Sunday 24 July 2016



During my yeshiva years, I was strongly discouraged from reading a work by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746). He is also known as Ramchal, and the book in question is the famous Messilat Yesharim (Path of the Just). Although this book is universally studied in many mainstream yeshivot, as a fundamental mussar or ethical and inspirational work, my teachers from the Chassidic world deemed it too ‘depressing’ for their student’s consumption.

Like so many other things I was later to discover through the application of my own mind, it turned out that Ramchal was ironically one of the greatest mystics ever. In words of the Vilna Gaon he was ‘the only person to understand kabbalah since the Ari Zal himself’.[1] It also turned out that the writings of Ramchal were in fact only adopted by the Mussar Movement a century after his passing (hence my teachers rendering them ‘depressing’).[2]

But there were other interesting things I discovered about Ramchal as well.

Sefer Torah written by Ramchal from pomegranate juice on gazelle skin


It has been said that what Rambam was to halacha, Ramchal was to kabbalah - in terms of explaining and making it accessible to the average student.

He was born to a wealthy and cultured Italian family, mastered Talmud (and even kabbalah[3]) at an early age and went on to study secular subjects (possibly medicine) at Padua University[4]. It was there that he selected a group of medical students and together they formed a kabbalistic circle of study.

The irony of religious Italian students of secular science studying kabbalah should not be lost, coupled with the fact that their mystical teacher was clean shaven.[5]

It was around this time that he began to get into trouble for teaching Kabbalah, from the majority of Italian rabbis who held influential positions of leadership. They threatened him with excommunication and accused him of heresy. They objected to the fact that he had written a ‘new Zohar’ and that he claimed he had been instructed by a maggid or ‘spiritual guide’. 

He had some radical messianic views, according to Rabbi Moshe Hagiz[6] who reported Ramchal to the Venice rabbinate, claiming he found evidence in a letter proving he was a secret follower of the false messiah, Shabetai Tzvi! According to some, Ramchal considered his student, Moshe David Valle, to be Mashiah ben David, while Shabetai Tzvi was allegedly considered to be Mashiach ben Yosef.[7] He also apparently considered himself to be an incarnation of Moshe Rabbenu.

Ramchal wrote a kabbalistic commentary to his own marriage document, or ketuba, which similarly contained messianic references.[8]

Because of these and other allegations, Ramchal agreed to stop writing the teachings of his ‘maggid’, but was soon forced into exile to Amsterdam. Much of his writings were burned. On the way to Holland, he spent some time in Germany where the rabbis made him sign a document disavowing the teachings of his ‘guide’.

It was in Amsterdam that the book he is most known for, the Messilat Yesharim, as well as Derech HaShem and Daat Tevunot were written. During his ten years in Amsterdam he worked as a diamond cutter and lens grinder in order to support himself.

After his exile in Amsterdam, Ramchal settled in Israel, where sadly he and his family perished in the plague after just three short years. He died at the young age of 40, and is buried in Tiberias near the tomb of Rabbi Akiva.


For some reason he was one rabbi who was courted by the secular leaders of the Haskalah or Enlightenment movement.

In 1781, Moses Mendelssohn wrote a letter to Johann Gottfried Herder[9] referring to Ramchal as; 

“...a great genius in many respects. He was unable to develop his talents due to jealousy of some rabbis, and was treated poorly. He retired into solitude and died before his time...He evidently wrote some new Psalms, which I have not had the opportunity to see.”

These leaders of the Enlightenment held him in high esteem and particularly appreciated his knowledge and usage of the Hebrew language, referring to him as the ‘father of modern Hebrew’.


Ramchal's Psalms

At the age of twenty, Ramchal wrote 150 of his own Psalms. These were the Psalms Mendelssohn was referring to. Apparently only two have survived.[10]  These ‘new Psalms’, as can be imagined, did nothing to assuage the tide of opposition from the mainstream against him, with  further accusations that he was trying to ‘replace’ or ‘supplement’ the Psalms of David.


