Jewish Science in the Middle Ages

Attitudes toward and contributions to medieval science.

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The following articles traces Jewish cultural attitudes toward and contributions to science in the Middle Ages. It is reprinted with permission from Eli Barnavi’s A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, published by Schocken Books.

The History of "Jewish Science" Transcends Ethnicity

Medieval science cannot be divided simply according to religious or ethnic categories. The same fields of knowledge, theories, practices, and learned controversies were shared by the three monotheistic civilizations. Defining a “Jewish science” is, in fact, a discussion of the Jewish contribution to scientific development in general.

 

This contribution was particularly significant in four areas: medicine; geography and cosmology; development of instruments for measurement, cartography, and navigation; and translation of works from Greek into Arabic and from Arabic into Latin and other European languages. The Jews therefore constituted an important link in the transmission of scientific knowledge from one culture to another and were thus crucial to the emergence of modern science; they also played a major role in the creation of the necessary tools for world exploration.

Baghdad Was the First Important Center

The first important center for medieval Jewish scientific activity in the eighth and ninth centuries was the Abbasid caliphate and particularly its capital, Baghdad. About a hundred years after the Muslim conquest of the Middle East, the name of the Jewish physician Masarjuwayh of Basra is mentioned as the first of a long list of men who translated Greek and Syrian works on medicine into Arabic. A Jewish convert to Islam, Rabban al‑Tabari, was the first to translate Ptolemy's Almagest into Arabic. Isaac Judaeus (Isaac Israeli) is believed to have been the first medical author in Arabic whose works were brought to Europe.

In Spain, Jews Helped Make Arabic the Scientific Language

It was in Muslim Spain, however, that Jewish science found the most fertile soil. In the early Middle Ages Andalusia was the greatest cultural center of Europe and of the entire Mediterranean basin. Its Muslim rulers, opulent and tolerant, offered the prosperous Jewish elite opportu­nities for complete social and cultural integration, which were not sur­passed anywhere throughout the Middle Ages.

In Andalusia, as in the Muslim world at large, the Jews wrote their scientific treatises in Arabic, a language which they found best suited to this branch of human learning. Very early--in the mid‑tenth century--Hisdai ibn Shaprut, a dignitary in the court of the caliph, leader of the Spanish Jewish community and an eminent physician, contributed to the construction of Arabic into a scientific vehicle, mainly by preparing the final Arabic version of the Materia medica, the great pharmaceutical compendium by the Greek botanist Dioscrides (1st century AD).

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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