R. Akiva Eiger, Mendelssohn, and the Shema


Other than history buffs, few people would associate R. Akiva Eiger (RAE) with Moses Mendelssohn. The former occupies a position of awe and reverence for those who have ever worked through the mind-boggling depth and breadth of his Talmudic commentaries or responsa; the latter is seen as the Founding Father of the heterodox movements that presided over the dismantling of loyalty to and identification with Torah Judaism in the Jewish “Enlightenment.” A classic never-the-twain-shall-meet situation if there ever was one. The greatness and depth of RAE is in fact probably understated; the role of Mendelssohn in the trajectory of those who walked out of observance may very well be overstated (although that is not the subject of this essay); and the two very much did meet. It takes nothing more than opening a RAE to Megilla 16A to prove it.

We will return to the story of how their paths crossed after illustrating a contemporary repetition of the event. (I present the story as I heard it, and welcome those who know more than I do to correct details, or falsify the incident. The point it raises is valid nonetheless.) When R. Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l was Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Vodass, students used to help him prepare his house before Pesach. One group checked for chometz the seforim that might have been brought to the table. The work proceeded without event, until one bochur let out a shriek, having discovered a copy of Mendelsohn’s famous (infamous?) and ground-breaking German translation of Chumash, known today simply as “The Biur.” While there are likely fewer students in Torah Vodaas today who would know about the Biur and its author, that particular bochur did, and his horror was visceral. Rav Yaakov immediately understood, and reportedly smiled (he seemed always to smile) and said, “They are surprised that I would own such a work. If only they knew how many difficulties it helped me solve.”

In the eighteenth century, when translations of Chumash into any vernacular were not common, the announcement by Mendelssohn that he was preparing a scholarly translation into German was met with excitement. New works were often funded by paid advance subscriptions – think Amazon selling Harry Potter before Rowling ever typed a single paragraph.

The subscription list to Mendelssohn’s Biur included the names of many important gedolim, including RAE. While his views and background were likely no complete secret, those who disagreed with him did not shun him or his work entirely. Contemporaries continued to cite him respectfully even when disagreeing, and drawing support from his words when in agreement.

Some make far more of this than it is worth. There was a dissenting voice, who took a much harder line against Mendelssohn, and history (at least within traditional circles) has declared him to have been correct. The harsh critic was RAE’s illustrious son-in-law, the Chasam Sofer. We can only speculate on why he had the prescience and foresight to see what others did not, and read Mendelsohn out of the “inner” community, despite Mendelssohn’s famous dikduk in halacha. (Once summoned to the monarch in the late afternoon, he sent back that he would have to wait till after mincha, since he never missed davening with a minyan, and was not going to make an exception for some Emperor or other.) Perhaps the fact that Mendelsohn was not anathematized by the rest of his contemporaries points to a kinder, gentler Yiddishkeit a few hundred years ago, but perhaps it doesn’t. Perhaps it was simply not so obvious to most just how far Mendelssohn would himself go, how quickly his own progeny would apostatize and/or intermarry, and to what purpose those who came after would use his example.

Those who milk the episode for its controversy might miss what I believe to be its real beauty and subtlety. RAE in Megillah reacts substantively to specific parts of Mendelsohn’s translation, and some of the implications are remarkable. He dismisses Mendelssohn’s treatment of the first pasuk of the Shema (last week’s Parsha, in case some of you are trying to figure out the timing of this blog posting.)

RAE reproduces Mendelssohn’s German translation, transliterated into Hebrew letters. He takes issue with Mendelsohn’s translation for what at least to me seemed unexpected. My German is a bit rusty (could use a bit of help from the readership here), but it seems to me that Mendelssohn’s translation rendered into English comes across as close to, “…The Eternal One our G-d, is a single, eternal Being.” RAE objects to the order in which the words “Hashem” and “echad” are given, reversing their natural order in the verse.

In other words, while Mendelssohn preserved the meaning of the phrase accurately and idiomatically, RAE insisted that the reader be conscious of the meaning of each word, not just the verse or phrase! RAE wants the reader to concentrate on the translation of the Shem Hashem when he pronounces it, and the meaning of “echad” when he reaches that word. If my reading is correct, RAE would greatly prefer the Artscroll interlinear translation to the standard, since it does put the reader in touch with each word’s individual meaning.

More surprising to me – and probably to Artscroll – is what RAE did not object to, namely Mendelssohn’s handling of the Shem Hashem. Many of us have long supported Artscroll’s refusal to translate it, arguing that one does not translate proper nouns. Mendelssohn, however, translates it as “the Eternal,” apparently without objection from RAE. Come to think of it, “the Eternal” is a handy and elegant way of summing up how Chazal wanted us to approach (at least in part – see Orach Chaim 5:1) the Tetragrammaton – as a combination of was, is, and will be. “Eternal” does that nicely.

I would love to learn if I am mistaken, or if there are halachic consequences of RAE’s position.

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51 Responses

  1. thanbo says:

    Those comments from R’ YG Bechhofer were part of a much longer correspondence on Avodah. Among those who responded to R’ Bechhofer’s bare quotes were:

    R’ Mechy Frankel: http://www.aishdas.org/avodah/vol04/v04n329.shtml#02

    RYGB has now acquired a few original quotes. I’m afraid that his method of simply providing some quotations with the expectation that others will immediately be offended by their self-evident “drivel” is not the sure fire rebuttal he imagines. unless you’re prepared to trash other people whom I suspect you would not. see remarks above about the range of classical opinions.

    R’ Shalom Carmy: http://www.aishdas.org/avodah/vol04/v04n330.shtml#03

    See R’ Carmy’s post for specific responses to each of RYGB’s quotes. They are not so damning as ch”R would want us to think.