Ma’ase Tuviya (Venice 1708): Tuviya on Medicine & Science


Ma’ase Tuviya (Venice 1708): Tuviya on Medicine & Science (Muriel and Philip Berman Medical Library, 2021), edited by Kenneth Collins, Samuel Kottek, and Helena Paavilainen

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein


I first came across the work Ma’ase Tuviya as a teenager in my Yeshiva library, but I was never sure about what to make of it. Who is its intended audience, and why was it written? Ma’ase Tuviya represents an eclectic mix of theology, science, geography, astronomy/astrology, and medicine in a sort of encyclopedia that freely quotes from Greek doctors and rabbinic literature in the same breath. The book under review is a scholarly volume that presents various academic essays that look at Ma’ase Tuviya from different angles.

This book contextualizes Ma’ase Tuviya by revealing biographical details about its author and the sociocultural milieu in which he was active. Rabbi Dr. Tuviya HaKohen Katz (1652–1729) originally came from the town of Metz (on the French-German border) and was actually a stepbrother to Rabbi Yair Chaim Bachrach (1639–1702), Chief Rabbi of Worms and author of the popular responsa Chavos Yair. He studied medicine in Krakow and Frankfort-on-the-Oder, but quickly relocated to the prestigious University of Padua, where he received his degree. In Padua, Tuviyah was one of many Jewish medical pupils throughout the generations, and it was largely for the benefit of such students that he penned Ma’ase Tuviya as a primer on the basics of medicine geared towards students firmly grounded in Torah literature. As this book makes clear, Tuviya’s purpose for writing Ma’ase Tuviya was two-fold: He sought to help prepare Jewish students for the European world of study and to prove to the world at large that Jewish literature can positively contribute to the sciences.

After completing his degree, Tuviya practiced medicine in Poland and eventually relocated to Adrianople and then Constantinople (Istanbul), where served as the capitals of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. As a renowned doctor, Tuviya served as the personal physician to five successive sultans. It was during this period of his life that in the year 1708, Tuviya published Ma’ase Tuviya (first printed in Venice), and then spent the years 1709–1713 preparing to publish the works of his deceased father, Rabbi Dr. Moshe Narol. After publishing his father’s works, Tuviya immigrated to Jerusalem (which was under Turkish rule), where he lived for the rest of his life. Ari Morgenstern’s essay published in this book speculates about the different reasons that may have led Tuviya to relocate to Jerusalem and his role in helping the impoverished Ashkenazic community there.

In the first chapter of this book, Kenneth Collins provides the reader with an account of Tuviya’s schooling, including the anti-Semitism he faced before transferring to the University of Padua, and generally how Jewish students were able to fare in their medical studies in the Italian city of Padua. In the subsequent chapter, Samuel Kottek provides more of the context and cultural milieu in which Tuviya operated. Particularly, he discusses how Tuviya’s understanding of biology and medicine are shaped not only by ancient Jewish and Greek sources, but also by the burgeoning research of Renaissance physicians like the Swiss doctor Paracelsus (1493–1541), who began to question the assumptions found in Galenic, Aristotelian, and Hippocratic literature. Dr. Jeremy Brown (author of the Talmudology Blog) contributed a chapter that compares and contrasts Tuviya’s medical works with those of other physician-scientists of his time and considers whether Tuviya’s information really presented the latest state-of-art research.

Rabbi Dr. Edward Reichman presents a fun— but highly informative —essay that explores how Tuviya’s diploma from Padua may have theoretically looked. He draws on precedents seen on the diplomas of other medical graduates from Padua to piece together how Tuviya’s might have looked. R. Dr. Reichman reproduces facsimiles of several such diplomas and speculates on which of those features might have been present on Tuviya’s. This essay has several counterparts in Reichman’s series on Jewish medical history published on Seforim Blog.

Several other essays zone in on very specific aspects of Ma’ase Tuviya: Etienne Lepicard’s essay focuses on Ma’ase Tuviya’s presentation of female physiology and the roles of each gender in the reproductive process. As far as this reviewer knows, Ma’ase Tuviya is actually the first Hebrew work to make reference to the clitoris. Another essay, penned by Shalom Sabar, focuses on the artistic aspects of Ma’ase Tuviya, particularly looking at its title page, author portrait, and various scientific diagrams. Helena Paavilainen offers a learned case study of Tuviya’s explorations of headaches and how to deal with them. She surveys the various etiological explanations for headaches and the remedies that Tuviya recommends for treating such ailments.

