R. Akiva Eiger, Mendelssohn, and the Shema

Other than history buffs, few people would associate R. Akiva Eiger (RAE) with Moses Mendelssohn. The former occupies a position of awe and reverence for those who have ever worked through the mind-boggling depth and breadth of his Talmudic commentaries or responsa; the latter is seen as the Founding Father of the heterodox movements that presided over the dismantling of loyalty to and identification with Torah Judaism in the Jewish “Enlightenment.” A classic never-the-twain-shall-meet situation if there ever was one. The greatness and depth of RAE is in fact probably understated; the role of Mendelssohn in the trajectory of those who walked out of observance may very well be overstated (although that is not the subject of this essay); and the two very much did meet. It takes nothing more than opening a RAE to Megilla 16A to prove it.

We will return to the story of how their paths crossed after illustrating a contemporary repetition of the event. (I present the story as I heard it, and welcome those who know more than I do to correct details, or falsify the incident. The point it raises is valid nonetheless.) When R. Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l was Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Vodass, students used to help him prepare his house before Pesach. One group checked for chometz the seforim that might have been brought to the table. The work proceeded without event, until one bochur let out a shriek, having discovered a copy of Mendelsohn’s famous (infamous?) and ground-breaking German translation of Chumash, known today simply as “The Biur.” While there are likely fewer students in Torah Vodaas today who would know about the Biur and its author, that particular bochur did, and his horror was visceral. Rav Yaakov immediately understood, and reportedly smiled (he seemed always to smile) and said, “They are surprised that I would own such a work. If only they knew how many difficulties it helped me solve.”

In the eighteenth century, when translations of Chumash into any vernacular were not common, the announcement by Mendelssohn that he was preparing a scholarly translation into German was met with excitement. New works were often funded by paid advance subscriptions – think Amazon selling Harry Potter before Rowling ever typed a single paragraph.

The subscription list to Mendelssohn’s Biur included the names of many important gedolim, including RAE. While his views and background were likely no complete secret, those who disagreed with him did not shun him or his work entirely. Contemporaries continued to cite him respectfully even when disagreeing, and drawing support from his words when in agreement.

Some make far more of this than it is worth. There was a dissenting voice, who took a much harder line against Mendelssohn, and history (at least within traditional circles) has declared him to have been correct. The harsh critic was RAE’s illustrious son-in-law, the Chasam Sofer. We can only speculate on why he had the prescience and foresight to see what others did not, and read Mendelsohn out of the “inner” community, despite Mendelssohn’s famous dikduk in halacha. (Once summoned to the monarch in the late afternoon, he sent back that he would have to wait till after mincha, since he never missed davening with a minyan, and was not going to make an exception for some Emperor or other.) Perhaps the fact that Mendelsohn was not anathematized by the rest of his contemporaries points to a kinder, gentler Yiddishkeit a few hundred years ago, but perhaps it doesn’t. Perhaps it was simply not so obvious to most just how far Mendelssohn would himself go, how quickly his own progeny would apostatize and/or intermarry, and to what purpose those who came after would use his example.

Those who milk the episode for its controversy might miss what I believe to be its real beauty and subtlety. RAE in Megillah reacts substantively to specific parts of Mendelsohn’s translation, and some of the implications are remarkable. He dismisses Mendelssohn’s treatment of the first pasuk of the Shema (last week’s Parsha, in case some of you are trying to figure out the timing of this blog posting.)

RAE reproduces Mendelssohn’s German translation, transliterated into Hebrew letters. He takes issue with Mendelsohn’s translation for what at least to me seemed unexpected. My German is a bit rusty (could use a bit of help from the readership here), but it seems to me that Mendelssohn’s translation rendered into English comes across as close to, “…The Eternal One our G-d, is a single, eternal Being.” RAE objects to the order in which the words “Hashem” and “echad” are given, reversing their natural order in the verse.

In other words, while Mendelssohn preserved the meaning of the phrase accurately and idiomatically, RAE insisted that the reader be conscious of the meaning of each word, not just the verse or phrase! RAE wants the reader to concentrate on the translation of the Shem Hashem when he pronounces it, and the meaning of “echad” when he reaches that word. If my reading is correct, RAE would greatly prefer the Artscroll interlinear translation to the standard, since it does put the reader in touch with each word’s individual meaning.

More surprising to me – and probably to Artscroll – is what RAE did not object to, namely Mendelssohn’s handling of the Shem Hashem. Many of us have long supported Artscroll’s refusal to translate it, arguing that one does not translate proper nouns. Mendelssohn, however, translates it as “the Eternal,” apparently without objection from RAE. Come to think of it, “the Eternal” is a handy and elegant way of summing up how Chazal wanted us to approach (at least in part – see Orach Chaim 5:1) the Tetragrammaton – as a combination of was, is, and will be. “Eternal” does that nicely.

I would love to learn if I am mistaken, or if there are halachic consequences of RAE’s position.

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51 Responses

  1. gailg says:

    That should be Rabbi Moshe Dessau!
    And RSRH praises Rabbi Moshe Dessau in his 19 letters as a role model(Dont use the highly censored Feldheim edition).
    Rav Hirsch translates God as the Eternal based on Rabbi Moshe Dessau.

    You should also give a hat-tip to the blog that you found this on.

  2. moishe says:

    I believe the Chatam Sofer mention the biur of “the R”M” twice in his Tshuvot. not unflaterringly.

  3. malachhamovies says:

    Many of the baal hatanya’s and reb akivah eiger’s descendants assimilated as well. The baal hatanya’s son converted to christianity. So what’s your point ? You are just rehashing old discussions that we might have had in yeshiva.


    Get into the 21’st century. The old jewish observer/charedei/artscroll arguments and their censoring of history doesn’t work anymore.

