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Hebrew Science in Medieval Ages

 Early Hebrew and Arabic Scientific Literature by Jews

During the centuries from antiquity to the Middle Ages, Hebrew scientific works of various sorts were written. We find a mathematical treatise, Mishnat ha-Midot, which is assumed to be the earliest Hebrew mathematical treatise; it was composed, according to one opinion, in the second century C.E., but according to another opinion, between the ninth and twelfth centuries, since it was influenced by Arabic material (Sarfati, 199). We also find several treatises dealing, entirely or partially, with astronomy and astrology. One of the them is Baraita de-Mazzalot, an introduction to astrology grounded on Hellenistic science which was assigned to the transitional period between Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Sarfati 1965). Another treatise is Baraita de-Shemuʾel, an enigmatic Hebrew text from the transitional period between Antiquity and the Middle Ages, with astronomical and astrological contents that in some cases overlap the contents of Baraita de-Mazzalot. Sefer Yeṣirah (Book of Formation or Creation), a work attributed to the patriarch Abraham but probably written sometime in the transition between Antiquity and the Middle Ages, sets out in brief and enigmatic sentences a systematic view of the principles of the process of creation and the laws governing nature and humans (Wasserstrom, 1993). Two medical texts are Sefer Refuʾot (Book of Medicines), assigned to Assaph ben Berechiau and Johanan ben Zabda, who lived between the 4th and 6th century C.E., and Sefer ha-Mirkaḥot (Book of Remedies), a medical text attributed to Shabbetai ben Abraham ben Joel Donnolo (913-985). Even though a thorough examination has not yet been carried out, the partial findings related to individual texts suggest that these treatises represent chronologically isolated and disconnected scientific works that may hardly be described as a homogeneous corpus of Hebrew scientific texts belonging to a continuous scientific tradition.

More representative of Jewish culture in the early Middle Ages were the literary attempts made under the rule of Islam and under the cultural ascendancy of the Arabic language. In the middle of the eighth century, with the completion of the Islamic conquest of the eastern, northern and part of the western shores of the Mediterranean, many Jewish communities came under the emerging power and culture of Islam. Jews managed to successfully integrate into the ruling society without losing their religious and national identity. They willingly adopted the Arabic language, spoke Arabic fluently, wrote Arabic in Hebrew letters (Judeo-Arabic), and employed Arabic in the composition of their literary works. At the same time, Jewish intellectuals gradually abandoned the use of Aramaic, but still persisted in the use of the Hebrew language, even though in a restricted manner. An interesting division of labor thus emerged out of this process, regarding the functions that Arabic and Hebrew should respectively fulfill. Hebrew became established as a ‘solemn’ language, fulfilling literary-aesthetic functions, while Arabic writing performed communicative functions.

This division of functions is well attested to in the literary production of Jews living within the orbit of Islam. Jews excelled in the composition, for the first time, of Hebrew secular as well as religious poetry, not least in al-Andalus, where they were well versed in classical Arabic. Hebrew poetry reached its peak, or its ‘golden age’, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Participating in this movement were brilliant Jewish poets such as Shmuel ha-Nagid, who composed his poetry while serving his Muslim master in Granada as a military commander and administrator; Shlomo ibn Gabirol, who integrated in his poetry scientific motifs and neo-platonic philosophical ideas; and Judah ha-Levy, who excelled in his religious, pious Hebrew poetry but composed his philosophical classic, the Kuzari, in Arabic. Also, the general attraction of Islamic culture and the openness of Muslims to cooperation in scientific and cultural matters, led to the participation of Jews, together with Muslims, Christians and members of other communities, in the acceptance of the Greek world view and its integration in Arabic culture and language. The scientific output of scholars of Jewish descent, however, was by no means different from what was composed by Muslims or members of other religious communities, neither in their contents nor in the language in which they were couched (Barkai 1998, 8–13; Goldstein 2001, 17–49).

