Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Firming and Flattening of the Firmament

This is a long post, but a very important one, so please bear with me!

The story so far: About two weeks ago, I published my monograph The Sun's Path at Night, which discusses the Sages' view that the sun passes behind the sky at night - with the sky being believed to be a solid dome. It emerged that ALL of the Rishonim without exception, as well as many Acharonim, agreed that Chazal held this view. Only beginning with figures such as Maharal and Ramchal did people attempt to reinterpret Chazal - but there is no reason not to accept that the view of all the Rishonim and many Acharonim is correct.

Last week, I pointed out that Chazal's belief in a firmament was not merely of halachic interest to them, but was also how they interpreted the Torah itself, in its mention of the rakia and Shamayim. This was especially significant for those who oppose the belief in the universe developing over billions of years and evolution due to these notions going against Jewish tradition. For aside from the fact that Jewish rationalist tradition was clearly to interpret Genesis in such a way that we do not need to deny scientific facts, the topic of the rakia presented another argument: That even these staunch traditionalists are going against Jewish tradition in their acceptance that there is no firmament and that Chazal's and the Rishonim's view of the rakia was incorrect.

Now, I've been at this game long enough to realize that one can never, ever use arguments to convince anti-rationalists that they are wrong; they are always creative enough to come up with something. But I was curious to know what it would be. Would they resort to saying that all the Rishonim and numerous Acharonim misunderstood Chazal?

They came up with something else instead. In the comments on this blog, as well as on one of the anti-Slifkin blogs (it's a strange sort of honor to have websites that are singularly dedicated to opposing one's views), they came up with the following: True, Chazal mistakenly believed the rakia to be a solid dome. However, this is not part of the mesorah, since this was not their Torah tradition. Rather, it was a case of their using contemporary scientific knowledge to shed light on the Torah. And Rambam says that astronomical matters were matters for which there was no mesorah.

To this, I responded as follows: Throughout the Gemara, we find countless examples of Chazal using Torah to shed light on knowledge of the natural world. But we never (to my knowledge) find them using knowledge of the natural world to explain the words and concepts of Tenach! Furthermore, since in the ancient world everyone believed that the sky is solid, there is no question that when each of the Sages received their Torah education from their parents and teachers, they were taught that the rakia is a solid firmament - as were their parents and teachers in turn.

As for quoting Rambam that there was no mesorah on astronomical matters - first of all, the idea of my opponents taking Rambam as the final word on mesorah is quite funny. Rambam, who claims that the mesorah of Judaism is largely identical to Greco-Muslim philosophy?! In any case, Rambam's statement is with regard to astronomical matters that Chazal had to figure out in order to create and apply halachos, not with regard to cosmology - the basic structure of the world and the meaning of basic words and concepts in the Torah.

But let's learn a little more about Chazal's view of the rakia. As we will see, it is definitely a case of their using Torah to shed light on science, not the other way around. Please note that this post is not discussing yours or my view of the meaning of rakia, which will be the subject of a future post, but rather Chazal's view of the meaning of rakia - and please keep all comments on that point.

The main discussion is in the Talmud Yerushalmi, at the beginning of Maseches Berachos. After discussing how the sun passes through the thickness of the firmament after sunset (before circling around behind it), the Gemara quotes a range of views about how thick the firmament actually is. It then discusses the distances between the land and the firmament, and between the firmament and the "upper waters" (I will discuss the nature of the "upper waters" in a future post). Then, since it cited the verse "Let there be a firmament," it brings the following discussion about that verse (and a similar version is found in Midrash Bereishis Rabbah 4:2):

Rav said: The heavens were fluid on the first day, and they congealed on the second day, as Rav said: "Let there be a rakia" means "Let the rakia become solid, let it become congealed, let it become encased, let it become taut."


The commentaries explain that Rav is addressing the difficulty that if the heavens were already created on the first day, what exactly happened on the second day when God created the firmament - which the Torah identifies as being the heavens? Rav is thus answering that the heavens were only created on the first day in fluid form; it was on the second day that they solidified into the firmament.

But how did Rav know this? The Perush Charedim says that he is deriving it from "Let there be," which implies giving it substance and strength. A different explanation is given by Radal (on the Midrash), who explains that Rav is deriving it from the actual word "rakia" (which is only introduced on Day Two). Rakia refers to something solid, as we see in the passuk, "Can you help Him tarkia the heavens, firm as a mirror of cast metal?" (Iyov 37:18).

