I have always been drawn to the teaching of the Rebbe of Kotzk. His approach was predicated upon uncompromising truth and intellectual independence.This allowed him to be fearless and never to succumb to societal pressures.
He knew that Judaism was so much deeper and more profound than the way it was perceived by the masses and bent by religious populism.
These essays, although not necessarily Kotzker in essence, are certainly Kotzk inspired.
088) THE RABBI WHO HAS A MOON CRATER NAMED AFTER HIM:
Five hundred years ago, Rabbi Avraham Zacuto
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.
DOCTOR, NAVIGATOR AND INVENTOR:
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.
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.
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
So respected was Rabbi Zacuto, that his tables were among the first printed
material in Portugal after the invention of the printing press.
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.
KIDDUSH HASHEM PAR
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...”
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.”
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.
Rabbi Zacuto’s teacher was the great mystic Rabbi Abuhav
(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
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.”
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.”
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
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
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
The third one decimated what the
first two left over
THIS IS THE FIRST COMPLETE
OF THE WRITER’S MANUSCRIPT AS
FOUND IN OXFORD
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.”
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.
Zacuto had a love for Talmud and had also written a supplement to the Sefer Ha’aruch,
which is a dictionary of Talmudic Aramaic.
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.
though, it seems as if this worldview has become dormant in modern times.
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.
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.”
help but wonder if there ever be another rabbi who gets crater named after him?
English Translation of Sefer haYuchsin (Translated by Israel Shamir).
Esoteric Codex: Medieval Astrologers, by Hipolito Buchmann.
Quaterly Review,Zacuto’s Astronomical Activity, by Raphael Levy.
His Hebrew name appears to have been Zechut, and he is also known by the
abbreviation Raz (Rabbi Avraham Zacuto).
Zacuto also arranged for Columbus to have an audience with the King and Queen.
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.
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
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