Jul 13 2015

Exhibit (San Francisco): “Night Begins the Day: Rethinking Space, Time, and Beauty,” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

“Night Begins the Day: Rethinking Space, Time, and Beauty” looks like a marvelous exhibit. An artistic take on the Jewish day, which begins the night before, it runs through September 20 at the CJM, 736 Mission St., San Francisco. More information available at http://www.thecjm.org.

A quote in this Jweekly.com article describing the exhibit, however, caught my eye:

According to Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, senior educator at Lehrhaus Judaica in Berkeley, the rabbis of early times had a deep understanding of astronomy: After all, the Jewish calendar follows the lunar cycle, and called upon Jews “to observe nature and be a part of this world.

“We have a tradition,” Wolf-Prusan notes, “that says, ‘Pay attention. See what’s around you.’ ”

There are certainly a number of rabbinic sources that support this viewpoint; Wolf-Prusan is not wrong, precisely. But in keeping with the old borscht belt adage “two Jews, three opinions,” I’d like to throw my own hat into the ring. While the Jewish calendar is lunisolar (not purely lunar), I would argue that the gradual move toward the fixing of the Jewish calendar (i.e., in place by the ninth-tenth centuries CE) turned rabbinic eyes away from direct celestial observation, not toward it. As per the research of Sacha Stern in ‘Calendars in Antiquity: Empires, States, and Societies’ (2012, Oxford University Press), this move was in keeping with the rise of the era of urbanization and fixed calendars (Stern 336). Aside from the recitation of the rosh hodesh (new month/moon) prayer (usually performed en passant) and the blessing on the sun recited every twenty-eight years (more about which, see here and here) Judaism is no longer focused on the skies. Heaven, yes, but not the heavens.

But here is the key. As is so often the case when analyzing rabbinic sources, particularly the Babylonian Talmud, multivocality reigns. This, combined with doubts cast upon the historicity of certain rabbinic institutions and astronomical-calendrical procedures makes it difficult, if not impossible, to unequivocally state that the rabbis all understood, let alone championed, the observation and study of the cosmos. In my own recent research, I demonstrate this rabbinic multivocality, highlighting views of the natural world on Earth, and perspectives on the heavens, that range from reverence and appreciation to outright scorn toward those who would waste time on any pursuit but the study of Torah.

That said, however, in addition to his own call for Jews to appreciate the natural world, Rabbi Wolf-Prusan also mentions that of the late rabbi and civil rights activist Abraham Joshua Heschel for “‘radical amazement’ — a sense of wonder that is a prerequisite to wisdom and faith.” It is on the contemporary scene that we see the opening of the floodgates of writing and political action — from Heschel’s call to similar calls for the preservation of nature as a “Torah responsibility” by the Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox), as well as the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements. In addition, the past few decades have brought with them new Earth-based Jewish groups, including Tel Shemesh, The Walking Stick Foundation, the Adamah Fellowship, and Wilderness Torah.

While these are most welcome changes, I leave open the question of whether these were borne of the classical sources themselves or whether they are, in fact, inspired but primarily contemporary shifts toward a more grounded (and cosmos-inspired) spirituality.

Jul 09 2015

The Nebra Sky Disc — an astronomical Bronze Age treasure

Photograph by Gerhard Singer, on Flickr

Photograph by Gerhard Singer, on Flickr

Discovered in 1999, the European Bronze Age astronomical artifact known as the Nebra Sky Disc was nearly lost to the black market, but fortunately found itself in the hands of the scientific community. It is now on display at the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle, Germany.

Dated to circa 1600 BCE, the bronze and gold-emblazoned disc contains a graphical representation of the sun, moon, and the constellations Andromeda and Cassiopeia, among other celestial objects of agricultural and calendrical importance, including the Pleiades.

The astronomical sophistication it demonstrates is remarkable. Astronomer Ralph Hansen has determined that the disc served to coordinate the solar and lunar cycles for agricultural purposes.

Perhaps just as important is the glimpse it offers into the astral religion of the Bronze age in Northern Europe. This is supported by Hansen’s research, which demonstrated a striking parallel to a rule of intercalation (i.e., adding a thirteenth month to the year) related to the lunar crescent found in the Babylonian MUL.APIN, dating a thousand years later, to the seventh-sixth centuries BCE.  According to Hansen, the intercalary month would be added every two to three years when the position of the Pleiades in the night sky matched its position on the Nebra sky disc. However, according to archaeologist Harald Meller of the State Museum for Prehistory at Halle (who was involved in the recovery of the disc), later layers suggest that at least some of its astronomical function was eventually lost, and “that in the end the disk became a cult object.” Astronomers Emilia Pasztor and Curt Roslund go even further, stating that it more likely served a religious purpose for the Northern Bronze Age European elite, including chiefs and shamans. [The full article, in Antiquity 01/2007; 81 (312):267-78, may be accessed here.]

