Moses Mendelssohn

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Moses Mendelssohn (1771, portrait by Anton Graff , art collection of the University of Leipzig)

Moses Mendelssohn (born on 6. September 1729 in Dessau , died on 4. January 1786 in Berlin ) was a German philosopher of the Enlightenment . He is considered the pioneer of the Haskala .



Memorial plaque on the birthplace

Moses Mendelssohn's father Mendel Heymann worked as a Sofer as well as Dessau community clerk and primary school teacher. Nothing is known about his origins, except that he immigrated to Dessau. He was traditionally oriented, so that his son later referred to him as a “man from the old world” who “had his special crickets”. The mother, Rachel Sara Wahl, came from an old Jewish family that included important personalities in Polish-Jewish history such as Moses Isserles , the author of an important legal commentary on the Shulchan Aruch , and Saul Wahl (approx. 1545-1617), one half legendary figure who is said to have worn the Polish royal crown for one night.

When Moses was born, the father was already 47 years old. Despite the modest circumstances in the parental home, the child was carefully trained and recognized as gifted at an early age. His mother tongue was late West Yiddish ; He learned Hebrew and Aramaic (the language of the Talmud ) as a toddler - presumably from his father, who later carried the seven-year-old to school in winter "wrapped in his coat" on his back. His teachers there were visibly enthusiastic about his achievements. By the age of ten, Moses is said to have had excellent knowledge of the Talmud.

Around 1739 the young Mendelssohn moved to the class of the Dessau chief rabbi David Fränkel (1707–1762), an influential scholar who, after almost 200 years , re-edited the leader of the indecisive , a major work by the important Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1138–1204). Immediately after its publication in 1742, Mendelssohn worked through the demanding two-volume Hebrew work together with Frankel, who also introduced it to the Talmud and its commentaries. During this time - Mendelssohn was around thirteen years old - the curve of his back became noticeable. He was also prone to stuttering.

Berlin years

Memorial plaque from the former residential building, Spandauer Strasse 68, in Berlin-Mitte

When Rabbi Fränkel was called to Frankfurt / Oder in 1743 and immediately afterwards to Berlin as Chief Rabbi, his pupil followed him to the Talmud School, which was newly founded in Berlin in 1742; According to legend, five days' walk on foot. He lived there until 1750 in Probstgasse 3 behind the Nikolaikirche in the attic of Chaim and Gella Bamberger and, according to tradition, received two "free meals" or free meals per week and was also kept afloat by Rabbi Fränkel with copying orders.

With the help of older, secularly educated students, Mendelssohn acquired, in addition to his Talmudic studies, German and later Latin, French and English as well as other secular knowledge. Early on he showed a tendency towards philosophy; he first studied the English early Enlightenment John Locke in Latin with the help of a dictionary, as well as Christian Wolff and the universal scholar Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz . Also Shaftesbury Think spoke to him while he most French Enlightenment, except for Rousseau , met skeptically. Soon he became a scout himself .

After seven years as a beggar student, he was hired by the silk merchant Bernhard Isaak as a private tutor for his children in 1750 and started as an accountant in his newly established silk factory in 1754. Mediated by Aaron Samuel Gumperz , he met in the same year, allegedly playing chess, the priest's son of the same age and former theology and medical student Gotthold Ephraim Lessing , who wrote him in 1754 when he published an anonymous letter as "just as witty as learned and upright [man ] ”. A year later Lessing took care of the publication of Mendelssohn's first German work, the Philosophical Conversations (also published anonymously), and introduced him to Friedrich Nicolai , who won him over as a collaborator for his influential magazine Briefe, die neue Litteratur . This made Mendelssohn an influential critic of the newly emerging German literature. Mendelssohn joined the Gelehrtes Kaffeehaus , one of the oldest sociable civil associations in Berlin, which existed from 1755 to probably 1759. His publisher Friedrich Nicolai was also a member of this association. Between February 1756 and January or February 1757 there was an exchange of blows between the mathematician and astronomer Franz Ulrich Theodor Aepinus and Mendelssohn on four meeting days . Mendelssohn had presented his "Thoughts of Probability", to which Aepinus presented a refutation. Mendelssohn responded with a “counter-answer”. Mendelssohn is also said to have joined the Monday Club in Berlin, an association of the Berlin Enlightenment, as a member. However, he is not listed in the membership directory of this association. Mendelssohn was a devout Jew and held fast to this belief. Although he was invited to meetings of the Monday club, he declined because he did not want to attend the compulsory meals because of the Jewish dietary laws.

