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The Haskalah, often termed Jewish Enlightenment (Hebrew: השכלה; literally, "wisdom", "erudition") was an intellectual movement among the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, with certain influence on those at the West and Muslim lands. It arose as a defined ideological worldview during the 1770s, and its last stage ended around 1881, with the rise of Jewish nationalism.

The Haskalah pursued two complementary aims. It sought to preserve the Jews as a separate, unique collective and worked for a cultural and moral renewal, especially a revival of Hebrew for secular purposes, pioneering the modern press and literature in the language. Concurrently, it strove for an optimal integration of the Jews in surrounding societies, including the study of native vernaculars, adoption of modern values, culture and appearance, all combined with economic productivization. The Haskalah promoted rationalism, liberalism, freedom of thought and enquiry, and is largely perceived as the Jewish variant of the general Enlightenment. The movement encompassed a wide spectrum ranging from moderates, who hoped for maximal compromise and conservatism, to radicals who sought sweeping changes.

In its various changes, the Haskalah fulfilled an important, though limited, part in the modernization of Central and Eastern European Jews. Its activists, the maskilim, urged for and implemented communal, educational and cultural reforms both in the public and the private spheres. Owing to its dualistic policies, it collided both with the traditionalist rabbinic elite, which attempted to preserve old Jewish values and norms in their entirety, and the radical assimilationists who wished to eliminate or minimize the existence of the Jews as a defined collective.


Literary circle[edit]

The Haskalah was an extremely multifaceted phenomenon, with many locuses which rose and dwindled at different times and across vast territories. The very name Haskalah only became a standard self-appellation in 1860, when it was taken as the motto of the Odessa-based newspapaer Ha-Melitz, though derivatives and the title Maskil for activists were already common beforehand – in the first edition of Ha-Meassef from 1 October 1783, its publishers described themselves as Maskilim.[1] While Maskilic centres sometimes had loose institutions around which their members operated, the movement as a whole lacked any such.

In spite of this diversity, the Maskilim shared a sense of common identity and self-consciousness. These were anchored in the existence of a shared literary canon, which began to be formulated in the very first Maskilic locus at Berlin. Its members, like Moses Mendelssohn, Hartwig Wessely, Isaac Satanow and Isaac Euchel, authored tracts in various genres that were further disseminated and re-read among other Maskilim. Each generation, in turn, elaborated and added its own works to the growing body. The emergence of the Maskilic canon reflected the movement's central and defining enterprise, the revival of Hebrew as a literary language for secular purposes (its restoration as a spoken tongue occurred only much later). The Maskilim researched and standardized grammar, minted countless neologisms and composed poetry, magazines, theatrical works and literature of all sorts in Hebrew. Historians described the movement largely as a Republic of Letters, an intellectual community based on printing houses and reading societies.[2]

The Maskilim's attitude toward Hebrew, as noted by Moses Pelli, was derived from Enlightenment perceptions of language as reflecting both individual and collective character. To them, a corrupt tongue mirrored the inadequate condition of the Jews which they sought to ameliorate. They turned to Hebrew as their primary creative medium. The Maskilim inherited the Medieval Grammarians' – such as Jonah ibn Janah and Judah ben David Hayyuj – distaste of Mishnaic Hebrew and preference of the Biblical one as pristine and correct. They turned to the Bible as a source and standard, emphatically advocating what they termed "Pure Hebrew Tongue" (S'fat E'ver tzacha) and lambasting the Rabbinic style of letters which mixed it with Aramaic as a single "Holy Tongue" and often employed loan words from other languages. Some activists, though, were not averse to using Mishnaic and Rabbinic forms. They also preferred the Sephardi pronunciation, considered more prestigious, to the Ashkenazi one, linked with the Jews of Poland who were deemed backward. The movement's literary canon is defined by a grandiloquent, archaic register copying the Biblical one and often combining lengthy allusions or direct quotes from verses in the prose.[3]

