Moses Mendelssohn

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How He Met Frederick the Great

This story may be a “legend” and if untrue very well invented! I once heard the rudiments sometime/somewhere ago and always itched to put some flesh on the bones, so to say. So there goes:

It was 1750, in Berlin the capitol of Prussia and at that time King Frederick (II) the Great (Friedrich der Grosse) ruled. He was a philosopher, tolerant of other religions and thus one day decided to visit the Synagogue or the “Schul” (pronounced as “shool”) as it was called, referring to it as the Place of Learning.

So, he had a messenger sent to the President of the Jewish Community who told him that the King wished to participate at the Services the coming Shabbat. Of course, everybody was excited and not just a little frightened. They knew that a lot depended on leaving a very good impression—finally, the Jews were mostly regarded as aliens living in a foreign country.

At the “Emergency General Assembly” on Tuesday night, the Community discussed a lot of things that had to happen in the next two and a half days. Also, how to make the coming Services unforgettable and to remember the special brakhah (blessing) that needs to be said when in the Presence of Royalty.

The most important, however, was to get the whole Schul clean and tidy. Never, never was it to be said of the Berlin Synagogue, “So unordentlich, wie in einen Judenschule!” (So disorderly like in a Jewish School/Schul!) An anti-Semitic saying that still exists nowadays in the German speaking world.

So the very next day the “Cleaning Brigade” all available women, children, and even the men arrived and started to clean up the place and put everything in order. We need to remember, the men were in charge of the seating below the emporium. The women prayed up there, seated separated from the men, so that the men could concentrate on their prayers without being distracted.

Now, as in all public places of the realm (like you can still see when you visit Great Britain today), there is a picture of the Ruler hanging on the wall. It hung in the vestibule as it is forbidden to have a picture of any living thing in the Prayer Hall. The Jewish Community had bought a very expensive portrait of the King and the people didn’t know what to do to keep it securely safe while they cleaned the whole place up. Someone had the idea to turn the picture face-to-the-wall to protect it from any eventualities. And so they did.
Unstoppable, the Shabbat arrived and so did the Royal Court. Everything was neat and tidy, everything was going very well, until a courtier discovered, yes, the King’s portrait (for what else could it be?!) turned to the wall. Wasn’t that lese-majesty, an insult to the King?

We need to note, the King was a most tolerable monarch. His courtiers were of an other opinion, especially towards “those” Jews. They also had a thorn in their side. King Frederick spoke in French; he disliked the German language, and for those German noblemen of his Court that was difficult to swallow.

Incidentally, besides speaking some other European languages, Frederick also learnt Latin, ancient Greek and also later Hebrew.

However, back to our story!

You can imagine the situation! First it was very embarrassing. In the “heat of the battle”, so to say, the members of the Cleaning Brigade and, in fact, everybody else of the Jewish Community had forgotten to turn the King’s portrait back. Then, they feared for their living hood. Banishment of the whole Community would then be the least of their worries!

The President of the Community burned white. He didn’t know what to say that didn’t sound like a lame excuse of negligence only. He turned, caught Moses Mendelssohn’s eye, sending at the same time the silent message towards Heaven, “Can you help us!?”

Mendelssohn stepped forward, bowed his head to the King and said (although he could speak French himself), addressing the translator:

“As His Gracious Majesty surely knows (as if he did), we Jews are obliged to put on our Tefillin, our “Praying-Straps” (Phylacteries) every day before going to work – except for the Shabbat. We take these moments with the Tefillin, reminding us to be in the Presence of “Adon Olam”, the Ruler of the World, to give thanks that we are able to go about our daily tasks. On the Shabbat however, being in the Radiant Presence of the Almighty the whole day long, we do without the Tefillin.

“And so it is also with the portrait of His Gracious Majesty. On the days His Majesty is away from us, we have the face of the portrait turned towards us. We are thus reminded of our just and fair Sovereign, King Frederick of all the Prussians, our most virtuous Protector, who permits us Jews to go about our daily tasks, in His Holy Nation of Prussia. (NB. as one of the “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation(s)”)
“However, oh, when the radiance of His Majesty’s presence is among us, do we need a portrait to remind us of Him? Therefore, pray let His Majesty know, we turn His portrait around, face-to-the-wall.”

Later that year, Frederick the Great gave Mendelssohn the status of “Jude unter aussergewoehnlichen koeniglichen Schutz” (Jew under extraordinary royal protection) and they became “friends” as much as a Christian Sovereign could permit himself to be towards a Jew at that time and age.

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