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The Medieval Hebrew Encyclopedias of Science and Philosophy: Proceedings of the Bar-Ilan University Conference (review)

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 41, Number 2, April 2003
pp. 269-270 | 10.1353/hph.2003.0013

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Journal of the History of Philosophy 41.2 (2003) 269-270

Steven Harvey, editor. The Medieval Hebrew Encyclopedias of Science and Philosophy: Proceedings of the Bar-Ilan University Conference. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2000. Pp. xi + 547. Cloth, $239.00.

This fine volume, covering the proceedings of a conference at Bar-Ilan University (January, 1998), is the first book devoted to the medieval Hebrew encyclopedias of science and philosophy. According to the editor, the talks at the conference "were arranged to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle," and that intention is also reflected in the current volume: It is extremely well-organized, the earlier essays provide useful background for the later ones, and the various parts of the book complement each other quite well. Though they contain much that is highly technical, the editor has succeeded in making the essays comprehensible to the non-specialist, as was his declared intention.

The editor's introductory essay draws the book together and makes it a coherent whole. The most important part of that essay raises the conceptual problem underlying the entire book, namely: what defines a medieval encyclopedia? The contributors do not always agree on how to answer this question, nor should we expect such agreement. Some of their criteria are: an encyclopedia must treat a subject comprehensively; it must be well-enough organized to facilitate retrieval; it is meant to be consulted, not read cover-to-cover; it is usually an eclectic collection of previously extant material, not an original composition, and certainly not a major source for new ideas. Finally, an important goal of the encyclopedist is popular enlightenment.

The book's first two sections deal with the predecessors of the medieval Hebrew encyclopedias, the medieval Latin and Arabic works. Only the latter had heavy influence on the structure and content of later Hebrew works. Nevertherless, the Islamic author who had the greatest influence by far on Jews during the age of the encyclopedias under discussion, namely Averroes, is judged by Butterworth (as well as by Biesterfeldt) not to be an encyclopedist at all. The basis for this judgment is that Averroes had no interest whatsoever in popular enlightenment; his books are not introductory, and nowhere does he address himself to anyone but the expert.

Nevertheless, when it comes to Averroes, it would be prudent to honor the editor's admonition that we not be too demanding with our criteria for what constitutes a medieval encyclopedia. Perhaps the corpus of Averroes's works does not make him an encyclopedist, as the essays contend. But we should not lose sight of how his works were actually used by later Hebrew writers: their Hebrew translations were copied and paraphrased extensively as state-of-the-art presentations of science on nearly every important topic. In other words, even if Averroes himself did not have the intentions of an encyclopedist for his works, later authors mined them for informative essays as if they were encyclopedias.

Part 3 deals with Early Hebrew Encyclopedias. Despite the volume's otherwise outstanding organization, Woolf's fine article on Maimonides' Mishneh Torah seems out of place here, since it is by no means an encyclopedia of science and philosophy.

Part 4 deals with the structure and organization of the three thirteenth-century encyclopedias that are the focus of the volume: Judah ben Solomon ha-Cohen's Midrash ha-Hokhmah; Shem-Tov ibn Falaquera's De'ot ha-Filosofim; and Gershom ben Solomon's Sha'ar ha-Shamayim. The descriptive essays are extremely useful for getting a balanced picture of these books, but perhaps of even greater value are the content outlines, which include pagination from the manuscripts to make them easier to consult.

The most fascinating section of the book by far, and the most likely to become a productive model for future research, is part 5, which analyzes specific topics within the encyclopedias. These essays trace scientific problems from Aristotle to the medieval Aristotelians, especially Averroes, and then examine how they are dealt with in the Hebrew encyclopedias. Especially successful employing this method are Glassner's essay on the question of celestial matter and Freudenthal's on providence, astrology, and celestial influences on the sublunar world. Ivry's presentation on...

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