In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) Literature

  • Introduction
  • Literary Historical Overviews
  • Literary Histories of the Haskalah: Controversies and Other Voices
  • Bibliographies, Encyclopedia Entries, and Online Resources
  • Haskalah Literature in the Middle East and North Africa
  • Haskalah Poetry
  • The Satire
  • Yiddish Haskalah Literature
  • Haskalah Exegetical Theory
  • Haskalah Allegorical Plays
  • Haskalah Autobiography
  • Prose Fiction
  • Haskalah Literary Criticism and Theory
  • Maskilic Approaches to Language and Translation

Jewish Studies Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) Literature
Amir Banbaji
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0185


The Haskalah movement became distinguishable in Prussia during the last two decades of the 18th century. It had significant early precursors in Italy and central Europe during the earlier 18th century. After its stormy beginnings in Berlin and Königsberg it moved eastward, supported by new political and economic opportunities. It ran its course in eastern Europe by the early 1880s, with the rise of an avalanche of new ideas that came into being in the aftermath of anti-Jewish pogroms in the South of Russia. Nevertheless, the movement had many subsequent offshoots in the Middle East and North Africa, even after the rise of European Jewish nationalism, and well into the first half of the 20th century. Scholars usually consider the Haskalah movement and its literature a major factor in the process leading to the transformation and modernization of Jewish life, both inside and outside Europe, since the early to mid-18th century. Commonly translated as “Jewish Enlightenment,” the Haskalah (meaning, in Hebrew, knowledge, wisdom, and learning) is often depicted as having deep affiliation with secularization and European enlightenment. This rather automatic identification, however, became a subject of debate once scholars of Haskalah began to tie the movement to various strands of critiques of enlightenment. Such significant changes also befell the definition of Haskalah literature. Defined by most early- to mid-20th-century literary historians as a first instance of modern Hebrew literature, the founding scholars of Haskalah studies defined its literature as written, received, and formed by European elite males, who wrote in Hebrew. This definition has recently been broadened in ways that are likely to transform the innermost meaning of the Haskalah. Haskalah literature now includes works written in Yiddish as well as other Jewish languages, and it encompasses women’s writing and practices of reading, as well as detailed histories of Haskalah works written in North Africa and the Middle East. Finally, stimulated by new developments in the study of Enlightenment, the Haskalah is viewed by many as a playground for competing views on secularization, modernization, and the critique of Enlightenment. Thus, the field of Haskalah studies continues to evolve, as scholars revisit their most fundamental assumptions regarding its historical significance. The founding paradigm of the field established the perception that this was a daring break with Jewish traditional past and a harbinger of Jewish return to the universal or European history. This sense of exhilarating crisis has been replaced since the late 1980s with a more moderate view of Haskalah, as social and intellectual historians began to put greater stress on the maskilim’s (proponents of the Haskalah) attempt to reconcile Jewish scriptures and traditions with the main tenets of the European Enlightenment. This approach has been challenged yet again by scholars seeking to show that maskilim—or their texts—were often highly effective critics of Enlightenment and modernity.

Literary Historical Overviews

Only occasionally translated into English, and consistently underrepresented in anthologies of modern Hebrew poetry, the best introductory overviews of Haskalah literature are still the long or multivolume works written by the greats of Hebrew literary history. Halkin 1980, Halkin 1984 (cited under Haskalah Allegorical Plays) Klausner 1949–1953, Lahover 1927–1948, Miron 2010, Shapira 1940, and Zinberg 1972–1978 are still useful for basic acquaintance with the main story of European Haskalah (non-European Haskalah is invariably ignored by all these writers). For better or worse, these works make up the literary backbone of modern Jewish consciousness. While somewhat different in tone, method, and literary taste, they tell the story of the Haskalah and modern Hebrew literature by associating it with a constellation of familiar progressive ideas, such as secularism, Enlightenment, critique of religion, conciseness of historical change, and the epistemological, moral, and aesthetic autonomy of the individual subject. The authors use different approaches for presenting the history of modern Hebrew literature in Europe. While Klausner avidly sticks to the biography of great men, Halkin classifies the material according to literary genres. Lahover and Shapira discuss representative works, while Zinberg, Miron, and Sadan 1962 (cited under Literary Histories of the Haskalah: Controversies and Other Voices) offer a unified picture of Hebrew and Yiddish literary history.

  • Halkin, Shimon. Muskamot u-Mashberim be-Sifrutenu. Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1980.

    A shorter historiography of modern Hebrew literature. Includes substantial sections dealing with the Haskalah. Modern Hebrew literature is, for Halkin, a locus of cultural crisis, secularization, and adoption of the modern European canon. A sensitive and close reader of literary sources, Halkin’s assessment of the Haskalah literature is ambivalent. Too eager in their attempts to accomplish a beautified vision of the ideal Jew, the maskilim wrote works that lack psychological and experiential depth.

  • Klausner, Joseph. Hisṭoryah shel ha-Sifrut ha-Ivrit ha-Hadashah. 6 vols. Jerusalem: Aḥiʼasaf, 1949–1953.

    A founding historiography of modern Haskalah, written by a major proponent of cultural Zionism, who contributed much to the consolidation of modern national Hebrew culture. This monumental work arranges literary works according to large categories of political, intellectual, and literary lineages. Somewhat parochial in its tone, each chapter of this multivolume book treats a single author, and each includes a biography, bibliography, and a short presentation of the author’s works.

  • Lahover, Fischel. Tolodot ha-Sifrut ha-Ivrit ha-Hadasha. 4 vols. Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1927–1948.

    A comprehensive history of modern Hebrew literature, with the first two volumes dedicated to pre-Haskalah and Haskalah writers. The author argues that modern Hebrew literature is a larger category than Haskalah literature, and that it begins a half century before the rise of Berlin Haskalah, with Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s audacious literary fission of modern European literature, Italian Renaissance humanism, and Jewish Kabbalistic and moralist literature. Rather than breaking with the Jewish past, Lahover believes that modern Hebrew literature is designed to reenact it.

  • Miron, Dan. From Continuity to Contiguity: Toward a New Jewish Literary Thinking. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.11126/stanford/9780804762007.001.0001

    A large, introspective history of modern Jewish literature written by one of its foremost contemporary researchers. The book begins with a critical survey of competing conceptions of Hebrew literary modernity. The third chapter of the books is dedicated to Miron’s broad analysis of the historical significance of the Haskalah, which he claims to be a guiding cultural-political institution, aimed at replacing the rabbinical establishment.

  • Shapira, Hayim Nahman. Toldot ha-Sifrut ha-Ivrit ha-Hadasha. Tel Aviv: Masada, 1940.

    Highly original and insightful account of modern Hebrew literature. Denying that the defining feature of Haskalah literature lays in its secularity, the author argues that Haskalah is a source of “terrestrial,” immanent, earthly, or sensual experience of the world, which does not preclude individual experiences of God. Dismissing the claims that Haskalah is ridden with assimilationist tendencies, Shapira argues that the maskilim did not aim to abrogate religion from modern life, but rather to renew it in a sphere of individual earthly experience.

  • Zinberg, Israel. A History of Jewish Literature. Translated and edited by Bernard Martin. 12 vols. Cleveland, OH: Case Western Reserve University, 1972–1978.

    Originally published in eight volumes in Yiddish (1929–1937), this work has been translated into both English and Hebrew. An influential, useful, and comprehensive history of Jewish literature written in Yiddish, Hebrew, and other European languages, parts eight to thirteen covers literary, journalistic, moralistic, and critical works written since the early 18th century and up until the 1880s.

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