Perhaps most surprising of all is that Ramchal was also writer of apparently secular plays in Hebrew and Italian (although some believe they were laden with kabbalistic metaphor).[11]


Amazingly, even to this day Ramchal is subject to a degree of censorship. But this time it’s not just his kabbalistic leanings that are the problem but rather the fact that he wrote secular plays and the fact that was threatened with heresy and messianic charges. Someone does not want this information to remain on Wikipedia (although citations are provided) and posts of this nature are frequently expunged.[12]


Although many of his works were destroyed, he authored about ninety books on a range of different topics. It was only as recently as the 1970’s that some of Ramchal’s books were discovered and printed. One interesting work is his Mishkney Elyon, which was written when he was 22 years old. 

He mentioned this book in a letter he wrote in 1729 to his teacher, Rabbi Basan, during his dark days of oppression while everyone was closing down on him. The book had not been printed nor seen for 227 years until in 1956 when its manuscript was accidently discovered in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. 

It was then printed for the first time ever in 1980, under the title Ginzei Ramchal.[13] In 1993 a new broader edition of Mishkney Elyon was requested by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe and published by the Ramchal Institute in Jerusalem.[14]


Many would be absolutely surprised, as I was, to discover that the author of Mesillat Yesharim, the safe and staple diet of mainstream conservative conformity, had such a colorful, turbulent and controversial history. 

Few would accept the allegation of his connection to Sabattean messianism - the threats of charges of heresy - his foray into the theatre as a playwright - his being hailed as father of modern Hebrew by the Enlightenment - nor his ‘new writing’ (or as some put it; ‘his writing in the style of the Zohar’) and Psalms.

It also amazes me how my Chassidic teachers who discouraged me from reading Mesillat Yesharim had no contextual understanding of the life and times of Ramchal. They seemed not to know that this book was only adopted by the Mussar Movement a century after his death. It is therefore not technically a Mussar book to which (some[15]) Chassidim could take umbrage to.

Perhaps Ramchal alluded to the importance of context when he wrote;

Organized knowledge of a subject and the interrelationship of its various parts, is superior to disorganized knowledge – just as a beautiful garden arranged with beds of flowers, paths and rows of plants is superior to a chaotically overgrown forest...A person should always endeavour to grasp general principles...When a person understands one principle he automatically understands a great number of details.[16]

[1] The Vilna Gaon also said he would have walked from Vilna to Italy just to sit at the feet of Ramchal.
[2] Ramchal’s Messilat Yesharim was co-opted by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1810-1883) as one of the main works to be studied by students of the Mussar Movement.
[3] At the age of fourteen he produced a summary of the very complicated Etz Chaim and apparently kept his kabbalistic knowledge hidden from his parents.
[4] His secular teacher was talmudist and a physician, by the name Yitzchak Chaim Cohen Cantarini. His religious teacher was Rabbi Isaiah Bassan, and it was from his religious teacher’s father-in-law that he first learned kabbalah.  Rabbi Bassan encouraged Ramchal to marry at the age of 25 as it was not common for someone of his personage and religious calibre to remain single.
[5] According to Iggrot Ramchal nos. 39 and 53, he cut his beard at 14 and only re-grew it at age 24. (Some say he only trimmed his moustache not his beard). This point may seem irrelevant to many, but a beardless teacher of kabbalah would be considered by many to be an anathema.
[6] Rabbi Hagiz was fiercely anti the messianic movement started, about a century prior, by Shabetai Tzvi (1626-1676) the false messiah who later converted to Islam. Rabbi Hagiz’s  maternal grandfather was a leader of the Sabbatean community of Jerusalem and his father-in- law was also a secret follower of the new messianic movement. Rabbi Hagiz’s father had issued a ban against the Sabbateans in 1666. One can understand why, after taking these facts into consideration, Rabbi Hagiz was highly suspicious of any new mystical movements.
[7] See Isaiah Tishby, Messianic Mysticism: Moshe Chaim Luzzatto and the Padua School. See also a review on the book by Rabbi Dr. Alan Brill, June 2, 2010.
[8] Ibid. For an English translation of this document.
[9] Herder was a Christian clergyman, student of Immanuel Kant and prominent figure in the German Enlightenment.
[10] See Bikkurei haIttim 1825. I found this information in On The Main Line , May 16 2011.
[11] Three of his plays are available on HebrewBooks with one translation into English, see here, here and here.
[12] See reference to the behind the scene discussion in On the Main Line, Thursday June 09, 2005.
[13] This was published by Rabbi Chaim Friedlander.
[14] See Temple Secrets; Ramchal and his writings, Translated by Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum.
[15] Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, on the other hand, used to encourage people to read Mesillat Yesharim.
[16] Introduction to Derech HaShem.

