What is the history of science in Judaism, especially during the Middle Ages, or medieval era?

Expert Answers
Karyth Cara eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the eighth century, Islamic science experienced an unprecedented cultural rise that was expressed in the Arabic language. Jews had lived in the Aramaic Peninsula since at least the seventh century, which is when the Islam conquest took control of the Middle East and North Africa during the 600s C.E. As an adjustment to the Islamic domination, Jews, as well as other peoples, living in there adapted by adopting Arabic in place of their own languages, Hebrew and Aramaic for Jews, Coptic, Berber and other languages for other peoples. When the Islamic scientific flowering occurred, Jews were speaking a Judeo-Arabic dialect and reading Arabic literature, keeping Hebrew and Aramaic exclusively for religious functions and poetry writing.

from the seventh century, the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa generally functioned in two languages: a local vernacular, which was used for ordinary conversation, and Hebrew, which was learned as the language of prayers and the classic religious texts ... (Scheindlin, "Judeo-Arabic in Mizrahi Jewish Life")

At this time (600s, 700s), Jewish intellectual life was confined within the traditions of Hebrew religious texts and revolved around a canonic corpus, principle among which were the Talmud and the midrash, which were written in Hebrew and Aramaic. The Talmud is the compilation of Rabbinic interpretations of the Hebrew Scriptures; it is the Talmud that leads Jewish religious tradition in unified understanding of the lines and precepts set out for them to read and treasure in their hearts. The midrash is also a compilation of Rabbinic interpretation but these differ from those in the Talmud in that the midrash is homiletic rabbinical stories that illustrate the interpretations, rather than exegetical interpretations that present definitive meaning [homiletic, adjective from the noun homily: a sermon on Scriptural principles that is of a nondoctrinal nature such as a story or an inspirational reflection]. Before the ninth century (800s), cultural works that were outside the canonic corpus were considered "foreign sciences" and perceived a threatening.

The introduction of Arabic as the Judeo-Arabic dialect facilitated Jewish introduction to Arabic culture and the eventual "reception, assimilation, and transmission of knowledge" that led to a new medieval Jewish rationalist culture that was first expressed in Arabic and then in Hebrew. Therefore it is the adoption of Arabic as the daily language of Jews after the dominance of Islam that paved the way beginning in the 800s for the development of a culture of science among medieval Jews.

Saadia Gaon (882-942), Baghdad, and Isaac Israeli (855-955), Kairouan, which is present-day Tunisia, were the first two Jewish scholars to write philosophy in the Arabic language through a Jewish perception. Saadia Gaon was a Rabbi and a scholar; "Gaon" means scholar. Isaac Israeli was physician in the Fatimid Dynasty in North Africa. Saadia (also Saadya) and Israeli drew heavily on Islamic science, as a result, readers were introduced to Islamic scientific thought, which was, by the very fact (ipso facto) of appearing in Jewish scholarship, made a legitimate, not "foreign" science.

Saadya [Gaon] creates a space for the interplay of faith, understanding, tradition, and law. Saadya defends the truth as well as the reasonableness of Biblical and rabbinic writings ... and brings a unique blend of philosophical and theological sensibilities to bear .... Well-known for his discussion of the difference between “laws of reason” and “laws of revelation,” ... [he focuses] on the importance of human reason, as following certain trends in Islamic ... theology. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Israeli was one of the earliest medieval Jewish Neoplatonist writers .... His work reflected and encapsulated the prevailing philosophical paradigm, namely, Aristotelian thought read through a Neoplatonist lens. (Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

After Spanish Jewish poet Salomon Ibn Gavirol (c.1020-1057) drew attention, Jewish scholars in Spain began to draw attention with their writings on Jewish religious philosophy, again, in the Arabic language. Some of the earliest and most prominent of these in the 11th and 12th centuries (1000s-1100s) were:

  • Baya Ibn Paqudah (c. 1050-1090)
  • Juda ha-Levi (c.1075-1141)
  • Joseph Ibn Zaddik (d.1149)
  • Abraham Ibn Daud (c.1110-1180)

The fact that these and other writers of these centuries, continuing to write in Arabic, drew on Islamic science in their own works testifies to the reality that educated Jewish readers of this period knew and accepted Islamic science and its theories. Later, in the 13th and early 14th centuries, these same works were translated into Hebrew. In this way Arabic science, along with Greek science, which had an early influence on Islam's Arabic speaking science and philosophy scholars, was introduced into traditionalist Jewish communities--that continued to speak Hebrew--in Southern France.