This was the case of many outstanding scientists of Jewish extraction: Māsirjawyh al-Ṭabib, active in the first quarter of the eighth century, who translated medical works for the Umayyad Caliph ‘Umar ibn Abd al-‘Azīz (reigned 717–720) (Salem and Kumar 1991, 80); Māshāʾ Allāh (d. ca. 815), an outstanding astrologer who was consulted by the Caliph al-Manṣūr (reigned 754–775) in determining the date of the founding of the new city of Baghdad (Pingree 1974; Goldstein 2001, 22–24); Sanad Ibn ʿAlī, a member of the team of astronomers who worked under the sponsorship of the Abbasid Caliph al-Maʿmūn (reigned 813–833) (Ṣāʿid al-Andalusī 1991, 80; Goldstein 2001, 24-27, 32); Sahl Ibn Bishr al-Yahūdī, an astrologer active in the early ninth century who was the author of many books on astrology studied throughout the Middle Ages (Ṣāʿid al-Andalusī 1991, 80; Goldstein 2001, 26–27); Ali Ibn Dāwūd al-Yahūdī, an astrologer in Baghdad at the end of the ninth century known as the author of a single work in Arabic that is not extant (Goldstein 2001, 26–27); Dunash Ibn Tamīm of Kairouan, who served the Fatimid Caliph al-Manṣūr (reigned 946–952) and wrote in Arabic on astronomy and astrology(Goldstein 2001, 26–27); Isḥaq ibn Sulaymān (Isaac ben Solomon ha-Yisraeli (850–932?) who served ʿUbayd Allāh al-Mahdī (reigned 909–934), the founder of the Fatimid dynasty, a prominent physician who wrote his medical treatises in Arabic (Ṣāʿid al-Andalusī 1991, 80; Barkai 1998, 7). However significant their contribution to the general history of science, their work can hardly be considered of any Jewish consequence. Their scientific work scarcely contains a shred of Jewish material, and in fact, the majority opted for a complete assimilation into their cultural environment, in many cases directly by conversion to Islam.

The impact of the Jewish scientific contribution in the framework of Arabic culture may be adequately assessed by reading the Book of the Categories of Nations, a book composed by Ṣāʿid al-Andalusī, a philologist, natural philosopher, historian and judge living in al-Andalus in the eleventh century. In his book, Ṣāʿid al-Andalusī described the role played by eight privileged nations that made a significant scientific contribution in the framework of Arabic culture, and, interestingly enough, one of those places of honor was reserved by him for the Banū Israel. But the relative weight of Andalusian Jewish scientists stands out from the general Jewish contribution (Ṣāʿid al-Andalusī 1991, 80–82).

 The New Hebrew Science

New historical vicissitudes in the Iberian Peninsula, however, doomed this honeymoon between Andalusian Jewish intellectuals and the Arabic language, and brought it to a gradual end. In order to counter-balance the declining Muslim power and the growing sway of the northern Christian kingdoms, two Berber dynasties, the Almoravides (1090) and the Almohades (1145), successively conquered al-Andalus and caused a substantial alteration in the Iberian political regime and cultural climate. In brief, these traditionalist Muslim regimes gradually put an end to the relative tolerance up to the time of the invasions. Under compulsion to embrace Islam, many families of the resident minorities of Christians and Jews opted for abandoning Muslim Spain. The vast majority of these communities fled from al-Andalus to Christian Spain, while many Jewish families abandoned the Iberian Peninsula altogether and immigrated to southern France, Italy or the Orient.

As a result of their physical detachment from Muslim Spain, Jewish intellectuals gradually severed their links with the Arabic language and found another linguistic vehicle for expressing their intellectual aspirations. Although Jews who settled in Christian lands were quickly integrated and mastered the ‘Christian languages’, a remarkable transition from Arabic to Hebrew occurred. This is especially noticeable in the composition of works dealing with secular subjects. In contrast with the previous contributions of Jews to science — either written in Arabic but devoid of any significant Jewish imprint, or written in Hebrew but wrought in a disjointed body of texts — the new ‘medieval Hebrew science’ that emerged, beginning with the twelfth century until the end of the Middle Ages, was as a robust and continuous mainstream of original Hebrew compositions and translations into Hebrew, conveying, with a clearly Jewish character, the Graeco-Arabic world view to Jewish civilization.

