Hebrew Astronomy - Post-Talmudic Times

Post-Talmudic Times

See also: Golden age of Jewish culture in Spain, Astronomy in medieval Islam, and List of medieval Hebrew astronomers

With the revival of Hellenistic astronomy which took place during the Islamic Golden Age, Jews were intimately connected, and the Almagest is said to have been translated by Sahal ibn Tabari as early as 800, while one of the earliest independent students of astronomy among the Arabs was Mashallah ibn Athari (754-873?). Jews seem to have been particularly concerned with the formation of astronomical tables of practical utility to astronomers. Sind ben Ali (about 830) was one of the principal contributors to the tables drawn up under the patronage of the al-Mamun. No less than twelve Jews were concerned in the Tables of Toledo, drawn up about 1080 under the influence of Ahmad ibn Zaid, and the celebrated Alfonsine Tables were executed under the superintendence of Isaac ibn Sid, while Jews were equally concerned in the less-known tables of Peter IV of Aragon.

Isaac al-Ḥadib compiled astronomical tables from those of Al-Rakkam, Al-Battam, and Ibn al-Kammad. Joseph ibn Wakkar (1357) drew up tables of the period 720 (Heg.); while Mordecai Comtino and Mattathia Delacrut commented upon the Persian and Paris tables respectively; the latter were commented upon also by Farissol Botarel. Abraham ibn Ezra translated Al-Mattani's Canons of the Khwarizmi Tables, and in his introduction tells a remarkable story of a Jew in India who helped Jacob ben Tarik to translate the Indian astronomical tables according to the Indian cycle of 432,000 years. Other tables were compiled by Jacob ben Makir, Emanuel ben Jacob, Jacob ben David ben Yom-Ṭob Poel (1361), Solomon ben Elijah (from the Persian tables), and Abraham Zacuto of Salamanca (about 1515).

The earliest to treatise of astronomy in Hebrew on a systematic plan was Abraham bar Ḥiyya, who wrote at Marseilles, about 1134. Discussions on astronomical points, especially with regard to the spheres, and disputed points in calculating the calendar occur frequently in the works of Judah ha-Levi, Abraham ibn Ezra, and Maimonides, while a new system of astronomy is contained in the "Wars of the Lord" ("Milḥamot Adonai") of Levi ben Gershon.

Jews were especially involved as translators. Moses ibn Tibbon translated from the Arabic Jabir ben Aflah's acute criticisms of the Ptolemaic system, an anticipation of Copernicus, and thus brought them to the notice of Maimonides. Ibn al-Haitham's Arabic compendium of astronomy was a particular favorite of Jewish astronomers; besides being translated into Spanish by Don Abraham Faquin, it was turned into Hebrew by Jacob ben Makir and Solomon ibn Pater Cohen and into Latin by Abraham de Balmes. Other translations from the Arabic were by Jacob Anatoli, Moses Galeno, and Kalonymus ben Kalonymus, bringing the Greco-Arabic astronomers to the notice of western Europe. Jacob Anatoli, for example, translated into Hebrew both the Almagest and Averroes' compendium of it, and this Hebrew version was itself translated into Latin by Jacob Christmann. Other translators from the Hebrew into Latin were Abraham de Balmes and Kalonymus ben David of Naples, while David Kalonymus ben Jacob, Ephraim Mizraḥi, and Solomon Abigdor translated from the Latin into Hebrew. The well-known family of translators, the Ibn Tibbons, may be especially mentioned. In practical astronomy Jewish work was even more effective. Jacob ben Makir (who is known also as Profiat Tibbon) appears to have been professor of Astronomy at Montpellier, about 1300, and to have invented a quadrant to serve as a substitute for the astrolabe. Levi ben Gershon was also the inventor of an astronomical instrument, and is often quoted with respect under the name of Leon de Bañolas. Bonet de Lattes also invented an astronomical ring. Abraham Zacuto ben Samuel was professor of Astronomy at Salamanca, and afterward astronomer-royal to Emmanuel of Portugal, who had previously been advised by a Jewish astronomer, Rabbi Joseph Vecinho, a pupil of Abraham Zacuto, as to the project put before him by Christopher Columbus, who, in carrying it out, made use of Zacuto's "Almanac" and "Tables."

With the Renaissance, Jewish work in astronomy lost in importance, as Europe could refer to the Greek astronomers without it. The chief name connected with the revival of astronomical studies on the Baltic is that of David Gans of Prague (d. 1613), who corresponded with Kepler, Tycho Brahe, and Regiomontanus. He was acquainted with the Copernican system, but preferred that of Ptolemy, while as late as 1714 David Nieto of London still stood out against the Copernican system.

The modern epoch of the science begins with a great Jewish name, that of Sir William Herschel (1738–1822), whose Jewish origin is acknowledged by his biographer. His systematic survey of the heavens, continued and completed by his son John, his catalogues of nebulæ and clusters, and his discovery of the planet Uranus, may be classed among the greatest exploits in the history of Astronomy. He also started the investigation into the constitution of the universe, determined the path of the sun toward the constellation Vega, and in innumerable ways started this science along the lines on which it developed up to the time of the discovery of spectrum analysis. He was assisted throughout his work by his sister Caroline Herschel (1750–1848). Fourteen of the asteroids were located by H. Goldschmidt (1802–66). Wilhelm Beer (1797–1850), the brother of Meyerbeer, was the first to draw an accurate map of the moon. Moritz Loewy (b. 1833) was director of the Paris Observatory, and the inventor of the coudé or elbow telescope, by which the stars may be observed without bending the neck back and without leaving the comfortable observatory.

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