Photo Credit: Muriel and Philip Berman Medical Library

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



I first came across the work Ma’ase Tuviya as a teenager in my yeshiva library, but I was never sure 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 reviewed here 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 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 Frankfurt-on-the-Oder, but quickly relocated to the prestigious University of Padua, where he received his degree. Tuviya was one of many Jewish medical pupils in Padua 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), which 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 time that in the year 1708 Tuviya published Ma’ase Tuviya (first printed in Venice). He 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 on his role in helping the impoverished Ashkenazic community there.

In the first chapter, Kenneth Collins provides the reader with an account of Tuviya’s schooling, including the antisemitism 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 looked, drawing on precedents seen on the diplomas of other medical graduates from Padua. He 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.

Fred Rosner (father of Rabbi Shalom Rosner, a popular Daf Yomi lecturer and rabbi in Bet Shemesh). His presence bookends this scholarly volume with a foreword and words of appreciation as well as a lengthy appendix in which he translated excerpts of Ma’ase Tuviya into English.

All in all, I 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 understand the medical parts of Ma’ase Tuviya and can now finally understand what this book is 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.


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Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein writes The Jewish Press's "Fascinating Explorations in Lashon Hakodesh" column.