The Newton You Never Knew

The Newton You Never Knew
by Dr. Arnie Gotfryd

“In science, the search is only for the physical root and source of things whereas through Torah, one can discern the spiritual root.

In this way, one can also know the purpose of this object’s creation, in accordance with the divine will as He revealed it to us in His Torah.” – The Rebbe, Mind Over Matter, p.171

Dr. Gotfryd,

I just received your email about Newton and thought I would share this dvar Torah I gave last year at my (Chabad) shul in Atlanta, Ga.

Samuel Silver.
Dear Readers,

Here’s an extract of that fascinating and enlightening talk Reb Sam gave in honor of his fathers Yartzeit. AG
Sir Isaac Newton, probably the greatest scientist in the history of the world, was coincidentally born on December 25 in 1642. He is best known for his monumental scientific achievements:

By age 22, Newton was the greatest mathematician in the history of the world, although he kept this secret and didn’t publish his invention of Calculus for another 40 years. His Calculus and other mathematical creations are still used today.In the field of Optics, Newton (using a prism) established the heterogeneity of light and developed our understanding of color. Everything we know about light and color, from the color of the sky, to the formation of rainbows, to color vision is based on Newton. He also invented the reflecting telescope which is still today the basis for almost all large land and space based telescopes.Anyone who has studied physics has learned Newton’s three laws of motion, still fundamental to our understanding of the physical world.
Law of InertiaLaw of Acceleration Law of reciprocal actions: For every action force there is an equal, but opposite, reaction force.

Newton is probably most famous for his discovery of the universal principle of gravitation, possibly as a he sat under an apple tree contemplating the motion of the planets and stars in heaven. He also developed the quantitative law of gravity. With these, he created his “system of the world” to explain the phenomena of heaven and earth in a single mathematical system.

What drove Newton to understand the physical world? This was a man who studied, usually alone 18 hours a day, 7 days a week for most of his life. What was he looking for?

It is only in recent years that we are learning Newton’s great secret – a secret that would have destroyed his career during his lifetime and is not being favorably received by modern secularists.

Upon his death in 1727, a big box of unusual papers was discovered in his room. Bishop Samuel Horsley, who was also a scientist, “was asked to inspect the box with view to publication. He saw the contents with horror and slammed the lid…” shut.[1]

Newton left these papers to his niece, and they sat in the family home unread for two centuries. None of the great universities or libraries was interested. Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, and the British Library all turned down offers for a donation. They were eventually sold at public auction in 1936 where they were spread around the world, but three main collections remained together:

John Maynard Keynes, the British great economist, eventually donated his to Kings College at Cambridge.The Babson family in America, donated to MIT.[2]And Israeli Professor Avraham Shalom Yahuda’s collection, now at the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem.

It’s only in the past 20-25 years that these manuscripts have been made available, and scholars are still working on them. Unfortunately many others have not yet been found and may have been destroyed or lost forever.

The first and for many years only public statement about these papers was from Keynes, who in 1946 after reading through the papers he had bought, wrote that Newton was “a Judaic monotheist of the school of Maimonides. He arrived at this conclusion, not on so-to-speak rational or sceptical grounds, but entirely on the interpretation of ancient authority. He was persuaded that the revealed documents give no support to the Trinitarian doctrines which were due to late falsification. The revealed G-d was one G-d.”[3]

For Newton, the “ancient authority” in the “revealed documents” was our guide to the ultimate truth of the physical world, of what he called “true religion,” and of the one true G-d that not only created the universe, but “rules all things… as the Lord of all.”[4]

Like Thomas Jefferson after him, Newton was a Unitarian, a controversial Christian who rejected the concept of the Trinity.

To quote Jose Faur, a Jewish scholar who has studied Newton’s papers: “The papers reveal that Newton was a strict monotheist. He saw no need for a new revelation and rebuffed the Christian notion of atonement and salvation. Siding with Rabbinic tradition and contra Christian doctrine, he maintained that the Noahide precepts alone suffice for salvation, and thus there is no need for J—-‘ expiatory death. …Newton was resolute in his belief that the Law of Moses was not abrogated with the advent of Christianity… Therefore, the Christian Scripture must be understood in light of the Hebrew Scripture, and not the other way around.”[5]

Now you can understand why the Bishop slammed shut the lid on that box![6]

Professor Bernard Cohen, probably the foremost authority on Newton in the United States, sums up his interpretation of Newton by declaring: “Of course, Newton had a real secret, and concerning it he did his best to keep the world in ignorance.” He intended to uphold the theology and cosmology of the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides. Cohen argues that this medieval synthesis of biblical religion with the philosophy of Aristotle constituted the ideal of Newton.

