Did a 13th-Century Rabbi Know about Lightning Rods?

Oct. 13 2021

Baḥya ben Asher, who lived and taught in Saragossa, Spain in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, authored several works of rabbinic scholarship, drawing on philosophical as well as traditional sources. In the most famous of these, his commentary on the Bible, he suggests a surprising reason for the construction of the Tower of Babel:

The men [who built the tower] were wicked and knowledgeable in all wisdoms. They thus made a city and tower in order to be saved from a deluge of fire. Since they knew that the world had previously been destroyed in a deluge of water, they . . . sought to build a place such that if [God] wanted to bring a deluge of fire and burn the world, they could . . . tie up a part of the fire’s core such that it would not come close to the city. This is similar to that which we find even in our generation that some wise men know the power to tie up part of lightning so that it will only go up to a specific boundary.

Some readers, notes Yaakov Taubes, have concluded the Baḥya was referring to the lightning rod, and understood this technology—perhaps from the work of Arab scientists—more than four centuries before Benjamin Franklin. Taubes suggests a more plausible interpretation:

A more likely source for Rabbi Baḥya’s comment may have come from his Christian neighbors. A 15th-century book of Christian liturgical customs from Valencia (not far from where Baḥya spent much of his life) . . . notes that one should ring the bells whenever a storm threatens, and specifies that the number of bells rung is dependent upon the severity of the storm. . . . No less a figure than Francis Bacon, in his Sylva Sylvarum (1626), tried to explain how [ringing church bells could prevent lightning strikes] on a scientific level.

In Baḥya’s time, [indeed], bell ringing appears to have been seen as a scientific or supernatural method of dissipating storms. . . . Baḥya would certainly not ascribe any real power to a Christian religious ritual, but the lines separating magic, religion, and science were not always so clear in the medieval period.

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More about: Genesis, Hebrew Bible, Magic, Science, Tower of Babel

 

Will Tensions Rise between the U.S. and Israel?

Unlike his past many predecessors, President Joe Biden does not have a plan for solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Moreover, his administration has indicated its skepticism about renewing the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. John Bolton nevertheless believes that there could be a collision between the new Benjamin Netanyahu-led Israeli government and the Biden White House:

In possibly his last term, Netanyahu’s top national-security priority will be ending, not simply managing, Iran’s threat. This is infinitely distant from Biden’s Iran policy, which venerates Barrack Obama’s inaugural address: “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Tehran’s fist is today otherwise occupied, pummeling its own people. Still, it will continue menacing Israel and America unless and until the internal resistance finds ways to fracture the senior levels of Iran’s regular military and the Revolutionary Guards. Netanyahu undoubtedly sees Iran’s growing domestic turmoil as an opportunity for regime change, which Israel and others can facilitate. Simultaneously, Jerusalem can be preparing its military and intelligence services to attack Tehran’s nuclear program, something the White House simply refuses to contemplate seriously. Biden’s obsession with reviving the disastrous 2015 nuclear deal utterly blinds the White House to the potential for a more significant victory.

To make matters worse, Biden has just created a Washington-based position at the State Department, a “special representative for Palestinian affairs,” that has already drawn criticism in Israel both for the new position itself and for the person named to fill it. Advocated as one more step toward “upgrading” U.S. relations with the Palestinian Authority, the new position looks nearly certain to become the locus not of advancing American interests regarding the failed Authority, but of advancing the Authority’s interests within the Biden administration.

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More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Iran, Joe Biden, U.S.-Israel relationship