Monday, November 22, 2010

How the Firmament was understood by our Sages

From the sources in my monograph The Sun's Path at Night, we see that all the Rishonim, without exception, as well as many Acharonim, accepted that Chazal believed that the universe is a solid dome above the earth. (Most of the Rishonim themselves adopted the Ptolemaic view that the universe is in fact a series of nested crystalline spheres surrounding the earth, while some maintained Chazal's view.) There are other passages in the Talmud where Chazal discuss the thickness of this dome and other aspects of it, which, again, all the Rishonim, without exception, accepted as a literal discussion of the physical universe.

From where we're standing, there is no reason not to believe that all these Rishonim and Acharonim were correct in their understanding of Chazal. I won't say that it is "incontrovertible and irrefutable" that Chazal believed the universe to be a dome, because nothing is incontrovertible and irrefutable, even the idea that the world is round - there are always people who will controvert it and convince themselves that they have refuted it. But I will say that I do not believe that such an approach is at all rational. The fact that some later authorities were uncomfortable with the idea of Chazal having such beliefs is not reason to say that all these Rishonim and Acharonim were incorrect.

But here's where we move to stage two. Chazal's belief that the universe is a solid dome was not merely their understanding of the universe. It was also their understanding of the Torah. Throughout Tenach, there is mention of the rakia - the firmament. It was this that Chazal explained to be a solid dome. R. Yehudah HaNasi only rejected the idea that the sun passes behind this dome at night - he did not reject the idea that there is such a dome. Even those Rishonim who rejected the Babylonian cosmology still subscribed to the notion of the heavens as a solid dome over us - it was just that they understood the heavens to be a sphere rather than a hemisphere. And this is not just a matter of how Chazal translated words in the Torah, but also how they understood phrases and descriptions in the Torah, such as the account of the luminaries being placed in the firmament, and of the heavens being stretched out over the earth, of the windows in the firmament through which things enter, etc., etc.

In a later post, I will discuss what these Pesukim mean from a modern perspective (please wait for that discussion, and do not raise this topic in the comments). The important point to recognize for now is that Chazal (and most of the Rishonim) universally interpreted various words in the Torah to be describing the heavens as a solid firmament above us. And yet, nobody today believes that such a structure exists.

Malbim was sensitive to this problem. In his commentary to Bereishis 1:6, Malbim rejects the view that the rakia is a solid firmament. He argues that it refers to the atmosphere - an argument that we shall analyze in a later post. Malbim acknowledges that all the Rishonim believed it to be a solid firmament, and declares them mistaken. However, he claims that the Sages were also of the view that there is no solid firmament, citing R. Shimon bar Yochai as saying that the stars move through the air. But this is deeply problematic. First of all, Malbim does not adequately deal with all the passages in the Talmud which speak of a solid firmament (his novel explanation of Pesachim 94b is not shared by anyone else at all). Second, the words of R. Shimon bar Yochai cited by Malbim do not exist in our version of Bereishit Rabbah 6:8, which reads quite differently; apparently Malbim had a corrupted text. Third, even if R. Shimon bar Yochai did speak of stars moving through the air, this in no way denies the existence of a solid firmament.

Chazal and the Rishonim believed in a solid firmament. People today do not believe in a solid firmament. Thus, people today interpret the Torah differently from how Chazal interpreted it, based on the discoveries of science.

There are many ramifications of this, but there is one in particular that I wish to highlight. Many young-earth anti-evolutionists are fond of speaking about "How the Days of Creation Were Understood by Our Sages," arguing that Chazal and the Rishonim did not believe that the universe was billions of years or that life evolved. In this, they are absolutely correct. However, there are two critical points that they miss. First was that many of the Rishonim certainly saw it as their duty to interpret the Torah in accordance with what science or philosophy had proven - even if that meant going against Chazal and against the literal reading of the Pesukim. Second is that even these young-earth anti-evolutionists are going against Chazal and the Rishonim in how they explain all the citations in the Torah about the rakia and shamayim. Our ba’alei mesorah have always understood and insisted that the rakia is a solid firmament, and yet these people disagree.

Oh, the irony!

(At this point I would like to express my appreciation to all those who made a donation for my monograph The Sun's Path At Night, and to issue a request to those who downloaded it without making a donation, to please make a donation.)

128 comments:

  1. thank you for the excellent post. one thing that has always confused me is the proper translation of the the word "sham-i-im". some places it seems to refer to the physical heavens and some places it means "hashem's abode". is it possible that the ancients believed it as the latter translation in all usages? do you have any comment on this?

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  2. That will be the subject of a future post.

