Skip to main content Accessibility help

Why is the Sea Salty? The Discussion of Salinity in Hebrew texts of the Thirteenth Century

  • Resianne Fontaine (a1)


The thirteenth-century Hebrew texts that discuss salinity all ultimately go back to Aristotle's treatment of the subject in the Meteorology. However, in these Hebrew texts the question of what exactly makes the sea salty is answered in diverging ways. The oldest of them, the Otot ha-Shamayim (1210), being the Hebrew translation of the Arabic paraphrase of the Meteorology, proposes various causes of the sea's salinity, to wit, the dry exhalation, the action of heat, and the admixture of an earthy substance. This is due partly to Aristotle's own ambiguity, and partly to the fact that his Greek commentators interpreted his words in different ways. Two later encyclopedias, the Midrash ha-Hokhma (c. 1245) and the De'ot ha-Philosofim (c. 1275?) base their expositions of salinity on Ibn Rushd, whose two commentaries on the Meteorology contain various theories. The first encyclopedia opts for the action of heat as the major cause in producing saltiness, whereas the second attempts to explain in which way the various causes are interrelated by advisedly combining Ibn Rushd's accounts.

Les textes hébraïques du XIIIe siécle, á caractére scientifico-philosophique, qui discutent le phénomène de la salure de la mer, prennent tous leur inspiration ultime dans le traitement de cette question par Aristote dans ses Météorologiques. Toutefois, la question de savoir exactement ce qui fait que la mer est salée reçoit des réponses divergentes. Le plus ancien de ces textes, le Otot ha-Shamayim (1210), qui est la traduction hébra¨que de la para phrase arabe des Météorologiques d'Aristote, semble proposer de multiples causes de la salure de la mer, à savoir l'exhalaison sèche, l'action de la chaleur et l'addition d'une substance terreuse. Ceci est dû d'une part à l'ambiguïté d'Aristote lui-même, et d'autre part au fait que les commentateurs grecs ont interprété de différentes manières la discussion d'Aristote. Deux encyclopédies plus tardives, le Midrash ha-Hokhma (c. 1245) et le De'ot ha- Pilosofim (c. 1275?), appuient leur exposé touchant la salure de la mer sur les deux commentaires des Météorologiques par Ibn Rushd, lesquels reflètent une connaissance de théories diverses. La première de ces encyclopédies opte pour l'action de la chaleur comme cause majeure de la salure de la mer. La seconde tente d'expliquer, en combinant de propos délibéré les exposés d'Ibn Rushd, de quelle manière les diverses causes sont reliées les unes aux autres.



Hide All

1 The letters of Ibn al-'Amīd to ‘Adud al-Dawla were edited recently by Daiber, H., Naturwissenschaft bei den Arabern im 10. Jahrhundert n. Chr. (Leiden, 1993).

2 Haskins, C., Studies in the History of Medieval Science (New York, 1960), p. 266.

3 Meteorology II. 1–3.

4 Meteor. 355a32–b20.

5 Meteor. 357a6–357b21. According to Gilbert, O., Die meteorologischen Theorien des griechischen Altertums (Leipzig, 1907; repr. Hildesheim, 1967), p. 403 n. 1, Aristotle's refutation of the view that saltiness is due to an admixture of earth is directed against Xenophanes, but according to Lee also against Anaxagoras.

6 Meteor. 357b24–358a27.

7 Meteor. 358b34–359b21. For Aristotle's use of ‘Signs’ and ‘proofs’ in his account of salinity, cf. Freeland, Cynthia A., ‘Scientific explanation and empirical data in Aristotle's Meteorology’, Appendix I in: Annas, J. (ed.), Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, vol. 8 (1990): 67102, pp. 101–2.

8 Meteor. 358b34–359a5.

9 Ed. Hayduck, M., Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca (CAG), III/2 (Berlin, 1891), pp. 84.3–8; 84.25–28; 85.30–31.

10 Ed. Stüve, G., CAG, XII/2 (Berlin, 1900), pp. 156.26 ff. This passage is quoted and translated into English in Fortenbaugh, W.W. a.o. (eds.), Theophrastus of Eresus. Sources for his life, writings, thought and influence (Leiden, 1992), Pt. I, pp. 394–5. For a description of Theophrastus' position, see Steinmetz, P., Die Physik des Theophrast (Bad Homburg, 1964), pp. 296–8, and cf. also Strohm, H., ‘Zur Meteorologie des Theophrast’, Philologus, 92 (1937): 403–28, pp. 406–7.