Another contemporary scholar whose presence looms large in this book, but does not contribute an essay of his own, is the celebrated author of Jewish medical works, Rabbi Dr. Fred Rosner (father of Rabbi Shalom Rosner, a popular Daf Yomi lecturer and rabbi in Bet Shemesh). His esteemed presence bookends this scholarly volume with a foreword and words of appreciation at the beginning, as well as a lengthy appendix in which he translated excerpts of Ma’ase Tuviya into English at the end.

All in all, this reviewer thoroughly enjoyed learning more about Ma’ase Tuviya and its colorful author. With this scholarly work in hand, I have access to all the necessary background to understanding the medical parts of Ma’ase Tuviya and can now finally understood what this book is really all about. I’m looking forward to future scholarship that will explore other parts of Ma’ase Tuviya and shed light on those sections of the encyclopedia. In the meantime, Ma’ase Tuviya (Venice 1708): Tuviya on Medicine & Science is a great work that will open up new worlds of future scholarship.

4 Book Reviews

Disputed Messiahs: Jewish and Christian Messianism in the Ashkenazic World during the Reformation (Wayne State University Press, 2021) by Rebekka Voss

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

This book offers a fascinating study on the interplay between the different eschatological expectations expressed by Jews and Christians in Western Europe during the sixteenth century. The inter-Christian schism between Catholics and Protestants, the growing threat of the Ottoman Turkish Empire during the Reformation Years, and the expulsion of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula a few decades prior caused many Jews and Christians to think about the End of Days, and those Messianic speculations are recorded in various contexts. 

One important point that the author stresses is that in many instances, it was dangerous for Jews to express their true Messianic beliefs for fear of Christian reprisals (because Jewish eschatologies often entailed the end of Christendom). This reality led to public figures like Josel of Rosheim needing to straddle the line between fully expressing their real Messianic beliefs and issuing apologetics for pragmatic political considerations (like quelling Christian suspicions). 

This book also discusses the various permutations of the legend of the Red Jews, who were said to be a contingent of Jews from the Ten Lost Tribes across the Sambatyon River. In some versions of the legend, they would pose a military threat to the reigning Christians by allying with the menacing Moslem powers, while in other versions they joined together with Christian Europe to ward off the Moslem threat. This book also explores the stories of false messiahs like Asher Lemlein, David HaReuveni, and Shlomo Molcho, with a special focus on discussing how their activities were viewed by their Jewish co-religionists and by the Christian authorities. This work concludes with a numismatic excurses that explores the possibility that a certain medallion depicts Asher Lemlein.

Moshe Emes: Torah and Science Alignment (Pearlman YeC, 2018) by Roger M. Pearlman

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

The author of this short book is clearly a staunch exponent of intelligent design and the Young Earth Creationist position. Following the Bible, he firmly believes that the Earth was created by God in six days, while the reigning scientific view follows that of the Neo-Darwinists, who maintain that the Earth is billions of years old, and that life has evolved over time through natural selection. This work presents the author’s Recent Complex Creation Framework (RCCF) as a way of framing the scientific argumentation that supports the traditional Judeo-Christian understandings of the creation of world. The Recent Complex Creation Framework theory posits that while the One God created the entire world ex nihilo, the product of His handiwork is a universe comprised of complex structures that constantly evolve and change over time. 

Another basic tenet of Pearlman’s theology is that the Torah reflects accurate historical testimony—an idea he expands on at length in his other works on Biblical Chronology. This particular book could have greatly benefitted from more thorough editing, as the author’s ideas are not as well-developed as the advanced reader would probably like. The author also freely mixes scientific arguments with polemics and arguments rooted in religious sources, often blurring the line between the two. At its core, Pearlman’s book argues that Biblical Theology is not opposed to scientific inquiry, but rather can be seen as a guide to understanding the natural world. By understanding the Torah in this way, Pearlman believes that we can create a more harmonious relationship between religion and science. In short, Roger M. Pearlman explores the ways in which the Torah and science can be seen as complementary, rather than contradictory. His work serve as a beginner’s guide to aligning the two disciplines.

Kabbalah and Sex Magic: A Mythical-Ritual Genealogy by Marla Segol (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2021)

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

This book offers restatements of several classical works of Kabbalah, notably Shiur Komah, Sefer Refuot, Sefer Yetzirah, Sefer Bahir, Sefer Chakmoni, and Chovot HaLevavot. These works, in part, offer varied cosmological accounts of the world’s creation and/or how creation can be manipulated by man. The overarching theme that the author focuses on in presenting these works is how multiple divine elements fit together to spawn the world as we know it. She chooses to characterize these sorts of interactions as sexual in nature, because they entail different primeval components (like elements of nature, Sephirot, or letters) fitting together to create new “offspring.” 