In 2013, the Nebra sky disc was added to UNESCO’s ‘Memory of the World’ Register.



Feb 18 2015

Call For Papers: SEAC 2015 — Astronomy in Past and Present Cultures

The European Society for Astronomy in Culture (SEAC) will hold their 2015 conference at the University of Rome, Italy, from  November 9th-15th, 2015.

Abstracts and letters of intent to participate will be accepted until February 28th, 2015.

For more information, please visit the SEAC conference web site.

(Thanks to Shayna Sheinfeld for bringing this to my attention!)

Feb 03 2015

Call for Papers: Biennial History of Astronomy Workshop – ND XII June 24–28, 2015, University of Notre Dame

The Twelfth Biennial History of Astronomy Workshop will be held from June 24-28, 2015 at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana.

Conference Theme: Astronomy and Authority.

For more information, and to view the call for paper proposals (deadline of March 1, 2015), please visit this year’s Workshop web site.


Oct 31 2014

Book review: Ancient Jewish Sciences and the History of Knowledge in Second Temple Literature


As promised, my review of the 2013 publication Ancient Jewish Sciences and the History of Knowledge in Second Temple Literature, edited by Jonathan Ben-Dov and Seth L. Sanders. New York: NYU Press.

Sep 17 2014

5000 year old lunar monument identified in Galilee



Hebrew University Ph.D. candidate Ido Wachtel has discovered compelling evidence that a crescent-shaped stone structure located in the Galilee was not part of a fortifying wall as previously thought by scholars, but was a lunar monument.

According to Wachtel, and as cited by Livescience:

The shape may have had symbolic importance, as the lunar crescent is a symbol of an ancient Mesopotamian moon god named Sin, Wachtel said. [. . .] An ancient town called Bet Yerah (which translates to “house of the moon god”) is located only a day’s walk from the crescent-shaped monument Wachtel noted.

This is an exciting finding in Levantine archaeoastronomy, shedding light upon the context pre-dating the Hebrew Bible — particularly its polemic against astrolatry, as found in Deuteronomy 4:19, Deut. 17:3, 2 Kings 17:16, and elsewhere.

Jul 25 2014

Fantastic Fridays: Astronomical calculations of the beginning and end of Ramadan

Source: http://gulfbusiness.com/2014/07/first-day-eid-al-fitr-expected-fall-july-28/

Source: http://gulfbusiness.com/2014/07/first-day-eid-al-fitr-expected-fall-july-28/

The following two linked articles offer glimpses into the relationship between Islamic scholarship and the determination of the precise times of both the beginning of Ramadan and the appearance of the Shawwal crescent moon marking the first day of Eid Al Fitr at the end of the month of Ramadan.

What I find fascinating given my interest in ancient Jewish astronomy are the similar debates among religious scholars in both Islam and Judaism regarding the use of observation vs. astronomical calculation to determine the times of the holy days.

In Judaism, a functioning fixed calendar eventually came to exist by the early medieval period after centuries of debate, calendrical authority struggles, and the evolution of calendrical rules. Prior to these developments in Late Antiquity, the Jewish calendar was based on observations of the first lunar crescent, called the molad. Prior to Late Antiquity, during the Second Temple period and the Persian period, other time-reckoning systems were in use, some solar and some lunar.

In Islam, my understanding (perhaps colleagues in Islamic studies can clarify this further) is that various opinions and practices exist, with some countries relying on the traditional hilal sightings of the new crescent moon (for example, to establish the beginning of Ramadan) with the naked eye, some Muslims relying upon the visual sighting of the lunar crescent in either Saudi Arabia or their own country, and others using astronomical calculations.

(There is much that unites Judaism and Islam.)

A blessed Eid to all who celebrate it!

Jul 16 2014

Article: “Space Exploration: Humanity’s Single Most Important Moral Imperative”

Readers will notice that I have added space exploration to the areas covered by this blog. This is a natural extension of my ongoing interdisciplinary research spanning religion and astronomy, encompassing religious perspectives upon the place of humans — homo religiosus in particular — in the cosmos, and on our future.

An interesting perspective on this issue is found in last month’s edition of Philosophy Now –  “Space Exploration: Humanity’s Single Most Important Moral Imperative.” I haven’t been logging in much lately, but hope to begin doing so more often in a few months. I invite your comments, and will reply when I can.