In 1761 Mendelssohn became managing director of the silk factory and in 1768, after Bernhard Isaak's death, also became a partner.

Moses Mendelssohn 1768, painting by Christian Bernhard Rode , formerly in the Gleimhaus Halberstadt, now lost

Moses Mendelssohn maintained close contacts with Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim , who lived in Halberstadt as cathedral secretary and supported young talented poets with money and friendly sympathy. In Gleim's volume with odes, published in Berlin in 1769, he also dedicated a poem to “Socrates” Mendelssohn. In 1768 Gleim had a portrait of Mendelssohn made for his friendship stamp. On the back he wrote, as always, why and by whom the picture was painted: "Moses Mendelssohn, because of his Phaedon, painted by Christian Bernhard Rode". After the handover of power to the National Socialists , the picture was removed from the exhibition in 1933. Its whereabouts are still unclear.

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim : The Lavater dispute , 1856. Left Mendelssohn, standing Lessing, right Lavater.

In 1770 Mendelssohn was publicly requested by the Swiss pastor Johann Caspar Lavater either to refute Christianity in all forms or to become a Christian himself, which led to a public dispute between Mendelssohn and Lavater. Due to the delicate situation - the Jews lived barely tolerated in a predominantly Christian society and Mendelssohn was regarded as their spokesman and representative - this required a lot of tact, skill and strength. In this dispute he was attacked publicly by Johann Balthasar Kölbele, among others .

In 1771, probably in connection with these efforts, Mendelssohn suffered a psychophysical breakdown that forced a temporary suspension of all philosophical activity. Mendelssohn's admission to the Prussian Academy of Sciences, proposed in the same year at the request of Johann Georg Sulzer , President of the Philosophical Class, failed due to the resistance of Frederick II.

In 1777 Mendelssohn met the Jewish scholar and scientist Rafael Levi .

In 1783, the secret society of the Friends of the Enlightenment ( Berliner Wednesday Society ) offered Mendelssohn membership, which he refused. A little later he was appointed an honorary member who had access at any time in the society, which was limited to 24 men. He filled this role with commitment. In the society's debate on the question “What is Enlightenment?”, Mendelssohn advocated unrestricted freedom of thought and speech in a first vote. The limits of the enlightenment should not be determined by laws and censorship measures, but by the individual enlightener through honesty and the weighing of circumstances and time. “Inhibiting education is, in all consideration and under all circumstances, far more pernicious than the most untimely education. (...) The evil that can accidentally arise from the Enlightenment is also of the nature that it subsequently lifts itself. "In the Berlin monthly magazine he summarized in the essay" About the question: what does enlightenment mean? " His attitude towards the Enlightenment summarized again: The determination of the human being is the measure and goal of all endeavors. Education consists of culture (practice such as handicrafts, art and customs) and enlightenment as theory, which are dialectically intertwined.


Fromet Mendelssohn, b. Guggenheim

In 1762 Mendelssohn married Fromet Guggenheim (October 6, 1737 - March 5, 1812). The couple had ten children, six of whom reached adulthood. Fromet's ancestors included the famous Viennese court banker Samuel Oppenheimer (1630–1703).

The surviving six children were:

With the exception of Recha Meyer and Joseph Mendelssohn, all of Moses Mendelssohn's children were baptized Christian later in life.

