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In the New World: Columbus Sets Sail


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!

Emma Lazarus

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.

Sources: Abraham J. Karp, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, (DC: Library of Congress, 1991).