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Naphtali Herz Wessely

(1725 – 1805)

Naphtali Herz Wessely (Hartwig) was a Haskalah poet, linguist, and exegete. Wessely's ancestors had fled Poland during the Chmielnicki pogroms and settled in Wesel on the Rhine, from where the family took its name. Born in Hamburg, Wessely spent his childhood in Copenhagen, where his father was a purveyor to the king of Denmark. He received his religious education at the yeshivah of Jonathan *Eybeschuetz, who influenced him greatly, and read literature and scientific works in a number of European languages, Associated with the Feitel Bank, Wessely's business affairs took him to Amsterdam and Berlin. In Berlin he met Moses *Mendelssohn and contributed a commentary on Leviticus (Berlin, 1782) to the Biur.

Wessely began his literary career with the Hebrew translation of the apocryphal work Wisdom of Solomon (from Luther's German translation), to which he appended a brief commentary, later elaborated into a full-length exegesis, Ru'aḥ Ḥen (Berlin, 1780; Warsaw, 1885). He pioneered in the revival of biblical Hebrew, and his translation, written in the vivid and lofty style of the Scriptures, prompted later Haskalah writers to translate apocryphal works into biblical Hebrew. The linguistic problems he encountered led to a number of philological works such as Gan Na'ul (or Levanon; 2 vols., Amsterdam, 1765–66; Lemberg, 1806), a work on Hebrew synonyms and roots, and Yein Levanon, a commentary on the mishnaic tractate Avot (Berlin, 1775; Warsaw, 1884), which also concentrates on linguistic aspects. While Wessely's focus is often linguistic, his exegesis shows also wide knowledge and learning, and his commentaries were well received by orthodox scholarship. He is, however, mainly known as a poet – Shirei Tiferet (1789–1802) is the major literary work of the German Haskalah – and as a pioneer in education and an advocate of the Enlightenment through his Divrei Shalom ve-Emet (1782), a call in support of the Edict of Tolerance (*Toleranzpatent, 1782) of Joseph II of Austria.


Shirei Tiferet ("Poems of Glory"), Wessely's magnum opus, is a long epic on the life of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt, modeled after similar epical works by Klopstock and Schiller. Embellished with legends from the Talmud and the Midrash, the work is essentially didactic and is suffused with the rationalist spirit of the age. Thus the concept of the mission of the Jewish people is reflected in the description of the revelation at Sinai; the quest for salvation and for an end to the suffering of the Jewish people also clearly echo throughout the poem. Divided into six parts, containing 18 cantos, the narrative of the poem stretches from the persecution of the Jews by Pharaoh and Moses' birth to the giving of the Law. Wessely's great prosodic innovation was the introduction of the alexandrine (the 12-syllable heroic line of contemporary French poetry) into modern Hebrew poetry. The poem, however, is little more than a narrative in verse of the Bible story, its principal aim being didactic rather than aesthetical. Wessely, in the rabbinic tradition, intended his poem to be a commentary on certain obscure passages in the Bible, yet at times he used the narrative only as a pretext to display his poetic virtuosity and his structural prowess.

While the work as a whole may be of little literary merit, there are certain beautiful poems, such as the lyrical introductions to the cantos which are invocations to God. There are also a number of fine poetic passages in the cantos themselves: some describe feelings, while others are didactic in content, such as the depiction of Israel's mission and its destiny in the seventh canto. Shirei Tiferet served as a model to later Hebrew poets. The epic was published in full after the poet's death (Prague, 1809), and sections of it were translated into German and French.

Among his other poetic works is Mehallel Re'a, an introduction to the translation of Exodus. In his commentary to Exodus, Wessely criticizes the inadequate, faulty educational methods in the contemporary Jewish schools. He also wrote a number of occasional poems.

Wessely was a trailblazer in style. The syllabic meter and the strophic structure he introduced became standard models for Hebrew poets for over 60 years. He also revived the biblical Hebrew style in literature and lent to the language flexibility and vividness.

Linguistic Method

Striving to use a lofty biblical style in order to recreate the flavor and form of biblical writing, Wessely tried to arrive at the original meaning of synonyms in the Bible. His approach was philological rather than exegetical, and he viewed the problem not only from a theoretical and abstract point of view, but primarily practically, i.e., how to use the synonyms for rhetorical purposes. This pragmatic approach also determined Wessely's method in his studies of the Hebrew language. He demanded that biblical Hebrew provide him with the necessary linguistic means and devices for his literary needs. His great sensitivity to the language allowed him to grasp the spirit of the biblical tongue and to penetrate its mysteries. Psychology for him was the key to an understanding of the language in general, and of the individual meaning of synonymic words in particular. The Hebrew language seemed to him as vital in his time as it had been in the ancient past and, though it was not spoken, it remained superior to all other living tongues. Hence his philological assumption that there are no synonyms in Hebrew (an assumption which is in accord with the principle accepted in linguistics that language does not suffer excess and either rejects superfluous words or invests them with new meaning), a characteristic he ascribed only to Hebrew because of his mystical relation to the language. Wessely, however, was extreme in his theory and refused to acknowledge the possibility of synonyms even in poetry; he thus attributed new meaning to an idea repeated in different words. The starting point of his philological research is not the word itself, but the concept that the written words give rise to. He therefore ascribed a separate meaning to each word and disregarded the connotations that have accrued to a word in the course of the historical development of the language.

