Zacuto, Abraham ben Samuel

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ZACUTO, ABRAHAM BEN SAMUEL (1452–c. 1515), astronomer and historian. His ancestors were French Jewish exiles who had come to Castile in 1306. In his biblical and talmudic studies he was instructed by his father and R. Isaac *Aboab ii, and he attended the University of Salamanca, where he specialized in astronomy and astrology, subsequently becoming a teacher in these fields. At the behest of the bishop of Salamanca, Gonzalo de Vivero, who was his patron and admirer, Zacuto wrote his major astronomical work, Ha-Ḥibbur ha-Gadol (1473–78). At this court, Zacuto engaged in astronomical research and writing until the prelate's death in 1480. The bishop, in his will, requested that all of Zacuto's Spanish writings be compiled and bound in one volume and placed in the cathedral library. Zacuto continued his astronomical researches in the service of Don Juan de Zuñiga, grand master of the Order of Knights of Alcántara, and settled in Gata in the province of Cáceres. Under his aegis, he wrote his book on the influence of the stars, Tratado breve en las influencias del cielo, to which he appended a treatise on solar and lunar eclipses, De las eclipses del sol y de la luna. The work was apparently written in Hebrew, but is extant only in its Castilian translation (published by J. de Carválho in 1928; see bibl.). In 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Spain, Zacuto emigrated to Portugal, where he was appointed court astronomer by King John ii. The king's successor, Manuel i, confirmed the appointment. Before sending Vasco da Gama on his sea voyage to India (1496), the king sought the advice of Zacuto, who then lived in the city of Beja, on a calculation of the position of the stars. He foretold the success of the expedition and that the Portuguese would conquer a large part of India. He also instructed the sailors in the use of his newly perfected *astrolabe, his tables, and maritime charts, with which Da Gama's ships were equipped. Da Gama himself also consulted Zacuto in Lisbon before he set sail. In 1497, when King Manuel forced all Jews in his country to convert, Zacuto left Portugal and went to North Africa. Twice he and his son Samuel were taken prisoner, but they finally reached Tunis. In 1504, during his sojourn in Tunis, he completed the Sefer ha-Yuḥasin (last edition 1963), a book of genealogies, on which he had worked for many years.

Zacuto's achievements in astronomy were many: his astrolabe of copper, the first of its kind (previously they had been made of wood), enabled sailors to determine the position of the sun with greater precision; his astronomical tables, based on the Alphonsine tables, were an improvement on the latter. They permitted sailors to ascertain latitudes without recourse to the meridian of the sun, and to calculate solar and lunar eclipses with greater accuracy. While frequently quoting his predecessors, Zacuto also draws attention to their deficiencies. Proudly he asserts: "I, Abraham Zacuto, the author, have corrected all the books (containing the Alphon-sine tables) in accordance with the tables that I have prepared, and my tables circulate throughout all Christian and even Muslim lands" (Yuḥasin, 222a). Zacuto's astronomical findings played an important role in the Spanish and Portuguese discoveries. Columbus used his tables on his voyages, and on one occasion they were instrumental in saving him and his crew from certain death. Knowing from the Zacuto tables that a lunar eclipse was imminent, Columbus threatened the natives that he would deprive them of the light of the moon as well as of the sun. (A copy of the tables, with Columbus' notes, is preserved in Seville). Zacuto's astronomical work HaḤibbur ha-Gadol (the Hebrew original is extant in several manuscripts) enjoyed a wide reputation during his lifetime.

In 1481, it was translated into Spanish by Juan de Salaya, who had been professor of astrology and of logic at the University of Salamanca. (In 1931, F. Cantera Burgos published Salaya's translation together with his own, which is based on the original.) His pupil Joseph (Vizinus) Vicinho translated an abridged version of Ha-Ḥibbur ha-Gadol into Latin, under the title Almanach perpetuum celestium motuum, and then rendered the Latin into Spanish (both were published in Leiria in 1496). Vicinho's version is the only Spanish incunabulum published in Portugal. The two translations were republished by the Portuguese government in 1915 and 1922. In 1496, a revised Latin version of the Almanach, edited by Alfonso de Córdova, appeared in Venice. Vicinho's Spanish translation, transliterated into Hebrew characters and entitled Be'ur Luḥot Kevod Rav Avraham Zakkut by *Daniel b. Peraḥyah ha-Kohen, was published in the latter's She'erit Yosef (Salonika, 1568). The publication was mainly for the Spanish exiles. An Arabic translation of the Almanach is extant in Milan (Ms. Ambrosiana 338). Ha-Ḥibbur ha-Gadol or sections of it are referred to in Hebrew literature under various titles: Ha-Ḥibbur ha-Gadol, Be'ur Luḥot, Luḥot Temidim, Tekufot u-Mazzalot, Tekhunot Zakkut, Almanak, and Almagest.