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  3. Wouldn't it make the most sense to say the following about this whole issue - man's knowledge about the cosmos is severely limited, and always will be, despite the fact that he makes amazing advances in science. I believe that Einstein himself said something along those lines. Given that this is the case, the pesukim of nevua that describe the cosmos were written in such a way as could be understood on some level throughout all the generations, based on each generation's knowledge at the time. So - the pesukim made sense to people who maintaim a fixed-dome view, they can make sense to us who maintain an Einsteinian view, and they will make sense to people a thousand years from now who will maintain an "X" view. (It would be nothing less than sheer arrogance to say that we have reached the summit of knowledge, and that the superiority of our scientific views will not be surpassed to great degrees just as our scientific knowledge has surpassed those of the ancients to great degrees).

    If this is all true, then why did the Rambam, for example, "codify" his scientific views in the Mishneh Torah? Surely he knew that his scientific views would be surpassed in the future, just as they indeed surpassed the views of the past! Maybe the answer is that he was presenting a model - an approach - by which we should understand the nevuot. If he knew that his scientific knowledge would be surpassed, then the reason to present them anyway was to give the current people a paradigm, using the science that they knew, as a way to show a *method* of how to approach these issues. And that *method* which we can derive from his writings is what we should use as applied to the science that we know today. And so on and so on in the future.

    This understanding shows Chazal, Rambam, etc. to be both timely and timeless in their wisdom.

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  4. Tom, I'm sorry but I don't think that what you wrote made sense at all. First of all, as I shall explain in a future post, the words of the pesukim have a very definite meaning, and cannot simply be adapted to whatever cosmological model you want. Second, according to what you are saying, Chazal were indeed incorrect in their interpretation of the Pesukim. Third, how does it show Chazal to be timeless in their wisdom?

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  5. To respond to your points:

    1) I await seeing any evidence that the pesukim have a very definite meaning - that is, that they WERE NOT written in such a way as to have meaning throughout the generations with validity for each framework. That being said, since you mentioned that you would be writing in a future post what the pesukim mean ("In a later post, I will discuss what these Pesukim mean from a modern perspective") I wonder how you could possibly do that, given the overwhelming likelihood that our scientific knowledge will be surpassed in the future, thus making your interpretation as false as you claim the interpretations of the past were.

    2) Yes, Chazal were incorrect about their conclusions based upon our scientific knowledge, but correct about the paradigm of how to approach the pesukim.

    3) Their wisdom is timeless in that it provides an instructional paradigm as to how to approach the pesukim within the scientific model that one has in whatever generation he lives.

    It seems to me that there are only three possible approaches to this whole issue:

    A) Chazal were indeed correct in their scientific knowledge.
    B) Chazal were wrong in their scientific knowledge, and they did not conceive of the fact that in the future they would be wrong, despite the fact that they knew that scientific knowledge advances.
    C) Chazal were wrong in their scientific knowledge, but they wrote what they did anyway, to provide a model as to HOW to analyze pesukim, using the science that you have.

    You clearly reject choice A. Choice B involves positing an arrogance to Chazal, which I assume you wouldn't do. Choice C is what I am suggesting. If you disagree with C, then either you do agree with B, or you have a fourth possibility that I didn't think of. Which possibility do you subscribe to?

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  6. Choice B does not at all involve positing an arrogance to Chazal. Why would they assume that the Torah could be proved wrong?

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  7. They interpreted the Torah based upon their knowledge of science. They knew that this was an interpretation based upon their knowledge of science. They also knew that science advances. That is to say, they knew that mankind in the first century of the common era had scientific knowledge that mankind of a thousand years earlier did not have. For them to think that mankind a thousand years hence would not have any greater scientific knowledge than they had would be arrogance. Your question "Why would they assume that the Torah could be proved wrong?" comes out of nowhere. The premise behind your question is that Chazal didn't know that they were interpreting the Torah based upon their current scientific knowledge. This is not the case, unless you posit that their interpretation was not based upon their scientific knowledge but rather on a mesorah from Sinai. You yourself have rejected that possibility. So your question makes no sense here.

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  8. Sorry, I made it late the party and don't really have a dog in this fight, but why is it important to accurately depict Chazal of having a mistaken understanding of cosmology? Is this only a conversation worth having if you are charedi?

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  9. @TOML At the time, didn't they think the conclusions of the philosophers (natural or otherwise) to be true? So choice B does not necessarily involve arrogance as they may have believed that science they had was true.

    Additionally, we are very confident in the model of the Universe we have, although there are some parts that still have to be worked out (like vacuum energy and a unified theory). While these issues could potentially lead to a revolutionizing of the model of the universe we have, that seems unlikely. So the truth is apparently reachable to a large degree.

    I'm not saying I disagree with your idea that the Torah would intend for the interpretation to change over time, but it is not necessarily applicable in this case (and may not be applicable to the definition of words).