Fromet Mendelssohn's grave is in the Jewish cemetery in Altona .

Death and inheritance

Gravestone (replica) in the Jewish cemetery in Berlin-Mitte, both sides

Mendelssohn died on January 4, 1786 in Berlin and was buried a day later in the Berlin Jewish Cemetery , where a reconstructed tombstone still commemorates him. It is dedicated to the city of Berlin as an honorary grave .

Mendelssohn's autographs are kept in the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Library in Hanover , among others .

The Mendelssohn Society is responsible for maintaining the intellectual and artistic heritage of the Mendelssohn family .


On Lessing's advice, Mendelssohn translated Rousseau's Discours sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inégalité parmi les hommes , published in Amsterdam in 1755 . The book was published in 1756 under the title Johann Jacob Rousseau Bürgers zu Geneva Treatise on the Origin of Inequality Among Men and What It Is Based on: Translated into German and augmented with a letter to Magister Lessing and a letter from Voltaire to the author . Mendelssohn is not mentioned as a translator, but two attached letters suggest him. In a letter to Lessing in Leipzig , he took a critical look at Rousseau's conception of the state of nature.

Manfred Geier wrote in 2012:

“For Mendelssohn, the state of nature is not a historical beginning, but a legal fiction that has a ' natural law ' meaning. [...] The scholars of natural law, remember John Locke above all, are enlighteners. They only wanted to consider and shed light on what is lawful in and for themselves, and without the consent of all nations. "

In 1763 Mendelssohn won the first prize of the “ Royal Academy ”, ahead of Immanuel Kant , with a philosophical essay and was thus generally recognized as a thinker. In 1767 he published Phaedon or on the immortality of the soul  - a widely read philosophical text that appeared in several editions and was translated into ten languages. This work is an interpretation of the Platonic dialogue Phaidon , "modernized and transformed into Wolffian metaphysics" ( Hegel ). Mendelssohn's dialogues - referred to by contemporaries as the “German Socrates ” - were preceded by a biography on “The Life and Character of Socrates” that is well worth reading.

Copper engraving by Daniel Chodowiecki : Moses Mendelssohn is examined at the Berliner Tor zu Potsdam , 1792. Middle Mendelssohn, who hands over his papers to the Prussian officer for inspection.

Weakened by an illness since 1771, Mendelssohn tried to recover while translating the Biblical Psalms (published in 1783 and corrected in 1788) and began preparatory work on his German translation of the Pentateuch . Printed in Hebrew letters next to the original text and extensively commented on in Hebrew, it was intended to bring Jews closer to the Bible and at the same time to German; it appeared from 1780 to 1783.

At the same time he tried to improve the oppressed position of the Jewish communities in Europe; both by advocating for them again and again in specific individual cases, as well as by the publication of corresponding works and by suggesting the important work by Christian Konrad Wilhelm von Dohm on the bourgeois improvement of the Jews . In connection with these disputes, his late work Jerusalem or about religious power and Judaism appeared in 1783 , in which he on the one hand rejected the criminal authority of the rabbinate, on the other hand he maintained the immovability of the Jewish religious law, the "ceremonial law", which in his opinion, citing the New Testament retains its validity even for Jews who have converted to Christianity. The work is structured similarly to John Locke's letter on tolerance . Mendelssohn differentiates between state and religion, which must be strictly separated and perform different tasks. A “tolerance obligation” applies to both. Religious belief is individual and must not be subject to any coercion. He regards Judaism as the Mosaic religion of the law, the observance of which brings eternal happiness. Unlike Christianity, Judaism is not based on supernaturally revealed truths of faith. The Eternal reveals doctrinal opinions to the Jews as to all other people through his creation , not through word or script. As a pioneer of Jewish emancipation , he was close friends with David Friedländer , the founder of the Jewish Free School in Berlin and the first Jewish city councilor.

