Tag Archives: Hebrew

Jew of the Week: Avraham bar Chiya haNasi

The Rabbi Who Discovered the Quadratic Formula

Avraham bar Chiya (c. 1070-1145) was born in Barcelona to a Sephardic Jewish family. It appears that his family was persecuted by its Christian rulers, so they fled to the neighbouring Arab kingdom of Zaragoza. Bar Chiya came from a long line of rabbis, and was also extensively trained in science, math, and astronomy. Famed for his wisdom, he became the court astronomer of Al-Musta’in II. Eventually, he was appointed minister of police and given the title sahib al-shurtah, “city governor”. This is why he was known in the Jewish community as HaNasi, “the prince” or “the president”. Al-Musta’in II was unable to defend his domain from the Christians, who soon took over. Bar Chiya moved to southern France for a while and lived in Narbonne and Provence. There he composed some of the most important scientific texts of the Medieval era. He translated a number of Arabic works into Latin, opening their study for Europeans, and played a key role in introducing the Hindu numerals we use today (by way of Arabia) to Europe, and thus to the rest of the world. Bar Chiya also synthesized ancient Greek wisdom with contemporary Arabic knowledge, and published new discoveries in number theory, arithmetic, geometry, optics, astronomy, and music theory. His Treatise on Measurement and Calculation inspired later greats like Plato of Tivoli and the world-famous Fibonacci. Meanwhile, Bar Chiya also served as the chief rabbi of the Jewish communities he presided over, and composed two important Jewish commentaries and texts. He is credited with being the first person to write a scientific book in Hebrew, and played an instrumental role in the development of the Hebrew language. His disciples included both Jews and non-Jews, among them the great Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, and the Flemish astronomer Rudolf of Bruges. The first historical appearance of the quadratic equation (with a complete solution of x2 – ax + b = c) appears in one of Bar Chiya’s works! He is also referenced in many philosophical works as “Abraham Judaeus”. All in all, his impact on the development of science, mathematics, and human history is unparalleled.

Jew of the Week Turns 10 Years Old Today!

What I Learned from 10 Years of Writing Jew of the Week

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The Xenobot Future Is Coming—Start Planning Now

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The Plastic Fibers in Your Clothes That Destroy the Environment

Israelis Off to Ethiopia to Save Country from Locusts

Words of the Week

The mind of man plans his way, but God directs his steps.
King Solomon (Proverbs 16:9)

Jew of the Week: Eliezer Ben-Yehuda

The Man Behind Modern Hebrew

Eliezer Yitzhak ben Yehuda Leib Perlman (1858-1922) was born in what is now Belarus to a religious, Yiddish-speaking, Chabad family. Before his bar mitzvah he was already recognized as a genius in Torah and Talmud. While studying to become a rabbi, Ben-Yehuda was first exposed to some of the Hebrew works of the medieval Sephardic rabbis (such as Ibn Ezra) who wrote poems, stories, and even textbooks of Hebrew grammar. Meanwhile, he came across contemporary, secular (Haskalah) literature written in Hebrew, most notably a Hebrew-only Zionist newspaper called HaShahar. This sparked a passion for languages in general, and Hebrew in particular. Ben-Yehuda plunged into the study of the grammar, history, and development of Hebrew, and also started learning Russian, German, and French. He soon realized the tremendous power of language, and that the only thing truly uniting all Jews around the world—whether Ashkenazi or Sephardi, religious or secular—was Hebrew. In 1877, Ben-Yehuda moved to Paris to study medicine and Middle Eastern history at the famous Sorbonne University. While sitting at a café one day, he met a fellow Jew who started speaking to him in Hebrew. This was the moment that convinced Ben-Yehuda that it was possible to turn Hebrew into a common, spoken language. While some Zionists (like Herzl himself) initially sought to make Yiddish or even German the official language of what would be the Jewish State, Ben-Yehuda knew that it had to be Hebrew. Upon graduating in 1881, he made aliyah and settled in Jerusalem. Ben-Yehuda taught at the Torah and Avoda School, where he devised his immersive ivrit b’ivrit system of learning. He spent the rest of his time writing and developing the language. He founded the Hebrew Language Committee (still operating today) to dig up ancient Hebrew words and to coin new words for modern phenomena, based primarily on ancient Biblical, Aramaic (often Talmudic) terms, as well as from Arabic roots. Ben-Yehuda coined words like glida (“ice cream”), ofanaim (“bicycle”), magevet (“towel”), and rakevet (“train”) using Biblical roots for similar terms. Meanwhile, he wrote for the Havatzelet newspaper, edited the Hashkafa newspaper, then launched his own periodical, HaTzvi, where he would introduce his new words (such as iton, “newspaper”!) He published the first dictionary of Modern Hebrew, a whopping 11-volume tome (later expanded to 17 volumes). Ben-Yehuda raised his children strictly in Hebrew. His son, Ben-Zion, is considered the first native speaker of Modern Hebrew. Some people inaccurately state that Hebrew was a “dead” or “extinct” language before Ben-Yehuda and the Zionists. This is, of course, completely inaccurate since Hebrew has always been used by Jews throughout the centuries, particularly in prayer and for the writing and teaching of holy texts. What Ben-Yehuda did was systematize Hebrew, adapt it to modern times, and transform it into a commonly-spoken tongue, as historian Cecil Roth summed it up: “Before Ben-Yehuda, Jews could speak Hebrew; after him, they did.”

