This text was prepared by William Gross:
Minhagim books (Yid. Minhogim bukh מינהגים בוך; Heb. Sefer minhagim ספר מינהגים) are collections of religious practices arranged according to the order of the religious year and life cycle. When the genre first appeared in the Early Middle Ages, these volumes focused on local customs, with the purpose of ascertaining their existence and halakhic validity, and preventing them from being forgotten.
Originally written in Hebrew, minhagim books were later translated into Yiddish for the benefit of women and laymen not schooled in Hebrew. The author of the original Hebrew text was the Austrian-Hungarian Rabbi Isaac Tyrnau (c. 1400), but it did not appear in print until 1566, in Krakow. In 1590, a Yiddish translation by Simon Günzburg was printed in Venice by Giovanni di Gara, a member of the (Christian) family who were among the leading producers of Hebrew books in Venice through the second half of the 16th century (despite the periodical bans on printing Hebrew and Yiddish books). Although Yiddish was spoken in Venice, the primary audience was probably the communities in Central Europe.
The earliest printed minhagim books were unillustrated (one or two manuscript editions with illustrations exist). Around the end of the 16th century, however, woodcut illustrations were added to the text to increase the books’ visual appeal and hold the interest of the reader. The earliest published example of such an edition was printed by Giovanni di Gara in Venice, 1593, and employs the same text as his 1590 unillustrated edition. These woodcuts ensured the book’s fame – and popularity – and made it a model for later editions.
A large number of post-1593 printed minhagim books derive their illustrations from the Venice 1593 edition. Most examples are from Amsterdam and Germany, primarily Frankfurt a. M. More than 50 editions of the book were produced between the 16th and 19th centuries.
The first edition of a Minhagim book to be published in Amsterdam was in 1645, printed with Minhagim illustrations still of the early and very sharply printed variety. The copy is missing its title page, but appears to be complete except for that omission. The book was frequently used and this example shows the signs of such use clearly in terms of tears and repairs. The volume was printed by Menashe ben Yisrael.
There was a second edition published in 1662.
Menasseh ben Israel was one of the great figures of Sephardic Jewry, not only for his printing activities, but also for his erudite knowledge, his writings and his role as spokesman for his people. His father had thrice escaped death in Lisbon, Portugal, and resettled in Amsterdam to start life anew. Menasseh was given the best possible education in the Sephardic tradition. He studied under Chacham Isaac Uziel in the newly established Yeshiva in Amsterdam and excelled in his Talmudic studies and in his thorough knowledge of the Bible. At the astonishingly young age of 18 years he was appointed to the Rabbinical Council of Amsterdam, consisting of four members. A gifted orator and well versed in secular knowledge and culture, Menasseh was soon the most popular preacher in the new world center of Sephardic Jewry.
His fame as a scholar and as an expert on all matters of learning and science spread far beyond Holland. Some of the greatest scholars of the world sought his friendship and advice. The Queen of Sweden, Christina (the daughter of Gustaf Adolf), the painter Rembrandt, and the statesman and philosopher Hugo Grotius, were among his non-Jewish correspondents and friends. Yet, with all his secular knowledge and fame, Menasseh ben Israel devoted most of his time and interest to Jewish studies and to the defense of the Bible against many critics.
Poverty caused Menasseh ben Israel to turn his attention at least temporarily to practical business. He established the first Hebrew printing press in Holland, and was the father of the great printing and publishing tradition of Amsterdam, from which stemmed some of the best editions of the Tanach, the Talmud, and many other important volumes of Hebrew literature. In time, it became a flourishing business.
Menasseh earned his greatest merits as a spokesman for his Jewish brethren. He used his friendship with Queen Christina to induce her to consider the opening of Scandinavia as a haven of refuge for the thousands of Jewish refugees who were still wandering from one country to another, driven from place to place, deprived of their last possessions by greedy rulers and their still greedier subjects. He almost succeeded, when Christina abdicated from the throne. Yet Menasseh ben Israel did not abandon his hopes for providing new havens for his brethren. His attention now centered on England. In 1650 Menasseh sent a petition to the English Parliament to officially grant the readmission of Jews. He dedicated to it his manuscript called "The Hope of Israel." Menasseh expressed the wish to be permitted to visit England and defend in person the cause of the Jews. This permission was granted to him; but the outbreak of hostilities between England and Holland postponed his trip to Britain for more than five years.
In October 1655, Menasseh ben Israel landed in London. After his arrival he presented to Oliver Cromwell, then the strong man of England, a memorandum in which he refuted the prejudices against the Jews and pointed out the advantages that England could derive from granting them permission to resettle in England and live according to the commands of their religion. Cromwell sponsored this petition warmly, but the British clergy and the wealthy merchants, who were afraid of competition, did everything in their power to prevent its realization. In order to clear his brethren from the flood of false accusations brought up by their enemies, Menasseh ben Israel wrote his famous "Salvation of the Jews," in which he praised the faith and courage of the Jewish people throughout their history.
Menasseh ben Israel succeeded eventually. Cromwell granted many individual Jews the right to settle in London. Menasseh himself was honored by the British Protector and sent off with a farewell present of an annual stipend of 100 Sterling pounds. However, on the way back to Amsterdam, this great defender of the Jewish faith and the Jewish people died. He was laid to rest at the Jewish cemetery in Amsterdam.