Jewish Science in the Middle Ages

Attitudes toward and contributions to medieval science.

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As Islam Shut Down Science, Jews Translated to New Languages

The demise of the Spanish caliphate put an end to flourishing Jewish and Muslim science in Andalusia. First the Almoravids, a fanatic sect from North Africa who conquered southern Spain at the end of the eleventh century, and then the Almohads, who came in the twelfth century, totally changed the intellectual climate in Muslim Spain: scientific inquiry and philosophical rationalism could no longer exist. Moreover, most of theJews were forced to leave. Some of them, including Maimonides, went to the east; the majority found refuge in Christian lands—northern Spain, southern France, Italy.

This was a turning point in the history of medieval science. As Muslim orthodoxy began stifling intellectual curiosity, the Latin West began to discover Greek science and its Arabic commentators. The Jews played a major role in this transition. Versed in Arabic and in European languages, they occupied a prominent place among the translators of important scientific works from Arabic into Latin, Spanish, and French. In Toledo and in the towns of Provence, numerous Jewish scholars translated a large number of works in philosophy, mathematics, geometry, physics, astronomy, astrology, medicine, and magic--a corpus of knowledge which constituted the basis for Latin science during the central and late Middle Ages.

At the same time another change was affecting Jewish science. Since the beginning of the twelfth century, Arabic was gradually being replaced by Hebrew as the sole language in which Jews wrote their scientific works. Translations from Arabic and Latin, as well as many original texts, were produced in Hebrew. Abraham ibn Ezra and Abraham bar Hiyya, philosophers and mathematicians, were the two most notable writers among these Hebrew‑writing medieval scholars.

Jewish Authorities Never Discouraged Medicine

What was the attitude of Jewish religious authorities toward­ scientific inquiry? In Muslim Spain and in North Africa the orthodox were not particularly hostile to scientific studies, although there were disagreements among the scholars themselves as to what constituted proper science from the point of view of the Halakhah [Jewish law] and of scientific validity. The rationalists, for example, eminently represented by Maimonides. rejected astrology and magic, even though most of their contemporaries considered these to be an integral part of scientific knowledge.

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, however, Jewish society grew suspicious of all scientific activity. The condemnation culminated in a ban on the study of secular literature for persons under the age of 25, issued in 1305 by the rabbi of Barcelona, Solomon ben Abraham Adret (acronym Rashba), and other rabbis of southern France. However, even Rashba understood the importance of the study of medicine, and his ban did not restrict it in any way.

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Eli Barnavi is the Director of the Morris Curiel Center for International Studies and a Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University