The Yerushalmi and Midrash also bring another answer to the question of what exactly happened to the heavens on the second day:

Rabbi Yudeh ben Pazi said: ["Let there be a rakia" means] "Let the rakia become like a cloth." This is just as it is said, "They flattened out (וירקעו) sheets of gold" (Shemos 39:3).


The commentaries explain that Rabbi Yudeh ben Pazi is following the view that the heavens were created on Day One as a single drop. Thus, what happened on Day Two is that they were stretched out flat like a cloth. He derives this from the passuk which shows that rakia, as a verb, refers to flattening out gold i.e. taking a lump and stretching it out in two dimensions.

The Gemara continues:

It was taught in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua: The thickness of the firmament is as the width of two fingers. But the words of Rabbi Chanina dispute this, as Rabbi Acha said in the name of Rabbi Chanina: It says, "Can you help Him tarkia the heavens, firm as a mirror of cast metal?" (Iyov 37:18) - Tarkia means that they were made as a thin sheet of metal (i.e. less than the width of two fingers). I might think that they are not strong - therefore it teaches us, "firm"; I might think that they sag with time, therefore it teaches us "like a mirror of cast metal" - that every moment they appear as freshly cast.


The Gemara then cites some related exegeses:

Rabbi Yochanan says: Ordinarily, when a person stretches out a tent, it sags after time; but here, "He stretched [the heavens], like a tent in which to dwell" (Yeshayah 40:22), and it is written "firm" (Iyov ibid.) Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish says: Ordinarily, when a person casts vessels, they eventually rust; but here, "like a mirror of cast metal" - that at every moment, they appear as freshly cast (i.e. as beautiful as when originally made).


From all this, a few things are evident. First of all, Chazal used derashos to derive knowledge about various aspects of the firmament - how it was made, its dimensions, and so on. Now, some people might define mesorah as being "that which was received since Sinai," and they might further claim that such derashos do not fall into that category. But I find it hard to believe that my traditionalist opponents are ready to write off so many of Chazal's derashos (and there's no reason why it would be limited to only these) as being "not part of the mesorah." (When Chazal make a derashah that the four animals with one kosher sign are the only such species, can this also be simply written off as "not part of the mesorah"? I look forward to Rav Shlomo Miller suggesting that!)

The second point is that, while Chazal used these derashos to derive knowledge about specific aspects relating to the firmament, it was obvious to them all that the basic nature of the firmament is something hard and flat; after all, there are numerous explicit pesukim describing the nature of the firmament, as well as other pesukim which shed light upon the basic etymology of the word. That's not to claim that there aren't those in recent times who explain these sources differently. But Chazal's traditions were clearly in accordance with the straightforward meaning.

In a future post, I will bring further pesukim which shed light on the nature of the rakia, as well as a variety of other sources. But it's clear that Chazal's mesorah was that the rakia is a solid body that is stretched in two dimensions - otherwise known as a firmament. Does this cause a religious problem? If you're a traditionalist, it certainly does, which is why they have to find a way to weasel out of this. But following the rationalist approach of certain Torah authorities, this does not pose a problem at all, as I shall later explain.

28 comments:

  1. I would like to point out that in the same Yerushalmi you are refering to where the thickness of the firmament is being discussed, it then goes right into how big the tree in the garden of eden was and it says it was enormous (I dont have it right in front of me at the moment but it is on the same length scales as the heaven seperations). Now are you saying that Chazal really beleived that the tree in eden was that big? And if they were refering metephorically in that regard, who is to say they werent being metephorical in the dome thickness discussion?

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  2. Maybe I'm reading into it, but can the "starting as a drop and spreading like a cloth" opinion be equated to the current theory of the universe perpetually expanding from one point?
    Perhaps at some point there could have been a mesora of science, but because of the necessary use of parables to explain the concepts, actual understanding and 'truth' got lost/split/taken literally and then ran with. (Similar to several comments on Iyuv, or Yechizkayhu, i.e many of the prophecies that havnt necessarily come true).

    Just a thought.

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  3. Reuven Meir - How do you know that they didn't believe the tree to be that big? It appears that they may have believed Eden to be a gigantic subterranean location.

    Besides, even IF the dimensions of the tree are metaphorical, it doesn't mean that the discussion about the firmament is metaphorical. (And what is it a metaphor for?) As we see in Pesachim, they definitely believed that the firmament is solid. And the question about what was created on Day One vs. Day Two certainly exists. So there's no reason not to take this discussion at face value. Furthermore, they based it on Pesukim, and use it for halachic discussion. Nor do I know of any classic commentator that does not take it at face value.

