Aristotle’s Meteorology and the Maimonidean Modes of Interpreting the Account of Creation
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Aristotle’s Meteorology and the Maimonidean Modes of Interpreting the Account of Creation

Editor’s Prefatory Note

Aviezer Ravitzky’s “Aristotle’s Meteorology and the Maimonidean Modes of Interpreting the Account of Creation,” published in Hebrew more than a decade ago, quickly became a classic. It shows in an exemplary fashion how a theologicalphilosophical agenda shaped the interest of some Maimonidean scholars in thirteenth-century Provence in science and how they drew on that science to underpin their radical Maimonideanism, especially their naturalistic interpretation of Creation. It therefore appeared apposite to publish it in English translation in Aleph. We are grateful to Prof. Ravitzky for his kind and helpful cooperation.

When Ravitzky wrote his paper, two works by Samuel Ibn Tibbon that occupy center stage in this article had not yet been published and Ravitzky read them in manuscript: the Hebrew translation of the Arabic text of Aristotle’s Meteorology, and the Commentary on Ecclesiastes. The first appeared in a critical edition by R. Fontaine in 1995; the second will soon appear in a [End Page 361] critical edition by James T. Robinson. The two scholars kindly collaborated with the translator in replacing the original references to the manuscripts with references to the critical editions (the original references to the manuscript are given in brackets). No other bibliographical updating has been introduced; the occasional additions by the translator are marked in square brackets.

The paper was first published in Hebrew in Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 9 (1990), The Shlomo Pines Jubilee Volume, Part 2, pp. 225–50 (reprinted in A. Ravitzky, Maimonidean Essays (Heb.) (Jerusalem: Schocken Publishing House, 2006) pp. 139–156). Translated by Lenn J. Schramm.

Abbreviations used:

Otot, ed. Fontaine: Resianne Fontaine, Otot ha-shamayim: Samuel Ibn Tibbon’s Hebrew Version of Aristotle’s Meteorology (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995). The manuscript used by Ravitzky, to which references are given in brackets, is Bibliothèque nationale de France, héb. 1892.

Commentary on Ecclesiastes, ed. Robinson: James T. Robinson, Sefer Nefesh ha-Adam: Perush Qohelet le-Rabbi Shemuel b. Yehudah Ibn Tibbon (Jerusalem: World Union of Jewish Studies, forthcoming). The manuscript used by Ravitzky, to which references are given in brackets, is Parma 272.

1. The Hebrew Translation of the Meteorology

As far as we know, Aristotle’s Meteorology was the first non-Jewish work of science/philosophy translated into Hebrew in the Middle Ages (in 1210). Rendered from Arabic into Hebrew by Samuel Ibn Tibbon, with the title Otot ha-šamayim, it has come down to us in several manuscripts. [End Page 362]

Moritz Steinschneider, in his book on medieval Hebrew translations,1 calls attention to two astonishing facts associated with this translation:

  1. 1. The Meteorology—a work of relatively lesser importance, likely to interest only a small and restricted circle of scholars—was the first such work translated into Hebrew, even before key Aristotelian treatises such as the Physics and the Metaphysics.

  2. 2. The Hebrew translation was done directly from Aristotle’s text (in the Arabic version) and not from Ibn Rushd’s commentary on it.2 This is a rare phenomenon, given that the Hebrew translators tended to study Aristotelian texts through the lens of Muslim exegesis. In every other case, Ibn Rushd’s commentaries were published in Hebrew before the Aristotelian sources on which they were based.3 [End Page 363]

To these we should add the following facts:

  1. 3. Ibn Tibbon undertook his translation even though he had the Aristotelian work only in the Arabic version of Yaḥya al-Biṭrīq.4 Yet Maimonides, in his letter to Ibn Tibbon, castigated the quality of al-Biṭrīq’s translations and denigrated them as literal and technical renderings that corrupted the sense of the text: “… this is how al-Biṭrīq interpreted the books of Aristotle or the book of Galen. Consequently his translation is extremely corrupṭ”5 Or, as Maimonides wrote elsewhere, “All of al-Biṭrīq’s … commentaries are lost books and anyone who studies them is wasting his time. No one should study them unless he has no alternative.”6 This warning did not prevent Ibn Tibbon from studying them, having “no...