Judaic Treasures of the
Library of Congress:
Columbus Sets Sail
THE EXODUS (AUGUST 3,1492)
The Spanish noon is a blaze of azure fire, and the dusty pilgrims
crawl like an endless serpent along treeless plains and bleached highroads,
through rocksplit ravines and castellated, cathedral-shadowed towns.
Noble and abject, learned and simple, illustrious and obscure, plod
side by side, all brothers now, all merged in one routed army of misfortune.
Whither shall they turn? for the West hath cast them out, and the
East refuseth to receive.
O bird of the air, whisper to the despairing exiles, that to-day,
to-day, from the many-masted, gayly-bannered port of Pallos, sails
the world-unveiling Genoese, to unlock the golden gates of sunset
and bequeath a Continent to Freedom!
It was Christopher
Columbus, the "world-unveiling Genoese" himself, who first linked
the Jews and the New World. In his letter to the king and queen of Spain
which opens the Journal of the First Voyage, Columbus writes:
So after having expelled the Jews from your dominions, Your Highnesses,
in the same month of January, ordered me to proceed with sufficient
armament to the said region of India.
Actually, Columbus set sail on August 3, 1492, a day
after the expulsion of the Jews
from Spain began. Much has been written of Columbus's purported Jewish
origins and of Jews who accompanied him on his first voyage. It is certain
only that the expedition's interpreter, Luis de Torres, was born a Jew
but had converted shortly before the expedition set sail; that two "New
Christians," Luis de Santangel and Gabriel Sanchez, had a hand in the
financing; and that two Jews, Abraham Zacuto and Joseph Vecinho, provided
technical expertise that helped Columbus navigate the "Ocean Sea."
Abraham Zacuto (c. 1452-1515), a historian and astronomer,
who wrote his major astronomical work, Ha-Hibur ha-Gadol, in
Hebrew under the patronage of the bishop of Salamanca, served as court
astronomer to kings John II and Manuel I of Portugal,
where he took refuge after the expulsion from Spain. Zacuto prepared
the charts used by Vasco da Gama on his successful journey to India,
but his high position and contribution to Portuguese imperial expansion
availed him little when, in 1497, the Jews in Portugal were forced to
convert, and he was forced once again to flee. In Tunis, in 1504, Zacuto
completed his historical narrative, Sefer ha-Yuhasin, in which
he claimed: "My astronomical charts circulate throughout all the Christian
and even Muslim lands."
The astronomical tables of the astronomer and rabbi,
Abraham Zacuto, published by the last of the Jewish printers in Portugal,
Abraham Orta, one year before the Jews were expelled. What makes this
book of particular historical importance is that Christopher Columbus
used the Zacuto astronomical tables in his journeys of discovery.
Abraham Zacuto, Tabulae astronomicae, Leiria, 1496. Rare
Book and Special Collections Division.
Among those who made use of Zacuto's astronomical tables
was Christopher Columbus. A copy of those tables with Columbus's notes
is preserved in Seville. What made the tables accessible to Columbus
was their having been translated into Spanish by a pupil of Zacuto,
Joseph Vecinho, physician to King John II. According to tradition Vecinho
gave his translated work to Columbus for his journey, which he had heretofore
recommended against. In 1496, the tables were published in both Latin
and Spanish editions in Leiria, Portugal, by Samuel D'Ortas. The D'Ortas
family, Samuel and his three sons, had previously printed two Hebrew
books in that city, Proverbs with commentary in 1492, and the
Former Prophets with commentary in 1495. The contents of Tabulae
astronomicae of Abraham Zacuthus, Leiria, 1496, are described by
the full title: Tabula tabulay celestius motuuz astronomi zacuti
necnon stelay firay longitudinez ac latitudinez.
The lower part of the Latin commentary
on the right-hand side of this page of the Genoa, 1516 Polyglot
Psalter provides the first description of Christopher Columbus and his
discoveries in a Hebrew book. What occasioned this digressive comment
are the words "the end of the earth" in verse 4 of chapter 19 of
the Psalms. The learned commentator was eager to inform the reader of
the intrepid Genoese who discovered "the ends of the earth."
Psalter, Genoa, 1516. Hebraic Section.
In the Library's fine copy of the Polyglot Psalter
in the Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Arabic, and Chaldean (Aramaic), published
in Genoa, 1516, is Christopher Columbus's first printed biography. in
a Latin note on the phrase "the ends of the earth" from Psalm 19, the
commentator, Agostino Giustiniani, states that the ends of the earth
were discovered in his time through the daring deeds of Christopher
Columbus of Genoa, claiming also that this native son of Genoa has explored
more lands and seas than anyone else in all the world. Because of him,
then, the words of the Psalmist that the glory of God would be proclaimed
"to the ends of the earth" were now fulfilled.
Source: Abraham J. Karp, From
the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress,
(DC: Library of Congress,