This Day in Jewish History

1904: A Rabbi, Astronomer and Inventor Honored by Russia Dies

The brilliance of Chaim Selig Slonimski, who loved God and science, is evident in the wild span of his innovations, from advanced metal plating to rejigging the Hebrew calendar.

Slav/Wikimedia Commons

On May 15, 1904, the Russian-Jewish rabbi, inventor and astronomer Chaim Selig Slonimski died, aged 94. Though surviving engraved portraits suggests a traditional man of Jewish learning, Slonimski was an important mathematician who wrote popular books and articles on science and invented a mechanical calculator for which the Russian Academy of Sciences awarded him a prize.

Chaim Selig Slonimski was born on March 31, 1810 in Bialystok (today a city in Poland), just three years after Prussia ceded the region to the Russian Empire. He had a traditional Jewish education, without secular studies, but he went on to learn several foreign languages that he used in his independent studies of math and astronomy. As a consequence, perhaps, of his own educational history he became an adherent of the Haskalah, or the Jewish Enlightenment, a movement that advocated a scientific approach to religion and assimilation into European society together with the revival of the Hebrew language.

In 1834, Slonimski wrote an algebra textbook, but due to a shortage of funds only the first part was published, as “Mosede okmah” (“Fundaments of Wisdom”). The next year, exploiting public interest in the anticipated return of Halley’s Comet, he published “Sefer Kukba di-Shebit ” (“Comet”), essays on the phenomenon and other topics of astronomy. That was followed in 1838 with “Toledot ha-Shamayim (“The History of the Skies”), in which Slonimski took the liberty of challenging the accuracy of the traditional calculation of the Hebrew calendar.

After moving to Warsaw in 1838, Slonimski met the mathematician and inventor Abraham Jacob Stern, who introduced him to his daughter Sarah. Chaim and Sarah were married in 1842, and when his father-in-law died later that year Slonimski inherited Stern’s innovative designs.

Honorable mention in Stalin boast

Slonimsky actually developed two types of calculators, one for addition and subtraction and one for multiplication. In 1842 the Russian Academy of Sciences awarded him the Demidov Prize for the latter invention, together with a cash prize of 2,500 rubles. He also received honorary citizenship, which allowed him to live outside of the Pale of Settlement to which Jews were normally restricted.

Slonimski tread the fine line that at the time was increasingly seen to separate science from religion, sometimes choosing empirical proof over religious belief. He applied his scientific knowledge to devising a more accurate method of determining the Hebrew calendar as well as a method to determine the route of the “Jewish date line,” in order to calculate the timing of Shabbat and holidays in the Far East and Australasia. That line is now known as Slonimski’s Meridian Line.

He also developed a method for plating iron vessels with an anti-corrosive layer of lead, and a device that allowed for the simultaneous transmission of multiple telegrams.

Ironically, Joseph Stalin was mocked in the United States in 1952 after he claimed that it was a Russian who had beat out America in the 19th century in the development of the telegraph, but in certain respects Stalin — who was no lover of Jews — was correct about Sloinmski.

In 1862, Slonimski founded Hatzefirah, a Hebrew-language newspaper devoted to popular coverage of science, and alternated between editing that and running the state-sponsored rabbinical seminary in Zhitomir. Reflecting the conciliatory approach of the Haskalah, Hatzefirah was written in a tone that tried to make science compatible with traditional Jewish teachings.

Additionally, Slonimski held the post of Hebrew censor for South Russia, a government position that was meant to prevent the publication of politically subversive literature in a language that was indecipherable to non-Jews.

Later, Hatzefirah moved its offices to Berlin, and its editorship was taken over by Nahum Sokolow, under whom it became a more general Zionist publication.