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.
A 19th century woodcut engraving of Simcha Bunim of Peshischa
Simcha Bonhomme “Bunim” Bonhart (c. 1765-1827) was born in Vodislav, Poland, the son of a wealthy German-Jewish merchant father (who was also a rabbi and rationalist philosopher) and a mother that came from a long line of rabbis going all the way back to Rashi. After studying at the top yeshivas in Hungary and Czechia, Simcha Bunim went to Leipzig to also get a solid secular education at one of the world’s top universities. He studied science and majored in pharmacology. After marrying, he settled in Peshischa (Przysucha) and opened up his own pharmacy. His concoctions were so potent and famous that he soon served the Polish nobility. He also continued his father’s merchant business, sold exotic woods, and regularly appeared at the Danzig trade fair. Meanwhile, Simcha Bunim joined the local Peshischa Hasidic group, then under the leadership of a rabbi and mystic known simply as HaYid HaKadosh, “the Holy Jew”. When the Holy Jew died in 1813, Simcha Bunim took over as the new leader. Unlike other Hasidic groups, Peshischa was all about enlightenment and rationalism. Their aims were to synthesize science with Judaism, to develop each member’s personal autonomy, and to inspire people to discover who they are and to think critically on their own. They encouraged people to pray when they really felt like it (instead of praying by rote three times a day) and to walk confidently with an upright posture. Instead of wearing the classic Hasidic robes, Simcha Bunim dressed in a regular suit. His internal Hasidic revolution spread like fire across Eastern Europe—causing Simcha Bunim to nearly be excommunicated by other Hasidic rabbis! Simcha Bunim is also credited with being perhaps the first kiruv (“outreach”) rabbi. While other Hasidic groups at the time simply ignored the secular Jewish world, Simcha Bunim went out of his way to bring secular Jews back into the faith. In fact, he would regularly go to theatres on Jewish holidays in the hopes of inspiring Jews there to come with him to the synagogue instead. While the Peshischa Hasidic movement itself died out shortly after Simcha Bunim’s death, it sparked multiple new Hasidic groups, and had a significant impact on the wider Jewish world as well. Today is Rabbi Simcha Bunim’s yahrzeit.
Words of the Week
I know who I am irrespective of how I am perceived by others. – Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa
Sinan Reis (c. 1492-1546) was born to a Sephardic family that was expelled from Spain during the Expulsion of 1492 and settled in the Ottoman city of Smyrna. At the time, many Jews became pirates, attacking Spanish vessels both for revenge and to reclaim some of their confiscated wealth. Sinan joined the Barbary corsair pirates that sailed under the Ottoman flag. He became the right-hand man of the well-known pirate and Ottoman admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa. The two fought and won many battles against the Spanish and the Holy Roman Empire. The most famous was the Battle of Preveza in 1538. Barbarossa took Sinan’s military advice, leading to a magnificent Ottoman victory. Two years later, Sinan’s young son was captured at sea and forcibly baptized. The Christians refused to release him to the “infidels”, so Barbarossa led a fleet to bombard the Italian city of Piombino until Sinan’s son was finally freed. Barbarossa later dedicated his memoirs to Sinan, who was often referred to as Sinan Reis or Rayyis, Arabic for “chief”. Historical records from England describe him as “the famous Jewish pirate”, while the governor of Portuguese India at the time called him “the Great Jew”. Sinan went on to become Supreme Naval Commander of the Ottoman fleet.
Scholars believe Rembrandt’s famous painting ‘Man in Oriental Costume’ is a portrait of Samuel Pallache.
Samuel Pallache (c. 1550-1615) was also born to a Sephardic family, one that had fled Spain long before the Expulsion and settled in Morocco. His father and uncle were renowned rabbis, and Pallache became a rabbi, too. He also engaged heavily in commerce, and often took his merchant ships to the Netherlands, where other members of the Pallache family lived. When the Dutch made an alliance with Morocco against the Spanish in 1608, the Moroccan sultan appointed Pallache as his envoy to the Dutch. Two years later, Pallache negotiated a free trade agreement between the Dutch and the Moroccans, possibly the first such treaty ever made between a European and non-European state. Around the same time, the Dutch prince Maurice made Pallache a privateer (a pirate for hire). Pallache’s merchant fleet became a pirate fleet, and for the next several years his job was to capture Spanish and Portuguese vessels. In 1614, a storm diverted his ship to England, where he was arrested at the request of the Spanish. Prince Maurice got him released, and Pallache returned to Amsterdam where he lived out the rest of his life. Records show that he was a co-founder of Amsterdam’s illustrious Jewish community. His son was one of Amsterdam’s greatest rabbis, and a teacher of (former Jews of the Week) Menashe ben Israel and Isaac Aboab da Fonseca. Another descendant is the renowned Rabbi Haim Palachi.
Words of the Week
I like the impossible because there’s less competition. – Walt Disney