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The Sun’s Path at Night
The Revolution in Rabbinic Perspectives
on the Ptolemaic Revolution
RABBI NATAN SLIFKIN
Copyright © 2010 by Natan Slifkin
This monograph is adapted from an essay that was written as part of the
course requirements for a Master’s degree in Jewish Studies at the Lander
This document may be freely distributed as long as it is distributed complete and intact. If you are reading a printed version of this document and you wish to download it in PDF format, see www.rationalistjudaism.com Cover photograph: An armillary sphere, depicting the Ptolemaic model of the cosmos.
Other monographs available in this series:
The Evolution of the Olive Shiluach HaKein: The Transformation of a Mitzvah The Question of the Kidney’s Counsel Sod Hashem Liyreyav: The Expansion of a Useful Concept Messianic Wonders and Skeptical Rationalists
The Sun’s Path at Night:
The Revolution in Rabbinic Perspectives on the Ptolemaic Revolution Natan Slifkin Introduction The clash between reason and authority has many manifestations. But it comes to the fore with the issue of statements by the Sages of the Talmud concerning the natural world that are subsequently contradicted by science. In traditionalist circles, arguments about this topic have become especially heated in recent years, with many ultra-Orthodox authorities claiming that to attribute such error to the Sages was never a traditional view and is actually heresy.1 Typically, arguments about this topic range far and wide, covering many different statements in the Talmud and Midrash. But there is one short passage in the Talmud—a mere five lines in length—which crystallizes the entire issue. Dealing with an aspect of cosmology that is outdated and obscure from a modern perspective, most students of the Talmud today gloss over it with little comprehension; indeed, the very word “cosmology” (which refers to the structure of the universe) is unfamiliar to many people. Yet when clarified, and the views of rabbinic scholars throughout the centuries on this passage are surveyed, it powerfully illustrates the 1 See www.zootorah.com/controversy for a range of materials relating to such controversies. See too Rabbi Reuven Schmeltzer’s Chaim B’Emunasam, together with its rabbinic endorsements; for a critique of this work, see www.zootorah.com/controversy/chaim.html.
~3~ The Sun’s Path at Night radical transformation that has taken place over the ages with regard to how Jews view the Sages of the Talmud.
Babylonian Vs. Ptolemaic Cosmology The Talmud consecutively relates two disputes between the Jewish and gentile scholars concerning matters of astronomy. The first is with regard to the celestial
sphere which encompasses the earth, and the constellations:
The Rabbis taught: The Sages of Israel say that the sphere is fixed and the constellations revolve [within it], and the scholars of the nations say that the sphere revolves [around the earth] and the constellations are fixed [within it]. (Talmud, Pesachim 94b) As we shall later demonstrate from both general history as well as the interpretations of the Geonim and Rishonim, the view of the Sages of Israel was that of ancient Babylonian cosmology.1 They believed that the earth is a roughly flat disc,2 and the rest of the universe is a hemispherical solid dome fixed above it. The stars move around the surface of this dome; hence, “the [hemi]sphere is fixed and the constellations revolve [within it].” The opposing view, of the scholars of the nations, was that presented by Aristotle and refined by Ptolemy in his Almagest. In this view, the earth is a perfect sphere, and the rest of the universe is a larger sphere3 which encompasses it and revolves around it. The stars are permanently embedded in the surface of the larger sphere, and move along with it; hence, “the sphere revolves and the constellations are fixed.” There are those who doubt whether the dispute between the Sages of Israel and the sages of the nations was as we have described it. However, if we look at the very next lines of the Talmud, we will be able to show that this is clearly the case. This is because it presents a set of arguments which we find elsewhere. The Talmud cites the
following discussion by Rebbi (R. Yehudah HaNasi) and Rav Acha bar Yaakov:
1 See Wolfgang Heimpel, “The Sun at Night and the Doors of Heaven in Babylonian Texts,” and Moshe Simon-Shoshan, “The Heavens Proclaim the Glory of God – A Study in Rabbinic Cosmology.” 2 More precisely, they believed it to be slightly raised at the center, with the Land of Israel at the apex, and Jerusalem at the very center of the apex (Talmud, Kiddushin 69a and Sanhedrin 87a; Midrash Sifri, Ekev 1). See too the statement of the Talmud, Shabbos 65b, regarding rainfall in Israel resulting in a rise in the Euphrates (and see the comments of Rashi and Tosafos ad loc.).