Moses Maimonides

An important Jewish scholar of the 12th and early 13th centuries is Moses Maimonides (1135-1204). Maimonides wrote in both Hebrew and Arabic. Originally in Córdoba, Spain, Maimonides left Córdoba for Egypt as a consequence of the widespread persecutions of the Almohads who prohibited open adherence to and practice of Jewish and Christian religious faiths. [Almohads: Islamic empire dedicated to a renewal of purity in morality and a strict concept of the unity of God; opposed to the Christian Trinitarian--Father, son, Holt Spirit--concept of God.] Maimonides' major contributions were Mishne Torah, written in Hebrew and Guide for the Perplexed, written in Arabic. The first is a code of the Jewish law, the second, a major work of religious philosophy. [Religious philosophy: philosophical thinking that is inspired and directed by religion; there are different philosophies for each religion.] Maimonides was a writer with a charismatic and authoritative voice whose widely accepted opinions about the value of a universal study of science and philosophy provide a crucial indication of Jewish attitudes toward science and philosophy from the thirteenth century onward.

Maimonides about Aristotle

Maimonides did much to advance Jewish knowledge of Aristotelian science and philosophy. He opened Mishne Torah, though a work on law, with an account of Aristotle's cosmology [cosmology: the science of the theory of the origin and development of the universe, today dominated by observational astronomy and quantum physics]. Of great significance is that in Mishne Maimonides emphasizes that the first commandment in Scripture is to know, rather than merely believe, that there "exists a First Being who endows all beings with existence" (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion). In Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides' substance of arguments in philosophy are interwoven with scientific theory.

Maimonides makes it clear through explicit statements in his works that science and philosophy are indispensable for a knowledge of God and that knowing God is the very goal of human existence; consequently, knowledge of science and philosophy is an indispensable part of the route to the goal. He therefore regarded the purported contradictions between the truths of Aristotelian philosophy/science and Jewish Scriptures an impossibility. Since, he argued, Aristotelian tenets are of necessity truth, Scriptural precepts that seem to contradict Aristotelianism must be interpreted so that they conform with science and philosophy: Aristotle's science and philosophy are not untrue, Scripture is inadequately interpreted when seen as contradictory. For Maimonides, this meant that reading Scripture without understanding of science and philosophy would result in errors and end in heresy. In other words, for Maimonides, only a scholar knowing Aristotle could correctly understand Scripture. This meant that acquiring knowledge of science and philosophy was a Jewish religious obligation, "listen to the truth from whoever says it" (Maimonides), an opposing stance to the Jewish scholarly stance of the earlier 6th and 7th centuries when Arabic and Greek scholarship was eschewed as "foreign sciences" to be repulsed. Maimonides asserted the dominance of reason over tradition in determining "which knowledge-claims were to be accepted within Judaism and which not" (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion). As a consequence, he carries the greatest credit for opening "foreign sciences" to Jewish scholarship and tradition.

Maimonides and Science and Philosophy

For Maimonides, the study of science and philosophy was the means to an end, not the end itself: it was part of the route to knowledge of God, which is the goal of human existence. Non-religious truths were means to serving a noble end rather than the ultimate end themselves, a position that puts him at variance with Muslim scientists and philosophers of his day. The difference, simply stated, was that Muslim scholars saw knowledge as the end of the practice of Islam itself, while Maimonides saw knowledge as the means to the end of knowing God himself.

