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Schick, Barukh ben Ya‘akov

(1744–1808), rabbinic scholar of mathematics and natural sciences, popularly known as Reb Barukh of Shklov. Schick was the son of the rabbi of Shklov and the nephew of Aryeh Leib Gintsburg of Minsk (author of the Sha’agat Aryeh), one of the foremost rabbinic authorities in eighteenth-century Poland–Lithuania. Schick moved to Minsk in 1760, received rabbinic ordination, and served as a dayan (rabbinic judge) and parnas (leader) of the Minsk kahal. In his youth, he pursued the study of science and Latin as well as Talmudic studies and Kabbalah.

Schick’s first scientific book, written during his years in Minsk, was Tif’eret Adam (The Crown of Adam; 1777), a work on human anatomy based on the Latin writings of Girolamo Cardano of the University of Pavia as well as on Talmudic sources and the Zohar. In this text, Schick extensively cited anthropomorphic passages about the godhead from the Zohar, which he invoked as accurate anatomical descriptions of the human body. In Minsk, Schick also composed ‘Amude ha-shamayim (Pillars of the Heavens), a work of lunar astronomy on calculating the time of the “birth” of the new moon. This text utilized the writings of Maimonides and Euclid, along with François Viète’s Canon mathematicus. Schick’s anatomy and astronomy were based on the systems of Galen and Ptolemy. The Latin manuscripts he used had apparently been brought to Shklov by Yekuti’el Gordon, a former medical student at Padua University and a disciple of Mosheh Ḥayim Luzzatto.

Schick journeyed west to raise funds for publishing his works. He arrived in Berlin in late 1776, where he published Tif’eret Adam and ‘Amude ha-shamayim and was welcomed and assisted by the local rabbi, Tsevi Hirsh Levin (1721–1800). In Berlin he made the acquaintance of Naftali Herts Wessely and other members of the circle surrounding Moses Mendelssohn. Wessely financed Schick’s publication of Yitsḥak ha-Yisra’eli’s Yesod ‘olam, a luxury edition of the medieval Hebrew work of astronomy (1777). Although Wessely welcomed Schick’s publication of mathematical-astronomical works in Hebrew, hoping that they would influence other Jewish scholars in Poland–Lithuania to study science, he later (in Divre shalom ve-emet [Words of Peace and Truth; 1782]), referred disparagingly to Schick’s ignorance of German and the natural sciences, and to Schick’s disorganized, unsystematic references to mathematics.

Although Schick did not embrace the ideology of the Haskalah in its entirety, he was substantively altered by his year in Berlin; there, he internalized the Haskalah’s critique that Jews and Jewish scholars were woefully ignorant of science, and endeavored to correct this deficiency. In February 1778, Schick met with the Gaon of Vilna and reported (in an introduction to Uklidos [Euclid; 1780], Schick’s Hebrew translation of the first six books of Euclid’s Elements) that the Gaon urged him to translate scientific works into Hebrew, stating that “for every deficiency of knowledge a man has in the sciences [ḥokhmah], he will have ten deficiencies of knowledge in the science of the Torah. For Torah and science are closely related.” These words were widely cited by maskilim in the nineteenth century as rabbinic endorsement of scientific study.

After his visits to Berlin and Vilna, Schick was extremely prolific, publishing three books (Derekh yesharah [The Way of the Upright; 1779], a manual of preventative medicine; the above-mentioned Uklidos; and Keneh ha-midah [Measuring Reed; 1783], a work on algebra, geometry, and trigonometry) and composing three others that were never published. After Berlin, Schick ceased his adherence to Kabbalah and stopped invoking the Zohar as a repository of scientific information. Upon his return to Belorussia, he attacked the leaders of the growing Hasidic movement for, among other things, spreading superstition and obscurantism among Jews, and for vilifying those who pursued Talmudic and scientific learning.

In the 1780s and 1790s, Schick circulated in the social circles of moderately enlightened Jews. In 1783 he visited Prague, where he was supported by local maskilim belonging to the Jeitteles family. In the 1790s, he enjoyed the patronage of Yehoshu‘a Zeitlin, a wealthy merchant and rabbinic scholar from Shklov with ties to Mendelssohn’s circle in Berlin and the imperial court in Saint Petersburg. Schick lived on Zeitlin’s private estate in Mogilev province; while there, he published his final work, an expanded edition of Keneh ha-midah (1791).

Suggested Reading

Immanuel Etkes, “Immanent Factors and External Influences in the Development of the Haskalah Movement in Russia,” in Toward Modernity: The European Jewish Model, ed. Jacob Katz, pp. 13–32 (New Brunswick, N.J., 1987); David E. Fishman, Russia’s First Modern Jews: The Jews of Shklov (New York, 1995).