Science in the Jewish communities

Y. Tzvi Langermann

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

3 Scopus citations


The medieval period (500–1500) saw the creation of a body of Hebrew scientific literature. Jews participated actively in the sciences, often in collaboration with non-Jews or, at least, in the awareness of the universality of the scientific enterprise and the achievements of other nations. It was, moreover, a period of reckoning, tense and intense, as thinkers strove to formulate the basic tenets of Judaism and to reconcile them with the claims of the natural sciences. The postures toward the scientific enterprise that emerged from these deliberations have guided Jewish attitudes ever since. The medieval period corresponds more or less with what traditional Jewish historiography identifies as the epochs of the religious authorities called “geonim” and “rishonim.” In Jewish historical consciousness, this was a golden age of scientific accomplishment, associated with Moses Maimonides (1138–1204), Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1164), and other illustrious names. The lower chronological bound of the period is clear enough. However, the upper bound is much more problematic, and there is a certain amount of arbitrariness in fixing it at the beginning of the sixteenth century. That date is relevant insofar as the Spanish Expulsion of 1492 is one of the traumatic events of Jewish history and Spain was the most important center of Jewish scientific activity. By the sixteenth century, there was a detectable decrease in the writing of Hebrew scientific treatises, though many medieval treatises continued to be copied. There was also less awareness of recent scientific advances, Italy being the most important exception to this rule and, to a lesser extent, cultural centers such as Cracow and Prague. Jews living in North Africa and the Near East generally shared in the “decline” of the Islamic world; this meant, among other things, that they continued to study medieval texts into the twentieth century.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge History of Science Volume 2
Subtitle of host publicationMedieval Science
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)9780511974007
ISBN (Print)9780521594486
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2012

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Cambridge University Press 2013.


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