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Modern Jewish History: The Haskalah

by Shira Schoenberg

The Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, was an intellectual movement in Europe that lasted from approximately the 1770s to the 1880s. The Haskalah was inspired by the European Enlightenment but had a Jewish character. Literally, Haskalah comes from the Hebrew word sekhel, meaning "reason" or intellect" and the movement was based on rationality. It encouraged Jews to study secular subjects, to learn both the European and Hebrew languages, and to enter fields such as agriculture, crafts, the arts and science. The maskilim (followers of the Haskalah) tried to assimilate into European society in dress, language, manners and loyalty to the ruling power. The Haskalah eventually influenced the creation of both the Reform and Zionist movements.


As early as the 1740s, many German Jews and some individual Polish and Lithuanian Jews had a desire for secular education. Some of the elite members of Jewish society knew European languages. Absolutist governments in Germany, Austria and Russia deprived the Jewish community’s leadership of its authority and many Jews became "Court Jews." They gave economic assistance to the local rulers, using their connections with Jewish businessmen to serve as military contractors, managers of mints, founders of new industries and providers to the court of precious stones and clothing. Court Jews were protected by the rulers and acted as did everyone else in society in their speech, manners, and awareness of European literature and ideas.

The lower class was also exposed to the outside world. Jewish peddlers interacted frequently with non-Jews.

During the general Enlightenment (1600s to late 1700s), many Jewish women began to frequent non-Jewish salons and to campaign for emancipation (the granting of equality to Jews). In Western Europe and the German states, observance of halakhah (Jewish law) started to be neglected.

In the first half of the 18th century, even some traditional German scholars and leaders, such as the doctor and author of Ma’aseh Tuviyyah, Tobias b. Moses Cohn, appreciated secular culture. In Italy, there were some rabbis who had studied philosophy and Christian theological literature. Jewish Italian physicians held particular prestige.

The Haskalah began in Galicia (Germany, Poland and Central Europe) and later spread to Eastern Europe (Lithuania and other provinces of the Pale of Jewish Settlement1). The Haskalah was characterized by a scientific approach to religion in which secular culture and philosophy became a central value. It was influenced by a Maimonidean approach that valued secular studies and used reason as the measure of all things.

Moses Mendelssohn (1726-1789) is considered the father of the Haskalah. Mendelssohn was a philosopher with ideas from the general Enlightenment. Frederick the Great declared him a "Jew under extraordinary protection" and he won a prize from the Prussian Academy of Sciences on his "treatise on evidence in the metaphysical sciences." He wrote in German, the language of the scholars. He represented Judaism as a non-dogmatic, rational faith that is open to modernity and change. He called for secular education and a revival of Hebrew language and literature. He initiated a translation of the Torah into German with Hebrew letters, tried to improve the legal situation of the Jews and the relationship between Jews and Christians, and argued for Jewish tolerance and humanity.


One of the biggest changes of the Haskalah was in education. The maskilim tried to remove Talmud from its central position in Jewish education. They included Jewish studies in their curricula but emphasized secular knowledge, modern languages and practical training in labor, in order to help the Jews become integrated into society. They advocated the study of Jewish history and ancient Hebrew as a way to revive a national Jewish consciousness. They wanted to train Jewish children in common sense, tolerance and reasonableness.

The goals of the maskilim were affected by the absolutist rulers of the time. Joseph II issued one typical edict for the Jews of Bohemia, Moravia, Hungary and Galicia in the 1780s. He decreed that Jews must establish "normal" schools or send their children to state schools, Jews were allowed to attend general secondary schools and universities, marriage was prohibited without a certificate of school attendance and anyone who studied Talmud before completing the school curriculum could be imprisoned. As a result of this decree, many new, modern Jewish schools were created. In 1820, Francis I of Austria required rabbis to study sciences and use the language of the country in prayers and sermons. As a result, a rabbinical seminary opened in Padua in 1829.

