The Tzemach David

Note the goose emerging from the Star of David on the tombstone of David Gans (1541-1613)

The Tzemach David

People Of The Book:  Classic Works Of The Jewish Tradition

(This article originally appeared in the Five Towns Jewish Times on February 11, 2016.)

David Gans (1541–1613) was a scientist and a rabbi in an age when the dual pursuit of these intellectual passions was a life-threatening occupation. He studied Torah under Rabbi Moshe Isserles in Cracow and the Maharal of Prague, and his expertise in astronomy was so formidable that he collaborated with Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe.

Rabbi Gans made a signal contribution to this field by translating the Alphonsine tables from Hebrew into German. Originally compiled in 1252 by a commission of Jewish and Muslim scholars for King Alphonso X, the Wise of Spain, these navigational charts were essential to the seafaring nation, and Jewish astronomers had been updating them for centuries in Hebrew. (Columbus relied on the version prepared by Joseph Vecinho, one of many Jewish contributions to the discovery of the New World.)

Despite the obvious advantages of the emerging scientific wisdom of the era, the Catholic Church reacted with a terrifying fanaticism, burning Converso Jews and Christian scientists alike for suggesting that the earth revolved around the sun. Even the supposedly more moderate Protestant Church arrested Kepler’s aged mother and tried her as a witch.

The work of David Gans, by contrast, illustrates the scope of academic freedom in the Jewish world. Following Maimonides, the bulk of Jewish thinkers favored the establishment Ptolemaic vision of a flat earth surrounded on all sides by water, with a heavenly parade of celestial orbs circling this stable center. Scattered early references to the spherical shape of the world, however, were increasingly confirmed by the age of exploration, including the remarkably prescient passage in the Zohar III 10a: “The earth is round as a globe . . . Revolutions make it daytime in one half and night in the other . . . There are places where it is perpetually light and places where it is perpetually dark.” Gans did not completely accept all the implications of the new Copernican, heliocentric model, but he engaged fully in the intellectual commerce of the late 16th and early 17th centuries with a refreshing open-mindedness tempered by traditional learning.

His most important contribution to Jewish studies is the highly original Tzemach David (“Shoot of David,” 1592). As fascinated by history as he was by science, he composed a one-volume history of the world, divided into two parts. The first explored the history of the Jews from Adam to the late 16th century, relying heavily on the limited historical studies produced till then, such as the ancient work of Josephus and the medieval Hebrew version, Yosippon. The second and larger section is a survey of world history, using secular calendars. Interestingly, he defends his work as appropriate Sabbath reading, relying on the ruling of his early master the Rema in Orach Chaim 307:1.

By modern standards, Tzemach David is more of a chronicle than a history, with the events presented simply in linear, chronological format with limited interpretive content. The bifurcation of Jewish and secular history is reflective of a Jewish Weltanschauung common even today: Jews move in history, but are not of history, a view that modern historians consider as retrograde as Ptolemaic astronomy. Nevertheless, Tzemach David is a pioneering work, especially valuable for the study of Ashkenazic Jewish history.

David Gans is also known for his popularization of the six-pointed Star of David, a symbol first associated with the Jews of Prague some 100 years prior. (The legends that the Magen David decorated the shields of King David’s troops have no literary basis.) Gans saw in the star, with its repeating symmetries of two overlapping equilateral triangles, a symbol for the mathematical perfection of G‑d’s universe. His gravestone in Prague is thus proudly adorned with a Magen David, surmounted by a line drawing of a goose: his family name in Hebrew was Avuz, translated into German as Gans (goose).

This article originally appeared in the Five Towns Jewish Times on February 11, 2016.

3 thoughts on “The Tzemach David

Add yours

  1. What an insightful article. I enjoyed the lecture, but I also like to be able to read it and reflect upon the information being presented. It no longer astounds me that you’re able to teach the truth from history when it conflicts with religious beliefs. I’ve learned something about our people and that we are a lot more tolerant and appreciate being told the truth, even if it shatters long held beliefs that are not grounded in historical evidence.

    May the One G-d protect you and keep you.

  2. You wrote:’The legends that the Magen David decorated the shields of King David’s troops have no literary basis.’ I disagree. What about the theory that (given the letter D in ancient Hebrew resembled a triangle) David simply created a short-hand version of his name by placing the first letter D unto the last letter D upside down- thus creating the world’s first Magen David? Here are some references-

    The “six pointed star” is made up of two inverted superimposed paleo-Hebrew “daleths” (delets), the beginning and ending letter in King David’s name.

    – The Star of David – Defending the Shield, Flying Chariot Ministries,

    One theory, of the origin of the Star of David, is that it was a family crest of the House of David. The crest was supposedly created by the way the name, David, would have been spelled with Hebrew letters specifically using the letter which is called Dalet. (Hebrew Alphabet). It is also said that the two triangles represent the ruling tribes; one of Judah and the inverted triangle, the former ruling tribe of Benjamin. The dalet and the yud being the two letters of significance.

    – Star of David – Creation Star, (

    Israeli Researcher Uri Ofir mentions a theory which is found in the literature, that King David adopted this form as his emblem because of its special form which fitted his name. In ancient Hebrew (Daatz writing) the letter “d” (dalet) was written in the form of a triangle and in the name David there are two triangles (two characters of d)… In the Hebrew alphabet, the letter for the letter “d” is called a dalet, and it looks triangular. Since David’s name had 2 dalets in it, the ancient Israelites used two dalets, with one of them turned (which would loosely approximate a hexagonal star), to represent that they were the armies of David.

    – Phoenician alphabet, by Zeevveez,


    The combination triangles of the Star of David, (Sometimes called the “Shield of David”) goes back David himself, the formation of the triangles having been taking from the ancient Hebraic signature of King David. The 3 letters of his name, Daled, Waw, Daled, by extension compose a double triangle. Thus it is representative of Messiah. In the modem Hebrew aleph-bet (alphabet), the ‘d’ sound is represented by the dalet, which looks like a backward ‘r’. In the ancient Hebrew alephbet, the dalet looked like a triangle [A].

    The Star of David (also called the Shield of David) was made up of these two triangular dalets. The warriors of pagan nations going to war, would paint dragons, snakes, or other frightening looking creatures on their shields.

    Israelites chose to use the Star of David – the two dalets which contained the first and last letters of King David’s name. King David had the reputation of being “a great man of war,” and this struck terror into the hearts of Israel’s adversaries.

    – Anoint the Magen David, Tom Campbell,,ks/page38.html

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: