Tag Archives: Sephardic Jews

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

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: Raphael Mechoulam

“Godfather of THC”

Raphael Mechoulam

Raphael Mechoulam (b. 1930) was born in Bulgaria to a wealthy Sephardic-Jewish family. The family was forced to flee the country due to rampant anti-Semitism, ultimately surviving the Holocaust and settling in Israel in 1949. During his IDF service, Mechoulam worked as a chemical engineer and helped to develop insecticides. Falling in love with scientific research, he continued to study chemistry after his military service, earned his Master’s from the Hebrew University, then his PhD from the Weizmann Institute. After studies at the Rockefeller Institute in New York, Mechoulam returned to Israel to teach at both of his former universities. His primary field of research is cannabis. In fact, it was Mechoulam who first discovered, isolated, and synthesized THC, the primary active ingredient in cannabis. He would later discover and synthesize other important cannabinoids (a term he coined). Mechoulam was one of the pioneers of medicinal cannabis, and has said that medicinal cannabis could probably replace “ten to twenty percent of all pharmaceuticals”. More recently, he discovered endocannabinoids—molecules similar to THC that are naturally produced by the body, playing a key role in immunity and in regulating human emotions. All in all, Mechoulam published over 350 scientific papers. In 2016, he received a lifetime achievement award at Harvard’s School of Medicine. He was also the subject of an eye-opening documentary called The Scientist. Now a nonagenarian, Mechoulam continues to do research at his Jerusalem lab.

Words of the Week

Jewish time sees us as travellers on the road to a destination not yet reached; wayfarers on a journey begun by our ancestors, to be continued by our children.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Moshe Cordovero

The First Systemiser of Kabbalah

The grave of the Ramak in Tzfat, Israel

Moshe ben Yaakov Cordovero (1522-1570) was born in Tzfat, Israel to a Sephardic family from Cordoba, Spain that fled during the Expulsion of 1492. The family first settled in Portugal before Portugal, too, expelled its Jews. They eventually made it to Israel and settled in Tzfat. By the time he was twenty, young Moshe was already recognized as a great sage and rabbi, a leader of Tzfat’s rapidly-growing Jewish community, and the head of its Portuguese Yeshiva. That same year, he heard a Heavenly voice instruct him to begin the study of the Zohar, the central textbook of Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah). He began studying with his brother-in-law, Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz (famous for composing Lecha Dodi). Within a few short years, he mastered the entire Zohar—and the rest of Kabbalah with it. In 1548 he completed his magnum opus, Pardes Rimonim, “Pomegranate Orchard”, which organized and integrated all of the vast Kabbalistic wisdom into one cohesive system. He then wrote a 16-volume commentary on the Zohar, and was soon recognized as the world’s preeminent Kabbalist. In 1550, he opened his own mystical school, and attracted rabbis from far and wide to come study with him. Among them was Rabbi Chaim Vital, and many years later, the great Arizal. The latter only arrived in Tzfat on the day that Rabbi Moshe Cordovero—immortalized as the “Ramak”, based on his initials—passed away. The Arizal would go on to create his own Kabbalistic system, which later inspired several more branches, including those of the Baal Shem Tov (founder of Hasidism), and the Ramchal. However, the Ramak will always remain as the first great systemiser of Jewish mysticism. The Ramak wrote several other renowned works, and devised a new system of Jewish meditation, too. He is still ranked among the greatest Jewish mystics of all time. Today is his yahrzeit.

Words of the Week

The pageant of evolution [consists of] a staggeringly improbable series of events, utterly unpredictable and quite unrepeatable… human beings are an improbable and fragile entity… it fills us with amazement that human beings ever evolved at all.
– Stephen J. Gould, world-renowned evolutionary biologist