Wednesday, May 07, 2008

A German translation of a Hebrew book dedicated to Moses Mendelssohn

UPDATE 7.17.2012:

I have been accused by Dr. Edward Breuer of plagiarizing the main idea of this post from his book The Limits of Enlightenment. Without further ado I hereby credit him and his excellent book and apologize for any anguish I caused.

In 1771 German Bible scholar Johann Salomo Semler (1725-91) produced a German translation of R. Eliyahu Bahur's (Elias Levita) מסורת המסורת titled Übersetzung des Buchs Massoreth Hamassoreth.(Semler was the editor; the translation itself was done by an apostate Jew called Christian Gottlob Meyer; Meyer also eventually translated Moses Mendelssohn's prospectus to his Bible translation, the עלים לתרופה into German.)

Fortunately this edition of Massoreth Ha-massoreth is now available online (link).

A sample of the book:

Following the title page we find the following dedication:

Semler dedicated this to Moses Mendelssohn, a man he greatly admired. As a fellow Aufklärer, he assumed that Mendelssohn shared his views of modern Bible scholarship, the מסורת המסורת representing a key component of the modern view, namely that the nekkudot and te'amim were late additions to the Bible text (at least the graphic symbols, if not what they represented). In fact, Mendelssohn did not. He vigorously upheld the dominant Jewish traditional view that they were old (from Ezra, if not from Sinai). In Mendelssohn's Introduction to the Torah, the אור לנתיבה he defended the antiquity of the points and accents, citing the work of R. Azariah min ha-Adumim (de' Rossi) who was the foremost Jewish rebutter of Bahur's thesis (see here for a sample of that - in English - from 1860).

Paranthetically, it is worth pointing out that when I bring this up many are surprised Mendelssohn would uphold the more traditional, non-critical view - especially as Bahur's view would seem to cost nothing. But this is based on a misunderstanding of Mendelssohn's approach to the Bible (and the assumption that Bahur's view costs nothing!). Perhaps Mendelssohn was non-traditional, but his overall approach was not that of contemporary 18th century Biblical scholarship, but more closely resembled the peshat oriented exegesis of those rishonim who concentrated mainly on peshat.

In Semler's introduction he explains that he shares (so he believed) with Mendelssohn the struggle to rid the people - Christian and Jew alike - of superstitious sort of beliefs about the Bible. It is true, one might suggest, that Mendelssohn's peshatian orientation could be seen as closer to Semler's than whatever the superstitious Bible beliefs among Christians and Jews which Semler had in mind. But given the true nature of Mendelssohn's views about the Bible, views which actually ran counter to almost every modern and enlightened work about the Bible, it would seem to be ironic that this book specifically should be dedicated to him. It just goes to show how people can give off mistaken impressions.


  1. Apparently I am an even slower reader than you are (because I only found this post now, four years after you wrote it). I see that you were reading Dr Edward Breuer's book, The Limits of Enlightenment: Jews, Germany and the Eighteenth-Century Study of Scripture, when you were playing tag on January 31st:
    In this post you seem to be summarising Dr Breuer's ideas from that book, (p. 99, pp. 117-118 and n. 117 on p. 266. to be specific). It seems that you enjoyed the book.
    It seems that you enjoyed the book; why not credit Breuer's book so that others can read more about this?

  2. It seems that someone put you up to this. It seems that if someone did, why not disclose this?

  3. No one "put me up to this." I can certainly disclose that I spoke to Dr Breuer. I was very surprised that you hadn't credited him, because I hadn't expected that from you. Apparently he has emailed you about this, and so have others, but didn't get a response. He views this very seriously, and has shared this with others involved in the Jewish blogging world. I understand that mistakes can happen, but I don't understand why you have still not credited him for the ideas. At least with my comment other readers can have access to the original.



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