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Moses Mendelssohn

Moses Mendelssohn
Moses Mendelssohn in portrait by Anton Graff, 1773
Born (1729-09-06)September 6, 1729
Dessau, Principality of Anhalt
Died January 4, 1786(1786-01-04) (aged 56)
Berlin, Margraviate of Brandenburg
Religion Judaism
Era 18th-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Haskalah, Enlightenment philosophy
Moses Mendelssohn's glasses, in the Berlin Jewish Museum

Moses Mendelssohn (6 September 1729[1] – 4 January 1786) was a German Jewish philosopher to whose ideas the Haskalah, the 'Jewish enlightenment' of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is indebted.

Born to a poor Jewish family in Dessau and originally destined for a rabbinical career, Mendelssohn educated himself in German thought and literature and from his writings on philosophy and religion came to be regarded as a leading cultural figure of his time by both Christian and Jewish inhabitants of the Holy Roman Empire. He also established himself as an important figure in the Berlin textile industry, which was the foundation of his family's wealth.

Moses Mendelssohn's descendants include the composers Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn and the founders of the Mendelssohn & Co. banking house.


  • Youth 1
  • Early prominence as philosopher and critic 2
  • Lavater 3
  • Illness 4
  • Works on religion and civil society 5
  • Later years and legacy 6
  • Family 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • Sources 10
  • External links 11


Moses Mendelssohn was born in Dessau. His father's name was Mendel, and it was Moses who adopted the surname Mendelssohn ("Mendel's son"). Moses's son Abraham Mendelssohn wrote in 1829 (to his son Felix Mendelssohn ), "My father felt that the name Moses Ben Mendel Dessau would handicap him in gaining the needed access to those who had the better education at their disposal. Without any fear that his own father would take offense, my father assumed the name Mendelssohn. The change, though a small one, was decisive."[2]

Mendel was an impoverished scribe — a writer of torah scrolls — and his son Moses in his boyhood developed curvature of the spine. Moses's early education was cared for by his father and by the local rabbi, David Fränkel, who besides teaching him the Bible and Talmud, introduced to him the philosophy of Maimonides. Fränkel received a call to Berlin in 1743. A few months later Moses followed him.

A refugee Pole, Zamoscz, taught him mathematics, and a young Jewish physician taught him Latin. He was, however, mainly self-taught. He learned to spell and to philosophize at the same time (according to the historian Graetz). With his scanty earnings he bought a Latin copy of John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and mastered it with the aid of a Latin dictionary. He then made the acquaintance of Aaron Solomon Gumperz, who taught him basic French and English. In 1750, a wealthy silk-merchant, Isaac Bernhard, appointed him to teach his children. Mendelssohn soon won the confidence of Bernhard, who made the young student successively his bookkeeper and his partner.

It was possibly Gumperz who introduced Mendelssohn to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing in 1754, who became one of his greatest friends. The story goes that the first time Mendelssohn met Lessing, they played chess; therefore, in Lessing's play Nathan the Wise Nathan and the character Saladin first meet during a game of chess. Lessing had recently produced the drama Die Juden, whose moral was that a Jew can possess nobility of character. This notion was, in the contemporary Berlin of Frederick the Great, generally ridiculed as untrue. Lessing found in Mendelssohn the realization of his dream. Within a few months, the two became closely intellectually allied. Lessing also brought Mendelssohn to public attention for the first time: Mendelssohn had written an essay attacking Germans' neglect of their native philosophers (principally Gottfried Leibniz), and lent the manuscript to Lessing. Without consulting the author, Lessing published Mendelssohn's Philosophical Conversations (Philosophische Gespräche) anonymously in 1755. In the same year there appeared in Danzig (Gdańsk) an anonymous satire, Pope a Metaphysician (Pope ein Metaphysiker), which turned out to be the joint work of Lessing and Mendelssohn.

