top of page

Jews on the Moon

by Michael Baxter
Jews on the Moon
Jews on the Moon
Jews on the Moon
Jews on the Moon

So far, only twelve men and no women have actually walked on the surface of the Moon, and as far as I know none was Jewish.  However, there are several Jews who have their names on the Moon.


The surface of the Moon is covered in craters, mostly the result of small asteroids hitting the Moon.  In 1651, a Jesuit priest, Giovanni Riccioli, gave names to the most prominent craters, names still used today.  In an ecumenical spirit, he named four of them after rabbis.



Masha'allah ibn Athari was a Jewish astronomer and philosopher, born in 740 in Persia.  He became famous at an early age.  When the caliph Al-Mansur founded Baghdad in 762, although he was only 22 his advice was sought by the astrologers casting horoscopes to find the best dates for various aspects of the building.  He wrote the first work in Arabic on the astrolabe.  He also wrote what became a standard work on the cosmology of Aristotle, and even made suggestions on how to improve Aristotle's work.  He died in 815.



Avraham Ibn Ezra was a Spanish rabbi, born in about 1092.  His Torah commentary is quoted in the Soncino chumash.  Some of the hymns he wrote are still used, especially by Sephardim.  He also wrote poetry and books on subjects as varied as philosophy, calendar mathematics, Hebrew grammar, medicine, chess and astronomy.  He travelled widely, even visiting London, but returned to Spain and died in about 1167.  Robert Browning's poem "Rabbi Ben Ezra", which starts "Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be", was inspired by reading his works.


Rabbi Levi

Levi ben Gershon, the Ralbag, also called Gersonides, was a French rabbi, born in 1288.  He was also an astronomer, and is best known to the non-Jewish world for inventing the Jacob's Staff, a tool used for centuries by sailing ships to navigate by the stars.  He was also a highly original philosopher; his book "The Wars of the Lord" is a classic in its field.  Like Ibn Ezra, his Torah commentary is quoted in the Soncino chumash.  He died in 1344.



Rabbi Avraham Zacuto was a mathematician, astronomer and historian.  He was born in Spain in 1452.  He perfected the astrolabe and promoted the search for a new route to India, a search that would eventually lead to Columbus' discovery of America. He prepared Columbus' crews and provided them with new astronomical navigation tables; without him, the great voyages of discovery might never have succeeded.  The story is told that on one of his voyages, when attacked by the natives, Columbus noted that Zacuto had predicted an eclipse for that day, and used this information to threaten the natives and convince them that he could extinguish the Sun and Moon and deprive them of all light. Zacuto's work thus saved the life of Columbus and his men.  Despite his enormous services to Spain, he was expelled in 1492.  Moving to Portugal, he became Royal Astronomer to the Court of Portugal and gave Vasco De Gama the same help as he had given to Columbus.  However, he had to flee again when the Jews were expelled from Portugal.  He died in Turkey in 1510.



Over the centuries after 1651, improved telescopes meant that better maps of the moon showing more craters could be produced, and these craters too were given names.  One of the leading figures in producing these maps was Wilhelm Wolff Beer, a banker and amateur astronomer.  He was born in Berlin in 1797 and died there in 1850.  His brother, Jacob Beer, is well known; he changed his name to Giacomo Meyerbeer and wrote several operas.  After his death, other astronomers honoured Beer with his own crater.



Someone honoured around the same time as Beer was Carl Jacobi.  Born in Potsdam in 1804, he completed his secondary education at the age of 12.  Being too young to go to university, he spent time doing private research in mathematics until he was allowed to enter the University of Berlin in 1821.  In 1825, he submitted a thesis for a doctorate and despite being Jewish was allowed to become a teacher.  However, possibly due to anti-Semitism, a paper he submitted to the Berlin Academy was rejected and remained unpublished until 1961.  Praised by leading mathematicians such as Gauss and Legendre, he advanced rapidly and became a full professor in 1832.  However, his health deteriorated, and his strong political views alienated many influential people, seriously damaging his career.  In 1851, he contracted first flu and then smallpox, dying in Berlin.


In 1964, the International Astronomical Union gave official names to several craters that are right on the edge of the visible side of the Moon so hard to see from Earth.  Three were named after Jews.



James Joseph Sylvester is the only Briton on the list.  Born in 1814, he was the first practising Jew to hold a professorship in Britain.  He studied maths at Cambridge, coming second in his year, but was refused a degree or a prize because he was Jewish.  In 1838 he became professor of natural philosophy at University College London.  By 1841 he had published fifteen papers on fluid dynamics and algebraic equations.  He spent some time in America, and then returned to England where he became an actuary and a maths tutor.  Among his pupils was Florence Nightingale.  He also studied law.  In 1855 he became professor at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich.  He was the second president of the London Mathematical Society.  Obliged under army rules to retire at the age of 55, in 1870, he pursued other interests and published a book about poetry.  In 1877 he returned to the USA, to Johns Hopkins University.  He founded the American Journal of Mathematics, the first American mathematical journal.  In 1883, at the age of 68, he became professor of Geometry at Oxford, finally retiring in 1892, at the age of 78.  He died in 1897.



He's too well-known to need further comment.



Niels Bohr was a Danish physicist, born in 1885.  He was raised as a Protestant and became an atheist, but his mother was Jewish so he was halachically Jewish.  He won the Nobel Prize in 1922 for his work on atomic structure and quantum theory.  In 1943, he escaped from the Nazis and joined the Manhattan Project that built the first atom bombs.  After the war, he returned to Denmark, where he died in 1962.  Element number 107 is named Bohrium after him.


Finally, in 1970 the IAU gave official names to several craters that are on the far side of the Moon so are invisible from Earth.  They include these.



Gabriel Lippmann was a French physicist.  Born in Luxembourg in 1845, he became a professor at Paris University.  He made many important discoveries, the best-known being colour photography.  He won the Nobel Prize in 1908 and was president of the French Academy of Sciences in 1912.  He died on a ship in 1921, while returning from a visit to the USA.



Albert Abraham Michelson was an American physicist.  Born in Prussia in 1852, he moved to the USA as a child.  He became known as the "Wizard of Light" for his work on measuring the speed of light with unprecedented accuracy, and for inventing the interferometer, which enabled him to measure the diameter of stars.  The Michelson-Morley experiment was designed to measure the speed of the Earth through space.  He could not detect any motion, and this failure may have inspired Einstein to invent the Theory of Relativity.  In 1907, he became the first American to receive a Nobel Prize.  He died in 1931 in California.



The only female on the list, Emmy Nöther was a mathematician, born in Bavaria in 1882.  As a woman, she had to get special permission to go to university, but in 1907 she was awarded a PhD.  In 1919, after years as an unofficial lecturer, she was formally allowed to lecture at the University of Göttingen.  Her work was important in helping Einstein develop his Theory of Relativity.  Despite her high international reputation, she was as a Jew sacked in 1933.  She escaped to the USA and became a professor at Bryn Mawr, where she died in 1935.



The Italian physicist Giulio Racah was born in 1909.  Fleeing fascist Italy in 1939, he went to Israel while it was still under British rule and became a professor of theoretical physics at the Hebrew University. While there, he joined the Haganah and later was appointed deputy commander of the Haganah at Mount Scopus protecting the small Jewish presence there, including his own Hebrew University.  He died in 1965.  In 1993, he was honoured with an Israeli stamp.

bottom of page