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Wessely, Wolfgang

(1801–1870), jurist, publicist, and scholar. Born in Třebíč (Trebitsch), Moravia, to the family of a local leaseholder, Wolfgang (Binyamin Ze’ev) Wessely studied at yeshivas in his hometown, Polná, and Prague. He then studied philosophy and law at Prague’s Charles University and in 1829 was the first Jew to be awarded a doctorate in philosophy from that institution. Four years later, he earned a doctorate in civil law and also applied for one in canon law but was rejected because he was Jewish. After graduating, Wessely was hired as a private tutor for the family of the Viennese merchant Ernst Wertheimer. In 1831 he was appointed teacher of Jewish religion at a secondary school, and from 1837 he taught at the Jewish Normalschule of Prague.

Wessely published a siddur (Jewish prayer book) with German translation in Hebrew characters in 1834 under the title Seder tefilat Yisra’el. The siddur was reissued in 1844 with German characters, and a second, revised and expanded edition appeared in 1882. He also produced a textbook for the religious instruction of Jewish children entitled Netiv emunah (1840), which he styled a “biblical catechism,” and which went through nine editions between 1846 and 1876.

In 1844, the position of Hebrew censor and translator in Prague became vacant following the death of its long-time incumbent, Karl Fischer. Wessely, who in 1837 had been named provisional Hebrew translator, took advantage of this vacuum by presenting the Bohemian authorities in 1845 with an ambitious proposal for the establishment of an institute for Jewish studies (Wissenschaft des Judentums) and rabbinic literature at the Prague University. What Wessely was proposing was that he be allowed to lecture on an unpaid basis (as an ausserordentlicher Professor) in the areas of Hebrew language and rabbinic literature—fields, he argued, that were needed by Christian students of theology and public administration, and that were not adequately covered by existing theological faculties, whose courses focused narrowly on the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. Wessely’s emphasis on postbiblical language and literature as the foundation for the academic study of Judaism was unusual for his time.

Habsburg officials in Prague sought expert advice on Wessely’s proposal from, among other sources, the city’s Jewish leadership. Mosheh Yisra’el Landau and Rabbis Shelomoh Yehudah Rapoport and Samuel Freund submitted opinions that were sharply critical of the proposal, ostensibly on the grounds that Wessely was not qualified to lecture on rabbinic literature. The academic directorate of the Philosophical Faculty, however, warmly endorsed Wessely’s project as well as Wessely himself. The governor’s office in Bohemia eventually approved the request in 1846 and gave Wessely permission to lecture on Hebrew and rabbinic literature at the university in Prague before a mixed Christian and Jewish audience.

When trial by jury was introduced in Austria in 1848, the minister of justice sent Wessely on a mission through France, Prussia, Holland, and Belgium to study the legal methods employed in those countries. In 1849, Wessely was appointed privat-docent in law at the university; he was made a salaried assistant professor in 1852 and a full professor in 1861, the first Jew to hold a full professorship in the Habsburg monarchy.

Wessely published a number of studies on Austrian law and civil procedure. Among these are Über die Gemeinschaftlichkeit der Beweismittel im österreichischen Civilprocesse (On the Commonality of Evidence in Austrian Civil Cases; 1844) and Die Befugnisse des Nothstandes und der Nothwehr nach österreichischem Rechte (The Power of Necessity and Self-Defense in Austrian Law; 1862). Austrian and European law journals published his articles as well. Selections from his German prayer book, designed for women, were translated into English and published in Birmingham and London in 1852 as Devotional Exercises for the Use of Jewish Women on Public and Domestic Occasions.

Suggested Reading

Guido Kisch, Die Prager Universität und die Juden, 1348–1848 (Märisch-Ostrau, 1935; rpt., Amsterdam, 1969); “Professor Dr. Wolfgang Wessely: Eine biografische Skizze,” Das Abendland [Prague] 1 (1864): 3–5; Constant von Wurzbach, Biographisches Lexikon des Kaisertums Österreich, vol. 50, pp. 182–184 (1884; rpt., New York, [1966]).