Early prominence as philosopher and critic

Mendelssohn became (1756–1759) the leading spirit of Friedrich Nicolai's important literary undertakings, the Bibliothek and the Literaturbriefe, and ran some risk (which Frederick's good nature mitigated) by criticizing the poems of the King of Prussia. In 1762 he married Fromet Guggenheim, who survived him by twenty-six years. In the year following his marriage Mendelssohn won the prize offered by the Berlin Academy for an essay on the application of mathematical proofs to metaphysics, On Evidence in the Metaphysical Sciences; among the competitors were Thomas Abbt and Immanuel Kant (who came second).[3] In October 1763 the king granted Mendelssohn, but not his wife or children, the privilege of Protected Jew (Schutzjude)—which assured his right to undisturbed residence in Berlin.[4]

As a result of his correspondence with Abbt, Mendelssohn resolved to write on the Immortality of the Soul. Materialistic views were at the time rampant and fashionable, and faith in immortality was at a low ebb. At this favourable juncture appeared the Phädon oder über die Unsterblichkeit der Seele (Phädon or On the Immortality of Souls; 1767). Modelled on Plato's dialogue of the same name, Mendelssohn's work possessed some of the charm of its Greek exemplar and impressed the German world with its beauty and lucidity of style. The Phädon was an immediate success, and besides being often reprinted in German was speedily translated into nearly all the European languages, including English. The author was hailed as the "German Plato," or the "German Socrates"; royal and other aristocratic friends showered attentions on him, and it was said that "no stranger who came to Berlin failed to pay his personal respects to the German Socrates."


Mendelssohn, Lavater and Lessing, in an imaginary portrait by the Jewish artist Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1856). Collection of the Judah L. Magnes Museum
So far, Mendelssohn had devoted his talents to philosophy and criticism; now, however, an incident turned the current of his life in the direction of the cause of Judaism. In April 1763, Johann Kaspar Lavater, then a young theology-student from Zurich, made a trip to Berlin, where he visited the already famous Jewish philosopher with some companions. They insisted on Mendelssohn telling them his views on Jesus and managed to get from him the statement, that, provided the historical Jesus had kept himself and his theology strictly within limits of orthodox Judaism, Mendelssohn "respected the morality of Jesus' character".[5] Six years later, in October 1769, Lavater sent Mendelssohn his German translation of Charles Bonnet's essay on Christian Evidences, with a preface where he publicly challenged Mendelssohn to refute Bonnet or if he could not then to "do what wisdom, the love of truth and honesty must bid him, what a Socrates would have done if he had read the book and found it unanswerable".[6] Mendelssohn answered in an open letter in December 1769: "Suppose there were living among my contemporaries a Confucius or a Solon, I could, according to the principles of my faith, love and admire the great man without falling into the ridiculous idea that I must convert a Solon or a Confucius." The ongoing public controversy cost Mendelssohn much time, energy and strength.

Lavater later described Mendelssohn in his book on physiognomy, "Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe" (1775–1778), as "a companionable, brilliant soul, with piercing eyes, the body of an Aesop [who was traditionally considered ugly]—a man of keen insight, exquisite taste and wide erudition [...] frank and open-hearted"—ending his public praise with the wish of Mendelssohn recognizing, "together with Plato and Moses... the crucified glory of Christ". When, in 1775 the Swiss-German Jews, faced with the threat of expulsion, turned to Mendelssohn and asked him to intervene on their behalf with "his friend" Lavater, Lavater, after receiving Mendelssohn's letter, promptly and effectively secured their stay.


In March 1771 Mendelssohn's health deteriorated so badly that

  • Works by or about Moses Mendelssohn at Internet Archive
  • Moses Mendelssohn's books at Google Books
  • a work unpublished in his lifetime dealing with questions related to theodicy, including Mendelssohn's denial of the doctrine of eternal punishmentThe Case for God, Sache Gottes,Translation of Moses Mendelssohn's
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry
  • Ohr Le-Netivah (introduction to the 'Biur') on
  • Contains Mendelssohn's Jerusalem, slightly modified for easier reading
  • Moses Mendelssohn In Our Time (BBC Radio 4) stream (original broadcast 22 March 2012) discussion with Christopher Clark (University of Cambridge), Abigail Green (University of Oxford), Adam Sutcliffe (King's College London), hosted by Melvyn Bragg, and including a list of further readings.
  • Video Lecture on Moses Mendelssohn by Dr. Henry Abramson

