Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science

By Roshdi Rashed; Regis Morelon | Go to book overview

8

The heritage of Arabic science in Hebrew

BERNARD R. GOLDSTEIN

The medieval Hebrew scientific tradition that reflects the Greek heritage transmitted through Arabic sources began with a period of translations in the twelfth century, and was followed by further study and elaboration based on them. Though the main centres of activity were Spain and southern France, virtually all Jewish communities displayed some interest in the scientific disciplines. Indeed, poets, mystics, legal scholars, as well as philosophers, devoted considerable attention to scientific subjects (Goldstein 1979, 1985a).

Most of these Hebrew texts remain in manuscript form scattered in libraries all over the world, but a sufficient number are available to permit us to describe the character of this tradition. It is also worth noting that many Arabic texts were copied in Hebrew characters, a common practice among Arabic-speaking Jews, and, in some cases, this is their only surviving form. In contrast to literary texts, there are a large number of documents preserved in the Cairo Geniza, most of which were written for a particular occasion and discarded shortly thereafter. The Geniza was originally located in a room in the Cairo synagogue where documents were deposited for subsequent ritual burial, but in fact no such disposition took place, and over 200,000 documents ranging in date from the tenth to the nineteenth century were still there when this valuable collection was transferred to European and American libraries around the turn of the twentieth century. Among these documents are scientific texts representing all disciplines studied in the Middle Ages, for the most part in Arabic written in Hebrew characters, but also some in Arabic written in Arabic characters and some in Hebrew. 1

The subjects most widely studied in the Jewish community were astronomy, mathematics and medicine, although various branches of physics and biology were also represented, as we learn from the compendious

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