During a century of activity, the Maskilim produced a massive contribution, forming the first phase of modern Hebrew literature. In 1755, Moses Mendelssohn began publishing Qohelet Musar ("The Moralist"), regarded as the beginning of modern writing in Hebrew and the very first journal in the language. Between 1789 and his death, Hartwig Wessely compiled Shirei Tif'eret ("Poems of Glory"), an eighteen-part epic cycle concerning Moses which exerted influence on all neo-Hebraic poets in the following generations. Joseph ha-Efrati Troplowitz was the Haskalah's pioneering playwright, best known for his 1794 epic drama Melukhat Sha'ul ("Reign of Saul") which was printed in twelve editions by 1888. Juda Loeb ben-Ze'ev was the first modern Hebrew grammarian, and beginning with his 1796 manual of the language, he authored books which explored it and were vital reading material for young Maskilim until the end of the 19th century. Solomon Löwisohn was the first to translate Shakespeare into Hebrew, and an abridged form of the "Are at this hour asleep!" monologue in Henry IV, Part 2 was included in his 1816 lyrical compilation Melitzat Yeshurun (Eloquence of Jeshurun).

Reforming movement[edit]

The Haskalah's main motivation and aim was the modernization of the Jews, in accordance with the rationalistic and liberal ideals of the 18th and 19th centuries. Members of the movement sought to acquaint their people with European culture, have them adopt the vernacular language of their lands, and integrate them into larger society. They opposed Jewish reclusiveness and self-segregation, called upon Jews to discard traditional dress in favour of the prevalent one, and preached patriotism and loyalty to the new centralized governments. They acted to weaken and limit the jurisdiction of traditional community institutions – the rabbinic courts, empowered to rule on numerous civic matters, and the board of elders, which served as lay leadership. The maskilim perceived those as remnants of medieval discrimination. They criticized various traits of Jewish society, such as child marriage – traumatized memories from unions entered at the age of thirteen or fourteen are a common theme in Haskalah literature – the use of anathema to enforce community will and the concentration on virtually only religious studies.

Transitory phenomena[edit]

The Haskalah was also mainly a movement of transformation, straddling both the declining traditional Jewish society of autonomous community and cultural seclusion and the beginning of the modern Jewish public.


As long as the Jews lived in segregated communities, and as long as all social intercourse with their Gentile neighbors was limited, the rabbi was the most influential member of the Jewish community. In addition to being a religious scholar and "clergy", a rabbi also acted as a civil judge in all cases in which both parties were Jews. Rabbis sometimes had other important administrative powers, together with the community elders. The rabbinate was the highest aim of many Jewish boys, and the study of the Talmud was the means of obtaining that coveted position, or one of many other important communal distinctions. Haskalah followers advocated "coming out of the ghetto", not just physically but also mentally and spiritually, in order to assimilate among Gentile nations.

The example of Moses Mendelssohn (1729–86), a Prussian Jew, served to lead this movement, which was also shaped by Aaron Halle-Wolfssohn (1754–1835) and Joseph Perl (1773–1839). Mendelssohn's extraordinary success as a popular philosopher and man of letters revealed hitherto unsuspected possibilities of integration and acceptance of Jews among non-Jews. Mendelssohn also provided methods for Jews to enter the general society of Germany. A good knowledge of the German language was necessary to secure entrance into cultured German circles, and an excellent means of acquiring it was provided by Mendelssohn in his German translation of the Torah. This work became a bridge over which ambitious young Jews could pass to the great world of secular knowledge. The Biur, or grammatical commentary, prepared under Mendelssohn's supervision, was designed to counteract the influence of traditional rabbinical methods of exegesis. Together with the translation, it became, as it were, the primer of Haskalah.

Language played a key role in the haskalah movement, as Mendelssohn and others called for a revival of Hebrew and a reduction in the use of Yiddish. The result was an outpouring of new, secular literature, as well as critical studies of religious texts. Julius Fürst along with other German-Jewish scholars compiled Hebrew and Aramaic dictionaries and grammars. Jews also began to study and communicate in the languages of the countries in which they settled, providing another gateway for integration.

Berlin is the city of origin for the movement. The capital city of Prussia and, later, the German Empire, Berlin became known as a secular, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic center, a fertile environment for conversations and radical movements. This move by the Maskilim away from religious study, into much more critical and worldly studies was made possible by this German city of modern and progressive thought. It was a city in which the rising middle class Jews and intellectual elites not only lived among, but were exposed to previous age of enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau.[4] The movement is often referred to the Berlin Haskalah. Reference to Berlin in relation to the Haskalah movement is necessary because it provides context for this episode of Jewish history. Subsequently, having left Germany and spreading across Eastern Europe, the Berlin Haskalah influenced multiple Jewish communities who were hungry for non-religious scholarly texts and insight to worlds beyond their Jewish enclaves.