  4. Nachum says:

    In the famous story about the Chasam Sofer telling off the Maharam Schick for owning a Biur, R’ Schick responds that R’ Akiva Eiger uses it as well. (The story, by the way, centers around a pasuk from the parsha of two weeks ago.)

    “how far Mendelsohn would himself go”

    What do you mean? Mendelsohn stayed frum to the end of his life. If you’re going to blame him for what his kids or talmidim did, well, in that era, Ein Bayit Asher Ein Sham Met, even among the gedolim of Eastern Europe. There, the kids and talmidim became Communists and secular Maskilim, instead of Christians like they did in Germany, but the effect was the same.

    In fact, in “traditional” circles in much of Europe, Central and Eastern, Mendelsohn continued to be studied and revered for centuries. (And even among many Orthodox Jews to this day.) R’ Hirsch and R’ Hildesheimer certainly had no issue with him, and many Litvish gedolim read his works too.

    “was not anathematized by the rest of his contemporaries”

    Again, he didn’t do anything (in his personal life) worth “anathematizing.”

    “transliterated into Hebrew letters”

    The original translation was transliterated into Hebrew.

    Finally, I should point out that “Eternal” is, or at least was, widely used by many scholars. It’s at least partially based on the idea that YKVK is a combinated of “Yud,” meaning “He”, and “Hoveh,” meaning “be.” The Name therefore can mean “He Is”. More recent scholarship suggests It might mean “He Who Causes To Be,” that is, “Creator.” Of course, both could be right.

    As to the point of R’ Akiva Eiger: Can you transcribe the German words? As you’ve given them, it seems Hashem’s name occurs only once in the translation.

  5. Chareidi Leumi says:

    The Maharam Shick (a student of the Hatam Sofer) used the Biur as well and said he could find nothing wrong with it. See R’ D’ Leiman’s article on this in Tradition, 24(3) (Spring 1989)

    Also, RAE did more than simply subscribe to the biur, he wrote an Haskama to it which appeared in the book of Exodus re-published in 1832.

  6. David Klinghoffer says:

    Fascinating on all counts!

  7. Charles B. Hall, PhD says:

    How did Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch translate the Name?

    I think you are correct in overstating Mendelssohn’s influence on heterodoxy. The first Reform synagogue, in Essen, was a full 25 years after his death. That the Reformers claimed Mendelssohn does not mean that he would have endorsed their “innovations”.

  8. Joe Socher says:

    “There was a dissenting voice, who took a much harder line against Mendelsohn, and history (at least within traditional circles) has declared him to have been correct. The harsh critic was RAE’s illustrious son-in-law, the Chasam Sofer. We can only speculate on why he had the prescience and foresight to see what others did not, and read Mendelsohn out of the “inner” community, despite Mendelsohn’s famous dikduk in halacha. ”

    What does this mean? How has history proven the Hasam Sofer correct? Is there any evidence whatsoever that RMM was responsible for the rise of Reform or assimilition in Germany? Isn’t a bit simplistic and unfair to point to RMM, given the larger historical forces at work and the fact that he himself was unwaivering in his allegiance to the Torah?

    “Perhaps it was simply not so obvious to most just how far Mendelsohn would himself go…”

    What do you mean by this?

    “…how quickly his own progeny would apostatize and/or intermarry, and to what purpose those who came after would use his example.”

    Let’s not get into the list of Gedolei Yisrael, Rishonim and Acharonim, whose children and grandchildren went of the derech and/or apostized. Again we are dealing with larger historical forces and to blame it on RMM does not seem fair at all.

    A side point regarding the continuing presence of RMM in the Yeshiva world: when I was in yeshiva in Israel, we had the zechus of hearing several mussar shmuezen from R.Moshe Aharon Stern ZTL. In one of these shmuezen, he listed several works which he warned us no yeshiva bocher should read, including the BIur and the works of HN Bialik. I don’t know how many of the American yeshiva high school graduates there had any idea what he was talking about…

  9. shaulking says:

    The gedolim of the past with their vastness of true understanding, how far we have strayed.

  10. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    Joe –

    I’ll give you the quick version here. The rest we’ll argue about the next time you come over for Shabbos. Two points, in reverse order of importance:

    2) Why not go there? Sure, lots of stellar talmidei chachamim had kids who went off, starting with Yitzchok Avinu. But Mendelssohn may have the record. His Jewish progeny entirely disappeared by the end of the second generation after him. I think that is worth something, when you have to assess the message he passed along to his children and his generation.

    1) Why do I think history vindicated the Chasam Sofer? Because with over two hundred years to be Monday morning quarterbacks, we can look at his writings – his later writings in particular – and find positions that we should regard as poisonous. As a quintessential Enlightenment figure, M had a tough time squaring reason with revelation. Who needed the latter? Anything worthwhile, Man would figure out for himself; anything he could not ascertain for himself, revelation should not convince him of. In a nutshell, while we all struggle with the tension between reason and tradition at times, I believe that M placed human reason on a pedestal far higher than is compatible with a Ribbono Shel Olam whose word is far deeper than the mind can probe.

    This is my simplistic stab at a one-factor theory of where he went wrong. I will be delighted to be proven wrong.

  11. SS says:

    You wrote, in describing Mend.

    “Anything worthwhile, Man would figure out for himself”

    I can only assume based on this sentence that you don’t know the first thing about Mend. YOu should try reading Altmann’s book on him. Mend. thought you needed revelation because without it you would never come to the 613 mitzvot. You really should ask mechilah from R. Moshe Dessauer for coming close to slandering him.

