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The haskalah was the movement among European Jews in the late 18th century toward adopting enlightenment values, integration into the larger gentile society, and acquiring the knowledge, manners, and aspirations of the gentile nations among whom they lived. Adherents of the haskalah movement were called maskilim.

In a more restricted sense haskalah denotes the study of Biblical Hebrew and of the poetical, scientific, and critical parts of Hebrew literature. The term is sometimes to used to describe modern critical study of Jewish religious books, such as the Mishna and Talmud, when used to differentiate these modern modes of study from the older methods used by Orthodox Jews. The article on Torah study delves into the many ways, both traditional and new, that Jewish people study the Torah and other Jewish books.

As long as the Jews lived in segregated communities, and as long as all avenues of social intercourse with their gentile neighbors were closed to them, the rabbi was the most influential member of the Jewish community. In addition to being a religious scholar and clergy, a rabbi also acted as a civil judge in all cases in which both parties were Jews. Rabbis sometimes had other important administrative powers. The rabbinate was the highest aim of many Jewish youth, and the study of the Talmud was the means of obtaining that coveted position, or one of many other important communal distinctions.

Moses Mendelssohn, a German Jew, was a leading figure in this movement. His extraordinary success as a popular philosopher and man of letters revealed hitherto unsuspected possibilities of integration and acceptance of Jews among non-Jews.

A good knowledge of the German language was necessary to secure entrance into cultured German circles, and an excellent means of acquiring it was provided by Mendelssohn in his German translation of the Torah. This work became a bridge over which ambitious young Jews could pass to the great world of secular knowledge. The "bi'ur," or grammatical commentary, prepared under Mendelssohn's supervision, was designed to counteract the influence of traditional rabbinical methods of exegesis. Together with the translation, it became, as it were, the primer of haskalah.

See also: Judaism, The Enlightenment