Moses Mendelssohn

Moses Mendelssohn ( born September 6, 1729 Dessau, † January 4, 1786 in Berlin) was a German philosopher of the Enlightenment and is considered a pioneer of the Haskalah.



Moses Mendelssohn's father was Mendel Heymann, who worked as a Sofer and dessauischer village clerk and primary school teachers and about whose origin we know nothing more than that he had immigrated to Dessau. His mother, Rachel Sara choice, came from an old Jewish family to the important people of Polish-Jewish history are like Moses Isserles, the author of a major commentary on the laws Shulhan Arukh, and Saul choice (approx. 1545-1617 ), a semi- legendary figure who is said to have a night long borne the Polish crown. The humble circumstances of his parents' house regardless, the late -born child was (his father was already 47 years old) and carefully trained early on as gifted; already ten years old, he is said to have possessed great knowledge in the study of the Talmud. His mother tongue was the late Western Yiddish; Hebrew and Aramaic ( the language of the Talmud ), he learned to play as a small child - presumably from his father's, who later became the Seven Years in Winter " wrapped in his coat " on the back to school.

About 1739 moved Mendelssohn in the class of the Dessau Chief Rabbi David Frankel ( 1707-1762 ), an influential scholar who had, after almost 200 years, a new edition of the Guide of the Perplexed, a major work of the eminent Jewish philosopher Maimonides ( 1138-1204 ) made ​​. Mendelssohn worked the ambitious two-volume Hebrew work immediately after its publication, in 1742, by. During this time - Mendelssohn about thirteen years has been old - the curvature of his back was noticeable, he also tended to stutter.

Berlin years

When Rabbi Frankel 1743 to Frankfurt / Oder and was appointed immediately afterwards as chief rabbi in Berlin, his students followed him to the 1742 newly founded Talmud school in Berlin; According to legend, in five days' march on foot. He lived there until the year 1750 in the Probst lane 3 behind the Nikolai Church in the attic of Chaim and Gella Bamberger and received, according to the tradition, two " free tables " or free meals per week and was additionally held by Rabbi Frankel with Abschreibaufträgen afloat.

With the help of older, secular educated students Mendelssohn appropriated in those years, in addition to his Talmudic studies, German and later Latin, French and English as well as other worldly knowledge. He early showed an inclination to philosophy; the English early reconnaissance John Locke, he studied Latin with the help of a dictionary, as well as Christian Wolff and the polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Also Shaftesbury's thought spoke to him, while he, rather met most French philosophers of the Enlightenment up to Rousseau with skepticism. Soon he himself became a spotter.

After seven years as a mendicant student, he was hired by the silk merchant, Isaac Bernhard as a tutor for his children in 1750 and began in 1754 as an accountant in the newly established silk factory, where he was managing director ( 1761) and co-owner and Chief Operating Officer ( 1768, by the death Isaac Bernhard ).

In 1754, he learned, allegedly at chess, know the same age son of a pastor and former theology and medical students Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who in the publication of an anonymous letter described him in 1754 as " just as witty, as learned and rechtschaffnen [ man ] ." A year later, Lessing was responsible for the publication of Mendelssohn's first German writing, the "philosophical discussions " ( also published anonymously ), and gave him the acquaintance of Friedrich Nicolai, who, won him as an employee for his influential magazine letters the recent literature concerning. , This was Mendelssohn as an influential critic of the emerging German literature. Together with Lessing and Nicolai, who held the presidency, he was a member of the Monday Club of the Berlin Enlightenment.

1762 married Mendelssohn Fromet Gugenheim, with whom he had ten children, six of whom reached adulthood.

Mendelssohn died on January 4, 1786 in Berlin and was posted on Thursday, January 5, 1786 and buried in the Berlin Jewish cemetery, where even today reminds a reconstructed grave stone at him.

Mendelssohn's autographs are held, among other things in the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Library in Hanover.


The surviving six children were:

  • Brendel ( Dorothea Friederike ) ( mother of the painter Jonas and Philipp Veit, wife of Friedrich Schlegel ), literary critic and writer
  • Recha Mendelssohn
  • Joseph Mendelssohn, founder of the banking house of Mendelssohn
  • Henriette (Mary) Mendelssohn
  • Abraham Mendelssohn Bartholdy ( father of composer Fanny Hensel and her brother, the eminent German composer Felix Mendelssohn )
  • Nathan Mendelssohn.

The maintenance of intellectual and artistic heritage of the Mendelssohn family is up to the Mendelssohn Society.