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  4. can the "starting as a drop and spreading like a cloth" opinion be equated to the current theory of the universe perpetually expanding from one point?

    Nope. The point is that it spreads flat, in two dimensions. And they wouldn't have said that it is still expanding - the "stretching" started and finished on Day Two.

    Perhaps at some point there could have been a mesora of science,

    Any reason to believe that, or any evidence of it?

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  5. IIUC, your interlocutors maintain that Chazal were wrong about this matter of science because it wasn't part of the mesorah.

    R' Aharon Feldman on the other hand maintains a very different view:
    Why does mainstream opinion reject R.Avraham’s opinion? This is not because they considered the Sages greater scientists than their modern counterparts. Rather, they believed that, unlike R. Avraham’s view, the source of all the knowledge of the Sages is either from Sinaitic tradition (received at the Giving of the Torah) or from Divine inspiration.

    In fact, according to R' Aharon Feldman, the other minority views on this topic (including the one maintained by your interlocutors) now can be termed "perversions of the correct approach to the Sages’ words."

    Baruch Pelta
    bpelta.blogspot.com

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  6. First, let me say that I have no opinion (yet) regarding the substantive point of this whole issue. Having said that, let me say that with all due respect, your post doesn't prove anything about the veracity of your side versus that of your opponents. The fact that Chazal discuss the meaning of rakia and include pesukim in their discussion does not mean that they had a mesorah about it. Some of those pesukim deal with internal kushyot regarding rakia no matter *what* the word means (e.g., how can the Torah suggest that the heavens were created on the first day and then state that they were created on the second day). In terms of the other pesukim that Chazal include in their discussion, one could just as easily say that after having formed an understanding of rakia (which, as has been pointed out already, literally means "that which is spread") based upon the science that they knew, Chazal then had to "test" that understanding for consistency within the pesukim. There is no indication that they derived their understanding from the pesukim vs. deriving their understanding from science and then seeing if it fits into the pesukim consistently. In terms of these two positions, there is nothing about one side versus the other that screams out "this one is correct and the other is not." So, your post doesn't, in my opinion offer a convincing proof for your position over the other.

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  7. Chazal then had to "test" that understanding for consistency within the pesukim.

    So, unlike all other such drashos in Shas, these particular drashos happen to be a unique combination of science plus some sort of asmachta, and yet no mention was made of that by Chazal or anyone else?

    Wouldn't the default position be to assume that these drashos are exactly what they appear to be - learning things from the Pesukim?

    Besides, it's not as though the Pesukim "hint" to their idea of the rakia. They are simply pointing to the explicit meaning of the pesukim, and saying that the pesukim should be interpreted at face value.

    As I said in the post, while Chazal used these derashos to regarding specific aspects relating to the firmament, it was obvious to them all that the basic nature of the firmament is something hard and flat; after all, there are numerous explicit pesukim describing the nature of the firmament, as well as other pesukim which shed light upon the basic etymology of the word.

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  8. Another point regarding the absurdity of my opponents' position just occurred to me:

    In order to make their case work, they have to insist that Rambam was definitely correct about what the mesorah does include (i.e. that creation took place meta-naturally in six days) and what it does not include (anything relating to the rakia) - even though there is no particular reason to believe that Rambam must have known what was transmitted thousands of years before his time - while simultaneously insisting that Chazal were definitely mistaken about the meaning of all these pesukim in Bereishis and Nach!

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  9. Rabbi Slifkin,

    You seem to have overlooked the fact that your opponents seem to be finally agreeing with you. They stated that many of Chazal's positions regarding scientific matters are not part of the mesorah!

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  10. "So, unlike all other such drashos in Shas, these particular drashos happen to be a unique combination of science plus some sort of asmachta, and yet no mention was made of that by Chazal or anyone else?"

    But, Rabbi Slifkin, isn't it true that in many places throughout Shas, Hazal make seeming "drashoth" which are really just asmachtoth without saying so explicitly or adding any disclaimers but leaving it for the rebbe/learner/reader to understand for himself?

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  11. "It appears that they may have believed Eden to be a gigantic subterranean location."

    Do you honestly beleive that? What in the world would they have based that on? Besides, IIRC the dimensions of the tree, the garden, and eden are such that they are on par with the dimensions of all levels of heavens, so such a place could not fit into the dome!


