Sonnenfels, Aloys von

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SONNENFELS, ALOYS VON (Ḥayyim Lipmann Perlin ; Aloys Wiener ; d. c. 1775–80), apostate Hebrew interpreter in Vienna. Son of a Brandenburg rabbi, Sonnenfels went to *Mikulov (Nikolsburg), Moravia, as an agent of the local noblemen. He adopted the Roman Catholic faith between 1735 and 1741 and had his two sons baptized. His wife, however, remained in the Jewish faith. Moving to Vienna, he became teacher of Oriental languages at the university there and court interpreter to *Maria Theresa. He was knighted in 1746. A year earlier he had published Or Nogah, Splendor lucis, a "physico-kabbalistic" exposition in Hebrew and German of the problem of the philosopher's stone. In 1753 he translated the Shai Takkanot (see *Moravia) for the compilation of the Polizey-ordnung of 1754. That same year he wrote to R. Isaac Landau of Cracow offering to go to Poland to assist in the struggle against the Frankist blood libel (see Jacob *Frank and the Frankists), publishing Juedischer Blut-Eckel in Latin and German against the blood libel (1753). In it he argued that such false, superstitious accusations prevented Jews from recognizing the truth of Christianity. When Jacob Selekh, the representative of Polish Jewry, went to ask for the renewal of the papal *bulls in refutation of the blood libel, Sonnenfels submitted an Italian translation of his book. He published a christological apology, Controversiae cum Judaeis ("Controversies with the Jews"), in Latin in 1758. When proposing, in 1760, that he should write a book in defense of the Talmud, which was then under attack at the court of Pope Clement xiii, he requested financial support for this project from the Italian communities. The book, which was also to include proof that the Gospels could be explained by the Talmud, did not materialize.

His son joseph (1732–1817) became the chief representative of the ideology of enlightened despotism, and as adviser to Maria Theresa, *Joseph ii, and Leopold ii, one of the most influential men in the Hapsburg Empire in the second half of the 18th century. Born in Mikulov and baptized at the age of three, he never mentioned his Jewish origin. After graduating from the philosophy faculty of Vienna University, he joined the army in 1749. On his discharge (1754) he studied law, becoming a professor of political science in 1763. As he was proficient in nine languages, Hebrew among them, he succeeded his father as court interpreter.

Joseph von Sonnenfels published more than 150 books and pamphlets and his textbooks on national economy, particularly mercantilism, were influential for decades (Grundsaetze der Polizey-Handlung und Finanzwissenschaft, 3 vols., 1765–67, 1819–22). Sonnenfels opposed excessive urbanization and held that it was the responsibility of the state to guarantee all who were willing to work the minimum means of subsistence. In his Ueber die Liebe des Vaterlandes (1771) he introduced the concept of the "fatherland" into Hapsburg lands. He favored indirect taxation and opposed revenue farming. Sonnenfels had literary ambitions, aspiring to be the first Austrian author to attain international fame. He founded the periodical Der Mann ohne Vorurteil (1765–75). He eliminated the Hanswurst ("buffoon") from the popular Viennese stage and was involved in a controversy with Gotthold Ephraim *Lessing. In Austria he was remembered mainly for the part he played in the abolition of torture in judicial procedure (Ueber die Abschaffung der Tortur, 1775, 17822). He also fostered educational reform.

Sonnenfels drafted the *Toleranzpatent of Joseph ii, which shows the imprint of his theories. In 1782 he published in Berlin a pamphlet titled Das Forschen nach Licht und Recht in which he requested Moses *Mendelssohn to become a Christian. Mendelssohn's reaction to this was published in his Jerusalem (1783). In 1784 Sonnenfels made Mendelssohn a member of his Deutsche Gesellschaft (German scientific society) and of the Vienna Academy of Sciences. Although highly honored during his lifetime (becoming Wirklicher Geheimrat, Real Aulic councillor in 1779, twice rector of Vienna University, head of the Academy of Sciences in 1810), Sonnenfels was known in Vienna as "the Nikolsburg Jew." A statue of him was erected in front of Vienna city hall when the antisemite Karl *Lueger was mayor; it was removed under Nazi rule (1938) and restored in 1945.


R.A. Kann, A Study in Austrian Intellectual History (1960), 146–244; bibl., 310–35; Holzmann and Portheim, in: Zeitschrift fuer die Geschichte der Juden in der Tschechoslowakei, 1 (1930/31), 198–207; 2 (1931/32), 60–66; Nirtl, ibid., 3 (1932/33), 224; W. Mueller, Urkundliche Beitraege… maehrischen Judenschaft (1903), 83–84; F. Kobler, Juden und Judentum in deutschen Briefen (1938), 50–51; 103–14; L. Loew, Gesammelte Schriften, 2 (1891), 363–6; 405–6; idem, Aron Chorin (Ger., 1863), 137–40; G. Wolf, Das Unterrichtswesen in Oesterreich unter Kaiser Josef ii nach… Joseph von Sonnenfels (1880); Zielenziger, in: ess, 14 (1954), 258–9; S. Simonsohn, Toledot ha-Yehudim be-Dukkasut Mantova (1963), index; Katz, in: Zion, 29 (1964), 112–32; R. Kestenberg-Gladstein, Neuere Geschichte der Juden in den boehmischen Laendern, 1 (1969), index.

[Meir Lamed]