1755, published in Amsterdam working on Lessing's advice, Mendelssohn translated Rousseau's Discours sur l' origine et les Fondements parmi les hommes de l' inégalité. The book was published in 1756 under the title Johann Jacob Rousseau citizen to Geneva treatise of the origin of inequality among men, and what it was based: translated into German and multiply with a letter to the Master of Lessing and Voltaire's letters to the author. Although Mendelssohn is not mentioned as a translator, but let two attached letters close to him. In a transmission letter to Lessing in Leipzig, he sat down critically with Rousseau's conception of the state of nature.

Manfred Geier wrote in 2012 about this:

" For Mendelssohn the state of nature is not a historical beginning, but a legal fiction that has a, natural law ' sense. [ ... ] The scholars of natural law, recall especially to John Locke, are reconnaissance. You just want to view and seen what in and of itself, and without the consent of all nations is lawful. '"

1763 won Mendelssohn, in Immanuel Kant, with a philosophical essay the first prize of the " Royal Academy " ( the later Prussian Academy of Sciences) and became widely recognized as a thinker. In 1767 he published the Phaedo or the immortality of the soul - a widely read philosophical text, which appeared in several editions and was translated into ten languages. This work is an interpretation of Plato's dialogue Phaedo, " and modernized in Wolffian metaphysics changed" ( Hegel). His dialogues presented Mendelssohn - by contemporaries as the " German Socrates " means - a readable biography "Life and Character of Socrates " before it.

1770 Mendelssohn was publicly invited by the Swiss pastor Johann Caspar Lavater, either to refute formally Christianity or herself to be a Christian, which led to a public dispute between Mendelssohn and Lavater, the result of the delicate situation - the Jews lived almost tolerated in a predominantly Christian society, Mendelssohn was whether he wanted to or not, as their spokesman and representative considered - much tact, skill and strength required. He was attacked publicly in this dispute, among others, Johann Balthasar Kölbele. 1771 Mendelssohn suffered, probably in connection with these efforts, a psycho-physical collapse that forced a temporary suspension of any philosophical activity. The proposed in the same year recording of Mendelssohn in the Prussian Academy of Sciences at the request of Johann Georg Sulzer, the President of the Philosophical class failed because of the resistance of Frederick II

1777 met Mendelssohn along with the Jewish scholars and scientists Rafael Levi.

Still weak from his illness, Mendelssohn tried in the translation of the Bible Psalms ( published in 1783 and revised in 1788 ) to recover, and began with the preparatory work for his German translation of the Pentateuch. In Hebrew letters printed next to the original text and a detailed commentary in Hebrew, they should bring them closer Jews and the Bible at the same time the German language; she appeared from 1780 to 1783.

At the same time he made ​​an effort to improve the depressed position of the Jewish minority in Europe; both by repeatedly used in individual cases for them as. publication by the appropriate plants and by stimulating the important font of Christian Konrad Wilhelm von Dohm On the Civic Improvement of the Jews In connection with these disputes appeared in 1783 his later works Jerusalem or on Religious Power and Judaism, in the one hand he rejected the criminal authority of the rabbinate, on the other hand, on the inviolability of the Jewish religious law, the " ceremonial ", noted in his opinion, citing the New Testament, also had converted to Christianity Jews remains valid. The work is similar to John Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration established. Mendelssohn distinguishes between state and religion, which are to be kept strictly separate and perform different tasks. For both considered a " tolerance duty." Religious faith is individual and may be subject to no compulsion. Judaism he considered Mosaic religion of law, the observance of which will bring eternal happiness. Unlike Christianity, Judaism is not based on supernatural revealed truths of faith. Doctrines reveal the Lord to the Jews like all other men by his creation, not by word or writing. As a pioneer of Jewish emancipation, he was closely associated with David Friedlander, founder of the Jewish Free School in Berlin and the first Jewish councilor, friend.

Close contacts did Moses Mendelssohn Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim with, who lived as Domsekretär in Halberstadt and young poets talents supported with money and friendly sympathy. In Gleim 1769 in Berlin erschienenem ribbon with Oden this dedicated a poem and the " Socrates " Mendelssohn. 1768 Gleim left for his friendship temples make a portrait of Mendelssohn. On the back he wrote, as always, why and by whom the picture was painted, "Moses Mendelssohn, because of his Phaedo, painted by Christian Bernhard Rode ". After the transfer of power to the Nazis in 1933 the image was removed from the exhibition. His whereabouts remain unknown to this day.

In 1779, Lessing put the friend in his famous drama of ideas Nathan the Wise, an enduring monument. While Lessing was inspired by a belief in progress, - the religions rose in his view of Judaism on Christianity into a religion of reason on, Mendelssohn took a different view. For him there is no inalienable progress, neither moral nor religious point of view. Morality and religion he thinks is not time-bound. The whole of the people is the " bliss " capable, regardless of whether they are located in the natural state or in a state of civilization.