Sunday 17 July 2016



It is not the intention of this article to debate the virtues or otherwise of Chassidim and Mitnagdim nor to attempt to adjudicate the intricacies of their respective philosophies. Rather, the reader is requested to remain theologically and emotionally neutral as we take a look at a fascinating historical exchange involving claims and counter claims.]


As is well known, the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797)[1] placed the new movement of Chassidism into cherem (excommunication) and declared them to be heretics with whom no pious Jew should intermarry[2]


The following is an extract from the 1777[3] excommunication document:

As you know, new people have appeared, unimagined by our forefathers...and they associate amongst themselves and their ways are different from other children of Israel in their liturgy...they behave in a crazed manner and say that their thoughts wander in all worlds...And they belittle the study of Torah, and repeatedly claim that one should not study much, nor regret one’s transgressions...Therefore we have come to inform our brethren...and to sound to them the voice of excommunication and banishment...until they repent completely[4]

One of the main reasons for this may have been that the Jewish world was just recovering from the aftermath of tremendous upheaval following the debacle of the false messiah, Shabetai Tzvi (1626-1676) about a century before. The Vilna Gaon was therefore highly suspicious of any new movements. 

He also had a number of philosophical issues with some of the concepts discussed in the Tanya which had become a primary text of many of the new followers of the Chassidic movement (particularly Chabad). Furthermore, the Chassidic movement was rapidly spreading, and its opponents feared they might soon outnumber the mainstream (which indeed they soon did). 

He was further concerned that the Chassidic concept of ‘attachment to a rebbe’ was too close to idolatry and that the movement which at first attracted the simple poorer and uneducated masses, might degenerate and possibly de-intellectualize Judaism.


Around 1796, someone falsely claiming to be the son of the Vilna Gaon, wrote a letter declaring that his ‘father’ had a change of heart, and had duly retracted his earlier ban and antagonistic sentiment against Chassidim.


When this became known to the Vilna Gaon, he responded with a counter letter, which stated that it was not true and that the ban and status quo remained in place.


The authenticity as to whether or not this counter letter was indeed written by the Vilna Gaon was in turn brought into question.


In 1797, the Vilna Gaon wrote another letter in which he detailed some of the specific issues he had with the Chassidic movement. This letter was then published and widely disseminated.

The Gaon wrote; “these are your gods, Israel[5] which is the biblical expression used to describe the idolatrous worshiping of the golden calf – and he applied that directly to the Chassidim. This was a clear charge of heresy levelled against Chassidim which quickly put paid to the notion that he retracted his earlier antagonism. 

The Gaon was referring specifically to the (now almost universally accepted Chassidic) idea brought in the Tanya that even inanimate objects such as rocks and such, have an element of G-d within them.[6] The Vilna Gaon was so opposed to this concept that he said that Chassidim proclaim ‘every tree and rock to be a new (and idolatrous) god of Israel’.[7]

Not only was it a charge of heresy but it was also a charge of panentheism.[8]

(Again, it is not my intention to debate the virtues or otherwise of the popular – and beautiful -Chassidic concept of a bechinat nefesh or spark of G-dly spirituality to be found within all physical phenomena. We are dealing here with the structure of the dispute - not the structure of the philosophy.)