Some central characteristics of this intellectual movement have already been studied by earlier and more recent scholarship research, particularly in a comprehensive overview which has lately been edited by G. Freudenthal (2011). In what follows, I limit the scope to a few outstanding examples. M. Steinschneider (1893) already gave in the nineteenth century a brilliant start to the study of the vigorous and wide movement of medieval translations into Hebrew; A.S. Halkin (1972), J.P. Rothschild (1989) and M. Zonta (2011) carried out overall assessment of the Hebrew movement of translations. G. B. Sarfati (1968) investigated the mathematical terminology in Hebrew scientific literature of the Middle Ages and J. Olszowy-Schlanger (2011) studied the science of language among medieval Jews. B.R. Goldstein focused his attention on translations of Arabic astronomical texts into Hebrew (Goldstein 1967), on the scientific contribution of prominent personalities such as Gersonides (Goldstein 1967) and on the astronomy among Jews in the Middle Ages (Goldstein 2011. The reception of sciences and the role sciences played in the medieval Jewish communities of Southern France has been studied by G. Freudenthal (1993), and of the Iberian Peninsula and of the Byzantine cultural orbit by Y.T. Langerman (1999, 2011). R. Barkai (1987, 1991, 1998) conducted research into the creation of the corpus of medieval Jewish texts on gynecology and obstetrics and Caballero-Navas (2011) studied medicine among medieval Jews. R. Fontaine (2000, 2011) examined the work of medieval Jewish authors related to meteorology and zoology. R. Glasner (1998, 2000) examined Hebrew medieval texts dealing with physics. D. Schwartz (2005, 2011) scrutinized astral magic in medieval Jewish thought. T. Levy (2001, 2011) examined the mathematical contribution of medieval Jewish intellectuals. A collective effort has been organized by S. Harvey (2000) to appraise medieval Hebrew encyclopedias. Psychology and Alchemy in medieval Hebrew texts and Jewish cultures have been studied by H. Kahana-Smilansky (2011) and G. Freudenthal (2011). A bibliographical survey of Hebrew astrological literature has been conducted by R. Leicht (2011) and a study of the role astrology played in medieval Jewish thought has been carried out by Sh. Sela (2011). Thus Hebrew was transformed into the standard written language for medieval Jewish science and philosophy. Of crucial importance are the first steps of this new movement. If we wish to grasp and epitomize the initiation of this process, no better illustration may be found than to study the work of Abraham Bar Ḥiyya and Abraham Ibn Ezra.

 Abraham Bar Ḥiyya

Very little is known about Abraham Bar Ḥiyya’s (ca.1065–ca.1140) biography. However, in the final paragraph of an epistle written at an elderly age (Schwarz 1917, 36), Bar Ḥiyya reports that he was held in high esteem by grandees and kings, and that he was engrossed from youth on in learning, dealing with, inquiring and teaching the so-called “science of the stars” (ḥokhmat ha-kokhavim). Bar Ḥiyya’s reference to his connections with grandees and kings is borne out by his appellation Savasorda, a corruption of ṣāḥib al-shurṭa, that is, chief of the guard. It has been surmised that he lived in Huesca, in the Arabic kingdom of Zaragoza-Lerida, where he attained mastery of Arabic sciences and high dignity under the rule of the Banū Hūd dynasty. Bar Ḥiyya was probably also a scion of an important Jewish family, a fact which is indicated by his title ha-Nasiʾ, that is, the Prince.

