Tag Archives: Spain

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: Benjamin of Tudela

The Jew Who Inspired Marco Polo

A 19th century engraving of ‘Benjamin of Tudela in the Sahara’

Binyamin MiTudela (1130-1173) was born to a religious Sephardic family in the town of Tudela, now in Spain. In 1165, he set out for what is believed to be a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He had a larger objective in mind as well, since this was at the height of the Crusades and a perilous time for anyone to make a pilgrimage, especially Jews. Binyamin wanted to explore all the Jewish communities along the way and to create a detailed map showing the route one should take and where a Jew can find safe refuge on his journey. This would open the door for more Jews to take a trip to their beloved Holy Land. A lover of history and geography, he also wished to leave a record of what the Jewish (and non-Jewish) world looked like in the 12th century. Binyamin recorded all that he saw in his Sefer haMasa’at, “Book of Travels”, also known as Masa’aot Binyamin. His adventures were so popular they were soon translated into just about every European language. Today, the book is among the most important historical documents for scholars of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, as well as of Jewish and Muslim history. A great deal of what we know about that era, including the daily lives of simple people, comes from his book. Some believe that it was this book that may have inspired another, more famous, adventurer about a century later: Marco Polo. Binyamin’s travels took him to France and the Italian Peninsula, then to Greece and across what is today Turkey to the Near East, then to Persia, back around the Arabian Peninsula, to Egypt, and returning to Iberia by way of North Africa. While in Ethiopia, he describes a large Jewish community, which was a key source of information allowing modern-day Ethiopian Jews to be accepted by the State of Israel and the rabbinate. He is possibly the first writer to detail the community of Al-Hashishin, better known as “Assassins”, as well as among the first to describe the Druze. In Posquières, he meets and describes the great Raavad. In Rome, he sees a Rabbi Yechiel, who is an advisor to the Pope, and has “free access to the Pope’s palace”! While in Baghdad, he writes of the Caliph, who is “like a Pope” for Muslims, and that the Caliph is fluent in Hebrew and knows Torah law extensively, though he rules with an iron fist. All in all, Benjamin of Tudela visited and wrote about some 300 cities. Today, there are streets named after him in Jerusalem and in Tudela, Spain, where there is also a high school bearing his name.

Words of the Week

One day I learned that dreams exist to come true, and since that day I do not sleep for rest. I sleep just to dream.
– Walt Disney

Jew of the Week: Raquel Montoya-Lewis

The First Native American Jew on a Supreme Court

Raquel Montoya-Lewis at her swearing-in ceremony

Raquel Montoya-Lewis (b. 1968) was born in Spain to a Jewish mother from Australia and a Native American father from New Mexico. Because her father worked for the US Air Force, the family travelled a lot when she was young. Yet, they always returned to the Pueblo of Isleta reservation which was their home. Her mother made sure to instill Jewish values and traditions, too. Montoya-Lewis went on to study at the University of New Mexico, and then at the University of Washington School of Law. To gain a deeper understanding of how laws affect societies, she also got a Master’s degree in social work. Although she sought to become a law professor, Montoya-Lewis was invited to preside over a number of trials in Native American communities. Eventually, she became the chief judge of the Lummi nation, Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, and the Nooksack Indian tribe, among others. Meanwhile, she taught law at Western Washington University. In 2015 Montoya-Lewis was appointed to the Superior Court of Whatcom County. After being recognized for her exceptional work, she was recommended for Washington State’s Supreme Court. Last month, Montoya-Lewis was officially sworn in. That makes her the first ever Native American tribal member (and first Native American Jew, of course) to hold such a position, and only the second Native in American history to be a state supreme court judge. At her swearing-in ceremony, she invited both a rabbi and a Native American leader to speak. Montoya-Lewis herself said: “I was raised to remember that I come from those who survived. My ancestors on both sides of my family survived genocide, survived institutional boarding schools, survived attempts to eradicate their cultures, and yet as my father reminded me often, ‘we survived’… I am here because of their resilience, their courage, their intelligence, and their deep commitment to what is just.”

Words of the Week

The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer… But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality. And splitting this reality into an objective and a subjective side won’t get us very far.

  – Niels Bohr, Nobel Prize-winning physicist