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  10. Rav Slifkin,

    I have just been reading your monograph (yes I sent you a donation). As I was reading the view of the Ben Ish Chai (page 17), I was reminded that I know of at least one time in the talmud when a debate was ocuring, about the number of bones in the body, and the dispute was settled using empirical means (i.e. "go dig up a body and count the number of bones there").

    It seems to me that their, in fact, might be a tradition in the Talmud of exploiting empirical observation to resolve physical (as opposed to spiritual ones) in the Talmud.

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  11. Rabbi,

    Do you have a source in the words of the Vilna Goan that Chazal could have been mistaken about the natural world?
    Such a source would be significant as everyone views the Vilna Goan as "our mesora".
    If there is no such source (and certainly none come to mind) you (and like minded individuals in which I include myself) would be somewhat forced to say that the Vilna Goan purposely avoided stating such a thing. The question would be, as to why.

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  12. Maverick -

    "At the time, didn't they think the conclusions of the philosophers (natural or otherwise) to be true?"

    They thought it to be the best scientific knowledge available to them. For one to say that they thought it to be absolutely true - i.e., that that "truth" they knew would never change due to scientific advances, despite the fact that they knew that they possessed scientific advances that earlier generations did not - implies that Chazal were arrogant. Why should they think that scientific advancement stopped with them, not before and not later?

    Which brings me to the next point -

    "Additionally, we are very confident in the model of the Universe we have..."

    Don't you think that the previous generations of scientists were also confident in the truth of the model of the universe that they had? This is, please pardon me, the same arrogance. (I obviously do not mean this personally - it is a mindset that many people are subject to: our knowledge today has reached the summit of human awareness of the universe). Einstein spoke many times about how little of the universe's laws we truly know.

    "While these issues could potentially lead to a revolutionizing of the model of the universe we have, that seems unlikely."

    Couldn't you see a scientist in 1904 saying these exact words? Do you honestly think that scientists in November 3010 will have the same basic view of the universe that we do today?

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  13. "the words of the pesukim have a very definite meaning." Can't we just say that there are different layers and types (peshat, derash,etc.) of meaning? If we view the Torah sheb'alpeh as being the natural "partner" of the Torah shebichtav, and also accept that new interpretations can be proffered in different generations, and also specifically when a new Sanhedrin arises-then why view the written text of the Torah as not having natural elasticity which allows it to be read and interpreted differently at different times taking into account new historical realities, scientific understandings, even societal development.

    So even if one level of peshat of certain pesuqim demonstrates that such and such was the scientific understanding at the time during which the Torah was redacted, perhaps the same pesuqim can in fact reflect future scientific understandings as well.

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  14. It is normal and reasonable for thinking,educated people to assume that the facts that they have accepted and assimilated are true. Of course, an intellectually honest person should always be prepared to abandon some presumed facts if evidence against them becomes overwhelming. In science such a posture regarding accepted theories that account for the facts is part of the scientific process and is responsible for our progressive understanding of nature. The established facts themselves are rarely disputed. It's just that new theories account better for the facts or are necessitated by the discovery of new ones. For example, Einstein's General theory of Relativity is radically different than Newton's theory of universal gravity, and provides a more accurate calculation of the position of very fast objects in space. Yet, Newton's far simpler equations are still sufficiently accurate to be used in sending spacecraft to rendezvous with planets and comets.

    Thus, there is little basis for the assumption that the facts marshalled for the description of the earth and universe as truly ancient will be overturned in the future. Undoubtedly, new theories will supplant the currently reigning but incompatible theories of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. The established facts will not disappear, however, and it is difficult to foresee that a young earth and universe can be made compatible with those facts.

    Hence, there is no problem with attempting to understand Gen. 1-11 in the light of established scientific data. Should our current understanding of that data change in some manner in the future, we would be no worse off than the biblical commentators who based themselves on ideas from the Greek naturalists and philosophers.

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  15. Theologically, and perhaps poetically, I think Tom's point about the ambiguity of pesukim makes great sense. The primary meaning of the pesukim is likely a literary one, with more lessons to teach about man's relationship to the cosmos and to God than about the reality of the cosmos. However, part and parcel with literary value is the room for multiple interpretations as to the realities being discussed in the literature. By leaving room for multiple interpretations of reality, God allowed the pesukim to remain relevant, intriguing, and educational throughout the generations. Inevitably, this will also allow for multiple, often exclusive, interpretations of the literary, spiritual and ethical lessons of the pesukim, but this too, as should be clear to most lomdei Torah, is an essential part of man's inquiry into God's wisdom.

