1604: Menasseh ben Israel is born as Manoel Dias Soeiro into a Converso family from Portugal. When still a young boy, he moves with his family to the Netherlands in order to escape the reach of the Inquisition.
1626/7: He starts his own printing press, and is the first Jewish person to print Hebrew books in Amsterdam. Daniel de Fonseca sets up a short-lived rival press, which prints two books in 1627 and then folds.
Menasseh commissions a new set of Hebrew fonts from Nicholas Briot. The fonts, known as the Amsterdam Letters, are of unprecedented elegance and clarity. This year marks the beginning of Amsterdam’s long period as the world capital of Hebrew printing. The Amsterdam letters will go on to be widely copied and even pirated across Europe well into the 18th century, and even books printed elsewhere will claim to have been printed in Amsterdam to boost their credibility.
Menasseh’s earliest Hebrew publications are books written by others: a prayer book; an ethical work; and a Hebrew grammar by his own teacher. He produces a Spanish translation of ‘The Pentateuch with Haftarot’. The first book of his own – an index to Midrash Rabbah titled ‘Pene Rabbah’ – is printed in 1628.
1629: Following a protracted enquiry by a communal committee, he publishes Joseph Delmedigo’s Sefer Elim, a beautifully illustrated scientific work. The committee censors parts of the work that are considered unorthodox.
1631: Menasseh becomes Haham (rabbi) of the Neveh Shalom congregation, having been appointed predicador (preacher) there in 1628.
1632: He publishes ‘El Conciliador’, in which he reconciles contradictory passages in the Old Testament. This work becomes widely known among Christian readers, and is translated into Latin a year later.
1639: The three Sephardic congregations of Amsterdam merge under a college of rabbis. Menasseh is the most junior rabbi of the new congregation known as the Talmud Torah.
1640: The city governors refuse Menasseh’s application to open a Hebrew bookshop.
1642: Menasseh becomes head of the Amsterdam Yeshivah “Ets Haim”. He delivers a welcome speech during the visit of Frederik Hendrik, the Prince of Orange, and Henrietta Mary, Queen of England, to the synagogue at the Houtgracht. The text is printed in Dutch.
1646-52: Menasseh’s sons take over the management of the printing press. One son Joseph dies in Lublin during a business trip on behalf of the press in 1650.
1651: Menasseh initiates his campaign for the re-admission of the Jews to England by writing an open letter to Oliver Cromwell. It is published as ‘To his Highnesse The Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland The Humble Adresses of Menasseh Ben Israel.’ William Prynne issues his hostile Short Demurrer in response.
1655: He departs for England, to argue his case for the formal recognition of Jewish resettlement in England. Cromwell calls the Whitehall Conference, which ends favourably though without concrete results. It concludes that Jewish settlement is legally admissible, but no official declaration or settlement privilege is issued.
The lay leaders of the united Sephardi congregation in Amsterdam try to dissuade him from his mission; when he undertakes it nevertheless, they remove him from office.
1656: He publishes ‘Vindiciae Judaeorum’ (Vindication of the Jews) in London as a rebuttal of Prynne’s ‘Short Demurrer’. His son Samuel dies in England, and is buried in Middelburg.
1657: Menasseh dies in Middelburg on 20th November 1657, and is buried in the Amsterdam Sephardi cemetery of Ouderkerk.