Chief town of the duchy of Anhalt, North Germany, on the left bank of the Mulde. The settlement of Jews here dates from 1621. The introduction of debased coins had ruined the finances of the duchy, and Duke Johann Casimir permitted Jews to settle at Dessau as purveyors of silver to the mint. They were forbidden to export money, and had to prevent its exportation by others. The permit was, however, of short duration. The calamities consequent upon the Thirty Years' war made it impossible to reestablish the finances of the duchy. The Jews were therefore banished. In 1672 Duke Johann Georg readmitted them; and some Jews settled at Dessau. In 1685 there were only 26 families. Moses Wulff, adescendant of Moses Isserles, banished from Berlin at the instigation of his powerful enemy, Jost Liebmann, the court factor, settled with his family at Dessau and became court factor of Johann Georg II. Combining learning with philanthropy, and being of a religious turn of mind, he exerted his great influence for the welfare of the newly established community, which soon became a center of scientific activity. A bet ha-midrash was founded by the Wulff family. At its head was Rabbi Benjamin Wolf, author of "'Ir Binyamin," who was succeeded by Isaac Itzig Gerson, or, as he later called himself, Joseph Isaac Gerson (1708-35).The Franzschule.
After the death of Moses Wulff (1729) the material prosperity of the community (which had increased to about 700 persons) diminished. His son Elijah succeeded him in the office of court factor; but the family had become impoverished, and with it the community also declined. Still, enlightened rabbis and scholars like David Hirshel Fränkel, the rosh ha-yeshibah Hirsh, Moses Fränkel, and others, made it a center of learning; and from Dessau came Moses Mendelssohn. A source of intellectual development for the first half of the nineteenth century was the Franzschule. Founded in 1799 as a primary school for poor children, five years later it was transformed, with the sanction of the government, into a Jewish high school. For sixty years it enjoyed the highest reputation throughout Germany. Its director, David Fränkel, and such teachers as Joseph Wolf, Gotthold Solomon, and Moses Philippson, attracted pupils from far and near.
The community of Dessau led in the struggle for the emancipation of the German Jews. A German monthly entitled "Sulamith," devoted to Jewish interests and culture, was published for eight years (1806-14) by David Fränkel and Joseph Wolf. But the Dessau-Anhalt government continued until 1848 to consider the Jews as "Schutzjuden." No foreign Jew was allowed to settle in the town without a special permit, and the Dessau Jews were restricted to a special quarter. Even after 1848 the government endeavored to limit the right of the Jews to election to the Parliament, and maintained for a long time the oath "more Judaico." It was probably on this account that between 1850 and 1895 the Jewish population of Dessau fell from about 1,000 to 406.
During the greater part of the nineteenth century the rabbinate of Dessau was in an extremely chaotic state. Rabbi succeeded rabbi with extraordinary rapidity; for many years the post was vacant, and the duties of the rabbinate were partially performed by the teachers of the Franzschule. The rabbis since 1870 have been: Dr. Saalfeld (1870-81); Schönberger (1881-84); Dr. Samson Weisse (1884-1893); Dr. Max Freudenthal (1893-1900); Dr. Isidor Walter (1900). In 1886 the government issued regulations concerning Jewish worship, according to which a chief rabbi for Anhalt, with his seat at Dessau, was to be nominated and supported by the government.
Dessau possesses an imposing synagogue in the Oriental style (restored in 1861), and a monument to Moses Mendelssohn erected on the centenary of his death.
- Würdig, Chronik der Stadt Dessau, 1876, passim;
- idem, Dessau Innerhalb Eines Jahrhunderts, 1886;
- Steinthal, Die Jüd. Volksschule in Anhalt, in Zeitschrift für Gesch. der Judenin Deutschland, iv. 66;
- Kayserling, Moses Mendelssohn, passim, Leipsic, 1888;
- Max Frendenthal, Aus der Heimat Mendelssohns, passim, Berlin, 1900;
- Die Juden Unter den Annhaltischen MarkgrafenvonBrandenburg, in Allg. Zeit. des Jud. 1840, No. 13;
- D. Calm, Die Stellung der Juden in Anhalt, ib. 1866. Nos. 40 and 41.
A Hebrew printing-office was established at Dessau in 1694 by court factor Moses Benjamin Wulff. The privilege obtained for this purpose included both Hebrew and German, but Wulff availed himself only of the former, the enterprise not being undertaken with a desire for gain, but to conserve and advance Jewish learning. The first work published by him (1696) was a ritual entitled "Tefillah le-Mosheh," to which were appended prayers for women in Judæo-German, entitled "Minḥat 'Ani." The type for the Judæo-German was set up by a girl of nine years—Ellah, daughter of Moses of Holland. In 1704 the work of the press was suspended, owing to the great losses Wulff had sustained in his transactions with the court of Gotha. His son Elijah reestablished the office in 1742, but discontinued it in 1743. The first work issued by the latter was the Sifra with a commentary, "Ḳorban Aharon," by Aaron ben Ḥayyim; the last was the "Ḳorban ha-'Edah," on the Jerusalem Talmud, by David Fränkel. In 1783 another office was established by C. Schilder, which continued into the second half of the nineteenth century.
- Cassel and Steinschneider, Jüdische Typographie, in Ersch and Gruber, Encyc. section ii., part 28, p. 84;
- Max Freudenthal, Aus der Heimat Mendelssohns, pp. 151 et seq., Berlin, 1900.