Lessing was indirectly named after his death in 1781 by the scholar Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi as " Spinozist " and " atheist" - which was equivalent under prevailing conditions of severe damage to reputation and led to a long correspondence between Jacobi and Mendelssohn; Jacobi published the correspondence in 1785 in his own editing and selection under the heading About the Doctrine of Spinoza in Letters to the Lord Moses Mendelssohn. The philosophical controversy is known as the pantheism in the history of philosophy. Mendelssohn was supported by his friend Friedrich Nicolai.

The Secret Society of the Friends of the Enlightenment ( Berlin Wednesday Society) offered Mendelssohn 1783, the membership, but he refused. A little later he was appointed an honorary member of that in the limited to 24 men Company at any time had access. He filled this role involved. He commented on the question: What is Enlightenment? His first part of an answer was full of thought and freedom of speech. The boundaries of the Enlightenment could not be established by laws and censorship. Only the individual can determine reconnaissance by sincerity and consideration of circumstances and time limits. Inhibit " Enlightenment is all the consideration and under all circumstances far more pernicious than the unzeitigste Enlightenment. (...) The evil which may happen to come into being out of the Enlightenment, also is full of texture that sets it apart in the sequence itself. "

In the Berlin monthly newspaper he summed up his attitude in 1784 to educate together again: Education is the measure and goal of all endeavors. Education consists of culture ( practices such as crafts, art and morals ) and Enlightenment as a theory that had crossed each other dialectically.

The reply, a thirty -page essay pressure To the friends of Lessing, Mendelssohn was last, in February 1786 posthumously published work, the manuscript of which he had brought himself on the evening of December 31, 1785 for printing. It makes clear that Lessing needs no external defense.


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

The sculptor Rudolf Marcuse in Berlin created a memorial bust of the philosopher, which was unveiled in 1909 in front of the schoolhouse Grosse Hamburger Strasse 27.

Since 1994, the Potsdam Moses Mendelssohn Center gives the Moses Mendelssohn Medal. With the award, the center honors personalities who are committed to tolerance and international understanding as well as for the improvement of German -Jewish relations. On February 23, 2013, the city of Dessau at the Stanford (California ) teaching philosopher Anne Pollok was in Dessau for the first time the " Moses Mendelssohn Prize for the Promotion of the Humanities " award.

In April 2013, the Borough Assembly Friedrichshain- Kreuzberg decided the appointment of a new town square in Berlin- Kreuzberg in Linde road to Fromet and Moses Mendelssohn.

Works / editions (selection)

  • Letters on the sensations. 1755.
  • Philosophical writings. 2 volumes, in 1761.
  • Idea of the nature of the ode. 1764 ( text in project " Poetry Theory ").
  • Phaedo or the immortality of the soul. 1767 ( text in the " Gutenberg").
  • From the Lyric Poetry. 1778 ( text in project " Poetry Theory ").
  • Letter to Deacon Lavater of Zurich. Berlin in 1769.
  • Translation of the Pentateuch / Torah and the Psalms into German., 1783.
  • Jerusalem, or on Religious Power and Judaism. 1783 ( digitized and full text in German Text Archive ).
  • As to the question: what does that explain? 1784th
  • Morning or lectures on the existence of God. In 1785.
  • Small philosophical writings. Collection of magazine essays with a foreword by Johann Georg Müchler and a sketch of his life and character of D. Jenischhaus. Berlin 1789 (scans from Google Books ).
  • Complete Works. 12 volumes, from 1819 to 1825.


  • Moses Mendelssohn: Collected Writings. Anniversary edition. Edited by Alexander Altmann sa, Eva Johanna Engel, Michael Brocke and Daniel Krochmalnik. frommann holzboog - Verlag, Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt 1972 et seq, ISBN 978-3-7728-0318-5.
  • Phaedo or the immortality of the soul. Edited by Dominique Bourel. Meiner, Hamburg 1979, ISBN 978-3-7873-0468-4.
  • Aesthetic writings. Edited by Anne Pollok; Meiner Verlag, 2005, ISBN 978-3-7873-1759-2.
  • Jerusalem, or on Religious Power and Judaism. Edited by Michael Albrecht. Meiner, Hamburg 2005, ISBN 978-3-7873-1692-2.
  • Life and character of Socrates. Edited by Raphael Baer. Publisher Bear, Niederuzwil 2007, ISBN 978-3-9523212-3-2.
  • Selected Works. Study edition in 2 volumes; ed. and introduced v. Christoph Schulte, Andreas characteristic corner and Grazyna Jurewicz. University Press, Darmstadt 2009, ISBN 978-3-534-15872-0.