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

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 October 2008

Resianne Fontaine
Vrije Universiteit, Faculteit der Letteren 11 A 38, De Boelelaan 1105, 1081 HV Amsterdam, Netherlands


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.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995

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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).Google Scholar

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

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

29 Ibid., fol. 188v.

30 Ibid., fol. 189r.

31 Ibid., fol. 188r.

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

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

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

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.Google Scholar

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

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