Tag Archives: Portuguese Expulsion

Jew of the Week: Abraham Zacuto

The Rabbi Who Saved Columbus

A page from Zacuto’s astronomical tables

Avraham ben Shmuel Zacut “Zacuto” (1452-1515) was born in Salamanca, in what is today Spain, to a religious Sephardic Jewish family. He studied both Jewish law and astronomy, becoming the rabbi of Salamanca and simultaneously an astronomy teacher. He invented a new type of astrolabe and a novel method for determining latitude at sea, which would become vital to navigators and sailors. In 1478, he published HaChibur haGadol, “The Great Book”, with detailed and easy-to-use astronomical tables. It was translated to Spanish in 1481, and Latin shortly after. This made Rabbi Zacuto world-famous and when the Jews of Spain were banished in 1492, he was immediately hired by King John II of Portugal to serve as his royal astronomer. Zacuto argued that a sea route to India was possible, and this convinced John II to finance Vasco da Gama’s famous voyage to discover the route to India, opening European sea trade with the Far East. Da Gama used Zacuto’s astrolabe and tables, and Zacuto personally trained and taught the sailors. Zacuto had also argued, based on the Zohar—the “textbook” of Jewish mysticism, dating back to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in the 2nd century CE—that the Earth must be spherical, and it would be possible to journey west, not east. This information was instrumental in convincing Christopher Columbus to launch his own voyage. In fact, Columbus relied heavily on Zacuto’s astrolabe and astronomical charts. In a well-known story from his third voyage, Columbus was marooned on a Caribbean island and facing both hostile natives and his own rebellious sailors. The natives refused to provide food and resources to Columbus, so he came up with a ruse. Consulting Zacuto’s tables, Columbus saw that a lunar eclipse was imminent. He told the native chief that if he will not provide resources to the sailors, the moon would go dark and God would punish them! The eclipse came and the natives panicked, giving Columbus’ men all that they needed to survive. Back in Europe, the next king of Portugal, Manuel I, followed the Spanish in expelling his Jewish subjects. Zacuto was offered to stay in Portugal if only he converted to Christianity, even just nominally. Of course, he refused, and left with his people. He first settled in Tunis, where he wrote his monumental Sefer Yuhasin, a highly-acclaimed work describing the entire history of the Jewish people. He later fulfilled his dream of making it to the Holy Land and lived his last years in Jerusalem. Rabbi Zacuto is considered one of history’s greatest and most consequential astronomers. The Zagut Crater on the moon is named after him.

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Words of the Week

The blessing in life is when you find the torture you are comfortable with. That’s marriage, it’s kids, it’s work, it’s exercise. Find the torture you’re comfortable with and you’ll do well. You’ve mastered that, you’ve mastered life.
Jerry Seinfeld

Jews of the Week: Abraham Garton & Gershom Soncino

The First Jewish Printers

Abraham Garton (c. 1450-1510) was born in Spain and moved with his family to Calabria, Italy sometime before the Spanish Expulsion of 1492 (which took place on Tisha b’Av). Little is known of his life. Inspired by Johannes Gutenberg, who produced the first printed book in Europe in 1439, Garton established his own printing press to produce Jewish books. His first publication was the Torah commentary of the great Rashi, produced in 1475. In order to avoid using the holy script of the Torah itself, and to be able to fit more letters on a page, Garton decided to use a special cursive Hebrew font previously developed by Sephardic rabbis. This went on to become the standard font for printing the commentary of Rashi on the Torah and Talmud, as well as the commentaries of other sages, and is referred to as “Rashi script” – even though Rashi himself never used it!

Rashi script, originally developed by Sephardic rabbis in Spain (top) compared to regular Hebrew script (bottom).

Emblem of the Soncino family and printing press

Several years later, Yehoshua Shlomo (the son of Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants to Italy) established a Hebrew printing press in the town of Soncino, and later in Naples. He undertook the publication of the entire Talmud, starting with the first tractate, Berakhot, in 1483. The work was taken over by his nephew, Gershom Girolamo Soncino (c. 1460-1533). A scholar in his own right, Gershom was fluent in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. In addition to the Talmud, he published books of Torah and the Megillot, as well as various rabbinic texts. He traveled all over Europe to find manuscripts that he could publish. He also produced non-Jewish books, and became famous among Italians for the high quality of his work. All in all, he produced some 200 works, and was the first to use illustrations in a Hebrew book. Soncino later established printing presses in other cities, the last in Constantinople, where he lived out the remainder of his life. He became wealthy, and used his funds to assist Sephardic Jews following the 1492 Expulsion from Spain, and the Portuguese Expulsion in 1497. The Soncino family printed Jewish books until 1557, playing a key role in the wide-spread dissemination of Jewish wisdom, and opening up the study of Jewish texts to the masses. Soncino Press was reestablished in London in the late 19th century, and continues to publish Jewish books today.

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Words of the Week

Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.
– George Bernard Shaw