Page 105 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 40

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translated the Scriptures into German . . . for the use of the
children which God gave me and of whom the older one, alas, has
died. . . (JubA 19, 251). In both sources he continues to relate
how Solomon Dubno, whom he had engaged to teach his sons
Hebrew grammar, became aware of this private translation, rec­
ognized its great educational value and persuaded Mendelssohn
to let him, Dubno, publish it “for the benefit of the Jewish youth”
(JubA 19, 252). Mendelssohn complied but stipulated that Dubno
should write a Hebrew commentary for it in which he explained
from case to case why Mendelssohn’s translation either leaned on
one of the classic medieval commentators, Rashi, Ibn Ezra,
Rashbam, Radak and Ramban, or why he deviated from all of
them; and another separate commentary was to deal with matters
of Massorah and grammar.
According to a different version, Mendelssohn undertook the
translation principally as a public service, his motive being that
German Jews were no longer able to understand the Torah. In
Dubno’s introduction to a pamphlet published as a sample for
subscribers and entitled
Alim li-Terufah,
“Leaves of Healing” (cf.
Ez 47:12; Amsterdam, 1778), we read about the low state of
Hebrew learning, the inadequacy of the Yiddish translations, and
the dependence of Jewish youth on Christian translations that do
not recognize Jewish commentators and the Massorah.5We are
told that “the famous scholar, Rabbi Moses of Dessau . . . had pity
on his people and decided to translate the Five Books of the
Torah into pure German. . . (JubA 14, 321). While the Intro­
duction to the specimen is signed by Dubno, today’s Mendelssohn
research agrees that it was written for the most part by Men­
delssohn himself (Altmann, 376). And, again, this version is cor­
roborated by a letter. On June 29, 1779, he wrote to his friend,
August Hennings, a counselor at the Danish embassy in Berlin:
“The remainder of my strength may be sufficient to render a
service to my children and perhaps to a considerable part of my
nation, if I give into their hands a better translation and explana­
tion of the holy books than what they have had until now. This is
the first step toward culture, from which my nation, alas, is being
kept in such a great distance” (JubA 12, 2, 149).
For a very long time the question as to the real reason for the
Biur agitated the minds of scholars: Which of the causes was the
true one — did Mendelssohn translate the Pentateuch for the
5 So also in
Or li-Netivah
, JubA 14, pp. 242-243.