11 Steinmetz, Die Physik des Theophrast, p. 298.

12 Ed. Stüve, , CAG, XII/2, pp. 157.6–7 and 158. 4–6.

13 This version was made by Hunayn, Ishāq b. after a translation by his father (Cf. Sezgin, F., Geschichte des Arabischen Schrifttums, vol. VII [Leiden, 1979] pp. 229–30). By F. W. Zimmerman and H. B. Brown it is characterized as “eine relativ knappe Paraphrase des aristotelischen Stoffes”. It is questioned by them whether the paraphrase really goes back to Olumpiodorus; it seems that it has incorporated also material from the Alexandrinian tradition after the time of Olympiodorus, cf. ‘Neue Arabische Übersetzungstexte aus dem Bereich der spätantiken griechischen Philosophie’, Der Islam, 50 (1973): 313–24, pp. 321–2.

14 Ed. Badawi, A., Shurūh alā Aristmafqūda fi al-yunāniyya wa rasā'il ukhrā (Beirut, 1972), p. 111.9.

15 Ed. Badawi, Shurūh l'alā Aristū mafqūda, p. 114.22.

16 Ed. Badawi, Shurūh ‘alū mafqūda, p. 114.2–11.

17 It is not clear whether this interpretation is that of the author of this work or whether he has taken it from earlier works. In this connection it is interesting to note that Hunayn ibn Ishāq is reported to have composed a treatise on the salinity of sea water, cf. Frakhry, M., A History of Islamic Philosophy (New York, 1983), p. 15. I owe this reference to Kruk, R. (Leiden).

18 Ed. Stüve, CAG, XII/2, pp. 156.26–157.1. Metrodorus had held the same view, Gilbert, Die meterologischen Theorien, p. 408 n.1.

19 Ed. Badawi, Shurūh 'alā mafqūda, p. 111.10–16.

20 Lulofs, H. J., ‘Aristoteles. Over de Zee’, in Geographische en geologische mededeelingen. Physiographisch-geologische reeks, no (Utrecht, 1930), p. 26.

21 Strohm, H., Meteorologie. Über die Welt, Aristoteles, Werke in deutscher Übersetzung, Bd. 12 (Darmstadt, 1970), p. 171.

22 Gilbert, Die meteorologischen Theorien, p. 421.

23 Ibid., p. 424.

24 Lulofs, ‘Aristoteles. Over de Zee’, p. 30.

25 For this translation and its title, see Steinschneider, M., Die herbtāischen Überset- zungen des Mittelalters und die Juden als Dolmetscher (Berlin, 1893), pp. 132–6.

26 The text has been edited by Badawi, A., Aristūtālīs fi al-samā’, wa al-āthār al-‘ulwiyya (Cairo, 1961) and later by Petraitis, C., The Arabic Version of Aristotle's Meteorology. A critical edition with an introduction and Greek-Arabic glossaries (Beyrouth, 1967). DrSchoonheim, P. (Middlenurg) is preparing a new critical edition of this translation. The first book, together with the Latin translation by Gerard of Cremona, has been published by him as a Ph. D: Aristoteles' Meteorologie in arabisher und lateinischer Uebersetzung. Textkritische Ausgabe des ersten Buches (Leiden, 1978).

27 Otot ha-Shamayim, London, British Library, MS Add. 14.763, fol. 184r. This is the oldest extant manuscript of Ibn Tibbon's translation (it was copied in 1273), Cf. Steinschneider, DiehebräischenÜberserzungen, p. 132.

28 British Library, MS Add. 14.763, fols 187v–188r.

29 Ibid., fol. 188v.

30 Ibid., fol. 189r.

31 Ibid., fol. 188r.

32 This sentence is absent from the two Arabic versions avaliable to us, but it has been preserved in the Latin translation of the Arabic, cf. the Latin translation to I. 543–4 in the forthcoming edition of P. Schoonheim (n.26).

33 Ed. Hayduck, CAG, III/2, pp. 78.9–79.12.

34 For further detail on why Ibn Tibbon was interesrted in an explanation of the Meteorology and for the relation between the Otot ha-Shamayim and his own philosophical writings, cf. Ravitzky, A., ‘Aristotle's Meteorologica and the Maimonidean exegesis of creation’, (Hebr.), Jerusalem Studies of Jewish Thought, 9 (1990): 225–50.

35 It appears from other sections of his translation that Ibn Tibbon has resorted to the compendium.

36 al-'ulwiyya, Jawāmi' al-Āthār, ed. Dā'irat al-ma'ārif al-'uthmāniyya (Hyderabad, 1947), p. 30.9–10.

37 Ibid., p. 31.4–14.

38 Cf.n.18 and Strohm, ‘Zur Meteorolofie des Theopharast’.

39 Jawāmi' al-Āthār al-'ulwiyya, p. 30.11–18.

40 ‘Concoction’, is a rendering of the Arabic term nadj. Nadj (ripeness, maturity) refers to something that is well-cooked. I have used ‘concoction’ an alternative would be ‘digestion’. By the author of the ha-Hokhma, Midrash (cf.text to n.48) it is translated with bishshull. Ibn Rushd, when describing the operations of natural heat (Jawāmi' al-Āthār al-'ulwiyya p. 83.12) identifies several stages, the first of which is tabkh, followed by nadi and finally hadm. This last stage is the completion of the action.

41 Talkhīs (Oxford, Bodleian, Hatton MS Or. 34. This manuscripts is written in Hebrew characters), fols. 85r–86r. Cf. Kalonymus Hebrew translation of this Commentary, ed. Levey, I. M., The middle commentary of Averroes on Aristotle's Meterologica. (Ph. D.dissertation, Harvard University, 1947), pp. 65.1–70.6.

42 Meteor. 358a16–21.

43 Hippocrates, De aere aquis locis VIII.5.

44 Cf. for example Gätje, H., Das Kapitel über das begehren aus dem Mittleren Kommentar des Averroes zur Schrift über Seele, Aristoteles Semitico-Latinus, Verhandelingen der Koninlkijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen, Afd. Letterkunde. N. R. 129 (Amesterdam, 1985), pp. 26–7, and Hernandez, M. Cruz, ‘El sentido de las tres lecture de Aristoteles por Averroes’, in Atti dell' Academia Nazionale dei Lincei. ser. viii. 28 (Rome, 1973), pp. 567–85. It should be noted, however, that the complicated question of the relationship between Ibn Rushd's commentaries requires further study.

45 Talkhīs, Bodleian, MS Or. 34, fol. 88r19; Kal. p. 82.3.

46 Ed. Heidenheim, W. (Roedelheim, 1801), 5v–6r. A part of this account has found its way into the Sefer ha-Sha ‘ashu’im (The Book of Delight) by Joseph ibn Zabara, cf. the edition of I. Davidson (New York, 1914), pp.110–11. In his introduction (pp. 58–9) Davidson points out that this passage is a later interpolation, for the Sefer ha-Sha ‘ashu ‘im Presumably dates from the second half of the twelfth century.

47 For the author and his work, cf. Sirat, C., A History of Jewish Philosophy in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 250–5 and id., Ha-Cohen, Juda B. Salomon. Philosophe, astronome et peut-être kabbaliste de la première moitié du XIIIe siècle’, Italia, 2 (1977): 3961.

48 ha-Hokhma, Midrash, Leiden, MS Or. 4758, fol. 38r.

49 Talkhīs, Bodleian, MS Or. 34, fol. 85v1–2, tr. Kalonymus, p. 66.7–8. The explanation that the heat of the sun is the cause of the sea water's salty taste also occurs in Berachia ha-Naqdan's Dodi we-Nechdi, which is in facr an adaptation of Aderland of Bath's Quaestiones Naturales, cf. the edition of Gollancz, H. (London, 1920), question no. 5 (p. 6 of the Hebrew text; p.10 of the English transl.). In this text, however, no references is made to the dry exhalation. In another passage (Hebr. p. 8 and tr. p. 13) Aristotle is reported to have advised Alexander the Great that in order to obtain fresh water he should filter sea water through sand that had been brought from land that was not salty.

50 For Falaqera's purpose in writing the DP, see Jospe, R., Torah and Sophia (Cincinnati, 1987) pp. 50–1.

51 De'ot ha-Pilosofim, Leiden, MS Or. 4758, fol. 169r col.1 1.1-col. 21. 11. I have translated the relevant sections in the Midrash ha-Hokhma and De'ot ha-Pilosofim literally, even if this results in awkward English.

52 It corresponds to Jawāmi' al-Āthā al-'ulwiyya, pp. 28.18–31.6.

53 Leiden, MS Or. 4758. fol. 169r col. 21. 11–25.

54 Cf. Jospe, Torah and Sophia, p. 51.

55 Leiden, MS Or. 4758, fols. 169r col. 21.25–269v col. 1 1.8. Cf. also next note.

56 Ed. Lulofs, H. J. Drossaart and Poortman, E. L. J.. Nicolaus Damascenus. De Plantis. Five translations Aristoteles Semitico-Latinus, Verhandelingen der Koninklijike Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen, Afd. Letterkunde. N. R.139 (Amsterdam, 1989). The translation given above follows the translation made by Drossaart Lulofs in this edition (pp. 184–4). Falaqera's account is a little shorter. According to the editoe, Ibn Falaqera had no access to the Tafsīr itself, but to an abridged version of it, referred to by him as the “Book of Aristotle on plants which the Alexandrinians have abridged”. Ibn Falaqera translated this work into Hebrew, cf. pp. 349–50.

* I wish to thank H. Daiber and G. Freudenthal for their critical comments on an earlier version of this paper. To the latter I owe the references mentioned in notes 7, 46 and 49.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

Why is the Sea Salty? The Discussion of Salinity in Hebrew texts of the Thirteenth Century

  • Resianne Fontaine (a1)


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.