The Vilna Gaon continued unrelentingly; “These evil evildoers (i.e. the Chassidim) have fabricated from their hearts a new law and a new Torah. Their students who followed them have drunk it and the name of Heaven has been profaned by their hand.”[9]


Sometime later the Baal HaTanya (1745-1812)[10] responded with letter (which was first published in 1857) where he put forth his views regarding the dispute with the Vilna Gaon. Interestingly, he understood the Vilna Gaon’s theological objections, and wrote:

This is how HaGaon haChassid (respectfully referring to the Vilna Gaon) understands the (Kabbalistic) concept of G-d ‘filling the universe[11]’ – he understands (that Chassidim take) it literally. And in the honourable one’s view this is absolute apikorsut (a more polite form of heresy?) because one is inferring that G-d is mamesh (truly) found in mundane objects mamesh (truly). And because of the honourable one’s letter (referred to above) the (Chassidic) book was burned.

In his (the Gaon’s) view these sayings (of G-d ‘filling’ the universe) have a hidden (non-literal) meaning referring to hashgacha (mere Providence, i.e. G-d controls the universe but does not literally fill it with His Being.)

If only I could find him and present my case to him...” 

And the Baal haTanya goes on to say how he received these teachings from the Zohar and Ari Zal and therefore they were, in his view, authentic Torah teachings.[12]

So here we have a theological cataclysmic parting of ways between the Baal haTanya and the Vilna Gaon.



In the second section of Tanya, however, it seems as if the gloves had come off.

The Tanya says (referring now to the Tzimtzum concept and not the ‘filling’ of the universe); “...the error of some, who are wise in their own eyes, may G-d forgive them, who erred and were mistaken in their study of the writings of the Ari Zal, and understood the doctrine of Tzimtzum mentioned there literally - that the Holy One (literally) withdrew Himself and His essence from this world (and inferred that) He only supervises from above.” [13] 


Who does the Baal haTanya refer to with his harsh words ‘wise men in their own eyes’? There is no way to know for sure, but he was most probably referring to the Vilna Gaon.

This is borne out by the fact that this very passage was absent (censored?) from every printed edition of Tanya before 1900. The first edition of Tanya was published in Slavita in 1796[14]. This was around the time the letters between both antagonists were beginning to circulate, which means that for just over a century this passage was omitted!

Many believe that by the beginning of the 1900’s, sufficient time had passed since the great feud had erupted and that the storm had, by then, run out of range.


Generally it is understood that the Vilna Gaon refused to meet with the Baal haTanya. But there is another take. According to the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe;

At that time he (the Baal haTanya, also known as the Alter Rebbe) secretly visited Shklov, Minsk and Vilna. The Alter Rebbe spent six weeks in Vilna during that secret mission. He would wander from one beis hamedrash to another disguised as a visiting traveller...

But he refrained from engaging the Gaon in discussion, for fear he would be recognized. He did, however, submit several questions to him through two of his adherents. ‘I soon learned whom I was dealing with and just how great his knowledge of the Torah was’, said the Alter Rebbe to his brother.”

So, certainly at some stage, it was the Baal haTanya who avoided the Vilna Gaon and not the other way around - although we also know that the Vilna Gaon refused to meet with the Baal haTanya as well.[15]


Thankfully today, for the most part, the feud does not play out as acutely as it did in earlier times. 

Although there are still stark theological differences, all parties seem quite able to remain accommodating and civil towards each other.

In hindsight it seems as if Chassidism infused a sense of energy and spirituality into the mainstream - and on the other hand the strenuous opposition particularly by the Gaon, helped keep the movement within the relative confines of the mainstream (which may have unwittingly contributed to its endurance).

Sometimes even the wine of theology requires the fullness of time for its fruits to ferment.