The first Haskalah school was founded in Berlin in 1778 and called both the Freischule ("Free School") and Hinnukh Ne’arim ("Youth Education"). It was a free education designed for poor children and the curriculum included German, French, arithmetic, geography, history, art, some Bible studies and Hebrew. The school was successful and began with 70 students. Other Haskalah style schools developed in Dessau and Frankfort on the Main, among other places. In all of these schools, Talmud was almost completely abandoned and both Hebrew and general studies were taught. Educators began to write textbooks to guide the new curricula.

The Haskalah also brought about change in the education of girls. Daughters of wealthy families generally studied with private teachers. In the 1790s, the maskilim established schools for poorer girls in Breslau, Dessau, Koenigsberg and Hamburg. The curriculum generally included some Hebrew, German, the fundamentals of religion and ethics, prayers and arithmetic. Some schools also taught Yiddish writing, handiwork, art and singing.

The Haskalah also affected education in other European countries besides Germany. In 1813, a school was started in Tarnopol (Galicia) that had classes in Bible, Mishnah, Gemara, Hebrew grammar, Polish, French, arithmetic, history and geography. Classes were taught in German and there were classes given for both boys and girls. In 1819, three boys’ schools opened in Warsaw in which instruction was given in Polish. Two girls schools also opened there. In 1845, a school similar to that in Tarnopol opened in Lvov. In the 1820s and 1830s, schools opened in Russia that were modeled after those in Germany. During the 1840s and 1850s, the Russian government created a network of governmental Jewish schools in which the language of instruction was either German or Russian.

Education was needed to instruct teachers on how to teach in these new schools. The first teachers’ training seminary was opened in Kassel in 1810, and others followed in Amsterdam, Budapest and other cities. In Vilna and Zhitomir (Russia), government rabbinical seminaries were established and funded by a tax imposed on the masses. The maskilim educated there were taught in Russian and their ties with the Hebrew language and Jewish tradition were weak.

There were no Jewish secondary schools and those who continued their studies went to non-Jewish institutions. In Russia, as the hope of emancipation grew, the number of Jewish children studying in Russian secondary schools increased from 2,045 in 1870 to 8,000 in 1880.


The Haskalah marked the end of the use of Yiddish, the revival of Hebrew and an adoption of European languages. At the end of the 17th century, wealthy Jews in Germany taught their children German and French to facilitate business and social contacts with non-Jews. By the 1790s, French had become the language of the Jewish elite while German was the spoken language of the middle class.

German writers had previously claimed that Jews deceived non-Jews by using Yiddish in business transactions and a negative attitude toward Yiddish developed. Mendelssohn thought that Yiddish was "ridiculous, ungrammatical, and a cause of moral corruption."2 Some reformers called for the removal of Yiddish from Jewish schools and others suggested that Jews refrain from using Yiddish or Hebrew in bookkeeping and business contracts.

In the Netherlands, Jews gave up Yiddish in favor of Dutch. A Jewish weekly published in Dutch began in 1806. In 1808, a Jewish society in Amsterdam translated the Bible and prayer book into Dutch and printed textbooks in both Dutch and Hebrew. In 1809, King Louis Bonaparte of the Netherlands issued a decree prohibiting the use of Yiddish in documents. Sermons were to be given in Dutch and Dutch became the language of instruction for youth. In France, French had been spoken even before the Haskalah. In Hungary, maskilim substituted Hungarian for Yiddish in Jewish schools and synagogue sermons.

The Haskalah led to the revival of Hebrew, particularly biblical Hebrew. Mendelssohn wrote a Hebrew commentary on the Bible called the Biur to accompany a German translation. Ha-Me’assef (meaning "The Gatherer") was the first Hebrew publication of the Haskalah. It was founded in Konigsberg, Prussia, by students of Mendelssohn and appeared quarterly between 1783 and 1790 and irregularly until 1811. Doreshei Leshon Ever ("Friends of the Hebrew Language") published Ha-Me’assef with the goals of promoting increased use of the Hebrew language and preparing the Jews for emancipation. Hebrew became a vehicle for secular and professional scientific expression. The writers of Ha-Me’assef rejected Rabbinic Hebrew in favor of classical Biblical Hebrew. Ha-Me’assef printed poetry, fables, biblical exegesis, studies on Hebrew linguistics, essays on Jewish history and news about the Jewish people.

