Moses Mendelssohn – Intellectual Profile

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Moses Mendelssohn
Mendelssohn
Name
Moses Mendelssohn, Moses of Dessau
משה מנדלסון, משה בן מנדל מדעסוי, רמבמ"ן
Dates1729-1786
LocationGermany
WorksBe'ur (ed.)
Exegetical Characteristics
Influenced byR. David Frankel
Impacted on

Background

Life

  • Name –  Moses Mendelssohn
    • Hebrew name – משה בן מנדל
  • Dates – 1729-1786
  • Location – Dessau, Berlin
  • Education – Studied in Dessau under R. David Frankel, the author of Korban Edah to the Talmud Yerushalmi; continued to study with R. Frankel in Berlin, but also studied with R. Yisrael b. Moshe of Zamosc, the author of the commentary Otzar Nehmad to the Kuzari. Virtually all his general education was obtained on his own.
  • Occupation – Managed and later was part owner of a silk manufacturing business.
  • Family –  Married and had six children who survived to adulthood; they were between 5 and 22 years old when he died.
  • Teachers – see Education, above
  • Students – Mendelssohn was neither a teacher in a formal or informal sense; although many were interested in his ideas, he never referred to them as students.
  • Time period – Mendelssohn lived at the time of the Enlightenment, but the German adherents of the Enlightenment with whom he interacted and corresponded were far more moderate than the thinkers associated with the French Enlightenment. The latter were often hostile to religion, whereas almost all the German Aufklärer were  Christians who remained deeply committed to their church but sought to enlighten their religion from within.

Works

  • Biblical commentaries – Mendelssohn wrote a commentary to Qohelet (1770), and then published Sefer Netivot ha-Shalom, which included his German translation of the entire humash, a Hebrew commentary titled Be'ur, and the Tiqqun Soferim, a masoretic commentary. This humash also included three lengthy introductions; one devoted to defending the masoretic Bible down to the niqqud and te'amim, one on the history of Bible translations, and a third devoted to the principles of translation.
  • Jewish thought –  He wrote a commentary to Millot ha-Higayon, the treatise on logic attributed to the Rambam.

Torah Commentary

Characteristics

  • Authorship of the work –  Mendelssohn translated the entire Chumash into German, but the Be'ur was written by different individuals.
    • Mendelssohn himself wrote the Be'ur to Parashat Bereshit, all of Sefer Shemot, and substantial portions of Sefer Devarim.
    • Shlomoh Dubno wrote the remainder of the commentary to Sefer Bereshit and contributed some notes to Shemot.
    • Naphtali Hirz Veizel (Wessely) wrote the commentary to Sefer Vayiqra.
    • Aaron Jaroslav penned the Be'ur to Bemidbar.
    • Herz Homberg wrote part of the commentary to Sefer Devarim, although Mendelssohn found it to be wanting and re-edited those sections.
  • Language –  the Be'ur was written in Hebrew, but it was the beginnings of a 'new' Hebrew that strove to be more clear and transparent than the Hebrew often used in the early modern period. The authors of the Be'ur nonetheless drew their terminology from medieval Hebrew literature, from both parshanut and philosophical writings. 
  • Peshat and derash – Mendelssohn, Dubno, and Veizel were the first moderns to focus on the need to harmonize peshat and derash, and to provide something more systematic and consistent than what the medievals had provided. Mendelssohn set down his ideas in the introduction to his work on Qohelet, which he reiterated in his introduction to Sefer Netivot ha-Shalom, and which he and Dubno applied in their respective sections of the Be'ur. Veizel explained his approach - which differed from Mendelssohn - in his introduction to Sefer Vayiqra.

Methods

  • Because of the multiple authorship of the Be'ur, the methods differed somewhat among the five books of the Torah. Mendelssohn and Dubno, who together initiated the project, drew upon rabbinic sources - the Talmud, Midrash Halakhah, and Midrash Aggadah - as well as from four medieval parshanim: Rashi, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, and Ramban. A few salient points to note:
    • Mendelssohn and Dubno were the first parshanim to make extensive use of Rashbam's commentary to the Torah, which had been first printed in 1705. For seventy-five years Rashbam's work went pretty much unnoticed, and Mendelssohn and Dubno had a role in drawing Rashbam's commentary into the 'classical' fold.
    • Despite his obvious appreciation for Rashbam's contribution to the development of peshuto shel miqra, Mendelssohn criticized Rashbam for failing to deal with derash where the peshat and derash would be perceived to be in contradiction.
    • Because of their interest in the question of peshat and derash, Mendelssohn and Dubno made extensive use of Rashi and Ramban, precisely because their commentaries dealt substantively, if not always systematically, with both peshat and derash.
    • These eighteenth-century exegetes wove these four parshanim together in often seamless ways; that is, only upon careful examination does one realize that a comment might begin with a line from Rashi, end with a phrase of Ibn Ezra, and have Rashbam spliced in there as well. Mendelssohn was certainly aware of their differences, and often noted it explicitly. But he also saw that quite often the medieval parshanim shared a certain basic reading of this or that verse or narrative, and Mendelssohn was drawn to underscoring the shared foundation of their commentaries.

Editions / Re-printings

  •  There were over two dozen editions of Sefer Netivot ha-Shalom printed between 1783 and the 1860s, making it one of the most widely printed Chumashim of the nineteenth-century. 

Sources

Significant Influences

  • Earlier Sources – 
  • Teachers – 
  • Foils – 

Occasional Usage

Impact

Later exegetes

  • Virtually all the nineteenth century parshanim were familiar with Sefer Netivot ha-Shalom; some, like R. Isaac Reggio, modeled their own translations and commentaries on Mendelssohn's Chumash; others, like R. Meklenburg's Ha-Ketav ve-ha-Qabbalah, cited from it regularly. Later exegetes like Malbim and Netziv certainly knew the work and one can detect comments that were written with the Be'ur in mind.

Supercommentaries

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