    I am not denying that Chazal beleived in the dome theory, but rather that the descriptions based on drashos from pesukim that you mention are possibly metephorical, and thus Chazal would have been using the framework of current theory as a backdrop to the other meanings. And since the Torah was given at a time in human history when the world view of the dome was prevalent, and the torah was given in the lnaguage of man, the pesukim would be written in the fasion they are.

    As to the possible meanings of the metephore, I do not have any, but that doesnt discount the idea at all. Topics such as the heavens and creation are said to be hidden topics by the Gemara itself, and with my limited learnign in esoteric Torah, I would have no idea what they coudl be refering to. All I know is that it seems to be absured to think that Chazal thought a tree was thousands of miles large underground somewhere, and hence the juxtipoition of these two discussions hints that the firmament drashos may be metephorical.

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  12. But, Rabbi Slifkin, isn't it true that in many places throughout Shas, Hazal make seeming "drashoth" which are really just asmachtoth without saying so explicitly or adding any disclaimers but leaving it for the rebbe/learner/reader to understand for himself?

    Let's suppose that you are correct, and it is *possible* that these are asmachtos. First of all, you still have to have a reason why they would be asmachtos and not drashos. Second, this would only be with regard to the specific nature of these exegeses. i.e. what exactly happened on Day Two vs. Day One, the exact thickness of the firmament, etc. But the background to all these various drashos/asmachtos, which all the opinions here in the Yerushalmi agree on, is that the clear pshat of all the pessukim is that the rakia is a solid, flat structure. After all, there are numerous explicit pesukim describing the nature of the firmament, as well as other pesukim which shed light upon the basic etymology of the word.

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  13. Reuven Meir - you are projecting a modern scientific way of looking at things onto Chazal. That is anachronistic.

    But, as I said, even if the discussion about the tree is metaphorical, that has no bearing on how Chazal understood the clear meaning of the pesukim which describe the rakia as a flat, firm structure. Nothing in the discussion indicates that this is metaphorical, nor did any Rishonim ever propose such a thing. Chazal used this as a basis for halachic discussion, too.

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  14. "Reuven Meir - How do you know that they didn't believe the tree to be that big? It appears that they may have believed Eden to be a gigantic subterranean location."

    I am sorry, but you have just lost all credibility with me.

    Do you honestly believe that Chazal believed Adam Ha'rishon to be larger than the earth and heavens that he was standing on?

    How can you call what you are proposing "rationalist"?

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  15. "You seem to have overlooked the fact that your opponents seem to be finally agreeing with you. They stated that many of Chazal's positions regarding scientific matters are not part of the mesorah!"

    He also fails to mention that the people who dissagreed with him on this point in his blogs, allready from the begining agreed with him regarding what is considered mesorah and what is not.

    This is an internal argument about the "rationalist" perspective, not an argument between anti-rationalists and non-rationalists.

    This point of topic is the "proof" that Jewish scholars always used their own scientific understanding to understand Chumash.

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  16. "(And what is it a metaphor for?)"

    For the separation between the spiritual and physical aspects of reality, e.g. in man.

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  17. Regarding your statement that this was a mesorah of rakia, I respectfully disagree. I imagine that Chazal were taught that "rakia" was just the heavens and were not given more detail than that. They were not told if it was flat, or round, or big or small, or firm or soft or any other attributes.

    I base this view on the Gemorah which says that one should not learn regarding what is above or what is below. Which to me means that only after they gained great wisdom, would they have been "officially" taught or even "allowed" to delve into these topics.

    Meaning, what you were taught in school regarding the specifics of "rakia" is likely the same thing what was taught to Chazal by their teachers when they were young, and it was only later when they delved deeper into the topic, that they were then influenced by their scientific understanding of the universe. Just as today, people use their own understanding of science to help them understand nuance in the Torah. (Such as the goats which live in the hills and get protection from them.)

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  18. I get the distinct impression that some people here are tossing out comforting ideas without seriously thinking about whether they conform with what Chazal actually say.

    "(And what is it a metaphor for?)"

    For the separation between the spiritual and physical aspects of reality, e.g. in man.


    And Chazal's statements about the composition, span and thickness of the firmament? What is that a metaphor for? And if it's just a metaphor, how can they use the discussion about the thickness of the firmament as a basis for halachic concepts relating to how long the sun spends traveling through the thickness of the firmament? And since we clearly see in Pesachim that they believed the firmament to be opaque, why would this discussion about it being solid not be literal? And why did none of the Rishonim claim it to be a metaphor? And what reason is there to think that it is a metaphor? Etc., etc. How can you possibly think that this is a reasonable approach to the Gemara?