This book considers the aforementioned works on Jewish metaphysics to be examples of remythologization, presumably after the Bible had previously demythologized the Creation narrative with the story of a Single Creator. In doing so, the author infers a sort of henotheistic theology from these Kabbalistic works, in the sense of a multiplicity of independent gods (or, perhaps more accurately, divine entities) that interact sexually with one another. In this reviewer’s opinion, henotheism is a heresy that runs counter to Classical Monotheistic theology (with which Judaism is typically identified) and is essentially an advanced form of idolatry. Segol a priori rejects the approach of "most scholars" (page 79) who understand works like Sefer Yetzirah as non-literal. Yet, she does not explain why she refuses to accept these mainstream understandings of the described interaction of multiple divinities, including philosophical (giver vs. receiver modes of One Deity) and linguistic approaches. 

As opposed to Segol, this reviewer understands that Sefer Yetzirah actually demythologizes the creation narrative by attributing it to letters rather than to multiple gods. Letters are insentient creations that have no will of their own, as opposed to gods that can be appeased, etc. If one compares Sefer Yetzirah to Enuma Elish (the Babylonian creation myth), the former seems much closer to classical monotheism than the latter. The author, on the other hand, takes the opposite approach of understanding Sefer Yetzirah as remythologizing the creation by splitting the Godhead into multiple parts. The final chapter of this book examines contemporary “Jewish” views on sexuality as expressed by Yehuda Berg and Shmuely Boteach, but this reviewer had a hard time mapping how that last chapter really connects to the rest of the book.

Understanding the Alef-Beis: Insights into the Hebrew Letters and the Methods of Interpreting Them (Feldheim Publishers, 2007) by Dovid Leitner

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

In this amazing work, Dovid Leitner provides the reader with a deeper understanding of the esoteric underpinnings of the Hebrew Alphabet. The author finds mystical meanings in the orthographical representations of each of the letters, as well as in their names. This book also touches on the meaning of the crowns (tagim) and big/small letters as they are traditionally written in a Torah Scroll. Many of the obscure meanings that the author brings to the fore include hidden references to God and His various names, central Jewish ideas about law and morality, and allusions to various episodes/rules recorded in the Torah. 

The author also explores such things as gematria (an alphanumerical cipher, whereby each letter corresponds to a specific number) and various modes/codes of letter interchangeability (like phonetic letter groups, at-bash, and al-bam, as well as lesser-known modalities like achas-beta, ach-bi, and aiy-bak). All in all, this book is a sort of encyclopedia that is chockful of information about the mystical aspects of the Hebrew Alphabet. Unfortunately, the major drawback of this work is that the author fails to cite exact references, so the reader is often left wanting more, but having no exact place to start from.

Mavericks, Mystics & False Messiahs: Episodes from the Margins of Jewish History

Mavericks, Mystics, & False Messiahs: Episodes from the Margins of Jewish History by Rabbi Pini Dunner (Toby Press, 2018)

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

The first chapter of this book sets the tone by introducing the reader to the oft-retold story of the famous 17th century false Messiah, Shabbetai Tzvi (1626–1676), and how he and his handler Nathan of Gaza bamboozled much of world Jewry. As the story unfolds, more and more people began to believe that Shabbetai Tzvi was indeed the scion of David sent to redeem the Jewish people, but the story climaxes with Shabbetai Tzvi’s conversion to Islam from which point more and more became suspicious of the dubious character. Although he died in near anonymity and was buried in an unmarked grave, the repercussions of his rise and fall still reverberate throughout Jewish history.

Secret followers of Shabbetai Tzvi, known as Sabbateans continued to exist for centuries after Shabbetai Tzvi’s death. They were known for their antinomian behavior and non-standard Kabbalistic teachings. The witch-hunt against Sabbateans led to one of the most explosive controversies in Jewish History, in which Rabbi Yaakov Emden (1697–1776) accused Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz (1690–1764) of being a closet follower of Shabbetai Tzvi. Rabbi Dunner dramatizes this story in Chapter 3 of his book, peppering the narrative with details little-known to those who have already heard about the controversy.

