- Jewish Censorship of Menasseh ben Israel's Piedra Gloriosa:A New Document from the Archives
In late 1654 or early 1655,1 Menasseh ben Israel, one of four rabbis serving the Portuguese Jews of Amsterdam's Talmud Torah Congregation—and arguably the most famous Jew in Europe in the seventeenth century—published a book titled Piedra gloriosa (Glorious stone).2 Framed as a commentary on the Book of Daniel, the treatise contains Menasseh's most explicit presentation of his messianist views.
The work, which Menasseh—a celebrated publisher of Judaica in many languages—printed himself, was written in Spanish and clearly intended for a wide readership in the Sephardic diaspora. It was also, it seems, directed at a select gentile audience. Menasseh dedicated the work to Isaac Vossius, court librarian to Queen Christina of Sweden and son of Gerardus Vossius, the great Dutch humanist scholar who considered Menasseh a close friend and who had once hired him to tutor his other son, Dionysius, in Hebrew and Judaica.
It is difficult to determine how influential Piedra gloriosa was in the period. There seems to be no evidence that it received much notice among Jewish readers.3 On the other hand, it was probably well received among [End Page 323] some of Menasseh's Christian millenarian friends, among them Henry Jessey, John Dury, and Nathaniel Homes in England and Paul Felgenhauer in Germany.4 But because, unlike some of Menasseh's other writings, it was not translated into Latin or English, it may never have received the scholarly or public attention for which Menasseh might have hoped.
A new discovery in the "Portuguese-Israëlitic" archives in the municipal archives of Amsterdam (Stadsarchief Amsterdam), a document basically hiding in plain sight, reveals, however, that at least one group of contemporary readers most certainly did not approve of Menasseh's book. In 1655, immediately after an initial printing of at least one copy (and possibly more), the treatise was censored by the ma'amad, or board of lay governors (parnasim), of Menasseh's own community. The circumstances of this previously unnoticed temporary "cease and desist" order are unclear, however, as are its consequences.5
First, some background on the content of Piedra gloriosa. In the early modern period, the figure of Daniel, like the biblical Esther, was of great importance to Jews in the Sephardic diaspora as well as Judaizing conversos still living in Spain and Portugal. The message of redemption that they saw in the divinations and visions of this Israelite exile in the ancient Babylonian court comforted them in difficult times. It sustained their messianic hopes for a future of the Jewish people freed from their captivities and reunited in the Holy Land under a new Davidic king. (In that same biblical text, Christian millenarians saw reflected their own dreams of the "Fifth Monarchy" under the reign of Christ.)
The subtitle of Menasseh's treatise is "On the Statue of Nebuchadnezzar." He declares that this subject "touches on the totality of the history of the Hebrew people, until the end of time, and the time of the messiah."6 Menasseh offers an interpretation of the episode from Daniel in which Nebuchadnezzar, [End Page 324] king of Babylon, dreams of a "huge and dazzling" statue—with a head of gold, breast and arms of silver, torso of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of clay and iron—that is then toppled and shattered by a boulder (Dan 2.31–36). In the biblical story, Daniel explains the king's dream as forecasting the doom facing his and subsequent kingdoms. Daniel then foretells of "a kingdom established by the God of heaven that will never be destroyed. […] It shall shatter and make an end to all those kingdoms; it shall itself endure forever."
It was not very difficult for Menasseh to find the messianic import of Daniel's dream interpretation. The stone that crushes the king's statue, "hewn from a mountain without the intervention of human hands," represents the messiah sent by God. Having swept away all other empires of the world—the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans, represented by...