Mar 25 2014

Conference announcement: The Circulation of Astronomical Knowledge in the Ancient World (Brown University, 12-13 April)

This conference programme was posted to Jack Sasson’s Agade list by John Steele. It looks very exciting.

The Circulation Of Astronomical Knowledge In The Ancient World
12-13 April 2014
Brown University, Pembroke Hall 305

This conference will explore the ways in which astronomical knowledge in the ancient world circulated between different communities of scholars over time and space. This broad theme includes both the transmission of knowledge between one culture and another (eg from the Babylonians to the Greeks, or the Greeks to India), and between different groups in the same culture (eg later authors writing commentaries on earlier works, the communication of astronomical knowledge between different cities, the relationship between ‘elite’ and ‘popular’ astronomy, and the reinterpretation of earlier astronomical traditions by later astronomers). The circulation of astronomical knowledge provides an insight into both the way that astronomy was practiced, learnt and written down and the wider political and cultural connections between different societies.


Saturday 12 April
Morning Session

9:00am Welcome and Introduction

9:30am Francesca Rochberg (Berkeley / ISAW)
The Brown School of the History of Science: Historiography and the Astral Sciences

10:00am Joachim F. Quack (Heidelberg)
On the Contemporaneity of the Seemingly Incongruous, or Why Astral Lore Cannot be Studied in Isolation from the Rest of the Culture.

10:30am Andreas Winkler (Berkeley)
The Transmission of Knowledge in the Ancient Egyptian Astrological Manuals

11:00am Break

11:30am Daniel P. Morgan (Laboratoire SPHERE, CNRS – Université Paris Diderot)
Mercury and the Case for Plural Planetary Traditions in Early Imperial China

12:00pm Ethan Harkness (New York University)
The Popular Face of Astronomical and Calendrical Knowledge in Early China

12:30pm Guan Yuzhen (Brown University)
The Transmission of Knowledge Between Chinese Astronomers in the 2nd Century AD

Afternoon Session

2:30pm Niu Weixing (Shanghai Jiao Tong University / Brown University)
On the Dunhuang Manuscript P.4071: A Case Study of the Sinicization of Western Horoscope in late 10th Century China

3:00pm Song Shenmi (Shanghai Jiao Tong University)
The Twelve Signs of the Zodiac in the Tang and Song Dynasties: A Set of Signs Which Lost their Meanings Within Horoscopic Astrology

3:30pm Kristina Buhrman (Florida State University)
Classical Texts and Post-Hoc Adjustments: The Revival of the Rule Cycle (章) in 12-Century Japan

4:00pm Break

4:30pm Matthew Rutz (Brown University)
Astral Knowledge in an International Age: Transmission of the Cuneiform Tradition, ca. 1500-1000 BC

5:00pm John Steele (Brown University)
The Circulation of Astronomical Knowledge Between Babylon and Uruk

Sunday 13 April

Morning Session

9:00am Zackary Wainer (Brown University)
Tablet 4 of the Series DIŠ Sîn ina Tāmartišu and Traditions of Mesopotamian Interpretive Eclipse Schemes

9:30am M. Willis Monroe (Brown University)
The Micro-Zodiac in Babylon and Uruk: Seleucid Zodiacal Astrology

10:00am John Z. Wee (University of Chicago)
Late Babylonian and Greco-Roman Medical Astrology

10:30am Break

11:00am Toke Knudsen (SUNY Oneonta)
Omens and Omen Series in Mesopotamia and India: Issues of Transmission

11:30am Zoë Misiewicz (ISAW)
Assyrian Lunar Omens in Byzantium

12:00pm Clemency Montelle (University of Canterbury)
Hypsicles of Alexandria and his Little Book of Rising Times

Afternoon Session

2:00pm Alexander Jones (ISAW)
Interpolated Observations in Ancient Astronomy

2:30pm Kim Plofker (Union College)
What, if Anything, is Greek About Aryabhata’s Mean Motions? An Examination of the Controversy

3:00pm Closing Remarks

The conference is free and open to all.


Feb 10 2014

Now available online! ‘Ancient Jewish Sciences and the History of Knowledge in Second Temple Literature’

For your reading and research enjoyment courtesy of the NYU Library’s Ancient World Digital Library, in partnership with the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW):

Ancient Jewish Sciences and the History of Knowledge in Second Temple LiteratureEdited by Jonathan Ben-Dov and Seth L. Sanders.

What is there to say but thank you?

N.B. One of my favourite introductory lines may be found in the above volume, in “Networks of Scholars: The Transmission of Astronomical and Astrological Learning between Babylonians, Greeks and Jews”, by Mladen Popović:

“What do we know about what ancient Jewish scholars knew about what Babylonian scholars knew?”

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