In Chapter 4, Rabbi Dunner tells the sordid tale of a seemingly paranoid man named Isaac Neiberg from Mannheim who divorced his young bride of one week in the town of Cleves and fled Germany. The sordidness focuses not on the young groom, but on the rabbinic controversy that erupted over the validity of this man’s gett (“bill of divorce”). The question centered on what sort of insanity passes the Halakhic threshold to legally disqualify a person from effectuating a divorce.

In his concluding remarks, Rabbi Dunner implies that the ruling that this gett was not disqualified later influenced Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895–1986), who ruled that a person who is seemingly mentally unstable in some aspects, but is not totally insane, is not rendered a shotah in Halacha. This reviewer had the privilege to sit on a bus next to Rabbi Meir Simcha Auerbach, a son of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (1910–1995), who affirmed that his father whole-heartedly agreed with Rabbi Feinstein’s ruling on this matter.

In his work Mateh Levi (§19), Rabbi Mordechai Horovitz (1844–1910) published a responsum that he ascribed to Rabbi Nosson Maaz (1720–1793), a judge on the Frankfurt court, that laid out the reasons for disqualifying the gett. Nonetheless, some have questioned the authenticity of this responsum by claiming that it was not really written by Rabbi Maaz. Despite Rabbi Dunner’s seemingly neutral position on this question, Rabbi Mordechai Emanuel of Beitar Illit, a renowned scholar who edited and published Rabbi Nosson Maaz’s writings wrote to this reviewer that a comparison of the linguistic expressions used in the responsum published by Rabbi Horovitz and those used in Rabbi Maaz’s recently published-for-the-first-time works reveals that the responsum is most likely authentic.

The common denominator among all the misfits and charlatans that Rabbi Dunner discusses in this interesting book is that each chapter has some connection to the City of London (save for the chapter about Shabbetai Tzvi): In his chapter about the Emden-Eybeschutz controversy, Rabbi Dunner mentions that Rabbi Emden’s father, the esteemed author of responsa Chacham Tzvi, was offered the post of the Chief Rabbi of London, but declined. In the chapter about the Cleves Gett, London appears again as the runaway groom’s destination. (By the way, that story concluded with a happy ending, as the young couple later reconciled and remarried.)

Another chapter focuses on the legacy of the folk-doctor Shmuel Falk (1708–1782), popularly known as the Baal Shem of London. He was reputed to have been a master Kabbalist and healer, and much lore has sprung up about him. Rabbi Emden accused him of being a follower of Shabbetai Tzvi, but that remains to be conclusively proven. Interestingly, for many years a portrait of Shmuel Falk was misidentified as that of the more famous Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov (1698–1760).

Rabbi Dunner also presents the reader with a biographical chapter about the forger Rabbi Yehudah Yudel Rosenberg (1860–1935), who is most known for making the legends about the Maharal of Prague (1512–1526) and the Golem become mainstream, and for publishing a counterfeit commentary to the Haggadah Shel Pesach ascribed to the Maharal. Rabbi Rosenberg also published other forgeries, including a work entitled Choshen Mishpat, which claims that the twelve jewels of the High Priest’s breastplate have made their way to the Belmore Street Museum in London.

Other chapters in this book that pay homage to London by mentioning the Old Smoke include the one devoted to the peculiar story of Lord George Gordon (1751–1793)—a British aristocrat who led a failed revolt against the English crown (look up: The Gordon Riots) and eventually converted to Judaism—and the one dedicated to the fantastic tale of the escapades of an infamous Hungarian Jew named Ignatius Timotheus Trebitsch-Lincoln (1879–1943), whose various occupations include thief, member of the UK Parliament, international spy, and Buddhist monk. I am fairly confident that all these mentions of London are not unrelated to Rabbi Dunner’s hometown.

Although Rabbi Dunner presents this book to a popular audience and therefore did not provide the reader with well-sourced footnotes for every detail that he discusses (as befits a scholar of his caliber), he did offer a conclusion that sheds light on many of the different sources from which he culled information in preparing this captivating book.

Rabbi Dunner is a scion of a great rabbinic family and an alumnus of the most prestigious Yeshivas of contemporary times. He currently serves as a popular rabbi in Beverly Hills, but is also celebrated as a well-known lecturer, scholar, and social critic. His lectures and essays are thoroughly educational (and sometimes even humorous in his own way) and have special appeal to Jews of all stripes—including Hareidim, Religious Zionists, and even Secular Jews. Rabbi Dunner also boasts a magnificent and impressive collection of Judaica, including rare books, documents, leaflets, and pictures related to the history of the Jewish people. These resources no doubt aid Rabbi Dunner in his scholarly and rabbinic expertise.