3 More precisely, a series of larger spheres.
Rebbi said: A response to their words is that we have never found the Great Bear constellation in the south and the Scorpion constellation in the north. Rav Acha bar Yaakov objected: But perhaps it is like the axle of a millstone, or the hinges of a door socket. (Talmud, Pesachim 94b) An identical set of arguments is found in the writings of Cosmas Indicopleustes of Alexandria, a sixth-century monk, in a polemic against those who believed in a spherical earth. Cosmas presents the same argument used by Rebbi and pre-empts
Rav Acha bar Yaakov’s counter-argument:
But you will most effectually rebuke them if you say: Why does that [celestial] sphere of yours not revolve from the north to the south, or from some other quarter to its opposite? …But if, again, it rolls and rotates always in the same spot without moving from place to place, then it must be upheld by supports like a turner's lathe, or an artificial globe, or on an axle like a machine or a wagon. And if so, then we must again inquire by what the supports and axles are themselves upheld, and so on ad infinitum… When these problems then concerning the nature of things are discussed, there remains the conclusion, as we said before, that the heaven is fixed and does not revolve. (Christian Topography, part I) Cosmas Indicopleustes uses the same terminology as the Talmud. Like Rebbi, he argues that if the universe was a celestial sphere revolving around the earth, in which the constellations are embedded, then the constellations should move all over the place, and yet some constellations are always found in the north, and others always in the south. He notes that there is a counter-argument—in the Talmud, voiced by Rav Acha bar Yaakov—that the sphere has a north-south axis around which the rotation takes place, but argues that this axis itself would require support. Since the identical arguments are used, we can see that the Jewish and gentile sages were indeed involved in the dispute between the ancient Babylonian cosmology and the newer Ptolemaic model.
The Talmud immediately continues to relate another difference of opinion between
the Jewish and gentile scholars:
The Sages of Israel say, During the day, the sun travels below the firmament, and at night, above the firmament. And the scholars of the nations say, During the day the sun travels below the firmament, and at night below the ground. Rebbi said: Their words seem more correct than ours, for during the day the wellsprings are cool and at night they steam (due to being heated by the sun passing beneath them—Rashi).
(Talmud, ibid.) This is a corollary of the first dispute. Consistent with the ancient Babylonian cosmology, the Jewish Sages believed that when the sun sets, it cannot continue downwards, and it must instead change direction. First it enters the firmament horizontally, and then after passing through the firmament, it changes direction ~5~ The Sun’s Path at Night again, rising up to pass behind the firmament back to the east. The gentile scholars, on the other hand, knew that the world is spherical and that the universe (or “celestial sphere,” in their model) surrounds it on all sides, and thus the sun can make a full orbit around the earth. This time, instead of disputing the view of the gentile scholars, R. Yehudah HaNasi acknowledges that their description appears correct, since it would account for the mist rising up in the morning from natural bodies of water; he believed this mist to be steam caused by the sun heating the water from beneath.
The dotted line depicts the path of the sun, according to the view of the Jewish sages.
From citations of these passages by some medieval Talmudists, it is clear that there were variant texts, some of which we shall later discuss.1 However, these need not concern us here; in any case, the text in our version of the Talmud appears to be the most accurate, and is consistent with the arguments appearing in non-Jewish works of the period. By conceding to the gentile scholars, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi was accepting the Ptolemaic system, which, while in error concerning goecentricity, was vastly closer to reality than the Babylonian system. His intellectual honesty is all the more striking in light of the fact that in the first dispute, he presented an argument to bolster the Babylonian cosmology.
