The king of Prussia kept tight control on his Jewish population, with such measures as the Lebzoll (head tax), banning Jews from employing non-Jewish servants, mandating badges. His father was a poor Schulklopfer (woke people up in time for shul) and custodian, but eventually became a sofer. At the age of 10, Mendelssohn went to R' David Frankel, author of Korban Ha'eida on Yerushalmi, for tutoring. In 1743, Frankel went to be chief rabbi of Berlin, and Mendelssohn followed him there.
At the time, Frederick II was the king of Prussia. In 1750, the king promulgated a Jewish Charter, defining two main categories:
+ Protected Jews, those with essential professions;
+ Tolerated Jews, those with non-essential professions, who were only allowed to remain if they were sponsored by a non-Jewish or Protected employer.
Mendelssohn, not licensed as a Protected Jew, apprenticed himself to, and eventually became partners with, a silk maker, who tutored him. Mendelssohn received his education in philosophy from the Polish Jew Israel Zamosc.
In the German enlightenment, criticism of the Bible text gained popularity, which evolved into attacks on the sanctity of the Torah. For example, Michaelis translated the Bible into German, using the Septuagint and Samaritan Torah as parallel sources. He insisted that his far-fetched translations overrode the traditional ones. For example, he rendered "dat" (as in miyimino aish-dat lamo) as "waterfall", from a Samaritan source, undermining the religious meaning of the phrase. Mendelssohn initiated his translation in response to such attacks on the Biblical text.
Mendelssohn took on his children's tutor, Solomon Dubno, as a partner in creating his translation. In 1778, they published a prospectus, an advertisement and sample of the forthcoming translation, trying to gain subscriptions before publication. They titled it "Alim Litrufah", "leaves of medical value", a phrase from a Messianic reference in Ezekiel - where in the times of Moshiach, everything will become useful, all the leaves will have medical value.
In Alim Litrufah, Mendelssohn placed his translation in the context of Jewish cultural history. Jews have produced translations of the Torah into vernacular in every culture in which they lived. In the time of the Tannaim, when the vernacular was Greek, they produced the Septuagint. When it was Aramaic, they produced the Targumim. So a German translation continues in the Jewish tradition - it's not revolutionary. Why write it now? For the children who want to learn Torah, but can't read the language, so they go to Christian interpretations and translations, and pick up all the errors and mistranslations and distortions in those versions. Keep this in mind.
It's not clear that the Jewish children spoke German at the time, although by the later 19th Century they did. It's more likely that they spoke some form of Yiddish. Keep this in mind as well.
There are two letters, from the late spring of 1779, that also shed some light on possible reasons for writing the Biur. One, to Avigdor Levi of Glogau, notes that Mendelssohn's own children were reading German, not Hebrew, so he was writing for his own children. Another, to a Danish friend named Hennings, notes that the translation would be the first step in introducing the Jews to culture, to making Jews German. [Altmann reads it somewhat differently - "culture" as morality and ethics, rather than German culture. -jjb] Note the audience for each letter.
We now have three possible reasons for the Biur:
1) For Jewish children, who read German not Hebrew
2) For Mendelssohn's children, who read German not Hebrew
3) To introduce Jews to German culture
Which reason is real, which are apologetics?
We hope to come to an answer through looking at the texts.
1) The introduction to the Biur, which states that the non-Jews' interpretations are destroying our Torah, through denying the validity of our mesora, and our vocalization (nikud) of the text, suggests the first interpretation.
2) The page-layout.
BERESHIT 29 TARG. ASHK XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX xxxxxxxx XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX xxxxxxxx XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX xxxxxxxx xxxxxxxx unkelos xxxxxxxx uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu xxxxxxxx uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu xxxxxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Rashi rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr BIUR BBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBB BBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBB BBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBB BBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBB BBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBB BBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBB BBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBB BBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBB BBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBB BBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBB BBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBB BBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBB
Note that the book has two innovative parts: the German translation, and
the Biur commentary, even though the whole work is generally referred
to as "the Biur". |
It's a fairly traditional page layout, clearly meant as a rabbinic bible commentary. The German translation (TARG. ASHK) is transliterated into Hebrew characters - which supports the interpretation in the letter to Hennings, or that the children must be able to read Hebrew characters.
The Biur is a digest of literal and/or pshat options as to what various words and passages mean, not drash-like at all. This supports the first interpretation given above, that it is a corrective against Christian textual criticism/distortion. Maybe the two reasons aren't mutually exclusive? It certainly seems that Mendelssohn addresses two audiences on the same page.
What were the reactions to the Biur?
There were three major opponents that we will discuss.
1) R' Yechezkel Landau of Prague, known by the name of his responsa collection as the Noda Biyehuda (NbY).
Dubno asked him for his opinion of the Biur, hoping for an endorsement that would help sales. The NbY wrote that the translation's difficult, archaic and highflown German would require teachers of children to spend extra time on the details of German grammar and vocabulary, reducing the content of Torah learning. He didn't dispute Mendelssohn's intention to write a corrective to non-Jewish interpretations, but even so, the result of the translation would follow the intent of the letter to Hennings. Note that the NbY did not oppose translation in general - he gave his haskama (approbation) to a simpler German Torah translation published in 1785.
2) R' Shlomo Kluger, known for his commentary on the siddur, was asked about an incident, where a group that studied Mendelssohn's Biur was excommunicated and its books burned.
He responded (having never read the Biur himself) with several instructions:
a) Don't go around burning books - it gives the goyim
b) Nobody likes Mendelssohn, you've gotta figure there's something to that.
c) That Mendelssohn was the student of R' David Frankel was insufficient to save his reputation.
d) His children and students went astray, converted, turned Reform.
e) The German translation of the Chumash paved the way towards davening in German vernacular.
Why is this important? Reason (e) goes one step further than the NbY: the Biur leads to the German language, which leads to German culture, which leads to the end of observance of Torah and mitzvot. In other words, the Reform movement is Mendelssohn's fault. Which is absolutely not true (Rabbi Mintz emphasized this point -jjb): Mendelssohn throughout his life was an Orthodox Jew, who encouraged observance in others.
3) The Chatam Sofer (CS), in his Last Will and Testament, wrote "lesifrei RaMa"D (R' Moshe Dessauer, or Mendelssohn) al tishl'chu yad." (don't touch the books of Mendelssohn). In a side note, the maskilim claimed that this was a typographical error, that instead of RMD, he had written HMD - erotica qua "lo tachmod" - but when the original manuscript was found, it clearly said RMD.
Don't get the idea that opposition was uniform. There were many who approved of, and used the Biur.
First off, R' Hirschel Levin, the chief rabbi of Berlin, gave a haskamah.
Second, who bought subscriptions? Who used it?
1) R' Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, author of Haketav Vehakabalah,
subscribed, and in fact quotes the Biur in his commentary.
2) R' David Tzvi Hoffman, the Melamed Leho'il, also quotes the Biur in his commentary on Chumash.
3) Shmuel David Luzzatto warmly recommends the Biur as a tool for teachers of Chumash to understand the text.
4) There were study groups devoted to the Biur in the Netherlands for 150 years, down to World War II.
5) R' Yaakov Weil, a major critic of Reform, recommends that in the modern age, "shnayim mikra v'echad targum" (the requirement to read the parsha each week twice in Hebrew and once in Aramaic translation, Rashi substituting for the latter in many places) can be fulfilled by reading the parsha with the Biur and the German translation.
So what do we have in conclusion?
The tension in integrating the world of traditional Judaism with German culture is revealed in the Biur project. What were Mendelssohn's motives?
1) The critics were right - it was an introduction to the German language,
and maybe to German culture, and perhaps to Reform.
2) It was the first modern rabbinic Bible, as a corrective to German Enlightenment thought. It was not an end in itself, but a beginning. R' David Tzvi Hoffman's commentary, counteracting the Documentary Hypothesis, continues in this tradition, as does the commentary of J.H. Hertz - correcting against the non-Jewish, anti-Jewish ideas.
Mendelssohn's courage in tackling these issues enriches us for continuing to live in both cultures.