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  19. Do you honestly believe that Chazal believed Adam Ha'rishon to be larger than the earth and heavens that he was standing on?

    I was speaking about the description of the tree, not about the Gemara about Adam. But with regard to Adam - I don't know what they believed. But this is certainly possible. After all, there were Rishonim who believed this to be literally true, and they were very smart people. How do you know that Chazal were any different?

    But, again, even if that discussion is metaphorical, there is no reason to believe that the discussion about the firmament is metaphorical - and there are many reasons to accept that it is literal.

    How can you call what you are proposing "rationalist"?

    This is certainly rationalist. Accepting that people in different times and cultures had very different ways of looking at things. If Rav Moshe Taku believed such things to be true, why should one be certain that Chazal were different?

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  20. I imagine that Chazal were taught that "rakia" was just the heavens and were not given more detail than that. They were not told if it was flat, or round, or big or small, or firm or soft or any other attributes.

    Please look again at the Gemara.

    Chazal were clearly taught that the root reka refers to something flat and solid:
    "They flattened out (וירקעו) sheets of gold" (Shemos 39:3).

    And Chazal clearly understood from Nach, and were taught, that the rakia is firm:
    "Can you help Him tarkia the heavens, firm as a mirror of cast metal?" (Iyov 37:18)

    Furthermore, they clearly used their own understanding of Torah to elaborate further on this. Are you ready to say that any derashah of Chazal can simply be disregarded?

    I base this view on the Gemorah which says that one should not learn regarding what is above or what is below.

    That is not referring to what is above the earth! After all, we certainly learn about the sun and stars! It is talking about what is above the firmament.

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  21. "And Chazal's statements about the composition, span and thickness of the firmament? What is that a metaphor for?"

    For the amount of separation, the ease of influence of the spiritual.

    "And if it's just a metaphor, how can they use the discussion about the thickness of the firmament as a basis for halachic concepts relating to how long the sun spends traveling through the thickness of the firmament?"

    Shabbat is not related only to the physical. The halachic conclusion does not imply that Chazal were attempting to do physics. Nevertheless, I do think Chazal were indeed attempting to do physics, as they do numerous times, trying to see the physical world parallel to the spiritual.

    "And since we clearly see in Pesachim that they believed the firmament to be opaque, why would this discussion about it being solid not be literal?"

    It is also literal, but not only. the literal part is wrong. Happens a lot in the Talmud.

    "And why did none of the Rishonim claim it to be a metaphor?"

    They were indeed attempting to describe the physical world. This is the Pshat. But still, Chazal had more in mind.

    "And what reason is there to think that it is a metaphor? Etc., etc.|
    How can you possibly think that this is a reasonable approach to the Gemara?"

    You asked what the Rakia could be a metaphor for. I thought you implied there could be none. I only gave the obvious answer to your question. Also obvious is that Chazal were continuously searching for parallels between the physical world and higher principals, in both directions. In this case they sought to conclude from the Oneness of HaShem, that there must be one source of physical light. So they guessed that the Sun must be providing the light for the stars from the other side of the Rakia. They guessed wrong. But HaShem is still One.

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  22. So you agree that Chazal meant it all literally, but you claim that they ALSO meant it metaphorically. If you want to believe that, fine, but what reason do you have to think that such an elaborately contrived view of the Gemara is actually true? (It's actually incredibly reminiscent of the "yeshivah bear/dog" in the famous YouTube video.)

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  23. Thanks R. Slifkin,
    I read the post of R. Waxman, indeed he has found a very interesting document and offered very interesting speculative ideas.
    You said you don't agree with his take on the Yerushalmi.

    Could you be so kind and tell me shortly what is your own interpretation of the Yerushalmi?

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  24. No, I said that I don't agree with R. Student's take on the Yerushalmi. I agree with R. Waxman's take.

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  25. I'm starting to wonder what will come first: Moshiach or your post on how to interpret the pesukim nowadays

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  26. Dear R. Slifkin:
    Just to say that Eli with "i" is not me, I am Ely with "y".

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  27. "First of all, you still have to have a reason why they would be asmachtos and not drashos."

    Good point. With my admittedly limited knowledge base, I currently do not see any reason to say so. So perhaps you are quite correct.

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  28. Dear Rabbi Slifkin:

    I would like to know which of the different possible explanations published by Rab Waxman on the Yerushalmi (round earth) you identify with.
    Thanks.
    Ely

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