Peter Beer. Engraving, early nineteenth century. (The Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem)

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Beer, Peter

(ca. 1758–1838), educator, historian, and religious reformer. Peter Beer was born in Nový Bydžov (Neu-Bidschow), Bohemia, to a middle-class family. He received a traditional Jewish education, attended yeshivas in Prague and Bratislava (Pressburg), but also studied German and Latin with a priest in his hometown. After serving as a private tutor in Hungary, Beer went to Vienna around 1781. He was one of the first Jews to attend a teaching seminary, opened to Jews by the Edicts of Toleration of Joseph II.

In 1783, Beer began to teach at the newly founded German Jewish Normalschule in Mattersburg (Mattersdorf). After two years, he returned to Nový Bydžov and worked as a teacher at the local Normalschule. In 1787, he married Rebeka Hlawatsch; the couple had seven children (only one daughter remained Jewish). In 1811, Beer was appointed to a teaching position at the German Jewish school of Prague, where he served until his death.

Besides his pedagogical work, Beer contributed to the transformation of Jewish education in the Habsburg monarchy through writing numerous textbooks. His first pioneering book, Toldot Yisra’el (History of Israel; 1796), is in Hebrew with a German translation and a commentary in Hebrew characters. Beer rearranged the narrative parts of the Hebrew Bible into a coherent story and provided a national Jewish narrative, conveying in his commentary the theological and pedagogical principles of the Haskalah.

Beer hoped to introduce his book into the state-controlled German Jewish school system. This attempt failed, however, as Habsburg authorities championed a German textbook modeled on Christian catechisms. Nevertheless, Toldot Yisra’el was exceptionally successful, running into seven editions in Vienna (1810–1860), five in Prague (1796–1875), several reprints, as well as translations into French (1819), Polish (1862), and Russian (five editions between 1870 and 1905). It was popular in Haskalah schools and became the blueprint for textbooks on biblical history.

Beer’s other textbooks—Dat Yisra’el (Israel’s Religion, 2 vols.; 1809–1810), Emet ve-emunah (Truth and Faith; ca. 1826/32), and Handbuch der mosaischen Religion (Manual of the Mosaic Religion, 2 vols.; 1818–1821)—are religious manuals in German that tried to comply with the expectations of state authorities and unsuccessfully competed with Herz Homberg’s Bne-Zion; 1812). Only in his last textbook, Toldot Yisra’el II (1832), a Hebrew-language history of the Second Temple period, does Beer return to historical narrative.

Beer wrote pioneering works on Jewish historiography. In Geschichte der Juden (History of the Jews; 1808), seemingly a German continuation of Toldot Yisra’el, Beer draws heavily upon Josephus Flavius as a historical source and as a paradigm for accommodation to foreign rule. He depicts the history of the Second Temple as a period of national disintegration. Unlike Toldot Yisra’el II (1831), the German version contains numerous learned footnotes.

By contrast to his textbooks, Beer’s two-volume Geschichte, Lehren und Meinungen aller bestandenen und noch bestehenden religiösen Sekten der Juden und der Geheimlehre oder Cabbalah (The History, Teachings and Views of All Former and Present Jewish Sects, Including the Secret Teachings or Kabbalah; 1822–1823) was a more standard historical study. As the title implies, it is rather a history of Judaism than a history of the Jews, and its main impetus was the justification of religious reforms. Beer suggested that rabbinic Judaism was only one current out of various legitimate Jewish sects. Furthermore, he stressed historical changes within rabbinic Judaism to justify reforms. Beer also published articles on historical topics in Jewish and non-Jewish periodicals (e.g., Sulamith, Ha-Me’asef, Bikure ha-‘itim, and Annalen).

From the 1820s, Beer dedicated himself to the cause of religious reform. Encouraged by state authorities, he was one of the first proponents of modernization in the Habsburg Empire, disseminating the idea through memoranda and pamphlets. He was active in the Verein zur Verbesserung des Israelitischen Kultus, founded in Prague in the 1830s, which aimed to introduce reforms patterned on the relatively moderate Minhag Vina (Vienna), created by Isaak Noah Mannheimer. Beer was instrumental in establishing the Reform synagogue in Prague (1835) and in a futile attempt to attract Leopold Zunz as a preacher. Yet his writings on the subject demonstrate that for him, Minhag Vina constituted merely a transitional stage; real reform would include the use of an organ and German prayers.

Beer strove to improve the status of women in Jewish religious life and wanted them to participate actively in religious ceremonies. His Gebetbuch für gebildete Frauenzimmer mosaischer Religion (Prayer Book for Educated Women of the Mosaic Religion; 1815 in Hebrew letters; 1843 and 1845 in German letters) was the first German prayer book for women and considerably influenced the genre. Die mosaischen Schriften (Mosaic Scriptures; 1815), Beer’s German commentary on Genesis 1–24, was the first interconfessional Bible commentary written by a Jew. His biography of Maimonides (1832) and a fragmentary German translation of The Guide of the Perplexed (1833) were severely criticized for lack of scholarship. Though he faced harsh criticism from various Jewish circles, Beer significantly helped shape the face of Prague’s Jewry during the nineteenth century. His autobiography, Lebensgeschichte (Life Story), was published in 1839.

Suggested Reading

Michael Brenner, “Between Haskala and Kabbalah: Peter Beer’s History of Jewish Sects,” in Jewish History and Jewish Memory, ed. Elisheva Carlebach, John M. Efron, and David N. Myers, pp. 389–404 (Hanover, N.H., 1998); Louise Hecht, “An Intellectual Biography of the Maskil Peter Beer, 1758–1838: His Role in the Formation of Modern Jewish Historiography and Education in Bohemia” (Ph.D. diss., Hebrew University, 2002); Vera Leininger, “The Story of a Maskil in Bohemia: Peter Beer, 1755/58–1838,” World Congress of Jewish Studies 12.B (2000): 155–163.