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Parshat Nitzavim – Of eclipses and love

Or how Christopher Columbus saved his men using a Jewish astronomer's secret knowledge about a lunar eclipse (Nitzavim)
Portrait said to be of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Portrait said to be of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Christopher Columbus was depressed. This was his third voyage to the Caribbean, but this time an infestation of shipworm had left his boats so full of holes that he had no alternative but to beach them just off the coast of Jamaica.

He sat on the deck, under a palm frond awning, starving, suffering from gout and awaiting rescue. He wrote angry letters to Queen Isabella complaining that Nicolás de Ovando, governor of Hispaniola, had abandoned him (luckily, he had no way of sending the letters to his benefactor and queen).

He had been marooned on the island since June 25, 1503. Six months later some 50 men — more than half his crew and mainly the seasoned mariners — led by Francisco and Diego de Porras, mutinied against him. The mutineers took canoes and forced dozens of the native people to row them the 600 kilometers (380 miles) to Hispaniola.

Despite several attempts, the current and winds kept forcing them back, so they set up camp inland. In the process, they murdered, raped, or pillaged many of the local people.

For the first few months, Chief Huero, leader of one of the biggest tribes of the Arawak Indians on the island, had been happy to provide food to the marooned Spanish sailors. But after the mutineers had killed his people, he stopped sending food, leaving Columbus and his men to starve.

Page from Abraham Zacuto’s Almanach Perpetuum. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Luckily, Columbus thought of a plan to convince Huero to once again supply his men with food. Before he left Spain, the great explorer had met with Rabbi Abraham Zacuto and received from him his chart of astronomical tables, which he took with him on all his voyages (these tables are now in the Columbian library in Portugal).

Columbus saw that Zacuto had predicted a lunar eclipse for the night of February 29, 1504. So he warned Huero that if he didn’t supply provisions for him and his men, God would publicly display His anger. The tribal chief scoffed until a few hours later when the moon started to disappear. He ran quickly to Columbus and begged him to leave the moon alone.

Columbus’s son Ferdinand described what happened:

With great howling and lamentation, they came running from every direction to the ships, laden with provisions, praying the Admiral to intercede by all means with God on their behalf; that he might not visit his wrath upon them.

Columbus used his hourglass to time when the eclipse was nearly finished (it lasted for 48 minutes), then emerged from his cabin to say that he had prayed and God would forgive the people.

The Arawak continued to feed Columbus and his men until the Spaniards were finally rescued on June 29, 1504.

Picture of Christopher Columbus pointing out the eclipse to the Jamaicans. (Public Domain, Camille Flammarion/ Wikimedia Commons)

So this is the story of how a rabbi from Salamanca, whose ancestors had been expelled from France in 1305, indirectly saved the life of the Spanish discoverer of the New World.

Illustrative. An astrolabe, made by Jean Fusoris in Paris, 1400. (CC BY-SA, Sage Ross/ Wikimedia Commons)

But Zacuto’s tables were much more than a trick to fool the indigenous people. No seafarer at that time would leave port without his astronomical charts. For example, Vasco di Gama met with Zacuto before setting off around the Cape of Good Hope on his voyage to India.

Zacuto also designed a new type of astrolabe, which mariners used to determine their latitude while at sea. He taught astronomy at the universities of Zaragoza and then Cartagena and was Royal Astronomer and Historian to the King of Portugal, until Manuel I expelled the Jews.

In addition to several invaluable astronomical works, Zacuto wrote a history book entitled Sefer Yuchasin, and a kabbalistic book called Matok Lanefesh, in which he discusses the soul, the afterlife, and the resurrection of the dead.

In Sefer Yuchasin, Zacuto wrote of himself (Section 1, aleph, Rabbi Eliezer ben Yehuda):

I was in Spain and in other Christian countries when my books on astronomy were published, and they would call me ‘Rabbi Abraham Zacuto of Salamanca.’ And I am permitted to boast of this, because the Sages said ‘What is the wisdom through which you will be considered wise in the eyes of the gentiles? It is calculating the astronomical seasons and constellations’ (Shabbat 75a). And I can testify to Heaven that they praised the Jews greatly for this. But my only intent was to understand the words of our Sages and the laws that they wrote about this.

So, although Zacuto was praised for his scientific knowledge, his goal was not primarily to be a scientist, but rather to understand the words of the rabbis.

And here is where I want to leave Columbus and Zacuto, and write about the importance of studying science in order to love and fear God.

In this week’s Torah portion (Deuteronomy 30:6), Nitzavim, Moses commands the Israelites:

To love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul in order that you may live.

And a few verses later (Deuteronomy 30:16):

I command you this day to love the Lord, your God…

And again (Deuteronomy 30:20):

To love the Lord, your God…

Loving God is clearly an important concept.

Maimonides writes (Hilkhot Yesodei Hatorah 2:1-2)

Which is the path to the love and fear of Him? When a person contemplates His tremendous wondrous actions and creations, and sees in them His infinite, unbounded wisdom, immediately he comes to love, praise, exalt and desire with a great desire to know God… And when he considers these very same things immediately he recoils and is afraid, and knows that he is a small, lowly creature standing with weak, superficial knowledge before the One who has perfect knowledge.

According to Maimonides, both love and fear of God come from studying God’s creations. Maimondes then spends the next three chapters explaining physics and metaphysics in detail, so that his readers will be able to attain love and fear of God. Although his science is taken from ancient Greek philosophers and appears outdated to us nowadays, his point remains valid.

For Maimonides, the path to loving God, and to fearing God, begins with understanding the greatness of God through studying science.

At some point in the past few decades, a large part of the world lost its way. Pseudo-science replaced science as a source of trusted information; experts were no longer those who have studied a topic, but those with the biggest social media following. The age of enlightenment has led to darkness.

In the preparations for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, when Jews crown God as King, through the shofar and prayers, it is worth thinking about what it means to love God and fear Him. And about investigating the world to discover His greatness.

If it was good enough to save Columbus’s life, maybe it is good enough for us.

I first read about Columbus and the eclipse while reading the excellent “Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean” by Edward Kritzler.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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