Bar Ḥiyya characterizes his scientific oeuvre as dealing with the “science of the stars” (ḥokhmat ha-kokhavim), which is a calque translation of the Arabic expression ʿilm al-nujūm, a term employed by al-Fārābī (ca.870–ca.950) in his Iḥṣāʾ al-ʿUlūm (Classification of the Sciences). Like al-Fārābī, Bar Ḥiyya too defines the “science of the stars” as a composite body of learning including astronomy as well as astrology (Schwarz 1917, 29; Ẓurat ha-ʾAreẓ 1720, 1a–1b). Abraham Bar Ḥiyya’s scientific work is endowed with a truly encyclopedic character and covers five main departments of medieval science: astronomy, mathematics, the Jewish calendar, astrology and philosophy. All of Bar Ḥiyya’s original scientific works were written in Hebrew, thus testifying that he developed his scientific career principally among Jews. His scientific works are now presented separately.

Yesodey ha-tevuna u-migdal ha-ʾemuna (Foundations of Understanding and Tower of Faith) is the first medieval Hebrew encyclopedia of science. As hinted in the title, it was designed to have two parts, the first covering all scientific learning and the second intended as a summary of religious knowledge. Only the introduction and the beginning of the first part are extant, and it is not yet clear whether Bar Ḥiyya ever completed his encyclopedia. In the introduction, Bar Ḥiyya informs the reader that he wrote the encyclopedia at the request of the Jews of France, i.e. Provence; he elaborates on wisdom and the tripartite human soul, and gives a hierarchical classification of sciences, presenting a table of contents of the whole planned encyclopedia. The first part of the extant first part follows Nichomacus of Gerasa and Muhammad b. Mūsā al-Khwārizmī and deals with the theory of numbers, arithmetical operations and rules for mercantile calculations (regula mercatorum); the second part follows Euclid, Menelaus of Alexandria, Archimedes, Hero and notably al-Fārābī, and deals with geometry, optics and music (Millás Vallicrosa 1952).

Ḥibbur ha-meshiḥa veha-tishboret (Treatise on Mensuration and Calculation) is a mathematical work conceived as a nontechnical textbook for the use of landholders and judges. Bar Ḥiyya, however, went far beyond the practical needs of elementary land measurements and added in many cases relevant theorems and their mathematical demonstrations. The treatise is divided into four parts: the initial section defines general concepts and terms such as point, straight line, area, various types of angles, etc.; the second part, the largest in the treatise, is devoted to problems of mensuration; the third follows a lost work by Euclid and deals with the division of parcels of land, while the fourth is devoted to the calculation of the volume of various bodies (Guttman 1913).

Astronomy in Bar Ḥiyya’s oeuvre is represented by three works: Ẓurat ha-ʾAreẓ (The Shape of the Earth; Ẓurat ha-ʾAreẓ 1720), a set of astronomical tables, usually called Luḥot ha-nasiʾ (MS Berlin OR. QU. 649), and the canons accompanying these tables which are denominated Ḥeshbon mahalakhot ha-kokhavim (Computation of the Motions of Stars; Millás Vallicrosa 1959). These works were written in Barcelona approximately in 1136 and are presented in the introduction to Ẓurat ha-ʾAreẓ not as isolated works but as an interwoven trilogy meant to deal with the various features of the so-called ḥokhmat ha-kokhavim (science of the stars). Whereas Ẓurat ha-ʾAreẓ follows Farghānī’s Elements, Luḥot ha-nasiʾ and its canons Ḥeshbon mahalakhot ha-kokhavim follow al-Battānī’s al-Zīj al-Ṣābiʾ.

As for the Jewish calendar, Bar Ḥiyya wrote Sefer ha-ʿIbbur (Book of Intercalation), in all likelihood the first Hebrew work of this type. This treatise includes, besides typical calendrical material and a strong dose of polemics, rich astronomical materials whose counterpart may be found in Bar Ḥiyya’s astronomical work. The first part introduces basic astronomical and cosmographic concepts, such as the lunar and solar motions, and the relationship between the seven climates and latitudes to the duration of day and night. The second and third parts deal respectively with the lunar month and the solar year, their astronomical characterization and calendric implications (Philipowsky 1851).

