Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, Rembrandt, and Belshazzar’s Feast

The image above of the very well-known painting by Rembrandt van Rijn, Belshazzar’s Feast, completed circa 1635, is probably the most striking depiction of the “writing on the wall” described in the biblical story in chapter 5 of the book of Daniel, with particular reference to verses 8 and 25 to 28. The story has always elicited some puzzlement, as the Chaldean wise men (v. 8) are said to have been unable to read the writing, though Daniel was quickly able to do so (vv. 25 to 28). Various explanations through the centuries (which will not detain us) have been proposed, and one of those came to Rembrandt’s notice, the suggestion that the letters of the words were written vertically. Aside from Rembrandt’s unfamiliarity with Hebrew script (note that the samekh is depicted as a final mem and the last character being written by the mysterious hand, which should be a final nun, instead is a zayin. What should Daniel have made of mene, mene, tekel, upharam yaz? Regardless, the depiction is striking and indicative of a striking connection between Rembrandt and a leading figure in the Jewish community in Amsterdam at the time, namely Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, who lived within a block or so of Rembrandt at the time.

The life and achievements of Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel are laid out for us in the excellent book by Steven Nadler, Menasseh ben Israel: Rabbi of Amsterdam (Yale University Press, 2018). Rather than recount the details of Rabbi Menasseh’s life, I recommend the book to the interested reader. This man was extraordinary. He was Baruch Spinoza’s teacher, and also responsible for the eventual readmittance of Jews to settle in England, from which they had been banned by royal decree in 1290. Among the writings of Rabbi Menasseh, we find the book De Termino Vitae, published in 1639. On page 160, we find the following illustration:

Note the similarity with Rembrandt’s depiction:

Now, since Rembrandt was living never more than a couple of blocks away from Rabbi Menasseh during the period of 1631 until a couple of years after Rabbi Menasseh died in 1657, and there were various connections in common between the men, some sort of connection between the painter and the rabbi seems certain, particularly in light of the correspondence in rendering the writing in Belshazzar’s Feast and De Termino Vitae. While Nadler (Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, “Appendix: Menasseh ben Israel and Rembrandt,” pp. 219-229) shows we have no clear evidence of a working relationship between the two men, much less of the close friendship often claimed in less careful writing, the fact that they were friends of friends to one another would seem to have led Rembrandt, likely by recommendation, to seek the well-known and erudite Rabbi Menasseh’s opinion on depicting the mysterious manner of the writing on Belshazzar’s palace wall. Only a few years after Rembrandt had finished the painting in about 1635, Rabbi Menasseh published De Termino Vitae in 1639, providing us with evidence of the very likely, if not certain, connection. One wonders what other source might plausibly be suggested, when an author living a couple of blocks away publishes exactly the same image within a very few years of the painting!

So there we are! Two of the most important personages in the history of Amsterdam show a very particular and somewhat esoteric connection between Rabbinic exegesis and fine art. What a delightful thing that is!

3 Comments

  1. “… the last character being written by the mysterious hand, which should be a final nun, instead is a zayin.”

    Maybe the hand was still in the process of writing the zayin?

    1. Hi Robert. It’s the top of the character that is the differentiating bit between the zayin and final nun (see how there’s a little hook to the right on the uppermost horizontal stroke? That’s for a zayin; for a nun, the horizontal stroke joins smoothly to the downward stroke), in addition to the length of the final nun extending below the line. So, it’s really a mix of the two characters. The top is that of a zayin, but the continuing length downward, which is, as you mention, still being written, is that of a final nun. It’s a small mistake, but one that is understandable if Rembrandt was working from a copy of Rabbi Menachem’s illustration, while not being able to actually read Hebrew. Still, it’s a striking picture, and the first image that comes to my mind whenever reading the story or hearing the phrase “writing on the wall”!

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