[1] Also known as Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer, and as the Gra (Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu).
[2] This was a second excommunication which emanated from Vilna. The first was in 1777, which was taken so seriously that in Brody, for example, the excommunication was announced at a public trade fair. The excommunication was quite an unusual step taken by the Vilna Gaon, who rarely took part in public affairs and generally shied away from public office.
[3] Some say 1772.
[4] See also; The Jew in the Modern World by Paul Mendes-Flohr and Yehudah Reinhartz, p. 309.
[5] Chassidin uMitnagdim vol. 1, p. 187
[6] See Tanya, Shaar haYichud ve’haEmunah 1.
[7] Ibid. ‘eileh elohecha yisrael – kol eitz vekol even.’
[8] Not to be confused with pantheism. Pantheism is belief that G-d and the universe are identical. Panentheism is the belief that G-d is present in everything, even inanimate objects.
[9] Chassidim uMitnagdim, vol. 1 p 188-189.
[10] Also known as the Alter Rebbe, the Rav and as Rabbi Shneur Zalman Borochovitch of Liadi.
[11] Memaleh kol Almim
[12] The Vilna Gaon was also a kabbalist, and also accepted the writing of much of the Ari Zal - except that he believed the Ari Zal may have been somewhat fallible and therefore did not accept everything in its entirety as received from him. The Gaon (according to the Baal haTanya) did not believe that everything the Ari Zal wrote had been passed on to him by Eliyahu the prophet, and that some of his views may have emanated from his own mind.
[13] Tanya II, 7 (83a) According to Chassidus, the withdrawal of G-d (to ‘make space’ for physicality) as part of the Tzimtzum or Contraction process is not literal as nothing could exist were G-dliness to be literally withdrawn.  However, according to the Vilna Gaon it is taken literally! 
[The Rebbe of Kopyst (1830-1900), author of Magen Avot, wrote in a letter to Rabbi Don Tumarkin; “This...subject of Tzimtzum...the Chassidim did not take it literally, as opposed to ...the Gaon of Vilna.”]
Regarding ‘filling’ of the universe concept, Chassidim take it somewhat metaphorically (bechinat nefesh – an aspect of a G-dly soul), whereas the Gaon understood that they took it completely literally - hence his charge of idolatry because accordingly, G-d is now found ‘in every rock and tree’. (Perhaps the Gaon felt this was too similar to the model of classical idolatry where every rock and tree had its own god.)
[14] See list of Tanya editions, Tanya p. 712

[15] According to Chabad tradition, the Baal haTanya together with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Horodoker (also known as Vitebsk) were sent by the Mezticher Maggid to meet with the Vilna Gaon, but he refused to see them. According to Brisk tradition the Baal haTanya was accompanied by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev.
Different observers give different reasons for the Gaon’s refusal to meet: Some say he was afraid he might be influenced by the holiness of the Baal haTanya. Others say he felt it a waste of time because of their irreconcilable theological differences. And some say it was simply because he considered then to be heretical.
(There is even a letter from the Baal haTanya to his Chassidim in Vilna instructing them not to waste their time debating with the followers of the Gaon, also because their differences were irreconcilable.) Whatever the truth is, they did not meet. One cannot but wonder how (or if) history may have changed had the two been able to have a face to face exchange.

Sunday 10 July 2016


Five hundred years ago, Rabbi Avraham Zacuto[1] was probably one of the most accomplished people of his generation. Born in Spain in 1452, although originally a doctor, he became arguably the greatest astronomer of the era. Astronomy then was as critical to exploration as rocket science is to space travel today. Without his knowledge, guidance and inventions, Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama may have failed in their missions.


At the age of 20 he began work on his HaChibur HaGadol or Almanach which calculates geographical coordinates. The Hebrew text was then translated into Spanish. In the introduction to his tables, he wrote that he also intended to write a book on the Sages of the Mishna and Talmud. (We will deal with this work later on in this article.)

After the captains of the sailing vessels were instructed by Rabbi Zacuto, his charts were used to discover America, the Cape of Good Hope and the seaway to India. When Columbus arrived in Spain he met extensively with Rabbi Zacuto who showed him some of the astronomic writings of Ibn Ezra, and also introduced him to Rabbi Don Yitzchal Abravanel.[2]

Zacuto was one of the few who believed in the successful completion of Columbus’ journey. There is a family tradition that Rabbis Zacuto’s son sailed with Columbus, advising on navigation.[3]
A copy of Rabbi Zacuto’s tables with notes by Columbus is extant in the Colombian library in Portugal.