Media related to at Wikimedia Commons

External links

  • Altmann, Alexander. Moses Mendelssohn: A Biographical Study, 1973. ISBN 0-8173-6860-4.
  • (German) Bloch, Marcus, Medicinische Bemerkungen. Nebst einer Abhandlung vom Pyrmonter-Augenbrunnen. Berlin 1774
  • Brand, Aron, The Illness of Moses Mendelssohn, "Koroth" 6, 421-426, 1974
  • Dahlstrom, Daniel, Moses Mendelssohn, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  • (German) Kayserling, Meyer Moses Mendelssohn, sein Leben und seine Werke. Nebst einem Anhange ungedruckter Briefe. Leipzig, 1862.
  • (German) Lavater, J. K., Sammlung derer Briefe, welche bey Gelegenheit der Bonnetschen philosophischen Untersuchung der Beweise für das Christenthum zwischen Hrn. Lavater, Moses Mendelssohn, und Hrn Dr. Kölbele gewechselt worden [Collection of those letters which have passed between Mr. Lavater, Moses Mendelssohn, and Mr. Dr. Kölbele on occasion of Bonnet's investigation concerning the evidence of Christianity], Frankfurt am Main 1774 (Google Books).
  • Mendelssohn, Moses, tr. A. Arkush, intr. A. Altmann: Jerusalem, or, on religious power and Judaism, 1983. ISBN 0-87451-263-8.
  • Mendelssohn, Moses, tr., intr., comm. B. Rosenstock: Last Works, 2012. Includes Morning Hours: Lectures on the Existence of God (Morgenstunden, 1785) and To the Friends of Lessing (An die Freunde Lessings, 1786). ISBN 978-0-252-03687-3.
  • Arnaldo Momigliano, On Pagans, Jews, and Christians, Weslyan University Press, 1987 ISBN 0-8195-6218-1
  • (German) Schoeps, Julius H. Das Erbe der Mendelssohhns, Frankfurt 2009. ISBN 978-3-10-073606-2
  • (German) Tree, Stephen. Moses Mendelssohn. Rowohlt Verlag, Reinbek, 2007. ISBN 3-499-50671-8.

Mendelssohn's complete works have been published in 19 volumes (in the original languages) (Stuttgart, 1971 ff., ed. A. Altmann and others)



  1. ^ Hebrew calendar 12 Elul 5489
  2. ^ Michael P. Steinberg, "Mendelssohn and Judaism," in The Cambridge Companion to Mendelssohn, ed. Peter Mercer-Taylor, p. 34, Cambridge University Press, 2004); translation by Eric Werner, corrected by Michael Steinberg |ISBN=0 521 82603 9
  3. ^ Dahlstrom (2008)
  4. ^  
  5. ^ Moses Mendelssohn, Public Letter to Lavater, December 12th 1769 (Berlin 1770)
  6. ^ Lavater(1774), p. 2 .
  7. ^ Bloch (1774), p. 60-71
  8. ^ Brand, 1974
  9. ^ Brand, 1974
  10. ^ Tree (2007), p. 69, Footnote 143, medical analysis by Dr. Channah Maayan, Hadassah Hospital, Jerusalem, Israel
  11. ^ Brand, 1974
  12. ^ Moses Mendelssohn, private letter to August Hennings, July 29th 1779. Cited in Schoeps (2009), pp. 60-61
  13. ^ cited in Momigliano (1987), p. 158
  14. ^ Heine, Heinrich (1959). Religion and Philosophy in Germany, A fragment (1959), Beacon Press, p. 94
  15. ^ 1 Samuel, 25:29
  16. ^ Altmann (1973), p. 733 f.
  17. ^ Dahlmann (2008)
  18. ^


See also

Mendelssohn had six children, of whom only his second-oldest daughter, Recha, and his eldest son, Joseph, retained the Jewish faith. His sons were: Joseph (founder of the Mendelssohn banking house, and a friend and benefactor of Alexander von Humboldt), Abraham (who married Lea Salomon and was the father of Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn); and Nathan (a mechanical engineer of considerable repute). His daughters were Dorothea, the mother of Philipp Veit (and subsequently the consort, and then wife, of Friedrich von Schlegel), Recha and Henriette, all gifted women. Recha's only grandson (son of Heinrich Beer, brother of the composer Giacomo Meyerbeer), was born and educated as a Jew, but died very young, together with his parents, apparently from an epidemic. Joseph Mendelssohn's son Alexander (d. 1871) was the last male descendant of Moses Mendelssohn to practice Judaism.