The ancient Babylonian cosmology held by the Jewish sages appears in many places
in the Talmud,2 such as in the following discussion:
It was taught in a Beraita: Rabbi Eliezer says, the world is like an exedra, and the northern side is not enclosed, and when the sun reaches the north-western corner, it 1 Rabbi Menachem Kasher discusses the variant texts in “The Form of the Earth and its Relationship to the Sun in the Works of Chazal and the Rishonim” (Hebrew) Talpiyot Year One Vols. 1-2 (Sivan
5705) pp. 155-176. We shall later discuss Kasher’s conclusions.
2 See Azariah de Rossi, Me’or Einayim, Imrei Binah 1:11; Menachem Kasher, “Shabbat Bereishit VeShabbat Sinai,” pp. 636-639; Gad ben-Ami Tzarfati, “Talmudic Cosmography,” and Moshe Simon-Shoshan, “The Heavens Proclaim the Glory of God—A Study in Rabbinic Cosmology.” There are also certain statements in the Talmud and Midrashim that may indicate that some Sages realized the earth to be spherical.
~6~ The Sun’s Path at Night bends back and rises above the firmament. And Rabbi Yehoshua says, the world is like a tent, and the northern side is enclosed, and when the sun reaches the northwestern corner, it circles around and returns on the other side of the dome, as it says, “traveling to the south, and circling to the north…” (Eccl. 1:6)—traveling to the south by day, and circling to the north by night—“it continually passes around, and the wind returns again to its circuits” (ibid.)—this refers to the eastern and western sides, which the sun sometimes passes around and sometimes traverses. (Bava Batra 25a-b) Maharsha explains that Rabbi Eliezer follows the sages of Israel and Rabbi Yehoshua follows the gentile sages.1 However, it appears that this is not exactly correct. Rabbi Eliezer’s view is indeed consistent with that of the sages of Israel, 2 but R. Yehoshua is not saying that the sun passes below the earth at night, in a circular route; rather, he is of the view that the sun moves horizontally along the northern edge of the celestial dome.3 This is consistent with how others present the view of the Babylonian cosmology. Severianus, Bishop of Gabala (d. 408), wrote that the earth is flat and the sun does not pass under it in the night, but travels through the northern
parts “as if hidden by a wall.”4 The same view is stated by Cosmas Indicopleustes:
These things being so we shall say, agreeably to what we find in divine scripture, that the sun issuing from the east traverses the sky in the south and ascends northwards, and becomes visible to the whole of the inhabited world. But as the northern and western summit intervenes it produces night in the ocean beyond this earth of ours, and also in the earth beyond the ocean; then afterwards when the sun is in the west, where he is hidden by the highest portion of the earth, and runs his course over the ocean through the northern parts, his presence there makes it night for us, until in describing his orbit he comes again to the east, and again ascending the southern sky illumines the inhabited world, as the divine scripture says through the divine Solomon: “The sun riseth and the sun goeth down and hasteth to his own place. Rising there, he goeth to the south, and wheeleth his circuit, and the wind turneth round to his circuits.” (Christian Topography, part II) In the Midrash, the dispute appears with some of the Sages following the
Babylonian cosmology and others having adopted the Ptolemaic cosmology:
How do the orbs of the sun and moon set? R. Yehudah b. R. La’i and the rabbis [disagree]. R. Yehudah says, behind the dome and above it. The rabbis say, behind the dome and below it. R. Yonatan said: The words of R. Yehudah b. R. La’i appear 1 Maharasha to Bava Batra 25b and also to Bava Batra 74b, s.v. “Amar leih ma’or gadol ra’iti.” 2 As Azariah de Rossi (Me’or Einayim, Imrei Binah 1:11) points out, this is also consistent with numerous statements of his in Pirkei d’Rebbi Eliezer.
3 Gad ben-Ami Tzarfati, “Three Notes on the Words of the Tanna’im,” p. 141.
4 Reference from John L. Dreyer, A History of Planetary Systems, p. 211.
~7~ The Sun’s Path at Night [correct] in the summer, when the entire world is hot and the wellsprings are cool, and the words of the rabbis, that it sets below the dome in the winter, when the whole world is cold and the wellsprings are warm. R. Shimon b. Yochai said: We do not know if they fly up in the air and scrape the firmament, or if they travel as usual;
the matter is exceedingly difficult and it is impossible for humans to determine.