In the early Middle Ages, the global Jewish community was basically divided between those living in lands controlled by the church and those in lands controlled by the Arabs. The dominant cultures in which they lived affected both the customs and the language of Jews in those countries. Many of the greatest Jewish scholars of this era actually wrote in Arabic or Judeo-Arabic.
The language disparity between the Jewish communities gave rise to a unique group of scholar – translators. Among this group there was one fascinating family – the ibn Tibbons. The patriarch of this translating clan was Judah ben Saul ibn Tibbon. A Jewish physician from Granada, he left Muslim controlled Granada in the mid-twelfth century after persecution had begun, and relocated to Lunel in southern France. There, Judah taught his sons the art of translating, and they went on to attain wide renown.
Samuel ben Judah is best-known for translating Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed from Arabic to Hebrew. His work of translation later had to be defended by Samuel’s son Moses and his grandson Judah against those who found the philosophical work of Maimonides heretical.
Jacob ben Machir ben Judah ibn Tibbon (1236-1304) was, perhaps, the most famous of the ibn Tibbon family. In addition to translating many works of scientific and philosophical subjects, he was also an astronomer of great note. In Provence, France, he was called Don Pro Fiat Tibbon, in Latin Profatius Judaeus. Jacob created an astronomical quadrant (a type of astrolabe) and an astronomical table beginning in 1300.
The ibn Tibbons not only helped cross the divide between Jewish communities, they also were instrumental in bringing the ancient knowledge of the Greeks and Romans back to Western society. These works had been translated from Greek to Arabic, and the Jewish translators then translated them to Hebrew, making them accessible to be translated to Latin.