Haskalah did not stay restricted to Germany, however, and the movement quickly spread throughout Europe. Poland-Lithuania was the heartland of Rabbinic Judaism, with its two streams of Misnagdic Talmudism centred in Lithuania and other regions, and Hasidic mysticism popular in Ukraine, Poland, Hungary and Russia. In the 19th century Haskalah sought dissemination and transformation of traditional education and inward pious life in Eastern Europe[where?]. It adapted its message to these different environments, working with the Russian government of the Pale of Settlement to influence secular educational methods, while its writers satirised Hasidic mysticism, in favour of solely Rationalist interpretation of Judaism. Isaac Baer Levinsohn (1788–1860) became known as the "Russian Mendelssohn". Joseph Perl's (1773–1839) satire of the Hasidic movement, "Revealer of Secrets" (Megalleh Temirim), is said to be the first modern novel in Hebrew. It was published in Vienna in 1819 under the pseudonym "Obadiah ben Pethahiah". The Haskalah's message of integration into non-Jewish society was subsequently counteracted by alternative secular Jewish political movements advocating Folkish, Socialist or Nationalist secular Jewish identities in Eastern Europe[where?]. While Haskalah advocated Hebrew and sought to remove Yiddish, these subsequent developments advocated Yiddish Renaissance among Maskilim. Writers of Yiddish literature variously satirised or sentimentalised Hasidic mysticism.


Even as emancipation eased integration into wider society and assimilation prospered, the haskalah also resulted in the creation of secular Jewish culture, with an emphasis on Jewish history and Jewish identity, rather than religion. This resulted in the engagement of Jews in a variety of competing ways within the countries where they lived; these included the struggle for Jewish emancipation, involvement in new Jewish political movements, and later, in the face of continued persecutions in late nineteenth-century Europe, the development of a Jewish Nationalism. One source describes these effects as, "The emancipation of the Jews brought forth two opposed movements: the cultural assimilation, begun by Moses Mendelssohn, and Zionism, founded by Theodor Herzl in 1896."[5]

One facet of the Haskalah was a widespread cultural adaptation, as those Jews who participated in the enlightenment began in varying degrees to participate in the cultural practices of the surrounding Gentile population. Connected with this was the birth of the Reform movement, whose founders such as Israel Jacobson and Leopold Zunz rejected the continuing observance of those aspects of Jewish law which they classified as ritual, as opposed to moral or ethical. Even within orthodoxy the Haskalah was felt through the appearance of the Mussar Movement in Lithuania and Torah im Derech Eretz in Germany in response. Enlightened Jews sided with Gentile governments in plans to increase secular education among the Jewish masses, bringing them into acute conflict with the orthodox who believed this threatened Jewish life.

The spreading of Haskalah affected Judaism as a religion because of how much the different sects desired to be integrated, and in turn, integrate their religious traditions. The effects of the Enlightenment were already present in Jewish religious music and opinion on traditionalism versus modernization. Groups of Reform Jews such as the Society of the Friends of Reform and the Association for the Reform of Judaism were formed because they wanted and actively advocated for a change in Jewish tradition, mainly rituals like circumcision. Another non-Orthodox group was the Conservative Jews, who emphasized the importance of traditions but viewed with a historical perspective. The Orthodox Jews were actively against these reformers because they viewed changing Jewish tradition was an insult to God and that fulfillment in life could be found in serving God and keeping his commandments.[6] The effect of Haskalah was that it was a dividing factor between sects.

