Page 104 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 40

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JEW ISH BOOK ANNUAL
established — as a leading philosopher, a celebrated man of
German letters and as
the
model Jew in that time of enlightenment
and incipient emancipation. Certainly, Christian theologians, aes­
thetes, writers and politicians saw in him the spokesman for all
Jews, and even those rabbis who disapproved of him did not cast
doubt on his prominence. They could not deny that he was an
observant Jew whose involvement with modern thought did, in
no way, interfere with his sincere piety and strict observance of
the commandments.
This article will delineate and update a number of literary-
historical questions regarding the Biur, with which Mendelssohn
scholarship has dealt for a long time.
The first of these has to do with the exact steps that led to the
writing of the work and the reasons for them. Mendelssohn
himself has given mixed signals concerning this question. They
are contained in his Hebrew Introduction to the Biur, called
Or
li-Netivah ,
“Light on the Path” (cf. Ps. 119:105),2 as well as in his
correspondence.
SOME MOTIVATIONS
Mendelssohn was unhappy about the state of Jewish education
in Germany Jewish boys were taught almost exclusively by Polish
Jewish teachers, most of whom were unqualified for the task both
pedagogically and linguistically. The main subject was the study
of Talmud. The Hebrew Bible was taught by means of word-by-
word translation into Yiddish.3 Mendelssohn refused to apply
this method with his own children. We read in
Or li-N e tivah
:
“When God granted me male children and the time came to teach
them Torah . . . I resolved to translate the Pentateuch into
polished and proper German, as it is customary in our days: For
the benefit of the little children. I put the translation into their
mouth. . . .” (JubA, 14, 243).4 And in a letter of May 25, 1779 to
his frequent correspondent, Avigdor Levi of Glogau, he wrote: “I
2 A new edition of
Or li-Netivah
is found in
Moses Mendelssohn Gesammelte Schriften,
Jubilaumsausgabe
(henceforth JubA), Stuttgart, 1971 ff., 14, pp. 209-267.
3 Two Yiddish translations, both one hundred years old, were then in use, one by
Yekutiel Blitz, 1676-1679; the other by Yoslen Witzenhausen, 16791, 16872,
both Amsterdam.
4 See also Alexander Altmann
,Moses Mendelssohn, a Biographical Study
(henceforth
Altmann), University, Alabama, 1973, p. 369.