Rabbi Zacuto's Tables

After fleeing Spain, he settled in Portugal where his knowledge of storms and gales made it possible for him to advise Vasco da Gama on a route to India. Rabbi Zacuto told King Manuel that India would soon belong to Portugal.[4] So respected was Rabbi Zacuto, that his tables were among the first printed material in Portugal after the invention of the printing press.[5]

Additionally, he made the first ever copper astrolabe which allowed for extremely accurate readings to determine latitude while at sea for navigational purposes. In the Biur Luchot, another of his works, Rabbi Zacuto revolutionized ocean navigation. Until then, sailors had to correct for compass error (the deviation of magnetic north from true north) by using the quadrant and the Pole star. However on approaching the equator the Pole Star began to disappear behind the horizon. Zacuto’s tables allowed them to use the sun instead. And since the quadrant could not be used to look directly at the sun, Zacuto’s astrolabe became invaluable. 

He also provided the longitudes and latitudes of the main cities of that time. Many of the great astronomers from around the world corresponded with him and sought his opinion.

The 84 km diameter moon crater Zagut is named after Rabbi Zacuto (his Hebrew name was Zechut) in recognition of his contribution to astronomy.[6]


 Rabbi Zacuto was very aware that such contributions to science by a Jew and particularly a rabbi, created an unimaginable kiddush haShem or favourable impression among his non-Jewish peers.
His first publisher wrote in 1566: “All preceding tables of Gentiles were of naught and they broke and discarded all previous tables and adopted his wonderful creation...”[7]

He was acutely aware of the Kiddush haShem his contributions made. He wrote; “When I was in the kingdom of Spain and also in other Christian kingdoms, my books on astronomy appeared which were titled ‘by Rabbi Abraham Zacuto of Salamanca’. And I am permitted to glory in this, as the sages have said, ‘What wisdom is it that made (Jewish) scholars great in the eyes of the nations? It is the calculation of times and signs.’ And I bear witness to Heaven that they praised Israel very much for this.”

Not quite sure what an astrolabe was, I looked it up and too was proud to read; “the first known European metal astrolabe was developed in the 15th century by Rabbi Abraham Zacuto in Lisbon.”[8]

To this day Rabbi Zacuto features in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Maritime History, The Oxford Companion to World Exploration and The Oxford Dictionary of the Renaissance.[9]


Rabbi Zacuto’s teacher was the great mystic Rabbi Abuhav[10] (who designed the famous synagogue by the same name in Safed). After being expelled from Portugal, Rabbi Zacuto fled once again, this time to Tunis[11] where he became acquainted with Rabbi Moshe Alaskar.

It was in Tunis where he wrote the majority of his Sefer haYuchsin (Book of Lineage) which recorded the first 1 500 years of Jewish history. Rabbi Zacuto wrote; “This year (1499) is the thousand-year anniversary of the completion of the Talmud.”[12]

Amazingly he wrote this encyclopaedic work with apparently only one tractate of Talmud (Nezikin) and hardly any other reference books except for those few the exiles brought with them. He was honest enough to admit that he only wrote about; “...the sages of the Mishna and Babylonian Talmud as we have it, excluding the sages of the Baraita, as I do not know them and their dates.” [13]

This is the first systematic record of Talmudic sages, because hitherto there seems not to have been a need to present the Talmudic era in a historic perspective including dates, spiritual and philosophic movements and trends. He felt this was important from a halachic point of view to know who preceded whom, in order to show the oldest opinion - which is usually regarded as most authoritative. It also contains great details about the lives of the Talmudic sages and their families.

The work is of particular relevance to the question of the age of the Zohar. But a crucial section was censored for three hundred years because it contained an account by Rabbi Yitzchak of Akko that that Zohar may only have been written in the 1200’s. The uncensored version was finally published in 1857. Sefer haYuchsin is the only primary source on the age of the Zohar as all other writers simply quote from it in this regard. 

In the 1700’s, for example, Rabbi Yaakov Emden added notes to (the original version of) Sefer haYuchsin, and used it to show that the Zohar was a forgery, in his view, and was not written by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. See previous post.

