David Friesenhausen’s Zemirah for the Solar System

Originally published in Hakirah vol. 14 Winter 2012 

Although his work is not well remembered today, Rabbi David Friesenhausen (c. 1756–1828) was perhaps the earliest proponent of the modern Torah im derekh eretz approach that advocated for a dual curriculum of Jewish and secular learning. He was also an emphatic exponent of the Copernican model of the solar system in an era when many Jews still preferred the geocentric model. Both of these facts are surprising since he was educated in traditional yeshivot until the age of thirty, and spent much of his life in a small and intellectually isolated town in northern Hungary. Despite his lacking a formal secular education, he taught himself mathematics and astronomy, and wrote on both subjects. Uniquely, he also composed a zemirah in praise of the sun and the beauty of the solar system. This paper will review R. Friesenhausen’s life and his contribution as an observant Jew to astronomy and the debate over the truth of the Copernican model, and will analyze parts of his forgotten zemirah and its references to the solar system. In an increasingly fractured world, the works of R. Friesenhausen will be seen as a model of integration of science and religion. 

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