Wessely's linguistic theory also influenced his style and he showed the way for the writing of pure biblical Hebrew. His prose style, however, is a fusion of Hebrew styles of different historical periods.


Imrei Shefer, a commentary on Genesis, is the fruit of lectures given by Wessely to young audiences in Berlin. Portions of the work were published by *Mekiẓe Nirdamim (Lyck, 1868–71). Mendelssohn also asked him to write a commentary to Leviticus (Berlin, 1782) for the Biur. Writing in a light and flowing style, Wessely explains every Hebrew word and refers to earlier commentators. He attempted to reconcile the plain meaning of the Scriptures with the commentaries in the Talmud and the Midrashim by means of a detailed analysis of every word, a method which often led to lengthy and sophistic distortions of the simple meaning of the text. Mendelssohn edited the work; he shortened it, interpreted difficult passages that Wessely had failed to explain, and added comments to passages in which the opinions of the two scholars differed. The Gaon of Vilna, *Elijah b. Solomon Zalman, praised the work, but the maskilim considered it too scholarly.

Educational and Public Activities

Wessely's epistle Divrei Shalom ve-Emet (Berlin, 1782), is a call to the Jewish community of Austria to comply willingly with the order of the Edict of Tolerance of the Austrian emperor Joseph II to open schools for Jewish children in which German would be taught. The work is the first methodical composition in Hebrew on Jewish education written in the spirit of the Haskalah. Wessely distinguishes between two types of studies: what he called Torat ha-Adam ("human knowledge"), and instruction in the Law of God. The acquisition of human knowledge demands instruction in subjects which are necessary to man's relationship with man, namely, a training in general subjects and ethics, i.e., secular studies common to the human race. The divine teachings are the heritage of the people of Israel alone and are identical with the Torah of Moses. Jewish education should be founded on both studies, with a schooling in human knowledge preceding divine subjects, since these should serve as a basis for the study of Torah. Without general education it is impossible to understand divine teachings. Wessely came to the conclusion that he who studies the Torah without acquiring common human knowledge, will, when he grows up, become a burden upon society.

His opinions were strongly opposed by the Orthodox, especially by Ezekiel b. Judah *Landau of Prague, *David Tevele b. Nathan of Lissa, and the Gaon Elijah of Vilna. A bitter controversy ensued. Wessely responded to the rabbis in his epistles Rav Tov le-Veit Yisrael (Berlin, 1782); Reḥovot (Berlin, 1785); and Mishpat (Berlin, 1784), all of which were later collected under the title Divrei Shalom ve-Emet; sections were translated into French, German, Dutch, and Italian.

Wessely also wrote a number of other works, the most important of which is Sefer ha-Middot or Musar Haskel (Berlin, 1784), a collection of essays on the essence of the soul and its faculties. The work reflects contemporary philosophical and ethical German thought. Sefer ha-Middot became popular among learned Jews in Eastern Europe. Some of Wessely's works are still in manuscript.


Z. Fishman, in: Ma'anit (1926), 17–20; incl. bibl.; J.S. Raisin, Haskalah Movement in Russia (1913), index; Zeitlin, Bibliotheca, 413–18; J.L. Landau, Short Lectures on Modern Hebrew Literature (19382), 62–74: P. Sandler, Ha-Be'ur la-Torah shel Moshe Mendelssohn ve-Si'ato (1940), 136–45; E. Carmoly, Wessely et ses écrits (1829); W.A. Meisel, Leben und Wirken Naphtali Hartwig Wessely's (1841); Klausner, Sifrut, 1 (19522), 103–50; incl. bibl.; D. Sadan, Be-Ẓetekha u-ve-Oholekha (1966), 51–54; M.S. Samet, in: Meḥkarim… le-Zekher Ẓevi Avneri (1970), 233–57. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: G. Elkoshi, Introduction to Mivḥar Ketavim (1952); B. Shahevitch, Be'ayot be-Signon ha-Perozah ha-Masa'it shel Reshit ha-Sifrut ha-Ivrit ha-Ḥadashah (1963); N.H. Rosenbloom, Ha-Epos ha-Mikrai me-Idan ha-Haskalah ve-ha-Parshanut (1983); E. Breuer, "Naphtali Herz Wessely and the Cultural Dislocations of an 18th Century Maskil," in: S. Feiner and D. Sorokin (eds.), New Perspectives on the Haskalah (2001).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.