Bar Ḥiyya devoted the whole of Megillat ha-megalleh (Scroll of the Revealer) to foretell the exact date of the coming of the Messiah, mainly by means of Scriptural data. Its fifth chapter, however, the largest of the entire work, is an impressive astrological work in which Bar Ḥiyya included a voluminous Jewish and universal astrological history, and provided a parallel astrological prognostication of the days of coming of the Messiah (Poznanski and Guttman 1924). Abraham Bar Ḥiyya also wrote a long, apologetic epistle addressed to Rabbi Judah Barzilai of Barcelona, justifying the study and use of a specific astrological approach. Bar Ḥiyya shows that his permissible version of astrology is in perfect harmony with main tenets of Judaism as well as closely related to astronomy but disconnected from astrological magic (Schwarz 1917). We know for certain from the introduction to Ẓurat ha-ʾAreẓ that Bar Ḥiyya planned a whole astrological textbook. Seder tiqqun ha-tequfot min ha-luḥot ha-ʾeleh (Method for determining the revolutions from these tables), a brief essay that studies miscellaneous doctrines related to continuous horoscopy and gives instructions on the use of tables that facilitate their implementation, has been recently identified embedded as a self-contained treatise within Luḥot ha-nasiʾ, Bar Ḥiyya’s astronomical tables (Sela 2013).

Besides the first part of Megillat ha-megalleh, Bar Ḥiyya expounded his neo-platonic philosophical thinking in Hegyon ha-nefesh ha-aṣuvah (Meditation of the Sad Soul). In the first cosmological part Bar Ḥiyya deals with the creation of the world as it is narrated in Genesis. The three other chapters are devoted to morality and penitence, repentance, good and evil, and the saintly life. The emphasis is ethical, the approach is generally homiletical, based on the exposition of biblical passages (Freimann 1860).

 Abraham Ibn Ezra

Abraham Ibn Ezra’s (ca.1089–ca.1161) writings were not produced in Muslim Spain, where he was born and grew up. In fact, his earliest scientific works date from the time he left al-Andalus for Latin Europe in 1140, at the age of fifty. From then on he led the life of the vagabond scholar, roaming through Italy, France and England, where he taught and wrote prolifically, almost exclusively in Hebrew, on an extremely wide variety of subjects. Ibn Ezra rose to fame principally because of his outstanding Hebrew biblical exegesis, but he also wrote religious and secular poetry and a series of religious-theological monographs and grammatical treatises. However, Ibn Ezra’s intellectual interests extended to the field of science as well. His main contribution to the history of science lies in the composition of a significant scientific corpus (Sela and Freudenthal 2006). Its contents are typical of and faithfully reflect Ibn Ezra’s times.

From the Middle Ages onward, the development of astrology among Jews has been associated mainly with the name of Abraham Ibn Ezra. From a Jewish perspective, Abraham Ibn Ezra’s contribution was twofold. On the one hand, by incorporating astrological ideas into his influential biblical exegesis he promoted the smooth absorption of astrological content into the hard core of Jewish culture (Langerman 1993). On the other hand, Ibn Ezra created the first comprehensive corpus of Hebrew astrological textbooks that address the main systems of Arabic astrology and provided Hebrew readers with access to this science. This body of at least nineteen astrological treatises, which has recently been enlarged by the discovery of new texts, has also been studied in the broader context of Jewish medieval scientific work and thought and in particular by means of editions and translations of its component texts, in various level of quality.