Newton’s library contained far more books on theology than on any other subject. He was not as expert in Hebrew as other British scholars such as one of his sources, John Selden, or to a lesser degree his friend John Locke; so many of his books were Latin translations of Jewish works, most notable Maimonides’ Mishne Torah and other seforim such as Seder Olam and Abravanel’s commentary on Leviticus. He also studied Kaballah, but through secondary sources.[7]

Jose Faur also tells us that: “Newton’s knowledge of Rabbinics was neither casual nor superficial. To illustrate, when expounding the apocalyptic conflict of Gog and Magog, Newton refers to the Targum or Aramaic Version of Esther, as well as to Vayikra Rabba, and the commentaries of Se’adya Gaon and Ibn `Ezra. In a discussion of a Rabbinic passage, Newton records the opinion of R. Aharon ha-Levi, the supposed author of Sefer ha-Hinnukh, and his disagreement with Rashi on the matter at hand.’ He also refers to the… Sifra as well as to the position of R. Aharon ibn Hayyim (born c. 1560), the author of Qorban Aharon. Later on, he discusses Seder Ma’amadot (the participation of the Israelites in the daily sacrifices) and quotes the opinion of Bertinoro on the Mishna Yoma (7:1). There are extensive copies inNewton’s own hand of passages from the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmud in Latin.”[8]

While it appears that he did not have a complete translation of Moreh Nevuchim, one of his most “dog eared” volumes is a Latin commentary on Maimonides that includes many references to the Moreh which was Maimonides’ attempt to reconcile Torah with science and the philosophy of Aristotle.

Most people have no idea how influential Rambam and Jewish thought were in the development of western civilization, especially after the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century. For example, Newton along with other 17th Century scholars such as John Selden and Hugo Grotius who were the founders of International Law, accepted the seven Noachide Laws as the basis for civilization and all quote Rambam as their source.

I need to point out that Newton was not a crypto-Jew nor probably even philo-Semitic. As far as we know, he never even met a living Jew, even though they began returning to England during his lifetime.[9]

His study of and admiration for Jewish thought was a result of his belief in the validity of Biblical Scripture and Prophecy. As a Newton expert states, “Newton’s pursuit of the truths hidden in Nature is what made him famous, but his pursuit of truths hidden in Scripture was at least as important to him; both conceal aspects of the same truth.”[10] “The Key Element in all Newton’s theological pursuits is the action of the Supreme G-d’s Providence in history, particularly that of the ancient Jews and the Christian church which emerged from them.”[11]

One of Newton’s main areas of study was the physical dimensions and configuration of the Mishkan and Temples. He especially focused on the third Temple using the book of Yechezkel – Ezekiel, which contains detailed prophecies related to the third Temple to be built in Messianic times.

Newton looked at the Mishkan and the Temples as the Jews did – a representation of the universe as created by G-d. In manuscript after manuscript he made detailed analyses and drawings trying to understand the hidden meanings.
He worked out an analysis of the amah or cubit, titled, “A Dissertation upon the Sacred Cubit of the Jews and Cubits of the several Nations.”[12] Newton was especially interested in the cubit as he thought it would allow him to determine the exact circumference of the earth in his studies on gravity. He believed that the Great Pyramid at Giza was built using the cubit as its basic unit of measurement, and he believed the Egyptians had learned the secret of Solomon’s Temple from Hiram the Phoenician king of Tyre who Solomon hired to assist in the construction.[13]

He also believed Jewish ideas were the basis for Greek mathematics and philosophy. In his Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended, he studied world history and determined that the Greeks had falsely predated their history by 300-400 years to cover-up that they had received their ideas in mathematics and philosophy from the Jews. For example, he hypothesized that Plato traveled to Egypt where he made contact with Jews.

In the introduction to his Chronology, Newton stated that “The Greek Antiquities are full of poetical fictions, because the Greeks wrote nothing in Prose, before the conquest of Asia by Cyrus the Persian.” He also points out what he calls “uncertainties” in the chronology of the Romans.

One of the fascinating conclusions of Newton was that the configuration of the Temple with the altar as a central point “was a reflection of the cosmic, heliocentric harmony of G-d’s universe.”[14] He believed the ancient Jews knew the sun was the center of the Solar System!

