Is it permitted to quote Moses Mendelssohn, the father of the Jewish Enlightenment, as a source or reference? Is he considered in jewish lore a heretic?

from wikipedia page linked above:

In the view of the German writer Heinrich Heine, "as Luther had overthrown the Papacy, so Mendelssohn overthrew the Talmud; and he did so after the same fashion, namely, by rejecting tradition, by declaring the Bible to be the source of religion, and by translating the most important part of it. By these means he shattered Judaic, as Luther had shattered Christian, Catholicism; for the Talmud is, in fact, the Catholicism of the Jews."

did he intend or desire to overthow the talmud? was he in fact a heretic? is it permitted to quote or read his works?

  • 1
    +1 in all likelihood the vast majority of orthodox Jews will trace themselves back to the views of Chassam Soffer or Rav Hirsch so Mendelssohn would be off limits. But hopefully someone will have something more scholarly to say.
    – user6591
    May 13, 2015 at 13:34
  • To play "Devil's advocate", here - Elisha ben Avuyah became a heretic, too. Yet, we quote many things from him. Is there a halachic problem, per se, quoting from someone who became a heretic?
    – DanF
    May 13, 2015 at 13:50
  • 2
    @DanF do we quote halachos after his heresy? May 13, 2015 at 13:55
  • 1
    @Mefaresh - I'm not sure if there are any halachot, such as when to daven, and similar, that "Acher" instituted. The majority of his citings are mentioned in Avot and Avot D'Rav Natan, and these are moral ethics, which, as far as I'm concerned are "halachot". However, I'm assuming that they were said prior to his becoming a heretic. But, I'm not completely certain.
    – DanF
    May 13, 2015 at 14:03
  • 2
    We don't quote Acher, we quote Rebbe Meir.
    – HaLeiVi
    Nov 26, 2015 at 14:12

2 Answers 2


Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) neither desired nor intended to overthrow the Talmud; he was in fact an observant Jew. Rav Hirsch (1808 – 1888) "praised Mendelssohn as ‘a most brilliant and respected personality whose commanding influence has dominated developments to this day." In his article "Mendelssohn in Nineteenth Century Rabbinic Literature," Meir Hildesheimer describes Rav Hirsch's attitude toward Mendelssohn at length:

Rabbi Hirsch bewailed the fact that Mendelssohn had not completed his work. Had he been able to do so, it stands to reason that the Reform movement might never have come into being. This attitude seems to reflect the change that took place in the status of Orthodoxy in Germany in the 1840's. At this time it was gaining strength and changing from a passive to an aggressive position. Nevertheless, on the whole, Rabbi Hirsch does not seem to have been seriously disquieted by Mendelssohn. This emerges from an article written by his son, Isaac Hirsch, on the one hundredth anniversary of Mendelssohn's death. Rabbi Hirsch was still alive at the time, and there is reason to believe that he endorsed the article. Mendelssohn is termed "one of the noblest sons of Israel," who had taken his place among the righteous and honest men in heaven. His memory remains alive amongst men who pay homage and admiration to his blessed work. Mendelssohn had devoted his life to bringing "true joy," but for us he would always be remembered as "a great and noble Jew" by virtue of his contribution to and appreciation of Judaism. He served as "a supremexample of truly devout Jewish conduct" together with a broad knowledge of all of the scientific disciplines.

The same article describes R. Azriel Hildesheimer's (1820-1899) attitude:

Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer, the rabbi of the Adat Israel community in Berlin, and head of the Rabbinical Seminary, credited Mendelssohn, "the great worldly sage," for his theory and practice of Judaism, for his influence in Jewish political and civil circles, and his value as a source for scholars in mattters of religious life and attitudes. Mendelssohn was a loyal adherent of his religion, and acknowledged the same in his writings. In thought and practice, in his philosophy and conduct, he upheld the Biblical-Talmudic basis of Judaism. His work was faithfully depicting Judaism to members of the alien culture, among them philosophers, scholars and the higher echelons of society. "Small minds" who sought to raise themselves to a level of importance which they did not deserve, by climbing on his shoulders, called themselves his disciples and heirs, although they did not conduct themselves in accordance with either his spirit or his actions. They crudely distorted the essence of his philosophy, and thus dishonored him in the eyes of the vast majority of their peers. As a result, Mendelssohn was then held responsible for the actions of these "disciples" of his.

Other recognized gedolim who quote Mendelssohn include: R. Akiva Eiger (see Chiddushei R. Akiva Eiger Brachos 13a and Megillah 17a quoted here, R. David Tzvi Hoffmann (1843-1921; see Melamed le-Ho'il, Even ha-'Ezer [Frankfurt-am-Main, 1933], para. 33 [translation]; on Chumash: Bereishis 18:23-26; 31:51-53; 33:1-3; Vayikra [Jerusalem, 1953], p. 14; R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865), the author of Ha-Ksav ve-haKabbalah, in addition to writing a haskamah for the Biur on Vayikra, quotes Mendelssohn on numerous occasions (Shemos 10:8, 10:23, 14:13, 21:34, 22:3, 23:33; Vayikra 23:2). R. Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer (1795-1874) quotes Mendelssohn in a letter to R. Akiva Eiger (Derishas Tziyon [Jerusalem, 1947] p. 87) and refers to him as "a great man and crown of the sages." R. Shmuel Strashun, better known as the Rashash, quotes Mendelssohn in Ta'anis 9b, Yevamos 62b, and Horiyos 11b. (Almost all of these sources are taken from Meir Hildesheimer, "Mendelssohn in Nineteenth Century Rabbinic Literature.")