  12. dr. william gewirtz says:

    Rabbi Alderstein, I have not read the Biur nor any biography of M and certainly cannot prove you wrong, but you use one common argument that needs clarification. If you ask me to compare the human intellect or human reason with the Divine, I cannot – they are incomparable. Knowing or believing that the Ribbono Shel Olam’s “word is far deeper than the mind can probe”, may be one of the Ikrai HeEmunah but certainly not yet actionable. The Divine word has meaning and becomes actionable only through a human lens. Lo BaShamayim Hi is, in that sense, axiomatic.

    That is different than comparing man’s understanding of the Divine message with his own independant reasoning. i doubt that anyone as sophisticated as M would argue that he can reinvent Torah by reason alone (although he would not be the first to try); take the case of an “accidental” mamzer or the process involved in parah adumah. However, to a rationalist, man is obligated to reconcile reason even with laws as complex as those. A religious rationalist must insist on integrity in the process with which one does that, sacrificing neither reason nor revelation. M’s tendency was, perhaps, biased too strongly in one direction. I do not know, but I would like to see a comparison of M, in that respect, with some of the rationalists among the Rishonim. Not clear from the little I know that he would not have al mi lismoch. But: “Anything worthwhile, Man would figure out for himself; anything he could not ascertain for himself, revelation should not convince him of” may be a tad harsh.

  13. Boruch says:

    Whomever is interested in the topic should read this article by Meir Hildesheimer. It was a quick search, but it sounds like its on the same topic.


    Please download from this link.

  14. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    “I acknowledge no immutable truths, but such as not only may be made conceivable to the human understanding, but as also admit of being demonstrated and warranted by human faculties.” – Moses Mendelssohn, Jerusalem, trans. M Samuels vol. 1 pg.89

  15. Chaim Wolfson says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein,
    If I’m not mistaken, the Noda BiYehudah was also strongly opposed to Mendolsohn’s Biur. He suspected that Mendelsohn’s intent was not to make Chumash accesible to those who spoke only German, but rather to introduce the German language to those who studied Chumash. Once proficient in the German language, they could be exposed to German literature and culture.

    Also, just to amplify your point to Joe: Of all the Gedolims’ sons who went off, how many claimed that they were actually following their father’s derech, the way Mendolsohn’s children and disciples claimed they were following his philosophy?

  16. Nachum Lamm says:

    R’ Adlerstein, that’s not good enough. You said “how far Mendelsohn would himself go”. Go where? He stayed frum his whole life. Then you give us one isolated quote when Mendelssohn’s view of things as a whole are well known. You also say “you have to assess the message he passed along to his children and his generation” when you have no idea what he said to his kids. (By the way, he died when they were still young, and all conversions happened much, much later.)

    Incidentally, I once worked with a man named Mr. Iger. One of our frum colleagues mentioned a detail of his yichus (nothing spectacular Torah-wise), and Mr. Iger, who was not Jewish, said, “Ever hear of R’ Akiva Eiger? I’m a direct descendant.”

    When it comes to kids not following in the derech, it’s best to keep quiet.

  17. Steve Brizel says:

    For those interested, there was a fantastic article posted in one of the comments in Hirhurim about the Chasam Sofer and his views towards the early Reform movement and maskilim. It is highly worth reading for a survey of the CS”s views on the subject-which were not all consistent in any way with the comment of CS that “Chadash Assur Min HaTorah.”

  18. Dr. E says:

    I suspect that the “Biur” was not a translation of the Chumash, but an “elucidation”. Otherwise, it could not possibly be found in a Gadol’s home.

    We should all yearn for the days when the “askanim” actually worked on behalf of Klal Yisrael, not merely live from one Kol Koreh to the next.

  19. lawrence kaplan says:

    Yitzhok: Right. Mendelssohn did not believe in supra-rational truths (not so far from Saadaya by the way). But he DID believe in revealed Law, i.e., the mitzvot. As he states, Judaism = rational religious truths + Revealed Law. This position may, for all sorts of reasons, be unsatisfactory, but its NOT unOrthodox. And, FTR, I have read Jerusalem more than once and large parts of the Biur.

  20. Shmuel says:

    The Nodah B’Yehudah is conspicuously absent from this discussion. In Alexander Altmann’s work on Mendelssohn the author points out that despite an early friendship and exchange of letters on halachic matters Rav Landau came to strongly oppose the Biur. He saw that the Torah was being studied to learn German, rather than the other way around. (See pages 486-7 in Altmann.) In their pursuit of foreign languages and secular wisdom (much of which the Nodeh B’Yehudah was himself familiar) German Jews were, alarmingly, abandoning faith in the miracles of the Torah and the larger spiritual message of Judaism(ibid).

    Furthermore: The predictable implications of, and the inevitable spiritual decline stemming from, Mendelssohn’s philosophy (“natural religion”) is discussed and argued convincingly by one of the last century’s preeminent Jewish historians, Jacob Katz who only recently passed away. (See Tradition and Crisis, especially pages 232 ff.) Mendelssohn’s underlying message stripped the mitzvos of any inherent meaning of their own. To quote the professor:

    “M’s contemporaries pointed out that his rationalization of the commandments abrogated their absolute authority…observance of the commandments no longer had any real purpose even for the … maskil…such maskilim were left perplexed .. regarding the form of the new Judaism once it had… lost its traditional absolute nature.”

    The unmistakable legacy he passed on to his children and students was that while the Jewish law was still viable for one’s personal life, the central moving force and compelling philosophical influence ought to be the values of the Enlightenment. Given the powerful role European Enlightenment had at the time in these Berlin circles it is small wonder that M’s children sought shelter in the embrace of Christianity and the company of their wealthy German friends, especially after the enduring discrimination faced by German Jewry.

    The Mendelssohn children already shared the company of many of the most enlightened German non-Jews of the time on account of, among other things, their own great wealth and their father’s celebrated fame.

