Science in Medieval Jewish Scholarship

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

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From the tenth to fifteenth centuries, scholars throughout the Jewish world engaged in the appropriation and integration of classical and Islamic scientific traditions. So strong was the influence of this scientific trend that to be an intellectual, one was virtually required to study philosophy and the natural sciences. 

Early Middle Ages

Jews living in Islamic lands, who were well-integrated into their cultural environment, participated actively in the scientific renaissance of the early Middle Ages. In addition to acquiring scientific knowledge, producing their own scientific literature, and promoting the appreciation of natural wonders, these Jewish scholars, who wrote primarily in Arabic, played an important role in the transmission of Greek science to Islamic society.

They contributed to major, collaborative endeavors funded by non-Jewish patrons and served as physicians and astronomers in royal courts across Europe and the Middle East. Several prominent figures, among them Saadia Gaon (882–942) and Moses Maimonides (1135–1204), endeavored to demonstrate that the study of natural science and philosophy was not inconsistent with religious belief and was, perhaps, even a prerequisite to true faith.

Later Middle Ages

During the latter half of this era, Jewish scientific activity was focused in the Christian regions of southern France and northern Spain and was conducted primarily in Hebrew. In Provence, Jewish scholars skilled in Arabic and philosophical thought, including Abraham bar Hiyya (d. 1145), Levi ben Gershon (1288–1344), and members of the ibn Tibbon family, engaged in the translation of scientific writings from Arabic to Hebrew; the transcription of vernacular scientific works in Hebrew characters; and the composition of original scientific treatises.

jewish scienceMuch of this intellectual activity was inspired by the influx of Jews fleeing the Almohad persecutions in Muslim Spain. Some of these scholars were involved in large-scale translation projects sponsored by local patrons and functioned as intermediaries between Muslim and Christian cultures. By adjusting their medium, the transplants also succeeded in transmitting their cultural heritage to Provencal Jewry, a community whose literary language was Hebrew and whose primary intellectual endeavor was the study of Talmud and Jewish law.

Other important centers of Jewish scientific inquiry during these centuries included Italy and Sicily; Greece and Turkey; Egypt, the Land of Israel, Syria, and Iraq; Yemen and North Africa; and even eastern Europe.

In Ashkenaz

Jews living in northern France and Germany did not, for the most part, embrace the study of the natural sciences or philosophy, as did their co-religionists in other regions. Few translations or original works emanated from these communities, nor did the sciences significantly impact their other scholarly writings and literary productions.

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