In 1779 Lessing erected a permanent memorial to his friend in his famous drama Nathan the Wise . While Lessing was inspired by an optimism about progress - since in his view the religions rose from Judaism to Christianity to a religion of reason - Mendelssohn took a different view. For him there is no indispensable progress, either morally or religiously. He considers morality and religiosity to be not time-bound. The totality of human beings is capable of "bliss", regardless of whether they are in the state of nature or in the state of civilization.

After his death in 1781 Lessing was referred to by the private scholar Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi as a " Spinozist " and thus indirectly as an "atheist". Under the circumstances at the time, this amounted to serious damage to reputation and led to a lengthy exchange of letters between Jacobi and Mendelssohn. Jacobi published the correspondence in 1785 in his own editorship and selection under the title About the teaching of Spinoza in letters to Mr. Moses Mendelssohn . The philosophical controversy is known in the history of philosophy as the pantheism controversy . Mendelssohn was supported by his friend Friedrich Nicolai .

The reply, a thirty printed page article To the Friends of Lessing , was Mendelssohn's last work, published posthumously in February 1786, the manuscript of which he had personally brought to the printer on the evening of December 31, 1785. In it he makes it clear that Lessing does not need any foreign defense.


Mendelssohn was used as a model in the liberal era in Western Europe, both by Reform Judaism and by Orthodox Judaism. It also served as a guide for the struggle for emancipation. It was controversial in Eastern Europe. The anti-educational Orthodox saw in him the seducer to apostasy from the Jewish faith and the traditional way of life. The enlightened, on the other hand, revered in him the champion for their educational and social goals. With the rise of the Jewish national movement, Mendelssohn was criticized as the initiator of assimilation. For example, in a series of articles in the Hebrew magazine Hashahar Mendelssohn, which is published in Vienna , the Jewish journalist Peretz Smolensk was to blame for having caused or at least initiated the denationalization of Judaism.

Works / editions (selection)



Bust in the Dessau city park

Dessau honored his son in 1890 with a large fountain monument in the train station. It was created by the sculptor Heinz Hoffmeister and the architect Heinrich Stöckhardt . Running water as a symbol of life flowed around the bust. The memorial was banished by the Nazis to the Israelite cemetery on Leipziger Strasse in 1933 and destroyed during the November pogroms in 1938 . On September 6, 1979, a new bust was unveiled in the city park, created by the Halle sculptor Gerhard Geyer .

The sculptor Rudolf Marcuse created a bust monument to the philosopher in Berlin, which was ceremoniously unveiled in 1909 in front of the school building at Große Hamburger Straße 27.

The Moses Mendelssohn Center in Potsdam has been awarding the Moses Mendelssohn Medal since 1994 . With the award, the center honors personalities who are committed to tolerance and international understanding as well as to improving German-Jewish relations. On February 23, 2013, the "Moses Mendelssohn Prize for the Promotion of the Humanities" of the city of Dessau-Roßlau was awarded to the philosopher Anne Pollok, who teaches in Stanford (California) for the first time.

In April 2013, the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg District Assembly decided after years of dispute to name a new town square in Berlin-Kreuzberg on Lindenstrasse after Fromet and Moses Mendelssohn. It was named because there was a resolution by the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg District Assembly , which should lead to the establishment of complete equality between men's and women's names in the number of named places and streets. This was ignored elsewhere, namely when Rudi-Dutschke-Strasse was named.

A memorial by the Israeli artist Micha Ullman was unveiled in 2016 near the Berlin home of Moses Mendelssohn at Spandauer Strasse 68, where the park by the TV tower is today .


