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23.10.2022 | כח תשרי התשפג

The Hebrew Book that First Linked Science and Philosophy to Judaism

Prof. Yehuda Halper, of BIU’s Department of Jewish Philosophy, was awarded an ISF Grant to research this medieval work using software he developed for editing and comparing other philosophical manuscripts

יהודה הלפר

“Explanation of Foreign Terms" by Samuel ibn Tibbon, was one of the most widely read works in the Middle Ages. It is a glossary of some 190 Aristotelian philosophical-scientific words found in Maimonides’ work, “Guide of the Perplexed”, which required an explanation for Hebrew readers. Prof. Yehuda Halper, of BIU’s Department of Jewish Philosophy, who has developed software for editing and comparing philosophical manuscripts, recently won a grant from the Israel Science Foundation (ISF) to research this book.

Prof. Halper says that in order to arrive at an accurate explanation that would be comprehensible to Jewish readers, Samuel ibn Tibbon also translated passages from Maimonides, Al-Fārābī, Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and others and included them in his Explanation. “In this way, a unique Hebrew phenomenon was born: a glossary of terms that also functions as an introduction to the sciences and Aristotelian philosophy, in the context of the Jewish religion,” he notes.

“How or whether the sciences and Judaism can be combined together remains one of the most formidable and important questions these days,” says Prof. Halper. In his research, he seeks to discover the complex relationship between these worlds throughout the last millennium, and to give people the tools to deal with it. “It’s amazing how despite the changes that the sciences – and even Judaism – have undergone in recent centuries, those who want to be both a religious Jew and a scientist still discover that they are part of a long-standing struggle, which has been going on since the Middle Ages until today. Still, the struggle is too important to neglect.”

Prof. Halper’s research focuses on the desire of Jews in Southern Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries to study science and philosophy.  He finds that Jewish interest in these fields occurred roughly at the same time as the Christian encounter with Muslim philosophy, which was first translated into Latin in the 12th century. The Andalusian Jews who participated in the translation project saw themselves as significant brokers of Arab culture for Southern European Jewry and made efforts to bring philosophy and sciences to Hebrew as well. Halper's study reveals that despite many points of contact between the importers of philosophy and science into Hebrew and Latin at that time, the philosophical-scientific enterprise of the Jews has a unique and distinct character.

However, despite the importance of this work and its distribution throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, there is still no scholarly version (or: critical edition) of the text that can be used by researchers. “Since this is a time that predates printing, meaning that all texts were handwritten, changes were often made to the copies of the text.” Today there are more than 50 preserved manuscripts, and it is possible to point out huge differences between the Spanish, Italian and Byzantine versions. As a result, there is no way to find the original version of Samuel ibn Tibbon and, in any case, the different versions are important because they are the ones that have been read and studied throughout the generations.

In order to understand the texts, Prof. Halper developed innovative and unique software, “Mahadruot” (Hebrew for “editions”) for editing modular critical editions of Medieval Hebrew texts. On the Mahadurot website,  it is possible to view each version of the text separately and compare them. This software has impacted and promoted research in the field of Jewish philosophy, as well as in the field of philology in general.