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Bernstein, Aaron (David)
The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
German publicist, scientist, and reformer; born April 6, 1812, in Danzig; died Feb. 12, 1884, in Berlin. His was one of the most versatile and productive Jewish minds of the nineteenth century. Intended by his parents for a rabbi, he received a thorough Talmudical education, which made him a formidable adversary in the controversies on religious reform in which he later participated (Holdheim, "Gesch. der Entstehung . . . der Jüdischen Reformgemeinde in Berlin," p. 54, Berlin, 1857). At an advanced age, when he was recognized as one of the great political leaders of Germany, he could still write in the style and the spirit of an old-time Polish rabbi ("Ha-Ẓefirah," 1875, , No. 2).
Early Debut as a Writer.
He went to Berlin at the age of twenty, and by his own efforts, without the help of school or university, familiarized himself with the German language and literature. He soon began to write on many and diverse subjects, and attracted attention by his graceful and lucid style as well as by his force and originality. For some years he was an antiquarian book-seller in Berlin; but his literary labors absorbed most of his attention; and finally he took up writing as a profession.
His earliest works, most of which appeared under his pseudonym, are: A translation of the Song of Songs, with critical notes and a bibliographical preface by Zunz (Berlin, 1834); "Plan zu einer Neuen Grundlage für die Philosophie der Geschichte" (ib. 1838); "Novellen und Lebensbilder" (ib. 1840); "Eine Abhandlung über die Rotation der Planeten" (ib. 1843). In the same year appeared his anonymous pamphlet, "Zahlen Frappieren," a defense of the Prussian Ministry of Finance against the attack of Bülow-Cummerow. It created a sensation in political circles, and was thought by many to have been written by the minister of finance himself.
Active in Jewish Affairs.
His scientific and political studies did not prevent Bernstein from taking an interest in Jewish affairs; and he became the principal contributor to Wilhelm Freund's monthly magazine, "Zur Judenfrage," which appeared in Berlin from July, 1843, to June, 1844. Bernstein was one of the leading spirits in the inception of the movement for religious reform in those days, and his great rabbinical knowledge and his conciliatory spirit made even the opposition respect him. One of the most acute and objective writers against the Reform movement said that of Rebenstein's attacks on Judaism it might be said "Faithful are the wounds of a friend"; while the remainder of the verse (Proverbs 27:6), "but the kisses of an enemy are profuse," was appropriate to the defense of it advanced by some of his contemporaries (see Phineas M. Heilprin, "Teshubot be-Anshe Awen," Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1845, letter I).
Bernstein was one of the committee appointed March 10, 1845, to work out a plan for a line of progress in Jewish religious affairs. A fragment of a remarkable speech which he delivered at the meeting which chose that committee is preserved in Holdheim's above-mentioned work, where, by the way, Bernstein is considered to have been the only "theologian" present. He agreed with Dr. Stern in recognizing the importance of the Talmud and in deploring the arrest of its development along the lines of the exigencies of practical life. Bernstein was chosen to edit and amend the "Entwurf" of the committee; and he is one of the principal authors of the famous "Aufruf" for the organization of a religious Reform movement among the Jews in Germany, which appeared in the Berlin newspapers early in April, 1845. He and Dr. Stern were the authors of the prayer-book for the newly organized Reform congregation of Berlin; and while Bernstein refused to become its rabbi, it seems that he often officiated in that capacity before a regular rabbi was engaged. He was also the editor of the monthly "Reform-Zeitung: Organ für den Fortschritt im Judenthum," which appeared in Berlin in 1847.
Imprisoned Under Press Law.
In 1849 Bernstein founded the "Urwählerzeitung," a political monthly which advocated the principles of political reform in the same conciliatory but determined spirit that had characterized his advocacy of religious Reform in Judaism. It soon gained a large circulation and brought the editor much fame; but it also brought him into inevitable conflict with the authorities, which resulted in a sensational trial under the press law, with a sentence of four months' imprisonment for the editor. In the same year when the "Urwählerzeitung" was suppressed (1853), Bernstein founded the Berlin daily "Volkszeitung," which soon attained a large circulation, and of which he remained the chief editorial writer for more than a quarter of a century. In that paper first appeared Bernstein's valuable popular scientific essays, which later were published in book form as "Naturwissenschaftliche Volksbücher" (4th ed., Berlin, 1880, 21 vols.), and weretranslated into the principal European languages. A Hebrew translation, entitled "Yedi'ot ha-Ṭeba'" (Knowledge of Nature), appeared in Warsaw, 1881-91. It was prepared partly by P. Rudermann (see S. Bernfeld's autobiographical sketch in "Sefer Ziḳḳaron" (Book of Remembrance), but mostly by D. Frischmann.
Bernstein also wrote two novels of Jewish life, "Vögele der Maggid" and "Mendel Gibbor," which first appeared in Josef Wertheimer's "Jahrbuch für Israeliten" and then in book form (Berlin, 1860; 7th edition, ib. 1892). They were translated into many languages, even into Russian (St. Petersburg, 1876), and place their author among the most important ghetto novelists, second only to Kompert (Kayserling, "Jüdische Litteratur," p. 171, Treves, 1896). These novels were, unlike the ghetto stories of today, written for Jews only, and therefore employ the German-Jewish idiom to an extent that almost brings them into the class of dialect stories. Bernstein's "Ursprung der Sagen von Abraham, Isaak, und Jakob" (Berlin, 1871) is a valuable contribution to Biblical criticism, although Wellhausen ("Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels," 1:31) objects to its political tendencies. The most important of Bernstein's political essays and articles appeared in book form under the title "Revolutions- und Reaktions-geschichte Preussens und Deutschlands, von den Märztagen bis zur Neuesten Zeit" (Berlin, 1883-84, 3 vols.). He also wrote numerous other less important works on a great variety of subjects.
A Practical Scientist.
The achievements of Bernstein as a practical scientist are also worthy of notice. As early as 1856 he patented an invention by which two distinct telegraph messages could be sent over the same wire at the same time. He was one of the first to advocate the laying of telegraph wires underground, and was also the inventor of an automatically closing gate for railroad crossings. He was, besides, an expert photographer; and he taught photography free of charge to many striving young men, thus enabling them to earn their livelihood.
Bernstein enjoyed great popularity in his later years, and when he died was mourned as one of the great popular teachers of the German nation. The degree of doctor of philosophy was conferred on him by the University of Tübingen in 1876. Julius Bernstein, now professor at Halle, is his eldest son.
- Meyer, Konversations-Lexikon;
- Brockhaus, Konversations-Lexikon, 13th edition;
- Stern, Gesch. des Judenthums,;
- Fuenn, Keneset Yisrael, pp. 75-76;
- Geiger, Jüdische Zeitschrift, 1869, 7:223-226;
- Illustrirte Zeitung, March 1, 1884 (with portrait).
These files are public domain.
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Bernstein, Aaron (David)'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​b/bernstein-aaron-david.html. 1901.