DELMEDIGO, Joseph Solomon.

DELMEDIGO, Joseph Solomon. Sefer Elim

Amsterdam, Menasseh Ben Israel, 388-389 [1628-29]


FIRST EDITION. 4to, 3 parts in one volume, separate t-ps to first two, pp. (x) 84 (i); (ii) 190 (ii); 80. Hebrew letter. Frontispiece with engraved portrait of the author, typographical border to t-ps, ¼ to half-page astronomical and geometric woodcut diagrams, tables, scientific and musical instruments. Light age yellowing, first t-p a bit dusty and soiled, fore-edges of second t-p chipped (no loss), light waterstaining to upper inner corner of some initial gatherings and blank margins of last, three small holes at foot of one fol. in part 2 affecting a couple of words, rare minor wormholes and stains to margins. A particularly good, well margined copy in contemporary calf, covers blind ruled to a panel design, wormholes to lower, ornamental roll to borders, spine with blind ruled raised bands and paper labels. Early ms. inscription at head of first t-p, C20 stamp “Rabbino Ernesto Stein, Milano Campo Adriatico” to front pastedown, and “Stein Yerachmiel Ernes(to), rabbino capo della comunità israelitica dei campi profughi” to verso of rep

First edition of this extensively illustrated, most important Hebrew work on astronomy, mathematics, natural philosophy, music and geometry, written by ‘the first Jewish Copernican’, student of Galileo and a major influence on Spinoza. Hebrew books of early date are rare in good condition and contemporary bindings and this one particularly so, as it was designed for practical scholarly scientific use.

Joseph Solomon Delmedigo (1591-1655) was a rabbi, physician and polymath from Crete. At Padua, he studied medicine and attended Galileo’s astronomy lectures 1609-10. After a brief stay in Venice, he journeyed the Middle East, eventually settling in Amsterdam in 1623, where he wrote ‘Sefer Elim’, his most important work. It is divided into two separately titled parts – ‘Sefer Elim’ and ‘Ma’ayan Ganim’ – the latter subdivided into four essays on astronomy, mathematics, the consonance of music and biblical passages in relation to the scientific method. ‘Sefer Elim’ is a reply to 12 broad and 70 specific questions posed in letters, reproduced at the beginning, by the Karite scholar Zerah. Delmedigo’s answer discusses Aristotelian natural philosophy, spherical trigonometry, celestial bodies, comets and the workings of the lever, music theory, illustrated with diagrams and drawings.

Whilst Delmedigo’s in-depth analysis of Copernican theories was left unpublished and is now lost, his circumscribed references in ‘Sefer Elim’ are nevertheless revealing. “Part of Delmedigo’s support for the Copernican model is to be found in his criticism of the Aristotelian conception of the universe […] By rejecting this idea, Delmedigo not only took on the accepted scientific views of the past, but also challenged the Jewish model of the universe, which was based on Aristotle” (Brown, 70); he also stated that the universe was possibly infinite and included other solar systems. He mentions studying with ‘his teacher Galileo’, as he describes their observation of the sky and planets through the famous telescope; however, scholars believe Delmedigo became familiar with Copernicanism elsewhere, as until 1610 Galileo was not publicly or privately endorsing this theory.

The epistemological inconsistencies of ‘Sefer Elim’ derive from Delmedigo’s complex relationship to the Scientific Revolution and Cabala-informed Jewish culture, resistant to the new method. As proved by the very title – a reference to the fountains of wisdom – he linked “Jewish-hermetic revelation with Copernican cosmology and sought material objects such as ancient Hebrew mss that, purportedly, maintained a stronger connection to the revelation” (Ben-Zaken, 78), seeking to connect Jewish theology and Copernicanism. The work “became suspect in the eyes of the elders of the Sephardic community, and a committee was formed to investigate the matter. The book had to be translated orally into Portuguese and Menasseh [the printer] had to sign that certain portions would not be published. By that time, however, Delmedigo had left Amsterdam” (Heller, 471).

The Latin preface to the first part (missing in many copies) summarises the content for a non-Hebrew readership and explains the title.

USTC 1014320; STCN 09776728X; Heller, C17 Hebrew book, 470-71; Bib. Hebr. Book, 10125944; Steinschneider 1510-1511, 5960/1-3; Wolf, Bibliotheca Hebraea I, p.566, n.976. J. Brown, New Heavens and a New Earth (2013). A. Ben-Zaken, Cross-Cultural Scientific Exchanges in the Eastern Mediterranean, 1560-1660 (2010). Not in Riccardi, Houzeau & Lancaster, Duveen, Thorndike or Lalande.