The Kabbalah of Yom Ha‘Atzmaut

Words of the Week

For everything there is needed only one wise, clever and active man, with the initiative to devote all his energies to it, and the matter will progress, all obstacles in the way notwithstanding… In every new event, every step, even the smallest in the path of progress, it is necessary that there be one pioneer who will lead the way without leaving any possibility of turning back.
– Eliezer Ben-Yehuda

Jews of the Week: Edmund Landau and Lev Landau

Two Math Wizards

Edmund Landau

Edmund Georg Hermann Landau (1877-1938) was born in Berlin. As a young boy, he was recognized as a math prodigy, and earned his Ph.D from the University of Berlin by 22. He immediately received a teaching position at the university, where he taught for the next ten years. Meanwhile, Landau married the daughter of Nobel Prize winner (and past Jew of the WeekPaul Ehrlich. In 1812, Landau presented four complex math problems at the International Congress of Mathematicians. The problems remain unsolved to this day. After over a decade teaching at the University of Göttingen, Landau joined the new Hebrew University. He was a co-founder of its math department, and played a key role in the construction of its Mathematics Institute. He taught himself Hebrew so that he could present a novel math lecture at the University’s grand opening in 1925. Two years later, Landau and his family made aliyah. He taught at the Hebrew University for several years before returning to Göttingen. After being removed from his position by the Nazis, Landau settled back in Berlin and occasionally traveled outside Germany to teach. He died four years later. Landau is renowned for his work on distribution of prime numbers, and on what is now called Landau Prime Ideal Theorem. It was once said that “no one was ever more passionately devoted to mathematics than Landau.”

Lev Landau

Edmund Landau is not to be confused with another Jewish math prodigy, Lev Davidovich Landau (1908-1968). Born in Azerbaijan (then part of Russia), Lev Landau started university at 13, published his first paper at 18, and got his PhD in math by 26. He received a scholarship from the Soviet government as well as the Rockefeller Foundation to travel and study abroad. He was soon fluent in German, French, Danish, and English. Much of his time was spent working in the lab of Nobel Prize winner (and past Jew of the WeekNiels Bohr. After returning to the Soviet Union, Landau was put at the head of the physics department at Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology. He taught at the University of Kharkiv, and at the same time worked with his student Evgeny Lifshitz on a ten-volume textbook. The Course of Theoretical Physics is still one of the most popular graduate physics textbooks used today. In 1938, Landau was arrested for comparing Stalin to the Nazis. After the intervention of other physicists, he was freed. Ironically, he won the Stalin Prize in 1949 and again in 1953, for his work on building the first Soviet nuclear bomb. Landau is famous for, among many other things, his theory of superconductivity, theory of Fermi liquid, for plasma physics, quantum electrodynamics, and most of all for his theory of superfluidity, which won him a Nobel Prize in 1962. Unfortunately, he couldn’t personally collect the prize because he was in a severe car accident and spent two months in a coma. He ultimately died from his injuries in 1968. Several years before this, his students established the Landau Institute for Theoretical Physics near Moscow. It is still one of the most prestigious physics labs in Russia. Landau was featured in the latest Google Doodle. There is a crater on the moon named after him.

The Torah: A Comprehensive Overview

Words of the Week

Both religion and science require a belief in God. For believers, God is in the beginning, and for physicists He is at the end of all considerations… To the former He is the foundation, to the latter, the crown of the edifice of every generalized world view.
– Max Planck

Google Doodle for January 22, 2019, the birthday of Lev Landau.