Another important facet of the Haskalah was its interests to non-Jewish religions. Moses Mendelssohn criticized some aspects of Christianity, but depicted Jesus as a Torah-observant rabbi, who was loyal to traditional Judaism. Mendelssohn explicitly linked positive Jewish views of Jesus with the issues of Emancipation and Jewish-Christian reconciliation. Similar revisionist views were expressed by Rabbi Isaac Ber Levinsohn and other traditional representatives of the Haskalah movement.[7][8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Uzi Shavit, An Examination of the Term 'Haskala' in Hebrew Literature. Jerusalem Studies in Hebrew Literature, 1980.
  2. ^ Samuel Feiner, Towards a Historical Definition of Haskalah, in: David Sorkin, New Perspectives on the Haskalah. Litmann (2001). p. 208.
  3. ^ Moshe Pelli, Haskalah and Beyond: The Reception of the Hebrew Enlightenment and the Emergence of Haskalah Judaism. University Press of America (2012). pp. 29-32.
  4. ^ Brown, Lucille W., and Stephen M. Berk. "Fathers and Sons: Hasidim, Orthodoxy, and Haskalah: A View from Eastern Europe." Oxford University Press/Oral History Association 5 (1977): 17–32. JSTOR. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3674885>
  5. ^ "Jews", William Bridgwater, ed. The Columbia-Viking Desk Encyclopedia; second ed., New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1964; p. 906.
  6. ^ Cohn-Sherbok, Dan (2003). Judaism: History, Belief, and Practice. pp. 259–262. 
  7. ^ Matthew Hoffman From Rebel to Rabbi: reclaiming Jesus and the making of modern Jewish culture, Stanford University Press, 2007 ISBN 0-8047-5371-7
  8. ^ Matthew Baigell and Milly Heyd, eds. Complex Identities: Jewish consciousness and modern art. Rutgers University Press, 2001 ISBN 0-8135-2868-2 Master narratives/minority artists / Norman L. Kleeblatt – "With wisdom and knowledge of workmanship": Jewish art without a question mark / Elisheva Revel-Neher – Graven images on video? The second commandment and Jewish identity / Margaret Olin – Origins of the Jewish Jesus / Ziva Amishai-Maisels – Jewish naivete? Soutine's shudder / Donald Kuspit – Soutine's Jewish bride fantasy / Avigdor W.G. Posèq – Man Ray/Emanuel Radnitsky: who is behind The enigma of Isidore Ducasse / Milly Heyd – From International socialism to Jewish nationalism: the John Reed club gift to Birobidzhan / Andrew Weinstein – Ben Shahn, the four freedoms, and the SS St. Louis / Diana L. Linden – Jewish-American artists: identity and Messianism / Matthew Baigell – Sacred signs and symbols in Morris Louis: the charred journal series, 1951 / Mira Goldfarb Berkowitz – Perpetual tension: considering Richard Serra's Jewish identity / Hariet F. Senie – R.B. Kitaj's "good bad" diasporism and the body in American Jewish postmodern art / Sander L. Gilman – The Jewish Venus / Gannit Andori – Secular culture and traditional Judaism in the art of Michal Na'aman / Haya Fridberg


  • Resources > Modern Period > Central and Western Europe (17th\18th Cent.) > Enlightenment (Haskala) The Jewish History Resource Center – Project of the Dinur Center for Research in Jewish History, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
  • Rashi by Maurice Liber Discusses Rashi's influence on Moses Mendelssohn and the Haskalah.
  • Jewish Virtual Library on Haskalah
  • Dauber, Jeremy (2004). Antonio's Devils: Writers of the Jewish Enlightenment and the Birth of Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literature. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 
  • Litvak, Olga (2012). Haskalah. The Romantic Movement in Judaism. New Brunswick, New Jersey, London: Rutgers University Press. 
  • Rasplus, Valéry "Les judaïsmes à l'épreuve des Lumières. Les stratégies critiques de la Haskalah", in: ContreTemps, n° 17, septembre 2006 (French)
  • Ruderman, David B. (2000). Jewish Enlightenment in an English Key: Anglo-Jewry's Construction of Modern Jewish Thought. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 
  • Schumacher-Brunhes, Marie (2012). Enlightenment Jewish Style: The Haskalah Movement in Europe. Mainz: Leibniz Institute of European History (IEG).  Digital version available at European History Online: [1]
  • Wodzinski, Marcin (2009). Haskalah and Hasidism in the Kingdom of Poland: a History of Conflict. Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. ISBN 1-904113-08-7.  (translated from Oświecenie żydowskie w Królestwie Polskim wobec chasydyzmu)
  • Brinker, Menahem (2008), The Unique Case of Jewish Secularism (audio archive giving history of ideas of the Haskalah movement and its later secular offshoot movements), London Jewish Book Week.

External links[edit]

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainSinger, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "Haskalah". Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company.