This is how the 1857 uncensored edition records the events:

The first edition appeared in Constantinople in the year 5326

The second edition appeared in Krakow in the year 5340

The third edition appeared in Amsterdam in the year 5476

The first publisher cut the manuscript to pieces

The second publisher abridged the book mercilessly

The third one decimated what the first two left over


The censored Krakow edition of Sefer haYuchsin
Rabbi Moshe Haggis wrote of Sefer haYuchsin“If you wish to quench your thirst and to find the origins and descent of the Sages of the Mishna and 
Talmud and to learn everything about them...keep close to your heart this pleasant book and it will encourage your spirit to study the Oral Torah.”[14]

He had an interesting style of writing. He would often spell a word differently on the same page. He knew his Talmud by heart and he would quote a passage by only referencing one or two words and expect the reader to be equally erudite.

Rabbi Zacuto had a love for Talmud and had also written a supplement to the Sefer Ha’aruch[15], which is a dictionary of Talmudic Aramaic.


We have seen how Rabbi Avraham Zacuto was able to straddle both the secular and Torah world, and became a master of both. In many ways this remarkable ability was common to many of our classical rabbis.

Sadly though, it seems as if this worldview has become dormant in modern times.

What has changed in Judaism today that our rabbis are no longer known for their contribution to technology (or even to humanitarianism)?  How many rabbis work for NASA or for the United Nations? They have incredible minds yet are not generally known outside the four cubits of their local teaching platforms.

The Vilna Gaon summarised it best when he asked (apparently many times); “Compared to the Torah scholars of the past, what are our contemporary scholars doing when it comes to kiddush haShem? In previous generations our scholars made an indelible imprint in the hearts of non-Jews who came to respect religious Jews for their secular knowledge.”[16]

 One cannot help but wonder if there ever be another rabbi who gets crater named after him?

The First English Translation of Sefer haYuchsin (Translated by Israel Shamir).
The Esoteric Codex: Medieval Astrologers, by Hipolito Buchmann.
The Jewish Quaterly Review,Zacuto’s Astronomical Activity, by Raphael Levy.
Zacuto Foundation.

[1] His Hebrew name appears to have been Zechut, and he is also known by the abbreviation Raz (Rabbi Avraham Zacuto).
[2] Zacuto also arranged for Columbus to have an audience with the King and Queen. 
It would be fascinating to know why, in the 12 surviving letters that Columbus wrote to his son Diego, the letters bet and hay appear in the upper left corners. Furthermore, Luis de Torres (or Yosef Levi haIvri) the first to sight land, was hired as an interpreter, because it was believed that they would encounter remnants of the lost tribes of Israel.
[3] When Columbus was marooned in Jamaica, he was threatened by the natives. That night, according to Zacuto’s charts, was to be a lunar eclipse and Columbus used this information to save his crew when he proclaimed that he would destroy the moon.
[4] Correa, Lendas da India.
[5] It has been said that Zacuto helped two countries become the richest and most powerful on earth – yet, sadly he was expelled from both.
[6] There is another moon crater in close proximity to Zagut, also named after a rabbi, entitled ‘Rabbi Levy’, named after Gersonides.
[7] From the Introduction to Sefer haYuchsin.
[8] Although of Spanish origin, the Portuguese claimed him as one of theirs. And fleeing persecution, Zacuto did later settle in Portugal where he made contact with Vasco da Gama. He established a synagogue in Tomar which still exists today.
[9] See Oxford Reference.
[10] Author of Menorat haMaor. Zacuto seems to have had a rare combination of Mysticism and Philosophy in addition to being a master Talmudist.
[11] He refers to himself (proudly) as; “A resident of Tunisia in the Land of Africa”.
[12] Sefer haYuchsin p 204a.
[13] From his introduction to Sefer haYuchsin.
[14] Mishnat Chachamim 652
[15] By Rabbi Natan ben Yechiel (1035-1106). Rashi (1040-1105) is said to have referenced the Sefer haAruch.
[16] Kol Hator 5,2.