The Maharam Schick (1807-1889) relates the following episode (from this article by R. Shnayer Leiman):

It was the custom of the Hatam Sofer, when visiting a Jewish community outside of Pressburg, to attend services Sabbath morning in the community synagogue, after which he would accompany the Rabbi to his home. There he would "order" the Rabbi to deliver an aggadic sermon, after which the Hatam Sofer would also preach. Now it was his practice never to recite a verse from Scripture by heart, and so [when he visited my community] he requested a printed humash containing the appropriate weekly reading. At the time, I owned three printed editions of the Torah. One was an Amsterdam edition with the standard Targums and commentaries. That edition I used to keep in the synagogue over Sabbath, so that it would not be necessary for me to carry on the Sabbath. [It, therefore, was not available in my home.] Another edition—printed in Vienna— belonged to my wife, the Rebbetzin, and it too was kept in the synagogue over Sabbath for her use. The third edition, the only one I kept in the house, contained Mendelssohn's translation and Biur. When the Hatam Sofer requested a printed humash, and those who were providing for his needs knew that it was his practice not to use the edition with Mendelssohn's Biur, he was informed that they could not locate a printed humash. Given the circumstances, he proceeded to preach and recite the verses by heart. He was astounded, however, that a humash could not be located in the Rabbi's house! After the exchange of words of Torah in my home, the pious and righteous R. Hirsch Tyrnau, who was treated as a member of the Hatam Sofer's family, went to visit him at the home where he was staying. The Hatam Sofer queried him about the shortage of humashim in the Rabbi's house. R. Hirsch Tyrnau then explained to the Hatam Sofer what had really occurred. When I arrived for the Minha service at the home where the Hatam Sofer was staying, he rebuked me for reading, and studying from, Mendelssohn's Biur. I informed him that a respected colleague, who was considered a righteous Jew even by the Hatam Sofer, testified before me that a well known Gaon used to study the Biur, especially to the book of Leviticus. The Hatam Sofer responded that, in truth, that Gaon did not do well in this matter. I also excused myself by informing him that I had read through the entire Biur and did not find anything that even smacked of heresy or a passage that was suspect in any way! The Hatam Sofer responded: "See the Biur to Deuteronomy, chapter so and so, and you will find a heretical comment." Although the passage he cited is not necessarily decisive, nonetheless the Hatam Sofer has ruled and who would contravene his ruling? In any event, it is evident that he considered Mendelssohn a heretic, and his book a heretical work. That is why he had no compunctions about Heidenheim's translation of the Torah; it was specifically Mendelssohn's translations and commentaries that he interdicted. He would not touch them, he kept them at a distance, for they had the status of heretical works (see b. Sabbath 116a-b). But we never heard that, if perchance a volume of Mendelssohn's Biur came into his hands, he cast it to the ground.

All this should suffice to prove that Mendelssohn was quoted by many gedolim, in his time and beyond his time, although there were also those who opposed his works, especially among the Chassidim. See also comments to this post.

  • 3
    Could it be that nowadays since we know the havoc he started there is less reason to quote? Could they have known then what would happen? They were contemporaries May 13, 2015 at 13:45
  • 2
    R. Akiva Eiger was a contemporary, the others were not. For more on the controversy surrounding Mendelssohn see maimonideanconservatism.blogspot.com/2012/04/…
    – wfb
    May 13, 2015 at 16:16
  • 3
    I think orthoprax describes him better.
    – HaLeiVi
    Nov 26, 2015 at 14:22
  • 2
    @HaLeiVi Mendelssohn was not orthoprax; the orthoprax/open orthodox of today could learn a lot from him
    – wfb
    Nov 27, 2015 at 1:03
  • @wfb Woops. Totally goofed with the link. I mean to link to seforim.blogspot.com/2016/12/… which is more about Wessley than Mendelssohn, but includes various rabbis who utilsed the Beiur, as well.
    – mevaqesh
    Jan 2, 2017 at 3:14

Complex question; Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff discusses it at length. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch thought of Mendelssohn as a model neo-Orthodox Jew, while the Chasam Sofer warned his students against reading the works of "Moses [of] Desau."

Rabbi Rakeffet concludes: the fact that none of Mendelssohn's children died as observant Jews doesn't prove anything; but the fact that none of his students died as observant Jews leads us to some caution. With historical hindsight, today Mendelssohn is generally regarded as outside the Orthodox mainstream. You do not expect to hear him quoted (approvingly) in a sermon in an average Orthodox Union-type synagogue.

Consult your local rabbi whether it's appropriate/allowed to read works that are outside-the-pale-of-mainstream-Jewish-thought, based on context and the like.

  • The tiferes yisroel also quotes him. The son and brother of the English Chief Rabbis (they were a father and son), who lived in Berlin, author of b'somim rosh and buried in London was a talmid of his and considered a heretic.
    – cham
    May 13, 2015 at 15:45
  • @cham, the Besomim Raush was put under cherem for forging a work by the Rosh (after which he was subsequently called). This work was effectively an attempt to work around certain gezeirot which were causing some difficulty for the young men of Shaul Berlin's generation (such as yayin stam) May 13, 2015 at 19:42
  • I don't understand. How would Mendelssohn have produced talmidim? He didn't run a yeshiva or work as a community rav. Mendelssohn was a famous writer, philosopher, Scriptural commentator, and critic -- basically, a public intellectual. Why would we expect him to have produced talmidim any more than, say, the late great producer of Orthodox English books, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan?
    – jasper
    Mar 14, 2022 at 22:03

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