Newsletter of the Call of Girona - Number 13   «Light and stars in the Jewish quarter»
February 2010


The sky, the stars and the Jews

Joan Mirˇ Ametller

The contribution of Hebrew culture to astronomy did not become important until, having already been identified in terms of its Jewish content, it was introduced within the context of other cultures. This does not mean that Hebrews and Jews in general did not make astronomical observations or knew nothing about astrology. It is self-evident that they were permanently in contact with peoples that not only knew about it but also practised it, races and peoples with whom they cohabited and had everyday contacts. It simply means that the only records that we have in this respect are a few references in the body of sacred, historical, literary and regulatory texts that we could describe as being of an official nature. In contradiction of the negative statement at the beginning of this text, I myself could make all manner of daring speculations based on the texts I have just mentioned, on references found in the different books of the Bible, in which we can assume what happened during the Babylonian exile and, if I accept that legendary origins are the fruit of oral traditions that had some basis in reality or at least reflect a desire for cultural identification, it can even be recalled that Abraham's ancestors lived in Ur of the Chaldees, a land where observation of the night sky and of astrological formations had great political significance.

The absence of references to the stars as messengers of the wishes of the gods or to their influence on human destinies in the biblical texts can easily be attributed to the characteristics of the Jewish religion and to a desire to insist on the unique and unbounded nature of the godhead. In popular circles things were probably different, however, although the best-loved gods must no doubt have been agricultural in nature, closer to the earth than to the skies. Nevertheless, an exception could be made to the official religion's rejection of astrology (symbolized by the condemnation of the consulting of fortune-tellers and witches) if a flexible interpretation was made of the communication between the godhead and humans ľ as was to be the case some centuries later ľ or if attention was only given to the more materialistic aspects of astrological observations, which did not involve the need to have recourse to spiritual influences. It should also be noted that astrology was initially reserved for affairs of state and limited in scope to questions affecting the monarch, who was himself directly identified with the state.

It was during the period of Hellenic influence, when the upper classes even adopted Greek names and sections of the Jewish population experienced the dispersal of the Jewish people and the Diaspora, that astrologists of the Jewish religion began to appear, for example, in Alexandria. The existence of Jewish astrologists was even more important when the Arabs, with their expansion, contributed to the creation and diffusion of culture and the recovery of classical culture. And it was precisely in Spain, the geographical location in which the history of the three cultures came together, that Jewish astrologers appeared who defended the religious validity of astrology or criticized it or practised it in the service of the political authorities of the day, and thus left writings that leave a record of their knowledge in this domain. We are referring here to authors such as Maimonides, Abraham ibn Ezra and MoisŔs SefardÝ (Pedro Alonso) who was in the service of Alfonso the Battler, King of Aragon, or the likes of Jacob ben David Bonjorn.

That Jacob ben David Bonjorn was of Girona origin does honour to our city's Jewish Quarter. In his time men also looked to the skies to expand their knowledge.