A 13th-century illustration of Isaac Israeli from a Latin translation of his “Book of Fevers”
Itzhak ben Shlomo (c. 832-932) was born to a religious Jewish family in Egypt. He became renowned as the greatest physician in the country, and in 904 was hired by Prince Ziyadat Allah III. Several years later, he became court physician to Caliph Al-Mahdi Billah of the Fatimid Dynasty, based in Kairouan, Tunisia. Recognizing his immense wisdom, the Caliph made Itzhak (known in Arabic as “Abu Yaqub Ishaq ibn Suleiman al-Israili”, and in Europe as “Isaac Judaeus”) his leading advisor and tutor. Itzhak wrote numerous medical, astronomical, and mathematical treatises which transformed the scientific knowledge of the day. For instance, he is the first person in history to mention performing a tracheostomy. His works were widely distributed for centuries afterwards, and made up much of the medical curriculum of the Middle Ages. Itzhak was also a great philosopher, kabbalist, and mystic. He fused together Greek Neoplatonism with traditional Jewish mysticism, paving the way for the forthcoming explosion of Kabbalistic texts and Jewish mystical circles. His main disciple, Dunash ibn Tamim, wrote a profound commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, the most ancient of Kabbalistic texts. In addition to inspiring many rabbis, he was studied and quoted by great non-Jewish scholars like Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon. Among his many other writings is a deeply philosophical commentary on Genesis. In his day, Isaac Judaeus was the world’s leading sage, doctor, and scientist, and Arabic texts of the time refer to him as “master of the seven sciences” and “more valuable than gems”.
We do not have to accept theories as certainties, no matter how widely accepted, for they are like blossoms that fade. Very soon science will be developed further and all of today’s new theories will be derided and scorned and the well-respected wisdom of our day will seem small-minded.
– Rav Kook, First Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel
Avraham ben Terach (c. 1813 BCE-1638 BCE) was born in the Sumerian city of Ur (in modern-day Iraq). His father Terach was a wealthy idol merchant, and a minister to the king. According to legend, Abraham’s birth was predicted by the king’s soothsayers, who warned that it would be a bad sign for the monarch. Terach was thus ordered to eliminate the newborn, but couldn’t bring himself to do it, instead abandoning the child in a cave where he was protected and nurtured by an angel until Terach could safely bring him back home. By the age of 3, the young Abraham began to question the idolatrous and immoral society he was born into. Soon enough he had come to the conclusion that there must be one God, and man must strive to be righteous and draw closer to his Maker. By 52, Abraham had gained quite a following, and was a thorn in the side of both the king, and his own idolatrous father. He was put on trial and sentenced to death by fire. It was only at this point that God first revealed himself to Abraham, and miraculously saved him from the flames. Abraham went on to live in Haran (modern-day Syria), where he and his wife Sarah continued to spread the new faith, before permanently settling in the Holy Land. Abraham would become a wealthy and famous shepherd, as well as a popular astrologer, philosopher, and holy man. Rulers and sages from around the world would seek his council. He was undoubtedly most famous for his hospitality, constructing an entryway on each side of his house to make it easy for guests to find him, and providing free meals and lodging for all who were willing to listen to his message. Although naturally a pacifist, Abraham participated in his fair share of battles, including a regional war that engulfed nine different kingdoms, which he ultimately put an end to. It was with him that God first established an everlasting covenant, and promised that his descendants would be innumerable. This is the meaning of his name (“father of multitudes”) and indeed, today some two-thirds of the world’s population claim some form of descent from Abraham, whether biologically or spiritually. The place where he “elevated” his son Isaac would later become the site of the Temple in Jerusalem, the holiest point in Judaism. Abraham is considered the first Jew, and is often attributed with being history’s first monotheist. While there were other monotheists before him, Abraham was certainly the first to spread monotheism widely and combat idolatry head-on. It is said that he wrote a 400-chapter book debunking various idolatrous beliefs and proving that God is One. To him is also attributed the mystical Sefer Yetzirah, “Book of Formation”. He is Judaism’s first forefather, and the start of the chain that climaxed six generations later with Moses and the Israelites being saved from Egypt and receiving the Torah on Mt. Sinai. According to one tradition, Abraham was born and passed away on Rosh Hashanah.
Sa’adiah ben Yosef (c. 882-942) was born in Fayum, Egypt. His family moved to Israel while he was still very young, and he began his Torah studies at the famous academy of Tiberias. By the time he was 20, he completed his first work, Agron, possibly the first official Hebrew dictionary. Sa’adiah went on to write over two dozen significant texts in both Hebrew and Arabic, including Emunot v’Deot, thought to be the first Jewish work that blended Jewish teachings with science and Greek philosophy. He also translated the entire Torah into Arabic, and wrote a deep commentary on top of it, together with many other books of the Bible. At the time, the vast majority of Jews in the world lived in Arabic lands, so this translation served a monumental role in helping spread Jewish learning. Sa’adiah also authored a number of legal treatises, and translated the mystical Sefer Yetzirah into Arabic, adding his own commentaries that weaved together both esoteric and scientific explanations. Sa’adiah is credited with being a key force in Judeo-Arabic culture, and inspiring a “renaissance” in Jewish-Arabic literature. Meanwhile, he played an instrumental role in defending traditional Judaism in the face of the rising Karaite sect, a cause he fought for until his last days (at times risking his life). For his great wisdom and tireless work on behalf of the Jewish community, Sa’adiah was appointed “Gaon” in 928. The title Gaon (literally “genius”) was given to the head of the Sura Academy, then the leading body of Jewish scholarship in the world. Sa’adiah Gaon died in Baghdad at the age of 60, having inspired a new generation of Torah scholars. Two hundred years later, the great Maimonides wrote: “Were it not for Rav Sa’adiah Gaon, the Torah would have almost disappeared from the Jewish people, for it was he who shed light on that which was obscure, strengthened that which had been weakened, and spread the Torah far and wide, by word of mouth and in writing.”
Words of the Week
The birds and many of the land animals forbidden [to eat] by the Torah are predators, while the permitted animals are not. We are commanded not to eat those animals possessive of a cruel nature, so that we should not absorb these qualities into ourselves. – Nachmanides (the Ramban)