By the 1820s, the focus of the Haskalah shifted to the Austrian empire. A new journal, Bikkurei ha-Ittim ("First Fruits of the Times") was published annually in Vienna between 1821 and 1832. It included poetry, literature, biographies and satire of aspects of traditional Judaism that the maskilim opposed. The first Hebrew journal devoted to modern Jewish scholarship was the Kerem Hemed ("Vineyard of Delight") published in Vienna, Prague and Berlin between 1833 and 1856.

In Russia, a Jewish press helped spread Haskalah ideas. Newspapers were founded in the 1860s in both Hebrew and Yiddish that called for an alliance between the Jews and the Russian government. Most maskilim, however, saw Yiddish and even Hebrew as only temporary instruments for spreading ideas, and sought to promote Russian as the dominant language.


The resurgence in Hebrew language led to a new form of Hebrew literature. The Haskalah writers first tried to capture the attention of readers by writing Hebrew novels modeled after the type of writing that was popular at the time. The novels were set mostly in Palestine with Jews as heroines, lovers and villains. The novels depicted ancient Jews as romantic lovers and brave warriors. They implied that Jews could change their present situation by taking political action instead of sitting and waiting for the messiah.

Later, Haskalah writers turned to more serious themes including the meaning of Judaism and an examination of the Jewish condition. Writers of the Haskalah bred new ideas for the Jews: "that their afflictions were not part of an eternal design or a punishment for their sins; that orthodoxy was not synonymous with God’s commandments; that Hasidism was not a paradise on earth."3 They wrote in Hebrew for the intellectuals, though they still used Yiddish for the masses. In theory, German writings in Yiddish were addressed to women (who were not taught Hebrew) and uneducated men. The Yiddish writers generally wrote fiction while the Hebrew writers composed essays and poetry. The Yiddish writers developed from the early Hebrew romanticism into realism. The Hebrew writers turned eventually to Zionism, the Jewish aspiration for a national homeland. Haskalah writers include Sholem Aleichem and I.L. Peretz.

The Haskalah reached Russia in the 1840s. In 1841, a Russian group called Shoharei Or ve-Haskalah ("Seekers of Light and Education") put out the first Hebrew literary periodical, Pirhei Zafon ("Flowers of the North"). One of its writers, Mordecai Guenzburg, wrote stories based on Jewish, general and Russian history adapted from non-Jewish sources. Many of its poets wrote about secular subjects in lyrical Hebrew.

In Lithuania, European fiction and textbooks were translated into Hebrew. Modern Hebrew weekly newspapers were created and, in 1863, the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia was established. During the 1860s and 1870s many Hebrew writers turned to literary and social criticism.


The maskilim encouraged a switch in Jewish professions. Jews moved from commercial jobs such as money lending and trade to more skilled jobs such as crafts and agriculture. The maskilim thought this would improve both the character and the position of Jews in society. Some German schools taught their students crafts, and then found the boys apprenticeships with Christian craftsman. After the 1812 emancipation law in Prussia, a society for the Promotion of Industry was formed. This was a Jewish group that stood up for the interests of Jewish apprentices and supported Jewish creativity. Some maskilim also advocated manual labor, because they felt it taught morality.

Orthodox Jewry

Orthodox Jews were against the Haskalah from the start because it went against traditional Judaism and challenged both rabbinic orthodoxy and the role of Talmud in education. They retained Torah, not secular studies, as their central value; nevertheless, the Haskalah influenced even the Orthodox Jews. The first Orthodox schools that taught both Judaic and general studies started in Halberstadt and Hamburg.