Reshit Ḥokhmah (Beginning of wisdom), an introduction to astrology that is extant today in at least 50 manuscript copies, is considered to be the pinnacle of the astrological works of Abraham Ibn Ezra. This work, divided into 10 chapters, addresses the main subjects of astrology, particularly the astrological properties of the twelve zodiacal signs and seven planets (Levy and Cantera 1939; Epstein 1998). As Ibn Ezra regarded Reshit Ḥokhmah to be a work that presents raw astrological concepts without introducing their reasons, he wrote two versions of Sefer ha-Te’amim (Book of reasons), to offer rational explanations to the astrological concepts of Reshit Ḥokhmah. One of these two versions offers a close commentary of the aforementioned Reshit Ḥokhmah; the other follows a second version of Reshit Ḥokhmah (Sela 2007). Sefer ha-Moladot (Book of nativities), which is extant today in at least 51 manuscript copies, addresses the doctrine of nativities and the system of continuous horoscopy in nativities. The doctrine of nativities is focused on the time of birth and makes predictions about the whole of an individual’s subsequent life on the basis of the natal chart; continuous horoscopy in nativities is concerned with the interval between life and death and makes predictions based mainly on anniversary horoscopes, which are juxtaposed with the natal horoscope (Sela 2014). Also concerned with continuous horoscopy in nativities is the recently discovered Sefer ha-Tequfah (Book of Revolution; Sela 2014, 372–417).

Abraham Ibn Ezra composed two versions of Sefer ha-ʿOlam (Book of the World), which deals with “world astrology,” the branch of Arabic astrology concerned with the reconstruction, interpretation, and prognostication of political, historical, and religious events, on the one hand, and with weather forecasting, on the other. The content of the two versions of Sefer ha-ʿOlam, like that of all medieval treatises on world astrology, is an accumulation of sources and doctrines that go back to the very beginnings of the astrological literature (Sela 2010). Using horoscopic astrology to determine a propitious time for beginning some activity is called the “doctrine of elections” (ibtidāʾāt al-aʿmāl), and using horoscopic astrology to address specific questions related to daily life posed by a querent is called “doctrine of interrogations” (masāʾil). According to recent discoveries, Abraham Ibn Ezra composed three versions of Sefer ha-Mivḥarim (Book of elections), dealing with the doctrine of elections, and three versions of Sefer ha-Sheʾelot (Book of interrogations), concerned with the doctrine of interrogations (Sela 2011). Sefer ha-Meʾorot (Book of the luminaries), which is extant today in at least 35 manuscript copies, expounds the astrological theory behind the doctrine of “crises” or “critical days,” when marked changes in the symptoms of a disease take place and it tends to reach a climax, whether good or bad (Sela 2011, 452–524).

In addition to his astrological corpus, Ibn Ezra bequeathed to succeeding generations a significant body of works dealing with astronomy, mathematics and the Jewish calendar, which was now explained by implementing tools provided by astronomy and mathematics. Ibn Ezra’s contribution in the field of astronomy consists of the following works: a set of astronomical tables, which are now lost; their canons, that is, their theoretical explanations and instructions for their use, which are extant in a Latin version or translation (Millás Vallicrosa 1947); four manuals explaining the configuration and uses of the astrolabe, three in Hebrew (Edelman 1845; Goldstein 1985) and one in Latin (Millás Vallicrosa 1940); and the translation from Arabic into Hebrew of Ibn al-Muthannā’s “Commentary on the Astronomical Tables of al-Khwārizmī” (Goldstein 1967), which is accompanied by an introduction authored by Ibn Ezra himself, where he offers his own version of the transmission of Hindu and Greek astronomy to Arabic culture. In the field of mathematics, Ibn Ezra composed Sefer ha-Mispar (Book of the Number) (Silberberg 1895); Sefer ha-‘Ehad (Book of the One) (Levin 1985); and the recently identified Sefer ha-Middot (Book of Measurements) (Burnett, and Lévy 2006). As for the Jewish calendar, apart from discussions embedded in his biblical commentaries, Ibn Ezra composed three main works: Sefer Ha’ibbur (Book of the Intercalation) (Goodman 2011); a fictional epistle named ‘Iggeret haShabbat (Epistle on the Sabbath) (Friedlander 1894/5; Goodman 2009); and three responsa in answer to three questions posed by a certain David Ben Joseph of Narbonne (Steinschneider 1847).



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How to cite:
Shlomo Sela, «The Rise of Medieval Hebrew Science», in Houari Touati (ed.), Encyclopedia of Mediterranean Humanism, May 2015, URL =