Science in Medieval Jewish Scholarship

Jewish scholars in the Middle Ages viewed science as an avenue for knowing God.

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More isolated from general culture than the Jews of Southern Europe, the scholars of Ashkenaz were in the vanguard of an anti-rationalist campaign to ban the infiltration of "alien wisdom" into religious study, perceiving philosophy and the sciences as antithetical to true faith.

Nonetheless, although they rejected Aristotelian thought and remained outside the sphere of Islamic philosophical influence, northern European Jews did not remain entirely unaffected by the scientific trends of their age. An appreciation for the wonders of the natural world is evidenced in their writings as well as in those from the "scientific" communities.

Astronomy

Amongst Jewish scholars, astronomy was the most widely-studied and widely-practiced of the natural sciences. It was, in fact, the primary field in which Jewish scholars made original contributions, innovating new theories, tables, and instruments.

Though there is no definitive explanation, astronomy's popularity may have been the result of its practical use in the determination of the Hebrew calendar or of the significance of the celestial bodies to the study of metaphysics, which was the ultimate goal of scientific inquiry for most Jewish intellectuals.

Prominent astronomers included the previously-mentioned Abraham bar Hiyya and Levi ben Gershon, as well as Judah ibn Verga (fifteenth century). Physics was also a widely-studied discipline due to its theological import.

Medicine

Medicine, traditionally perceived as a "Jewish" discipline, was another field of interest which afforded medieval Jews opportunities for social, political, and economic advancement. Maimonides was perhaps the most famous medieval Jewish doctor, but there were countless others.

Research has demonstrated that the number of Jews studying and practicing medicine in medieval Europe was disproportionate to their share of the population, despite the fact that Jews were barred from most universities. Pharmacology was a prominent field as well, and Jewish intellectuals and practitioners theorized and debated the efficacy of drugs and dosages.

Mathematics

Mathematics was mostly studied in the context of astronomy or philosophy; consequently, the branches which merited attention were geometry and trigonometry. Algebra was not widely appreciated by medieval Jews, as it was perceived to be of little practical or philosophical value.

A focus on numbers and numerology is evident in many medieval Jewish works, prominent among them the writings of Abraham ibn Ezra (1092–1167), which were heavily influenced by Neo-Platonism, and of Judah ha-Levi (1075–1141), who sought to counter this influence.

Science and Magic

The demarcation between science and magic was not always distinct during the Middle Ages, and disciplines that would now be considered of dubious scientific value were also the focus of Jewish inquiry, including astrology.

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Rachel Furst is a Talmud teacher and a graduate student in medieval Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.