    Therefore, the tragedy of Mendelssohn’s family ought to be viewed differently from similar tragedies witnessed by great men of Torah whose children wandered far from Jewish tradition. Whatever the reasons for the choices of the wayward children closer to (and in) our time, at least many of these men did not confuse their children with alternative philosophical foundations to their Jewish lives, as did Mendelssohn.

  21. Yosey G. says:

    “and the two very much did meet. It takes nothing more than opening a RAE to Megilla 16A to prove it.”

    I immediately looked up that RAE, and saw no allusion to his meeting Mendelsohn! What am I missing?

    BTW, my “Kabala” on the biur is that people went to Reb Tzadok hacohen and asked him what is the matter with “the biur” They went thru it and saw nothing contrary to frumkeit.

    Reb Tzadok is said to have replied: “Any chumash that does not have the rashi on VA-ANI Be-VO-EE mi-padan may-soh olay rochel is not acceptable!” (Which brings into question: Was Rav Shamson Refoel Hirsch’s chumash originally printed WITH Rashi?)

    As far as Reb Yaakov Kaminetsky owning a biur, I would venture to say the only reaso he owned one was due to his chinuch under Reb Nosson Tzvi Finkel better known as “Der Alter” from Slabodka. (The currrent Rosh yeshiva from the Mir’s great grandfather and namesake) The Talmidim from Slabodka were given and encouraged to broaden themselves in many ways that talmidim from other yeshivos could not, BECAUSE Der Alter took a very personal interest in each talmid and guided each one, assuring that they would broaden their minds, and not be lost to Haskalla. (I know that there are other talmidim from Slabodka (Famous gedolim) that read books that in today’s world no yeshiva boy would even think of opening, certainly books that current Roishey Yeshiva would never encourage anyone to read)

    Having said that, I would not say that because Reb Yaakov learned from the Biur that anyone else should take a chance in learning something that the gedolim have ‘blacklisted”!

    Finally, just because Gedolim of yesteryear read seforim which we consider verbotten does not mean that we SHOULD read them. Chazal tell us we must listen to the gedolim of OUR time, While these seforim may not have had a deleterious affect on those generations, who knows what it would do to someone living in our generation?

  22. zadok says:

    See the last sdei chemed on ‘ois Lamed’ for a scathing personal atttack on Mendelson (sakaitz t’saktzenu,toiev toevenu etc.) on Mendelson as well as his Halachick responce and rejection of a Rabbi who agrued that learning the Biur is not the same as being a personal talmid of Mendelson.

    The Shdie chemed, the rabbi he was responding to and all the rabbonim both qoute (the Chasam Sofer included) are all in agreement that Mendelson as a person was someone to avoid and a ‘Rav S’aino Hogen’The only question was if that may rabbi may read the Biur in itself.

  23. Aschi says:

    The popularity of Mendelssohn’s Biur Chumash amongst reputable Torah scholars, is not verification of their approval of him or his philosophies any more than the Rambam fascination with Aristotle is an indication to Rambam’s endorsement of the lifestyle and ideology of Aristotle.

    It is verifiable that Moses Mendelssohn is the philosopher whose ideas underlined the Haskala movement which today has evolved into the modern reform movement. Is it a mere coincidence that:
    1) In April 1763, Johann Kasper Lavater then a young theology-student from Zurich, made a trip to Berlin, where he visited the already famous Jewish philosopher with some companions. They insisted on Mendelssohn telling them his views on Jesus and managed to get from him the statement, that, provided the historical Jesus had kept himself and his theology strictly within limits of orthodox Judaism, Mendelssohn “respected the morality of Jesus’ character” (Moses Mendelssohn: Public Letter to Lavater, December 12th 1769 (Berlin 1770) )
    2) It was after the breakdown of his health that Mendelssohn decided to “dedicate the remains of my strenght for the benefit of my children or a goodly portion of my nation” – which he did by trying to bring the Jews closer to “culture, from which my nation, alas! is kept in such a distance, that one might well despair of ever overcoming it” ( Moses Mendelssohn, private letter to August Hennings, July 29th 1779)
    3)Mendelssohn asserted the pragmatic principle of the possible plurality of truths: that just as various nations need different constitutions—to one a monarchy, to another a rebublic, may be the most congenial to the national genius—so individuals may need different religions. The test of religion is its effect on conduct. This is the moral of Lessing’s Nathan the Wise (Nathan der Weise), the hero of which is undoubtedly Mendelssohn, and in which the parable of the three rings is the epitome of the pragmatic position.
    4) Mendelssohn had six children, of whom only his second oldest daughter, Recha, and his eldest son, Joseph, retained the Jewish faith. Joseph’s son Alexander was the last male descendant of the philosopher to be a practising Jew. From Wikipedia

  24. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    Shmuel is correct. The Nodah B’Yehudah should certainly have been mentioned among Mendelssohn’s strong opponents. I learned that only later.

    In real knowledge of Mendelssohn – primary sources, rather than predigested secondary ones – I am certainly going to defer to Prof. Kaplan. It is erev Shabbos, and I’m too rushed to respond now, but I am less certain about how “unorthodox” a belief M embraced in the citation I offered in an earlier comment. I reject the notion that it is just one line. It is a crucial line. If we go head-to-head, I will probably back down before Dr Kaplan, but we will have to see how far he will press ahead. I don’t think Rav Saadya, or any Rishon that I am familiar with (but I am far from expert in the fullness of the literature of the philosophical works of the Gaonim and Rishonim) ever went as far as M in rejecting the supra-rational, and I still think that it was an important message, and an important mistake. Hopefully, we will pick this up later, although I am going to be away from my computer for the better part of a week starting sometime Sunday.