Sefer ha-Yuḥasin, a work composed in the spirit of the writings of his predecessors (e.g., R. *Sherira b. Ḥanina Gaon, R. Abraham *ibn Daud, author of Sefer ha-Kabbalah, Maimonides and others who had written introductions to the Talmud), intended to outline the historical development of the Oral Law and to establish the chronology of the Jewish sages who had transmitted it. Meant for scholarly study by students of Jewish lore, and to stimulate debate, this work at times elucidates a particular law for the specific purpose of fostering greater faith. The originality of the research is mainly contained in the first two treatises of his book, which cover the period of the Second Temple, the Mishnah, and the Talmud. From the standpoint of completeness, these treatises are superior to anything written by Zacuto's predecessors and they laid the foundations for scholarly research by succeeding generations. In numerous passages, he takes issue with Maimonides and R. Abraham ibn Daud, to whose writings he refers as Kabbalat he-Ḥasid. Chapters three and four of Sefer ha-Yuḥasin discuss the succession of the *savoraim, the *geonim, and the rabbis. (In his treatment of the material Zacuto, by and large, follows the line of thought of Abraham ibn Daud.) Chapter five expounds the epoch from the beginning of the rabbinic period in Europe until the author's time (the period of the expulsions from Spain and Portugal). In the latter treatise, Zacuto bases himself on a Hebrew chronicle which was also the groundwork of similar writings by *Joseph b. Ẓaddik of Arévalo and *Abraham b. Solomon of Torrutiel (there is no reason to assume that the latter's work was known to Zacuto). A large part of the treatise, however, is original research and analysis, based on later rabbinic literature. Zacuto incorporated in the chapter the well-known story about the appearance of the *Zohar in Spain, by Isaac b. Samuel of Acre. The author disregarded the critical conclusions that might be drawn from the story and confirmed the belief that the disciples of *Simeon b. Yohai had compiled the Zohar. Consequently he relied on the Zohar in matters of halakhah and history. The sixth chapter is a chronological outline of the history of various nations and the scientific research and inventions carried out by their scholars. This treatise is based on Latin and Spanish works. While Zacuto's approach to astronomy is scientific in these analyses, his views are restricted by Jewish tradition and aggadah. He also seems careless and disparaging in his examination of gentile lore. The advantage in its study he saw mainly in that "it greatly assists the Jews dwelling among Christians to argue with them about their religion." Sefer ha-Yuḥasin was first published by Samuel Shalom (Constantinople, 1566) together with an introduction and notes by the editor, as well as a Hebrew translation of Josephus' Contra Apionem. It was next published in Cracow (1580–81) with the notes of Moses b. Israel *Isserles, and several times thereafter. In modern times, the work was published by Z.H. *Filipowski (1857) from an Oxford manuscript. It was reprinted (1925, 19632) by A.H. *Freimann, together with a biographical and critical introduction, and with corrections and notes that had appeared after Filipowski's publication. The complete sixth chapter, as previously published by A. *Neubauer, is also included.

Little is known of the last years of Zacuto's life. In 1513 he was in Jerusalem and stayed at the yeshivah of R. Isaac Sholal, where he compiled an almanac "in the holy tongue." Various passages in Sefer ha-Yuḥasin testify to his interest in the burial sites of the pious in Ereẓ Israel. In 1515 Zacuto was in Damascus. An eschatological passage prophesying the coming of the redemption in 1524 is found in a manuscript ascribed to Zacuto. There is, however, no substantiating evidence that Zacuto was still alive close to that date.


Steinschneider, Cat Bod, 706–8; M. Steinschneider, Die Geschichtsliteratur der Juden (1905), 88–93; idem, in: hb, 19 (1879), 100f.; Graetz, Hist, 4 (1949), 366; Baer, Toledot, 2 (1959), 406, 540; J. Bensaude, L'Astronomie antique au Portugal á l'époque des grandes découvertes (1912), 6, 18–29, passim; Griffini, in: Rivista Degli Studi Orientali, 7 (1916), 88–92; B. Cohn, Der Almanach Perpetuum des Abraham Zacuto (1918); J. de Carvalho, in: Revista de estudos hebraicos, 1 (1928), 9–56; Marx, in: Studies in Jewish Bibliography and Related Subjects in Memory of Abraham Solomon Freidus (1929), 247f.; idem, in: I. Davidson (ed.), Essays and Studies in Memory of Linda R. Miller (1938), 167–70; F. Cantera Burgos, El judío Salmantino Abraham Zacut (1931); idem, Abraham Zacut (1935); idem, in: Revista de la Academia de Ciencias de Madrid, 27 (1931), 63–398; R. Levy, in: jqr, 26 (1935/36), 385–8; C. Roth, in: Sefarad, 9 (1949), 1–9; 14 (1954), 122–5; H. Friedenwald, Jews and Medicine, 1 (1944), 295–321; Sefarad, index volume to vols. 1–15 (1955), 375.

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