Rabbi Menashe published his essay Pesher Davar (the meaning of it all), where he encouraged the Jewish community to actively seek employment in their local communities. In it, he articulated the books' objective, and explained how he wished to consolidate the great leaders of the Jewish congregations, alluding to the Gaon of Vilna, rabbi Eliyahu and rabbi Shneyor Zalman, writer of the Tanyah and the leader and founder of the Habad movement. Once again, the book was eradicated, and only a single copy survived (in the British Museum).
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.
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