  25. thanbo says:

    You’re now the fourth blogger to comment on the R’ Akiva Eiger – R’ Moshe Dessau connection in the past couple of weeks. It started in the comments at Hirhurim, then “On the Main Line” commented on it, then I (thanbook) found and posted the original source that Hildesheimer mentioned (RAE’s quasi-haskamah to an 1832 edition of the Mendelssohn chumash) and now you post on a Gilyon haShas where RAE quotes Mendelssohn’s translation.

    There must be something in the air, since your comment does not reference the quasi-haskamah that “Mississippi Fred” and & I have been focusing on, only on the Gemara.

    I don’t think the Biur has been as successfully “rejected” by history as you seem to think. It’s just that the Biur has become somewhat dated. I’ve learned occasional pieces of it, and have not seen anything doctrinally difficult in it (it was written by 3-4 different people), although there is a lot of grammatical nitpicking, much like in Rashi. Rather, the need for a German translation has passed, and the commentary was superseded by RSR Hirsch’s commentary, close to 100 years later. “Contemporary” commentaries do often get stale, and replaced. Consider the fate of commentaries on Esther, which gets reinterpreted to fit the politics of each generation (Malbim on his contemporary politics, Yoram Hazony on our contemporary Israeli politics in “The Dawn”).

    Meanwhile, both the Netziv (Haamek Davar) and R’ Aryeh Kaplan (The Living Torah) relied to some extent on the Biur for their commentaries, so the ideas, far from being rejected by history, have come down to us in different guises. Much like the ideas of RYB Soloveitchik zt”l are being (in Harerei Kedem, Hagadah miBeis Brisk, and other such works) sanitized for those who don’t want to receive them in the name of their originator.

    For more on Mendelssohn and the Biur, and reactions to it, see this lecture by R’ Adam Mintz.

  26. thanbo says:

    Some specific comments:

    Chaim Wolfson: you may be right, about introducing Jews to German – there are letters expressing both ideas, introducing Jews to German, and introducing Chumash to Jews. See Alexander Altmann’s biography of Mendelssohn.

    Yosey G.: I’m curious about this Reb Tzadok – I should check at home, but most editions I’ve seen of the Biur also have Onkelos and Rashi. Did he leave that particular posuk out in the edition R’ Tzadok saw? Most were published long after Mendelssohn’s death, thus represents the choices of editors and publishers, rather than any program of Mendelssohn’s against Rashi. I think there may have been a preliminary version that had just the German translation, and no commentaries at all, but the regular versions were out long before Reb Tzadok’s time. “The Gedolim have blacklisted” – which gedolim? and which others used it profitably? You have to look at the whole picture.

    zadok: The Sdei Chemed was a Lubavitcher, no? The Lubavitchers I know have a real thing about Mendelssohn, thinking he was a big stinker, but they don’t actually seem to know much about the man or his works.

    R’ Adlerstein, citing the “I acknowledge no immutable truths…” How different is this from Rambam’s opening of the Yad: “It is the most basic of basic principles and a support for wisdom to know that there is something [namely God] that existed before anything else did and that He created everything that there is.” To know, not to believe.

    Mendelssohn was highly inspired by Rambam – his first book was a commentary on Rambam’s first book, the “Treatise on Logic;” R’ Kapach in his edition of the Treatise on Logic notes that the commentary of R’ Moshe Dessau is the best commentary ever written on it. Yes, Mendelssohn held that Judaism has no dogma – but in Rambam’s way of thinking, were his foundations really “dogma” – axioms that have to be accepted unthinkingly? or ideas to be comprehended which underlie an orthodox understanding of Torah?

  27. LOberstein says:

    Many years ago, the librarian at Ner Israel found a copy of the Biur in the archives up in the attic. Rav Ruderman did not destroy it, he suggested that we trade it to the Baltimore Hebrew College for some seforim they had in their archives.

  28. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “…Which brings into question: Was Rav Shamson Refoel Hirsch’s chumash originally printed WITH Rashi?”

    I understand the sensitivity of concerns in printing a chumash with Rashi, and personally, believe that such should be done. On the other hand, it is not one of the ikkarie emunah to do so, and Rav Hirsch certainly could have felt differently than Rav Tzaddok. As a general point, Rav Hirsch was who he was, and we should not revise his legacy, in either direction to conform to what we would like it to be.

    “Having said that, I would not say that because Reb Yaakov learned from the Biur that anyone else should take a chance in learning something that the gedolim have ‘blacklisted”!”

    I agree that there is a legitimate concern about Bnei Torah(or anyone else) today reading what Rav Aharon Kotler or Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky read then.

  29. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “Finally, just because Gedolim of yesteryear read seforim which we consider verbotten does not mean that we SHOULD read them. Chazal tell us we must listen to the gedolim of OUR time, While these seforim may not have had a deleterious affect on those generations, who knows what it would do to someone living in our generation?”

    When comparing the effect of haskala on generations, I would say that from the standpoint of the haskalah itself, the threat is equal today as before. I think that the Yeshivah World has strengthened itself from within, rather than engaging haskala head-on. In other words, the community structure is stronger than for example Volozhin, which in its last years had haskalah in it’s walls(there was also European poverty), as RD JJ Schacter discusses in detail in the Torah Umaddah Journal.

    But the Charedi world has not engaged haskala head-on, and that is why, for example, Artscoll and the Charedi media make certain editorial decisions that seek to protect the innocence of the multitudes rather than engaging in a full discussion of the issues, even issues which are relatively minor in terms of hashkafa and Yahadus.

