Sunday 21 January 2018


Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Delmedigo, from the frontispiece to Sefer Elim

Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Delmedigo (1591-1655) also known as Giuseppe Salomone di Candia Del Medigo, was a rabbi, physician, mathematician and music theorist.

Born on the island of Crete (then called Candia), he was also known as the Yashar miKandiya.Yashar’, meaning honourable, is also an acronym for Yosef Shlomo Rofeh (doctor).

He spent much time amongst the Karaites[1] and he expressed the astounding view that most of Ibn Ezra’s Torah commentary had been taken from Karaite sources. (See KOTZK BLOG 158.) While in Cairo he came across a copy of Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed and was greatly influenced by the work.

He became quite a celebrity after he defeated the renowned Arab mathematician, Ali b. Rahmadan, in a public disputation in Cairo concerning spherical trigonometry.
He travelled extensively throughout North Africa and Europe and he is buried in the famous Jewish cemetery in Prague, close to the Maharal of Prague.


It is estimated that R. Delmedigo may have written up to sixty books.

One of them, a book of over 400 pages on astronomy and mathematics, was entitled Sefer Elim (Palms). In it, amongst other issues, he discusses the sizes of the celestial bodies and their distances from earth.
 Illustration from Sefer Elim
The book was written in response to ‘12 general and 70 detailed questions’ sent to Delmedigo by a Karaite scholar, Zerach ben Natan, from Lithuania. These numbers coincidentally corresponded to the 12 fountains and 70 palm trees at Elim as mentioned in the Torah[2] and hence Delmedigo chose this as the name for his book.

The title page to Sefer Elim describes his occupation as a ‘propper’ (shalem) rabbi which implies an official form of smicha or rabbinical ordination.

Sefer Elim has been described as: “The most sumptuously illustrated of early scientific works in Hebrew, and unique in printed Hebrew literature before the modern period.”[3]

The book was heavily censored over the years and only sections remain today.


His life’s mission was to introduce science to the religious Torah world of his day, particularly to the Askenazim.

Delmedigo made the observation that the Ashkenazim of his day were not interested in science because they were preoccupied solely with Talmud study to the exclusion of everything else - whereas the Sefardim and Karaites (who, at that time were more affluent and influential than the Rabbinites) were better able to merge with both worlds.

He appealed to the Ashkenazim to get more involved in science and philosophy. And he was particularly abhorred by the unsanitary conditions in the ghettos and the chaos that often ensued there because of their ignorance of worldly matters. He desperately wanted to uplift his people by a ‘renaissance’ of science and he encouraged the study of trades and professions so that they could become self-sufficient and live with dignity.

Of the Jews of Poland he writes:

They understand neither science nor Torah. They have become enemies of science, and despise those who study it...”[4]

According to S. Pulver:

Delmedigo of historical, mathematical, and educational interest since he was one of the first in the Jewish world to attempt to integrate the new secular scientific knowledge into religious aspects of Jewish life...[5]

While serving as the personal physician to Prince Radziwill of Poland, he wrote:

“...officers and deputies, young and old, arrive early at my door. They bring me from city to city, crowning me with honour and praise. (But) in truth I want nothing more than to write Hebrew books containing the entire body of science and wisdom in order to teach Jews.”[6]


Delmedigo was, additionally, a student of Galileo, studying under him whilst in Venice.
He must have made an impression upon Galileo as he was given the unusual honour of using Galileo’s personal telescope, which Galileo had constructed himself.

 Galileo's Telescope, Museum of the History of Science, Florence
He wrote:

My teacher Galileo observed mars when it lay close to the Earth. At this time its light was much brighter than that of Jupiter, even though Mars is much smaller. Indeed it appeared too bright to view through the telescope. I requested to look through the telescope, and mars appeared to me to be elongated rather than round...In contrast I found Jupiter to be round and Saturn to be egg-shaped.”

This observation in those times must have been like looking at images from the Hubble Telescope today.

Most fascinatingly, Delmedigo, in his Sefer Elim, refers to Galileo as ‘Rabbi Galileo’.[7]


There are two dissenting views as to whether R. Yosef Shlomo Delmedigo was a defender of Kabbalah or an opponent of it:


According to one view, Delmedigo, although a scientist, saw no contradiction between science and mysticism and he authored a work called Matzreif leChachma, in defence of Kabbalah

This, in light of the fact that his great-grandfather, R. Eliyahu Delmedigo[8] - a loyal follower of the Maimonidean doctrine of rationalism - had launched an attack against the Kabbalah. R. Eliyahu Delmedigo believed that one had to "fight for rationality, sobriety and the realization of [his] human limitations."[9]

R. Eliyahu Delmedigo had challenged the authorship of the Zohar and denied it was written by R. Shimon bar Yochai. He claimed it was not known to the rabbis of the Talmud, nor to the Gaonim, nor to Rashi. He showed how it contained names of people who had lived after the death of R. Shimon bar Yochai. (See KOTZK BLOG 87.)

