Page 103 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 40

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WERNER WEINBERG
Moses Mendelssohn’s “B i u r T w o
Hundred Years Later
M
en d e l s so h n
tr a n s l a t e d
the Pentateuch into German and pub­
lished it with a Hebrew commentary that combined traditional
exegesis with contemporary philosophical thinking (1780-1783).
This signified a decisive event in modern Jewish spiritual history.
In fact, a case can be made that the “Biur”
was
the beginning of
modern Jewish spiritual history.1
Strictly speaking, the word describes only the commentary and,
at that, it ought to be pronounced “Be-ur.” But the people, the
final arbiter of pronunciation and meaning, applied the term
“Biur” to the total work, and we shall acknowledge this fact by
using the word from now on without quotation marks.
In order to appreciate the importance of Mendelssohn’s under­
taking, we must realize that it constituted the first translation of
the Torah into a major modern language by a Jew. Except for the
minority group
o iM a sk ilim ,
“Enlighteners,” and their sympathiz­
ers, European Jewry and its leadership still looked with distrust
upon a Jew knowing more German than was necessary for the
pursuit of a livelihood. They feared — and of course rightfully,
even though it was not the only factor — that knowledge of the
language might become the key to German and Western culture,
mores and philosophy, and, consequently, the traditional ap­
proach toward studying Torah and Talmud would fall into dis­
credit, halakhic Judaism would erode and the floodgates of as­
similation and even apostasy would be opened.
The fact that it was Moses Mendelssohn who published the new
Pentateuch edition added to the significance of the event. By that
time in Mendelssohn’s life (1729-1786), his reputation was firmly
1 See M. Kayserling, Afo5«
Mendelssohn,
Leipzig, 1862, p. 288; H. Gratz
,Geschichte
der Juden,
vol. 11, Leipzig, 1870, pp. 41, 49-50; W. Bacher, in
Jahrbuch fu r
Jiidische Geschichte und Literatur,
Berlin, 1899, p. 52; I. Zinberg
,A History ofJewish
Literature,
trans. Bernard Martin, vol. 8, Cincinnati and New York, p. 38.
97