By Andreas Romberg after the psalm translations:

  • Psalmody , seven psalms op.65 (22nd work of the vocal pieces), SteR 344-350 (1817-1820), Offenbach 1821
  • Choral No. 1 "Our soul waits for the Lord", Psalm 33, SteR 351 (1821)
  • Choral No. 2 "Turn to me, O Lord!", Psalm 33, SteR 352 (1821)
  • Chorale No. 3 "Kingdoms of the Earth", Psalm 68, SteR 353 (1821)


Criticism from radical pietism

  • Johann Daniel Müller : The crowned philosopher in Occident, or comments from an anonimi on the phedon of Mosis Mendelson [Moses Mendelssohn]. 1771 .

Compare with Reinhard Breymayer : 'Elias Artista': Johann Daniel Müller from Wissenbach / Nassau , a critical friend of [Emanuel] Swedenborg , and his effect on the Swabian Pietists Friedrich. C [hristoph]. Oetinger and P [hilipp]. M [atthäus]. Rooster . In: Literature and Culture in the German Southwest between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. New studies, Walter E [rnst]. Dedicated to Schäfer on the occasion of his 65th birthday . Edited by Wilhelm Kühlmann . Rodopi, Amsterdam; Atlanta, G [eorgi] a 1995 ( Chloe. Beihefte zum Daphnis , Volume 22), pp. 329-371.

Web links

Commons : Moses Mendelssohn  - Album with pictures, videos and audio files
Wikisource: Moses Mendelssohn  - Sources and full texts