Maimonides' grasp of these studies was not without original thought born of finding flaws in the reasoning of other philosophers and scientists. For instance, he asserted that Aristotle had not proven the eternal nature of the world (universe) nor had others proven their argument for creation of the world 9universe) out of nothing (ex nihilo creation). Maimonides position is that the creation and eternity of the world cannot be scientifically proven, though his personal belief, for theological and social reasons, not scientific ones, was for creation and the eternal nature of the world. Thus he had a personal conflict or ambivalence about the ultimate applicability of science to religion since on one hand he finds epistemological theories not provable yet asserts that Scripture must be understood and interpreted in accord with science and philosophy. 

While Maimonides' philosophy was a decisive turning point in legitimizing the study of the Greek-Arabic sciences/philosophies as an obligatory activity Jewish scholarship, the ambiguity perceptible in his applications was complicated by his characterization of his "Guide was an 'esoteric text,' one comprising certain 'secrets' that only the wise and learned reader would be able to uncover" (Science and Religion) [esoteric: obscure knowledge likely to be understood by only a small number of people with a specialized knowledge or interest, e.g., the esoteric knowledge of particle physics]. "Secret" was taken to mean "hidden" rather than strictly "esoteric" (i.e., requiring specialized knowledge); as a consequence, readers interpreted his statements, especially about eternity, to be disguised inversions of his actual true beliefs. In other words, what Maimonides wrote disguised the hidden truth of his actual beliefs, which were the opposite of his statements. Thus, for example, as he says eternity of the world is not proven nor provable, he was taken on "esoteric" principle to mean the "secret truth that the world is eternal.

Transmission to Northern Spain and Southern France

Having begun in Southern Spain, the transmission of Greek-Arabic scholarship into Northern Spain and over to Southern France is of special interest and occurred in three phases. In the first, writers translated works into Hebrew or composed original works in Hebrew or Arabic to make works accessible to Jews living north of the Pyrénées. Abraham bar Hiyya is an example of one who, in the early 1100s, compiled a summary of the sciences in the Hebrew language. Poet Abraham Ibn Ezra traveled widely spreading knowledge of the sciences and philosophy including astronomical and astrological works and biblical commentaries that had significant science underpinnings. Ezra's commentaries did much to spread and legitimization "Greek learning."

The second phase when Jews in Andalusia region of Spain fled the Almohad persecutions, going to Provence in Southern France. Being immersed in Arabic scholarship, they advanced the process of translating works into Hebrew and introduced the Arabic culture, Arabic poetry, literature, grammar, philosophy, and science into Provence. Eventually works of Jewish religious philosophy, but general philosophy as well as science by Greek and Muslim writers were translated into Hebrew.

The third phase followed in the wake of the popularity of Maimonides writing, especially his ambiguous and controversial Guide. A number of writers began to compose encyclopedic works to give readers who knew only Hebrew an opportunity to read overviews of the various fields of science and philosophy. In addition, there began to be systematic and professional translations of existing works into Hebrew, such as Maimonides Guide, originally written in Arabic. Euclid was translated from the Greek to Hebrew introducing his geometry to Spanish and French Jews while Ptolemy's Greek astronomy was also translated along other mathematical and astronomical works by other Greek writers. Also translated were "qualitative" science works: natural philosophy, biology, medicine, psychology, metaphysics, and other topics. Averröes made an important contribution by translating Aristotle, which became standard textbooks for Jewish scholars.

Scientific Contributions of Medieval Judaism

This influx of knowledge launched works written by in Hebrew by Jewish scholars who were, for all intents and purposes, isolated from the Latin university system with its earliest beginning associated with papal bull from the church at Rome, with the first true university usually recognized as the University of Bologna founded in the 11th century (1088) [papal bull: a type of authoritative letter or charter from the pope sealed with a bulla (Latin for seal as in seal of state) to authenticate its origin]. The general contribution in terms of originality of Hebrew language Jewish science was, except in astronomy, of no greatly exceptional level. In astronomy, however, the Jewish contribution rivaled Greek and Arabic contributions, probably because of the introduction Maimonides had given to science especially the emphasis on Aristotelian cosmology in Mishne Torah. and because the role he had established for science aspropaedeutic to, or initiating deeper levels of, the study of God [propaedeutic: initiating deeper study; preliminary to deeper study]. One Jewish Hebrew writer who contributed original ideas to Jewish science was Levi ben Gershom, also called Gersonides, (1288-1344) who wrote "treatises on logic, mathematics, biblical exegesis, philosophy, and astronomy" while living in Provence, Southern France. Gersonides, like Danish astronmer, Tycho Brahe, made original observations using instruments he made himself and had disciples with whom he discussed and debated issues in science while studying Averröes' commentaries.