    As far as “listening to Gedolim of our time”, that is correct. But we also have to make sure that we should include as many people as possible within the Torah world. Hashgacha has had it, that Rav Hirsch and the Rambam’s derech did not produce the same results as the rest of the Charedi world, and therefore for example, we have reached the point where some can say that an approach which Rav Hirsch held to be kosher, is considered kefirah today. Similarly, some might think that Jewish concerts in America should be banned, even though Gedolim in America have not taken the same approach as in Eretz Yisrael on that issue. So while it is true that Gedolim of our time might eschew some things which in certain conditions were acceptable in previous generations, we shouldn’t discourage everything that was permitted in prior times, as some of our needs may be the same as previous times, and we should not exclude people unecessarily from the Torah world.

  30. Shmuel says:

    I, too, defer to Prof. Kaplan. I would like to suggest that any comparison at all between Mendelssohn and Rabbenu Saadiah Gaon, however, ought to take into account the fact (Katz, page 231 in Tradition and Crisis) that for the sake of social respectibility Mendelssohn appears to have been less than honest in portraying the genesis of his relationship to his wife.

    M. preferred to portray their meeting in “spontaneous”, romantic terms, rather than the likelihood that he and she were actually only introduced through mutual friends (as well as other assorted minor details along the way). This, Katz argues, assisted M. in appearing less traditional in the matter, more fitting the Enlightenment mold.

    Can we say that M. was first and foremost dedicated to Enlightenment thought and morays, despite his impressive attachement to Jewish learning and scholarship, as well as a personal commitment to halacha? I am not accustomed to thinking of any such similar moral lapse on the part of Saadiah Gaon, despite any closeness of position on a given theological issue, even given the fact that we know considerably less about these details of his life.

  31. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “For those interested, there was a fantastic article posted in one of the comments in Hirhurim about the Chasam Sofer and his views towards the early Reform movement and maskilim”

    I was the one who posted it on Hirhurim(see link below to the Schreiber article). Footnotes 101-110(RAE is mentioned in # 106) discuss the rabbinical attitudes in those times to Mendelssohn and the Biur. By the way, R.Klugman’s “Rabbi Hirsch” biography(Artscroll)also has a short discussion of the reaction of rabbonim of the time to Mendelsohn’s Biur.


  32. David says:

    For a detailed discussion of Chasam Sofer’s position, see the article in The Torah U-Madda Journal, vol 11 by Aaron M. Schreiber: http://www.yutorah.org/showShiur.cfm/705191/Aaron_Schreiber/The_Hatam_Sofer's_Nuanced_Attitude_to_Secular_Learning,_Maskilim_and_Reformers

    Also see other sources quoted at hirhurim blog: http://hirhurim.blogspot.com/2004/10/citation-of-non-orthodox-scholars-iii.html relating to the more general question.


  33. lawrence kaplan says:

    Shmuel: I was comparing Mendelssohn and Rav Saadya concerning their views on one particular, to be sure important, theological issue.

    For Mendelssohn the commandments are binding on the Jewish people because they were revealed on Sinai by God who became their King through taking them out of Egypt, and their binding character is independent of the issue of taamei ha-Mitvot. At the end of Jerusalem, he turns to the ”House of Jacob” and adjures them to be good citizens of the States in which they live, but at the same time to continue to observe the Law, and explicitly states that they cannot make that observence contigent on their understanding of taamie ha-Mitzvot. This passage was cited by Rav Hirsch in his essay ”Reliigon Allied With Progress,” to DISPROVE the reformers citing of Mendelssohn as support for their views.

    Many years ago I taught a course on Modern Jewish Biblical Interpretaton, and we studied large portions of the Biur. I had several Orthodox students in the class, including Dr. Bryna Levy (then a graduate student), a very well known teacher of Tanakh in midrahshot in Israel. Their unanimous reaction was, ”So, what was all the fuss about?”

    That said, I freely admit that there are certain aspect of M’s thought that are problematic from an Orthodox standpoint. This is a complex matter, and citations from the Wikipedia don’t cut it.

  34. Nachum Lamm says:

    I dream of the day when commenters (and posters) on blogs will check things out before writing about them:

    -“I suspect that the “Biur” was not a translation of the Chumash, but an “elucidation”. Otherwise, it could not possibly be found in a Gadol’s home.”

    The work is *both* a translation into German in Hebrew letters (by Mendelssohn) and the “Biur” itself, a commentary in Hebrew (by Mendelssohn and others).

    -The work *does* contain Rashi. And Onkelos.

    Really, people, it’s not that hard to find one in a library and read it before posting things you “believe” about it.

    Finally, as to gedolim not previously exposing their future wayward kids to other philosopies: First, how do you know they didn’t? You’d be surprised. Second, how do you know that they weren’t hurt by that practice?

  35. lawrence kaplan says:

    Nachum: The first edition of the Biur did not have Rashi and Onkelos. Later editions, including the one to which RAE gave a haskamah, did.

  36. Jon Baker says:

    Yup, I just checked. In my Bereshis volume of the Mendelssohn chumash (lacking t.p., but evidence in the colophon, compared with entries in the printed HUC catalogue, indicates that it was probably the Pest 1863 edition), has Rashi, Onkelos, Targum Ashkenazi, Biur, and Hertz Homburg’s commentary Hacorem. And it does have Rashi’s comments on Bereshit 48:7, the verse Reb Tzadok was allegedly concerned about.

    Did Reb Tzadok actually see the Biur, or was he relying on second-hand reports? I think there had been a preliminary edition with just a translation, but that would have been in the 1770s or 1780s; Reb Tzadok was active in the later 19th century, by which time there had been many many editions of the Biur printed.

    Is this claim to be found in the published works of Reb Tzadok?

  37. Ben Bayit says:

    I know someone who has a copy of Bialik’s work that originally belonged to a Rosh Yeshiva in Toarh Vodaas and is inscribed with this RosH yeshiva’s name in his own handwriting.

    You’d be surprised what the Gedoylim had on their bookshelves – or had snucked away under their beds in Slabodka.