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Britta L. Behm: Moses Mendelssohn and the Transformation of Jewish Education in Berlin , Waxmann Münster, 2002, ISBN 3-8309-1135-1 , p. 83; limited preview in Google Book search
  2. Stephen Tree: Moses Mendelssohn , Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, 2007, ISBN 3499506718 , p. 10
  3. Stephen Tree: Moses Mendelssohn. Rowohlt, Reinbek b. Hamburg 2007, p. 11.
  4. Michael Graetz: Jewish Enlightenment ; in: Mordechai Breuer , Michael Graetz: German-Jewish History in Modern Times, Volume I, Tradition and Enlightenment 1600–1780 , CH Beck, Munich 2000, ISBN 978-3-406-39702-8 , pp. 251 f .; limited preview in Google Book search
  5. Stephen Tree: Moses Mendelssohn. Rowohlt, Reinbek bei Hamburg 2007, p. 18.
  6. Manfred Geier: Enlightenment. The European project. Reinbek b. Hamburg 2012, p. 179 ff.
  7. Beermann Isaak = Bernhard Isaak. Often wrongly found in literature as "Isaak Bernhard". Cf. Jacob Jacobson (Ed.): Jewish weddings in Berlin 1759-1813 . Publications of the Historical Commission in Berlin, Quellenwerke Volume 4. de Gruyter, Berlin 1968, p. 4
  8. a b Stephen Tree: Moses Mendelssohn. Rowohlt, Reinbek b. Hamburg 2007, p. 144.
  9. Stephen Tree: Moses Mendelssohn. Rowohlt, Reinbek b. Hamburg 2007, p. 28 ff.
  10. ^ ED Sylla In: Moses Mendelssohn's Metaphysics and Aesthetics. 2011, ISBN 978-94-007-2450-1 , pp. 60 f. (Digitized version)
  11. Alexander Altman: Moses Mendelssohn's early writings on metaphysics. Tübingen 1969, p. 209 ff. (Digitized version)
  12. Thomas Lackmann in conversation with Michael Köhler, A microcosm of German-Jewish history, 250 years of Mendelssohn - an anniversary congress on a cultural dynasty, Deutschlandfunk, June 22, 2012, digital [1]
  13. Ulrich Wyrwa, Jews in Tuscany and Preussen in Comparison, 2003, p. 37, restricted preview in the Google book search
  14. ^ Brigitte Meier: Jewish silk entrepreneurs and the social order at the time of Frederick II. Moses Mendelssohn and Isaak Bernhard; Interaction and communication as the basis for successful corporate development . BWV, Berliner Wissenschafts-Verlag, Berlin 2007, ISBN 978-3-8305-1362-9 , p. 303 .
  15. ^ Johann Caspar Lavater: Johann Caspar Lavater's attribution of the Bonnetic Philosophical Investigation of the Evidence for Christianity to Mr. Moses Mendelssohn in Berlin. Zurich 1769.
  16. ^ Moses Mendelssohn: Letter to the deacon Lavater zu Zurüch. Berlin 1769.
  17. ^ Johann Caspar Lavater: Answer to Mr. Moses Mendelssohn in Berlin. Berlin and Szczecin 1770.
  18. ^ Johann Balthasar Kölbele: Letter to Mr. Moses Mendelssohn about Lavaterische and Kölbelische matters against Mr. Moses Mendelssohn. Andreä, Frankfurt am Mayn 1770.
  19. Johann Balthasar Kölbele: Second letter to Mr. Moses Mendelssohn in particular about the former Mendelssohn deism, about the Mendelssohn mark of a revelation, and recently about the credibility of the evangelical history. Andreä, Frankfurt am Mayn 1770.
  20. 118th Chapter: Enlightenment and Berlin's Jewish Spiritual Life in the 18th Century VI - Moses Mendelssohn ( Memento of the original from November 6, 2014 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link has been inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. . History of the Jews in Germany. Retrieved July 5, 2011. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  21. Peter Schulze : Rafael Levi. In: Klaus Mlynek, Waldemar R. Röhrbein (eds.) U. a .: City Lexicon Hanover . From the beginning to the present. Schlütersche, Hannover 2009, ISBN 978-3-89993-662-9 , p. 512.
  22. Quoted from: Manfred Geier: Enlightenment. The European project. Reinbek b. Hamburg 2012, p. 212 ff., Here: p. 216.
  23. Ehrhard Bahr: What is Enlightenment . Stuttgart 1974, p. 4
  24. Manfred Geier: Enlightenment. The European project. Reinbek b. Hamburg 2012, p. 216f.
  25. Hermann Simon: Moses Mendelssohn - Law- abiding Jew and German Enlightenment , Hentrich & Hentrich, 2003, ISBN 3933471451 , p. 51
  26. on Fromets life cf. Hannah Karminski : Jewish-religious woman culture, in Emmy Wolff Ed .: Generations of women in pictures. Herbig, Berlin 1928, pp. 163-172, Fromet pp. 168f.
  27. Manfred Geier: Enlightenment. The European project. Reinbek b. Hamburg 2012, p. 184 ff.
  28. Manfred Geier: Enlightenment. The European project. Reinbek b. Hamburg 2012, p. 185.
  29. Manfred Geier: Enlightenment. The European project. Reinbek b. Hamburg 2012, p. 210 ff.
  30. Manfred Geier: Enlightenment. The European project. Reinbek b. Hamburg 2012, p. 205 ff.
  31. Jacob Katz : Moses Mendelssohn's vacillating image among the Jewish posterity ; in Michael Albrecht , Eva J. Engel and Norbert Hinske (eds.): Moses Mendelssohn and the circles of his effectiveness , Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen, 1994, ISBN 3-484-17519-2 , pp. 349-362, here p. 349; limited preview in Google Book search
  32. Jacob Katz: Moses Mendelssohn's vacillating image among the Jewish posterity ; in Michael Albrecht, Eva J. Engel and Norbert Hinske (eds.): Moses Mendelssohn and the circles of his effectiveness , Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen, 1994, ISBN 3-484-17519-2 , p. 361
  33. Old monuments in Dessau ( Memento of the original from October 1, 2009 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link has been inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  34. ^ Annette Gens: Mendelssohn Prize. Anne Pollok is the first winner. Mitteldeutsche Zeitung, February 25, 2013, accessed on February 28, 2013 .
  35. Karin Schmidl: Dispute over place names ended (printed edition: Mendelssohn in a pack of two ), in: Berliner Zeitung from April 25, 2013 (online at ; accessed on April 27, 2013)