The Haskalah in Russia was in a large part based on the views of an Orthodox rabbi, Elijah b. Solomon Zalman (1720-1797), also known as the Vilna Gaon. The Vilna Gaon wrote commentaries on the Bible, the Mishnah, the Talmud, midrash, the Sefer Yetzirah, the Zohar and the Shulhan Arukh. His method was to apply an exact interpretation of the common-sense meaning of the text. He also studied secular subjects including algebra, geometry, astronomy, geography and Hebrew grammar to understand Talumudic discussions. Many Russian maskilim regarded themselves as his disciples.


One of the ideas characterizing Haskalah thought was anti-messianism, a feeling that one should not be constantly yearning for a miraculous messiah. This was boosted by the failure of Shabbetai Zevi, a false Messiah in the 1600s. The maskil Jonathan Eybeschuetz is quoted as saying that the main achievement of the Messiah would be that the Jews "would find clemency among the nations,"4 i.e., the better legal and social status they were striving for in Europe. Mendelssohn agreed in principle to messianic hope but considered it not to have "any influence on our civic behavior," particularly in places that "have treated the Jews with tolerance."5 Others equated the Messiah with universal peace and toleration. Exile was no longer seen as divine, but as the result of historical factors.


After emancipation there was a rise in assimilation, but also in Jewish nationalism. Many maskilim identified themselves expressly as Germans. The Assembly of Jewish Notables in 1806 coined the term "Frenchmen of the Mosaic religion." Later maskilim, however, also had a sense of Jewish nationalism and combined that attitude with Haskalah views. Much of this nationalism was fostered by anti-Semitism and led to aspirations for redemption by a natural, human effort. This was the start of modern Zionism.

Reform Movement

The Haskalah was one of the primary causes of the start of the Jewish Reform movement. The Reform movement tried to bring Judaism closer to contemporary European standards of behavior. It also tried to stem the tide of conversions to Christianity by Jews who were estranged from traditional ritual. In Germany, synagogues began to allow sermons, choirs and organ accompaniments. Wearing a hat was no longer compulsory in synagogue and the sexes were not separated in the congregation. The liturgy of the prayer book was changed to omit repetitions, drop the medieval poems (piyyutim), remove references to Zion or Jerusalem and reword traditional prayers that referred to a national redemption of the Jewish people in the messianic age. The observance of the law started being more focused on the ethical commandments than on ritual observance. In 1807, a confirmation ceremony for boys in German, an imitation of a Christian ceremony, was introduced in a school in Wolfenbuettel, Germany. This custom spread to other Jewish schools in Germany.

The End of the Haskalah

In most of Western Europe, the Haskalah ended with large numbers of Jews assimilating. Many Jews stopped adhering to halakha (Jewish law). The struggle for emancipation in Germany awakened some doubts about the future of Jews in Europe and eventually led to both immigration to America and Zionism. In Russia, anti-Semitism ended the Haskalah. Some Jews responded to this anti-Semitism by campaigning for emancipation, others joined revolutionary movements and assimilated, and some turned to Jewish nationalism in the form of the Zionist Hibbat Zion movement.

The Haskalah created the first Hebrew literature and also the first secular Yiddish literature. It spawned a Jewish press in Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian. It marked the transition of Jews from commercial jobs to labor jobs, specifically agriculture. It also began a system of secular and Judaic education that has influenced the Jewish world until today.


1The Pale of Jewish Settlement was part of Poland that Russia conquered. Russia did not allow Jews to move from that area into the rest of Russia.

2Encyclopedia Judaica, p. 1437.

3Dimont, p. 350.

4Encyclopedia Judaica, p. 1443.

5Encyclopedia Judaica, p. 1443.

Sources: Dimont, Max. Jews, God and History. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962
Encyclopedia Britannica Online. "Haskala"
Encyclopedia Judaica. "Haskalah"
Kung, Hans. Judaism. New York: Crossroad, 1992
Seltzer, Robert. Jewish People, Jewish Thought. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1980.
The World Book Encyclopedia. "Haskalah". Vol. 9, 1988 Edition.