It is, therefore, most interesting that there is this view that his great-grandson, the student of Galileo, became such a staunch defender of Kabbalah. - Especially considering the publisher’s note in the preface of the book stating that when R. Yosef Shlomo Delmedigo was eighteen years old, and a student at the University of Padua in northern Italy, he would openly mock the Kabbalah. It is alleged, however, that he had a change of heart at the age of twenty-seven.


Then there is the counter view that his defence of Kabbalah was not his genuine personal view because he wrote his Matzreif leChachma on behalf of a patron in Hamburg, who by his own admission, commissioned him to write the book. In this sense, he was a ‘ghost writer’.

Apparently, he was ‘ashamed’[10] of this book and said that it was common practice for an author to not state his personal views when writing for a patron.

Furthermore, supporting the notion that Delmedigo was an opponent of Kabbalah is the fact that he was a close friend of R. Leon of Modena who was known as a fierce anti-Kabbalist.[11]


Regarding his position with regard to Kabbalah, Delmedigo did certainly become a master of Lurianic Kabbalah whilst in Poland. Depending on the view one takes, he did this either to find mystical solutions to problems which science could not answer, or simply, to be qualified sufficiently to refute the mystical tradition.

Regarding R. Yosef Shlomo Delmedigo’s association with the Karaites may appear surprising although not that unusual in Jewish history. (See KOTZK BLOG 91.)                                        

In the Introduction to Sefer Elim, which was written by Delmedigo’s student, Moshe Metz, it states that although his teacher did associate with Karaites; ‘ did not disturb him to be associated with any scholar, whoever he was, as long as he was interested in reason.”[12]

Finally, R. Yosef Shlomo Delmedigo’s description of the Ashkenazim of Poland is also interesting, as is his ‘solution’ to educate them in the sciences so that they may be uplifted from what he considered to be the chaos and unsanitary conditions of the ghetto.                              

In some way it appears that he may have been quite successful because a century later, Naftali Hetz Wessely (1725-1805)[13] provides an eyewitness account as to how well-read his books were:                                                                                                                                          
We have seen among our Polish brethren... great Torah scholars who studied geometry and astronomy in their homeland by themselves, without the aid of a teacher. They knew the depths of these sciences to such an extent that the gentile scholars marvelled at their reaching such a level of knowledge without a teacher. They studied the few books that were written by scholars of our nation, such as Yesod Olam and Elim by Yosef Kandia.”[14]


This is reminiscent of the view of the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797), who went so far as to actively encourage his students to study secular wisdom. He instructed his disciple Rabbi Baruch of Shklov to translate Euclid’s Elements into Hebrew so that the Torah world could better understand Geometry. 

The Gaon said that if one lacks a measure of secular knowledge, one will lose out on a hundred measures of Torah knowledge. He believed that Torah and secular wisdom were intertwined.[15] He also said that a Kiddush haShem was defined by a non-Jew being impressed by the professionalism and breadth of the secular knowledge of a Torah Jew. (See KOTZK BLOG 65.)

[1] It has been suggested that he befriended the Karaites because of their love for secular literature and also possibly because he may have been persecuted by some within the mainstream Jewish community. (See Jewish Virtual Library, Delmedigo, Joseph Solomon.)
[2] Numbers 33:9.
[3]National Library of Canada Catalogue.
[4] New Heavens and a New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought, by Jeremy Brown, p. 78.

[5]THE SYNCOPATED MATHEMATICAL WORKS OF JOSEPH SOLOMON DELMEDIGO, by Sandra M. Pulver. Pi Mu Epsilon Journal. Vol. 9, No. 2 (SPRING 1990), pp. 106-109.

[6] New Heavens and a New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought, by Jeremy Brown, p. 68.

[7] It is possible that this title was just a sign of respect but it is just as possible that Delmedigo knew something more about his teacher than was generally recorded.
[8] Author of the anti-Kabbalistic work Bechinat haDa’at.
[9] Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.
[10] See JewishEncyclopedia, Delmedigo, Joseph Solomon.
[11] R. Modena actually used Delmedigo’s Matzreif leChachma as a basis for his own work, Ari Noham (‘Roaring Lion’) which was clearly and systematically anti-mystical.
[12] Introduction to Sefer Elim, p. 9.
[13] Wessely was a student of R. Yonatan Eybeschutz and was later regarded as one of the influential leaders of the Maskilim. He was threatened with excommunication by the German and Polish rabbinate, but the Italian rabbis came to his defence and supported him.
[14] See: Divrei Shalom veEmet, by Naftali Herz Wessely.
[15] “HaTorah vehaChochma nitzmadim yachad.”

1 comment:

  1. nice article. Today explains how Torah testimony and science fully align, including how distant starlight attests to YeC and falsifies all deep-time dependent scientific hypotheses.
    5,778 year old universe is the actuality, not the deep-time dogmatic doctrine billions.