Rabbi Menachem Azariah was born in Fano, a small town in Italy, in the year 5308 (1548). He was one of the outstanding rabbis and poskim of his time but he is even more well-known as one of the leading Kabbalists.
It was a time when the study of the Talmud and of the Kabbalah blossomed and great scholars excelled in both areas, which are sometimes called the nigleh ("revealed") and nistar ("hidden") of Torah respectively.
Kabbalah is called the "hidden" aspect of Torah because it deals with the hidden secrets and inner interpretation of the Torah: the mysteries of Creation, the powers of the soul, and many other profound subjects. For most of history these secrets were studied only by a few saintly Kabbalists and were transmitted privately from teacher to disciple. Later they appeared in sacred books, especially the Zohar, which could be studied by a wider circle of scholars.
During the lifetime of Rabbi Menachem Azariah, which was about three hundred years after the Zohar appeared, Kabbalah was studied and taught by a school of Kabbalists in Safed in the Holy Land, at the head of which stood the great and saintly Rabbi Moshe Cordovero. Other great Kabbalists (who were also great Talmudists) who belonged to that school include Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz (author of the famed poem L'cho-Dodi), Rabbi Moshe Alshich (author of a well-known commentary on the Torah), and Rabbi Joseph Karo (author of the famous codes of Jewish Law, the Beth Joseph and Shulchan Aruch).
In other countries, too, the study of Torah and Kabbalah flourished greatly. In Mantua, Italy, lived the famous Rabbi Moshe, known as the Maharam; in Egypt, and later in Jerusalem, the venerable Rabbi David ibn Zimra (Radbaz); and in Poland, the disciples of the great Rabbi Jacob Pollack did much to spread the knowledge of the Torah, including in their ranks great luminaries such as Rabbi Sholom Shachne of Lublin, Rabbi Shlomo Luria (Maharshal), Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Remo), Rabbi Mordechai Jaffe, Rabbi Meir (Maharani) of Lublin, and others.
To crown this great array of luminaries there arose a new light, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria Ashkenazi, the celebrated and saintly Ari (5294-5332; 1534-1572). His new approach to the study of the Kabbalah was spread by his famous disciple Rabbi Chaim Vital (5303-5380; 1543-1620).
It was no small accomplishment to be an outstanding personality at a time when such great names became famous in Jewish life.
Rabbi Menachem Azariah's teacher was Rabbi Ezra de Fano, the Chief Rabbi of Mantua, who had gained fame as a great Kabbalist. Rabbi Menachem Azariah was forever grateful to him for introducing him to the secret knowledge of the Torah. Like his teacher, Rabbi Menachem Azariah became a devoted follower of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (the Ramak), whose teachings and writings had blazed a new path in the study of the Kabbalah. In appreciation, Rabbi Moshe Cordevero sent him his famous Kabbalistic work Pardes Rimonim ("Orchard of Pomegranates"). When Rabbi Moshe Cordevero died in 5330 (1570), Rabbi Menachem Azariah paid his widow 1,000 golden coins for permission to copy the manuscripts left by her illustrious husband. He also spent a lot of money to hire scribes and to pay for paper which was very expensive in those days. Rabbi Menachem Azariah wrote a commentary on the Pardes Rimonim called Pelach Horimon ("Slice of the Pomegranate").
Later on, Rabbi Menachem Azariah studied Kabbalah under Rabbi Israel Saruck, who came to Italy to teach the Ari's system of Kabbalah ("Lurianic Kabbalah"), and he became an ardent follower of the Ari. He considered the Ari's system to be a further development of Rabbi Moshe Cordevero's system. He wrote an important work called Asarah Maamaroth ("Ten Statements") based on the Ari's Kabbalah. This work was published in Venice in 1597.
Altogether, including the ten of Asarah Maamaroth, we know of twenty-four Kabbalistic treatises authored by Rabbi Menachem Azariah. The following deserve special mention: Yonas Illem, Maayan Ganim, Kanfei Yonah.
Rabbi Menachem Azariah was not only a great Kabbalist but also a great Talmudist and posek. For a time, he was the head of the yeshivah in the Italian city of Reggio and many scholarly young men flocked to study under him. Later he was elected Rabbi in the famous Jewish community of Mantua. He received letters from near and far soliciting his opinions on legal matters. His Responsa were later published. He also wrote Alfasi Zuta ("Small Alfas"), an abridged form of the great Talmudic compendium, the Alfas, by Rabbi Isaac from Fez (the Rif).
Despite his preoccupation with his studies, his teaching and his writing, Rabbi Menachem Azariah de Fano was a man of extraordinary humility and he was most generous with his wealth. Beside the large sums he spent to publish the writings of the great masters of the Kabbalah, when he was a young man of twenty-six years of age, Rabbi Joseph Karo entrusted him with the printing and editing of his work, the Kesef Mishneh, a commentary on the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam). The Kesef Mishneh was first printed in Venice in 5334 (1574). Rabbi Joseph Karo sent it to him to have it printed in Mantua.
Rabbi Menachem Azariah was a man of noble character, of unusual modesty and charitableness. He never sought honor and did not get involved in any heated controversy with anyone who disagreed with his views. He took a keen interest in communal affairs and rendered valuable service to various Jewish communities in Italy, where his authority was widely recognized. He instituted certain regulations in regard to the daily prayers, especially insofar as the nusach is concerned, and it was he who introduced the custom of early rising for selichos. This custom started in Venice and later spread to other communities, including those following the Ashkenazic order.
Rabbi Menachem Azariah died on the 4th day of Menachem Av, in the year 5380 (1620), at the age of seventy-two.