[18] He was buried in Jüdischer Friedhof cemetery in Berlin.[17] Mendelssohn grew ever more famous, and counted among his friends many of the great figures of his time. But his final years were overshadowed and saddened by the so-called

Moses Mendelssohn's (reconstructed) grave in Berlin. Translation of Hebrew inscription: H[ere] R[ests] / THE WISE R[eb] MOSES of DESSAU / BORN ON THE 12TH OF ELUL 5489 [(September 6, 1729)] / DIED ON WEDNESDAY THE 5TH OF SHVAT [(January 4)] / AND BURIED THE NEXT MORNING, ON THURSDAY THE 6TH / 5546 [(January 5, 1786)] / M[ay] H[is] S[oul be] B[ound up in the] B[ond of eternal] L[ife][15]

Later years and legacy

To Mendelssohn his theory represented a strengthening bond to Judaism. But in the first part of the 19th century, the criticism of Jewish dogmas and traditions was associated with a firm adhesion to the older Jewish mode of living. Reason was applied to beliefs, the historic consciousness to life. Modern reform in Judaism has parted to some extent from this conception. In the view of the German writer Heinrich Heine, "as Luther had overthrown the Papacy, so Mendelssohn overthrew the Talmud; and he did so after the same fashion, namely, by rejecting tradition, by declaring the Bible to be the source of religion, and by translating the most important part of it. By these means he shattered Judaic, as Luther had shattered Christian, Catholicism; for the Talmud is, in fact, the Catholicism of the Jews."[14]

Kant called this "the proclamation of a great reform, which, however, will be slow in manifestation and in progress, and which will affect not only your people but others as well." Mendelssohn asserted the pragmatic principle of the possible plurality of truths: that just as various nations need different constitutions—to one a monarchy, to another a republic, may be the most congenial to the national genius—so individuals may need different religions. The test of religion is its effect on conduct. This is the moral of Lessing's Nathan the Wise (Nathan der Weise), the hero of which is undoubtedly Mendelssohn, and in which the parable of the three rings is the epitome of the pragmatic position.

Its basic thrust is that the state has no right to interfere with the religion of its citizens, Jews included. While it proclaims the mandatory character of Jewish law for all Jews (including, based on Mendelssohn's understanding of the New Testament, those converted to Christianity), it does not grant the rabbinate the right to punish Jews for deviating from it. He maintained that Judaism was less a "divine need, than a revealed life". Jerusalem concludes with the cry "Love truth, love peace!"—in a quote from Zacharias 8:19.

Brothers, if you care for true piety, let us not feign agreement, where diversity is evidently the plan and purpose of Providence. None of us thinks and feels exactly like his fellow man: why do we wish to deceive each other with delusive words?[13]

The interest caused by these actions led Mendelssohn to publish his most important contribution to the problems connected with the position of Judaism in a Gentile world. This was Jerusalem (1783; Eng. trans. 1838 and 1852). It is a forcible plea for freedom of conscience, described by Kant as "an irrefutable book". Mendelssohn wrote:

Mendelssohn also tried to better the Jews' situation in general by furthering their rights and acceptance. He induced Christian Wilhelm von Dohm to publish in 1781 his work, On the Civil Amelioration of the Condition of the Jews, which played a significant part in the rise of tolerance. Mendelssohn himself published a German translation of the Vindiciae Judaeorum by Menasseh Ben Israel.

, where both religious and worldly subjects were taught. David Friedländer. Mendelssohn is also believed to be behind the foundation of the first modern public school for Jewish boys, "Freyschule für Knaben", in Berlin in 1778 by one of his most ardent pupils, midrashim and many were literate in Hebrew (the original language of the scripture). The commentary was also thoroughly rabbinic, quoting mainly from medieval exegetes but also from Talmud-era Yiddish having been written by Mendelssohn himself. The translation was in an elegant High German, designed to allow Jews to learn the language faster. Most of the German Jews in that period spoke Exodus) (1783) and also contained a commentary, only that on the explanation (Bi'ur and other parts of the Bible. This work was called the Pentateuch To this end Mendelssohn undertook his German translation of the [12]It was after the breakdown of his health that Mendelssohn decided to "dedicate the remains of my strength for the benefit of my children or a goodly portion of my nation"—which he did by trying to bring the Jews closer to "culture, from which my nation, alas! is kept in such a distance, that one might well despair of ever overcoming it". One of the means of doing this was by "giving them a better translation of the holy books than they previously had".
Medal honoring Mendelssohn.

Works on religion and civil society

Mendelssohn was treated with China bark, blood lettings on the foot, leeches applied to the ears, enemas, foot baths, lemonade and mainly vegetarian food. “No mental stress whatsoever” was ordered. However, although he remained subject to periods of setback, he eventually recovered sufficiently to write the major works of his later career.[11]

[10]-like symptoms in times of stress.epilepsy, a hereditary disease of Ashkenazi Jews, which often brings with it a curvature of the spine and familial dysautonomia In retrospect, his illness might be diagnosed as a heart-rhythm-problem and/or a mild form of [9]

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