Newton’s friend John Locke reported a conversation where Newton explained the creation of matter by G-d as a process of drawing back – what we know as tzimtzum. Newton’s view of Kabbalah is still being debated by scholars, but it appears he believed the original Kabbalah had been corrupted by the idolatrous Egyptians in their contact with the Jews, and this corruption led to mistakes in Greek philosophy and especially Christianity where he attributed the erroneous idea of the Trinity to kabbalistic concepts of emanation,[15] neither of which I understand nor can explain.

Another interesting point is that Newton believed G-d created and continues to create all matter, constantly and everywhere. Some have attributed his source to Kabbalah, but it appears he developed it without recourse to Kabbalah, and in the secret manuscripts he blames Kabbalists for confusing this point – leading to a belief in primordial matter instead of Creation from nothing.

How today’s secularists and strident atheists will deal with the idea of the world’s greatest scientist being such a devout believer in G-d and divinely revealed scripture is still to be determined. But already, in G-d is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens attacks Newton as a religious fool who dabbled in alchemy.[16] What Hitchens omits is that serious scientists are now recreating Newton’s experiments which he indeed called alchemy. Instead of a mystical quest to create a “philosopher’s stone” to turn lead into gold, these scientists believe Newton was using ancient texts to develop a theory of matter, and his experiments anticipated modern chemistry.[17]

In summary, it is interesting that arguably the greatest scientist of all time, devoted his life to uncovering the secrets of Creation provided by G-d. Along with Rambam, he saw no conflict between science and G-d’s revealed Truth in scripture, providence, and the physical world.


[1] Quoted from Keynes in Bernard Cohen’s Franklin and Newton, p. 67.

[2] The Keynes and Yahuda papers seem to be the most theologically oriented.

[3] From Keynes’ 1946 article, “Newton the Man”, quoted in Newton, Maimonides, and esoteric knowledge. By: Faur, Jose. Cross Currents, Winter90/9.

[4] General Scholium, an appendix to Newton’s Principia Mathematica.

[5] Jose Faur, “NEWTON, MAIMONIDEAN,”  Review of Rabbinic Judaism, Volume 6, Numbers 2-3 / August, 2003

[6]Since some of Newton’s theological ideas were known by a few Newton specialists, “it became fashionable to assume Newton the young genius had had a nervous breakdown in his fifties” which impaired his intellect. Matt Goldfish, Judaism in the Theology of Sir Isaac Newton, p. 6, note 12.

[7] Newton’s main source of Kabbalah seems to be his friend, Henry More’s Kabbala denudata. He thought Plato might have met kabbalists in Egypt. Matt Goldfish, p.146. [Tzvi Freeman writes that More rejected the Kabbala Denudata, ed.]

[8] Newton, Maimonides, and esoteric knowledge.

[9] The Jews had been expelled from England in 1290 and were only allowed to begin returning under Cromwell in 1655 due to the heroic efforts of Menasseh ben Israel.

[10] Goldfish, P. 11

[11] Ibid

[12] There are several types of cubits (Amah’s) in the Torah. According to the Na’eh scale, the standard Amah id 18.9′, while the Chazon Ish calculates it at 22.7″. However, there were special measurements used in the Temple which were a little longer. See Steinsaltz’ Reference Guide to The Talmud. Newton determined that the special cubit used in Ezekiel’s Temple and Mishkan was between 22½” and 23″ (English inches). In Ezekiel (40:5), the cubit is defined as “a cubit and a handbreadth.” Instead of the normal 5 handbreadths, the sacred cubit used in the Temple was 6 handbreadths.

[13] Garry Trompf, Isaac Newton and the Kabbalistic Noah, p.110.

[14] Goldfish. P. 94

[15] He also thought the corrupted Kabbalah created mistakes in Judaism, but I have yet understood these. Newton had a major debate with Leibniz (who rejected his theory of gravity) on whether creation was ex nihilo or prime matter existed. Modern scholars think Leibniz was influenced by Kabbalah, which was one of the sources of Newton’s problem with him. See Goldfish, pp. 155-157.

[16] Hitchens, God is Not Great, p. 65. In trying to write-off religious scientists, he writes, “Sir Isaac Newton, for example, was a spiritualist and alchemist of a particularly laughable kind.”

[17] See “Alchemy and Theory of Matter,” Part 7 of Newton, edited by I. Bernard Cohen and Richard S. Westfall, Norton Critical Edition, 1995.


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