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Encyclopedia Judaica: Atomism

ATOMISM, theory that physical bodies consist ultimately of minute, irreducible, and homogeneous particles called atoms (Greek atomos/atomon = indivisible). In medieval Arabic and Hebrew works atomism derives from Greek (Democritus, Epicurus) and Indian sources. Common Hebrew terms for the atom are: "ha-ḥelek she-eino mitḥallek" ("indivisible particle") or simply "ḥelek"; "ha-eẓemha-pirdi " ("separate substance") or simply "eẓem"; in Karaite texts also "ḥatikhah" = "juzʾ, " "ḥelek," and "dak" ("minute [body]"). The majority of Jewish thinkers rejected atomism, except for Karaite authors who adhered to the Muʿtazilite system of *Kalām , along with its atomism; e.g., Joseph al-Basir (11th century), his pupil *Jeshua b. Judah , and *Aaron b. Elijah of Nicomedia (14th century; Eẓ Ḥayyim, ed. by F. Delitzch (1841), 12 ff.). Judah Hadassi (12th century) is a prominent exception (Eshkol ha-Kofer (1836), ch. 28, 19b). While propounding a Muʿtazilite-type system, Saadiah Gaon (tenth century) rejected its atomism, and affirmed the virtual infinite divisibility of matter (Beliefs and Opinions, tr. by S. Rosenblatt (1948), 45, 50 ff.). Objections to atomism are also raised by Saadiah's contemporary, the Neo-platonist Isaac b. Joseph *Israeli (Sefer ha-Yesodot, ed. Fried, ch. 2, pp. 43 ff.), and by the later Neoplatonist, Solomon ibn *Gabirol (11th century; Fons Vitae, ed. by C. Baeumker (1895), 52, 57–58). *Maimonides (12th century) followed the physics of Aristotle with its rejection of atomism (Guide of the Perplexed, tr. by Pines, 1 (1963), 51, 112). In a historically significant context, Maimonides criticized the atomism of the later Ashʿarite Kalām, maintaining that its doctrine of constant creation of new atoms by God and rejection of natural causality was induced by preconceived religious opinions concerning creation (ibid., 177 ff., 194 ff.). Aaron b. Elijah defended the Kalām by arguing that atomism is necessitated by reason and is neutral per se with respect to the question of creation, as is evident from its advocacy by Epicurus, who viewed atoms as primordial. Maimonides' strictures were accentuated by later Aristotelians, e.g., *Levi b. Gershom (14th century; Milḥamot Adonai (1560), pt. 6, 1; ch. 3), who also gives a sophisticated explanation of the infinite divisibility of extension (ibid., pt. 6:1, ch. 11). Ḥasdai *Crescas (14th–15th century), a critic of the Aristotelian system, defended the atomistic theory (H.A. Wolfson, Crescas' Critique of Aristotle (1929), 121, 569–70).


C. Bailey, Greek Atomists and Epicurus (1928); I. Efros, Problem of Space in Jewish Mediaeval Philosophy (1917); idem, Ha-Pilosofiyyah ha-Yehudit bi-Ymei ha-Beinayim (1964), index; Guttmann, Philosophies, index; Husik, Philosophy, index; S. Pines, Beitraege zur islamischen Atomenlehre (1936); M. Schreiner, Der Kalām in der juedischen Literatur (1895).

[Joel Kraemer]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.