  38. lawrence kaplan says:

    Join Baker: A prospectus of the Biur, Alim li-Terufah, appeared, issued by Mendelssohn and his main collaborator Solomon Dubno, containing an Intro and selected excerpts of various parshiyyot with the German translation in Hebrew characters together with the Hebrew Commentary. There was never any edition consisting of just the translation alone.

  39. Lawrence M. Reisman says:

    In a piece published in the JO (and other places as well) attacking Moses Mendelsohn, Rav Shimon Schwab notes that the Tiferes Yisroel refers to him as RMDZL (Reb Moshe Dessau Zachor Letov), and gives us yet another authority that held a high opinion of MM.

    In a much-maligned piece in the JO (“The Enigam of Moses Mendelsohn’), Avi Shafran notes that not only did MM’s children convert, but so did nearly all his close disciples and students (those that were Jewish anyway).

    It would appear that the closer one got to him, the further one strayed from Judaism later.

  40. shlomo bornstein says:

    I notice that nobody has referenced an essay written by Rav Shimon Schwab Ztl. He was entirely negative about Mendellsohn. Rav Schwab read Mendelsohns letters,in German. was familiar with the biur in german & was also familiar with the milieu.He was entirely negative.

  41. Pinchas Giller says:


    The Sde Hemed (R. Haim Hezkiah Medini, Chief Rabbi of Hebron d. 5668) was hardly a Lubovitcher, rather he was Yerushalmi Edot ha-Mizrach.

  42. Shmuel says:

    Dr Kaplan,

    Thank you for your reply and clarification.

    I read Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem over ten years ago (Brandeis’ English translation, not in the German). But I did not remember the citation you make reference to. For the record, the sources I quoted come from a library of scholarship in my possession rather than from an internet source.

    I have attempted to understand the rarified individual that was Mendelssohn, particularly in light of the tragedy that befell his family and a number of his students. My point was (and is) a sincere one. I believe any discussion of Mendelssohn and Rabbenu Saadiah Gaon in the same breath ought to also elucidate the difference in commitment to Torah as practiced by these two men. (Others may disagree with this point.) This is after all a site for Jews who take Torah practice as well as Torah thought seriously.

    Does scholarship share in any meaningful way Rav Hirsch’s view in Nineteen Letters, helping us understand later generations’ abandonment of Jewish practice and belief? I was led to believe there is some basis for comparison based on the citations from Katz, Altmann, etc. The question raised by your student after studying the Biur (and I have not learned the Biur), “What was all the fuss about,” only sharpens my interest in the question. Isn’t there something at work here that requires explanation?

    At a lecture about Mendelssohn by a doctoral candidate (early 1990’s) in Yeshiva University I learned that in the later years of his life Mendelssohn fell away (at least in part) from some otherwise meticulous observance of mitzvot. The speaker also read from a letter Mendelssohn wrote where he opined (and complained) about the lesser poetic beauty and literary character of some of the Psalms. He compared these individual psalms to contemporary literature which he felt (if my memory serves me well) were of higher literary value than these particular Psalms. While this literary comparison may not be a sin, together with other points it indicates a sad weakening of his attachement to Judaism.

    The point Katz makes about his being less than honest (several times) when speaking of how he and his wife met is puzzling. While the details may appear trifling today, the unmistakable conclusion is that in his need for approval from men of the Enlightenment Mendelssohn was willing to change the truth. We are speaking about a man who is otherwise regarded for his fealty to Judaism, high moral standing and upright character. It is difficult to avoid the feeling that Mendelssohn drifted farther away from Judaism. Perhaps this helps explain some of the fuss made by generations after Mendelssohn.

    Perhaps the place Mendelssohn gave to the Enlightenment burned the ears of his children and students. It is very difficult to understand the challenges that Jewish sophisticates living in late 18th century Germany faced while raising children loyal to Judaism. But some succeeded, such as Rav Hirsch’s grandparents and parents.

  43. lawrence kaplan says:

    Shmuel: Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I was not referring to you when I mentioned Wikipedia. The citation in my e-mail from Jerusalem is on p. 133 of the Arkush translation.

    As I said, the issue of Mendelssohn is very complex. I further noted that there are aspects to his thought which are problematic from an Orthodox viewpoint. The letter about Tehillim, cited by Rabbi Schwab, is one.

    I do not believe that there is evidence that M. fell away from observance in his later years. What I do believe is that after the death of Rav Yaakov Emden in 1776 and with the rabbinic opposition to the Biur and to his position regarding the Herem, M. became gradually alienated from the world of the rabbanut.

    Interestingly, the one work which I believe is NOT problematic from an Orthodox standpoint, a belief evidently shared by RAE, the Maharam Schick, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, and many others, is precisely the Biur.

    If you want to write me off line, my e-mail is [email protected]

  44. Bob Miller says:

    While we speak of a progression from lo-lishmah to lishma, it’s also possible to lead a lo-lishmah life while lacking the idea-attachment to Judaism needed to progress. On the idea level, it appears that Moses Mendelssohn had far more in common with non-Jewish philosophers, or even with the King of Prussia, than with great rabbis of his time.

  45. Bob Miller says:

    This is taken from part of http://www.aishdas.org/avodah/vol04/v04n325.shtml#19
    (Excerpts from Moses Mendelssohn’s writings, posted by Rav Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer)

    Date: Tue, 25 Jan 2000 23:59:01 -0600

    From: “Moses Mendelssohn: Selections from His Writings” edited and
    translated by Eva Jospe (The Viking Press, 1975).