Challenges to Jewish Science

Even before Maimonides, Juda ha-Levi's Kuzari (1140) had criticized the philosophical project and contrasted the traditional "God of Abraham" with the philosophers' "God of Aristotle." (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)

Maimonides had to withstand attacks and criticism leveled against his writings and ideas, which led to a split between traditionalist thinkers and Maimonideans who embraced the introduction of Greek-Arabic science and philosophy. Not even Maimonides' injunction insisting the propaedeutic role of knowledge in the pursuit of the goal of knowing God stayed the split over the "God of Abraham" and the "God of Aristotle." Following the two hundred year zenith of Jewish science and philosophy during the 13th through the 15th centuries, few Jews engaged in science or philosophy as a result of the expulsion of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, housing Spain and  in the 1490s and as a result of the rise of Kabbalah, first emerging in Southern France and Spain in the 12th to 13th centuries (coinciding with the zenith of science but earlier than the expulsion). Exceptions to the hiatus on study were Abraham Zacut (1400s) and some Ashkenazi rabbis in Germany and Poland who continued to study texts of medieval Hebrew Jewish writers. This continued diligence led to the Haskalah or Jewish enlightenment movement of the 18th century (1700s) [Haskalah: a movement that incorporated Enlightenment ideas in Jewish culture and tradition and that advocated greater integration into European society and of secular studies].


Raymond Scheindlin. "Judeo-Arabic in Mizrahi Jewish Life," Cultures of the Jews: A New History. Secular Culture & Ideas, JBooks.

"Judaism, History of Science and Religion, Medieval Period." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. Ed. J. Wentzel Vrede van Huyssteen. Vol. 2. Gale Cengage, 2003.

Encyclopedia of Jewish Folklore and Traditions on SkaiBook.com.

Benjamin Hary. "Description, Judeo-Arabic." Jewish Language Research Website.

Sasson Somekh. "Arabic as a Jewish Language: Medieval and Modern, Part I." Sephardic Horizons.

This image has been Flagged as inappropriate Click to unflag
Image (1 of 1)
Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

While some have felt scientific study to be incompatible with Judaism, the Second Temple period interpreted the Bible in such a way as to merge Jewish religious thought with Greek scientific knowledge. Many Jewish thinkers especially made valid contributions in astronomy, cosmology, medicine, and mathematics, particularly in the Middle Ages, or Medieval era.

By the early Middle Ages, 10th to 15th centuries, Jewish scholars integrated both classic Greek and Islamic scientific knowledge into their own studies. Jews who lived in Islamic territories were especially influenced by Islamic scientific knowledge, and Muslims gathered their own knowledge from Arab, Persian, Indian, and Greek scholars. Hence, both Jews in Islamic territories and Muslims studied and continued research in the areas of mathematics, astronomy, medicine, physics, alchemy, chemistry, cosmology, ophthalmology, geography, cartography, and sociology. In the early Middle Ages, Jewish scholars began writing their own scientific literature and conducting scientific studies, especially in natural sciences. Jewish scholars even began working in non-Jewish European and Middle Eastern royal courts as physicians and astronomers. One noteworthy Jewish scholar was Sa'adiah ben Yosef who was especially known for his work in Hebrew linguistics, Halakha, and Jewish philosophy. In 928, he was eventually appointed Gaon of the Talmudic academy in Israel, meaning head of the academy. A second prominent Middle Ages Jewish scholar was Mosheh ben Maimon, a physician, Jewish philosopher, and astronomer. It was in Morocco that he wrote his famous commentary on the Mishnah in 1166-1168. During the later Middle Ages, prominent Jewish philosophers like Abraham bar Hiyya, Levi ben Gershon, and the Tibbon family began translating Arabic scientific texts into Hebrew, bringing in increased interest in scientific study among Judaism.

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question