    111 (an excerpt from “Jerusalem”):

    The Israelites have a divine legislation: laws, commandments, injunctions and rules of conduct – instructions they received so they would know what G-d wants them to do in order to attain temporal and eternal happiness. In a miraculous and supranatural manner, Moses revealed to them these teachings and precepts; but he never handed down to them dogmas, doctrines about man’s salvation, or general pricnciples of reason. the the eternal G-d reveals to us, as to anybody else, at all times through nature or in any other manner but never through the spoken or written word.

    pp. 113-114 (part of “Bonner’s Palingenesis”):

    Does this mean that revelation is unnecessary? It does indeed – for those people who have never experienced such an event. The Supreme Being would most assuredly have revealed Himself to them had they been incapable of realizing the purpose of their existence without such revelation. he granted a revelation to the Israelites not because men, as men, could otherwise not attain salvation, but because He deemed it wise to bestow on this particular people some particular grace. All other nations on earth, Judaism teaches, can and actually should live by their natural lights and thereby attain salvation. It is this particular people alone to whom the Creator, for very definite reasons, revealed some special laws by which they are meant to live, be governed, and attain salvation.

    Since then, to be sure, this people has no longer been permitted to seek salvation by any other road other than the one delineated for them by G-d. And since then, this people has had to suffer patiently and in submission to the divine will whatever humiliation, oppresion, derision and persecution it encounters along the road, from which it must not swerve a single step. This burden, however, is not to be shouldered by anyone not born under Mosaic law. Anyone not charged by G-d with these difficult duties should live in accord with the law of nature, secure in the knowledge that man, as man, is innately capable of comprehending and fulfilling the demands of virtue, hence of attaining salvation.

    While the Israelite does not claim to be the only creature G-d selected for salvation, he feels he is the only one for whom there is no other way to attain this state…

    pp. 148-149 (To Abrham Wolf):

    …Neither modern nor ancinet Judaism has any real symbols of faith. Very few principles or doctrines have been laid down for us. Maimonides enumerates thirteen; Albo, however, limits their number to merely three without being considered a heretic by anyone.

    What has been prescribed for us are laws, customs, rules of conduct and ritual observances. We are free, however, with regard to doctrines Wherever there is a diffrence of opinion among the rabbis, any Jew, be he uneducated or learned, may agree with one another. For “these as well as these are the words of the living G-d,” as the rabbis wisely say in such instances…

    Judaism means conformity with regard to ritual observance, and freedom where religious doctrine is concerned, except for a few basic principles on which all our teachers agreed, and without which the Jewish religion simply could not go on existing.

  46. Ephry Eder says:

    That the children/grandchildren of MM were lost to traditional Jewry is of no consequence in our forming a judgement of MM’s contribution to or his practice of orthodox Judaism. The Torah we are discussing states that a man may be judged (by us) neither for the sins of his children nor for the sins of his parents.

  47. michoel halberstam says:

    Although this constitutes a digression, since the Chasam Sofer is frequently quoted as being associated witrh the “Shita” that Chadash is ossur Min Hatorah Bechol Mokom, it is useful to reflect about this point here. In fact I am aware of only two places where the aforesaid expression appears in the Chasam Sofer. The first deals with whether it was permissible to move the Bima in a Shul from the middle to the front. It is clear that in that case the Chasam Sofer felt that there was no compelling reason to do so,and that simple concessions to the modern world for no reason were not to be encouraged. The second has to do with a sheila of wheteher is was permitted to heat up a mikveh on Yom Tov to facilitate tevila for women. The Chasam Sofer acknowledges that the Nodah Beyehuda has permitted this, but states that he feels that this involves Chadassh Ossur min Hatorah. It is not at all clear how one constructed a whole shitah in Yiddishkeit base on a few references such as this. Certainly the Nodah Beyehuda was no Reform Rabbi. Moreover, it should be pointed out that the Chasam Sofer is known to have taken daring positions on question such as shaving the beard, shtarei mechira for Shabbos and Chamets., and the now famous discussion of Mezizah bepeh. Also he is known to have suggested that it might be permissible to ride the trains on Shabbos, under certain circumstances.

    In general, it is a bad idea to reduce a giant like the Chasam Sofer to a man who peddled a shita. These kinds of things happen when our community is confronted by a threat from the modern world and we struggle to find a way of dealing with it. Nothing however, should ever allow us to avpoid the truth for the convenience of a simple approach. In the long run, such approaches themseklves are incredibly threatening to the Halacha. Regarding Mendelson, one should make up his mind based upon the evidence of what he did and said, without trying to reconstruct what others may have thought of him

  48. lawrence kaplan says:

    Bob Miller: I assure you that I am familiar with these very well known statements of Mendelssohn. What exactly is this your citing of them intended to prove? That Mendelssohn believed that all 613 mitzvot were supernaturally revealed by God at Sinai and that they consequently should be observed by every Jew? Sounds pretty Orthodox to me.

  49. Shmuel says:

    Dr. Kaplan

    Thank you, for the assistance, your studied opinion and kind offer.

    Ephry, I was attempting to use available historical references to make sense of an unusually catastrophic conclusion of a very talented Jewish family. But you are correct. That is the Torah’s admonition, incumbant upon us to recall.

  50. thanbo says:

    Those comments from R’ YG Bechhofer were part of a much longer correspondence on Avodah. Among those who responded to R’ Bechhofer’s bare quotes were:

    R’ Mechy Frankel: http://www.aishdas.org/avodah/vol04/v04n329.shtml#02

    RYGB has now acquired a few original quotes. I’m afraid that his method of simply providing some quotations with the expectation that others will immediately be offended by their self-evident “drivel” is not the sure fire rebuttal he imagines. unless you’re prepared to trash other people whom I suspect you would not. see remarks above about the range of classical opinions.

    R’ Shalom Carmy: http://www.aishdas.org/avodah/vol04/v04n330.shtml#03

    See R’ Carmy’s post for specific responses to each of RYGB’s quotes. They are not so damning as ch”R would want us to think.

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