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  16. Second is that even these young-earth anti-evolutionists are going against Chazal and the Rishonim in how they explain all the citations in the Torah about the rakia and shamayim. Our ba’alei mesorah have always understood and insisted that the rakia is a solid firmament, and yet these people disagree.

    1)Um, where do they disagree?
    As with your charge that the gedolim branded even Chazal stating Chazal were mistaken as heretical, I see this charge as similarly unsubstantiated.

    Please substantiate all your charges with citations and don't just surmise that "this is probably what they hold".

    2) You are completely ignoring the metaphysical descriptions of the rakia found in Chagiga and the Ramban's commentary cited here:
    http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2010/11/key-to-everything.html?showComment=1289936943105#c397739725764867165

    You asked me then what the relevance was to the gemara in Pesachim.
    But now I see you are wildly extrapolating from that single gemara to represent all of Chazal's and rishonim's views of the rakia.
    This is a horrendous mistake on your part.

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  17. Tom, you are mistaken on a number of levels. First of all, maybe Chazal interpreted the rakia in the way that they did due to a mesorah? Second, the idea of the advancement of science is a modern concept; in ancient times, people did not believe in such a thing, and often believed the reverse (that the ancients had more knowledge which is constantly being lost). Third, your idea that our knowledge of the universe is unreliable and subject to change is simply silly if applied to our knowledge of it being a vast expanse of space rather than a dome.

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  18. I Tick -

    Nicely said!

    With this explanation, I reiterate that Chazal's words are both timely and timeless, in that they presented an *approach* for the ages as to how to view nevua within the framework of the available science of the times. They did not, I suggest, have the arrogance to say that their knowledge of science was the final word on scientific development for all times.

    This understanding should result in a profound and abiding respect and awe for what Chazal did!

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  19. Here's a thought experiment for Tom, HaRazieli and ITick: If we found an ancient text describing the world as a disc on four elephants being supported on a giant turtle, is this something that can equally well be interpreted to match the ancient Babylonian model, the Ptolemaic model, the Copernican model, and the modern model?

    Some words are ambiguous or can have multiple meanings. But not all words can be stretched to refer to whatever you want them to refer to. Words have meanings!

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  20. >Second is that even these young-earth anti-evolutionists are going against Chazal and the Rishonim in how they explain all the citations in the Torah about the rakia and shamayim. Our ba’alei mesorah have always understood and insisted that the rakia is a solid firmament, and yet these people disagree.

    1)Um, where do they disagree?


    I really don't think that they believe in the existence of a solid dome above the earth. If I am wrong, I will gladly retract.

    You are completely ignoring the metaphysical descriptions of the rakia found in Chagiga and the Ramban's commentary cited here:
    http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2010/11/key-to-everything.html?showComment=1289936943105#c3977397257648


    There is nothing whatsoever in those sources which demonstrates that Chazal did not believe the rakia to be a physical, solid dome.

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  21. But now I see you are wildly extrapolating from that single gemara to represent all of Chazal's and rishonim's views of the rakia.
    This is a horrendous mistake on your part.


    No! It's multiple sugyas across several masechtas, all of which attest to Chazal having believed in a solid dome, and no source whatsoever to the contrary. And with regard to the Rishonim, they all subscribed to either the Babylonian cosmology, or to the Ptolemaic cosmology (which involves solid spheres).

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  22. Chazal's words are both timely and timeless, in that they presented an *approach* for the ages as to how to view nevua within the framework of the available science of the times. They did not, I suggest, have the arrogance to say that their knowledge of science was the final word on scientific development for all times. This understanding should result in a profound and abiding respect and awe for what Chazal did!

    Where on earth did they give any indication that they believed that their interpretation was tentative and subject to revision? You are *assuming* that they must have intended it that way, but only because you are imposing your own ideas of scientific advancement onto them!

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  23. "Words have meanings!"

    Of course they do. For an explanation as to how to understand the meaning of words in nevua, see the Rambam's explanations in the Guide about the various nevuot. Or for that matter, see the commentaries of any rishon on the nevuot of Tanach.

    Why is it unreasonable to you that God instructed the neviim to prophesy in such a way as to have valid meaning for different generations, each within its own timely knowledge of the universe? Your preference seems to be that nevua is a one-dimensional communication. This is strange, given that nevua is not "regular conversation" but a message to the ages.

    Here's a thought experiment for you: if you were an all knowing being who wanted to communicate something to people in 1500, but wanted that message to be true and relevant to people in 1600, 1700, 1800, 1900, 2000, 3000, 4000, etc. how would you do it?

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  24. "You are *assuming* that they must have intended it that way, but only because you are imposing your own ideas of scientific advancement onto them!"

    No...I am assuming that they were not arrogant. According to your understanding Chazal knew that they had scientific knowledge that the ancients didn't have, but didn't recognize that the future would yield further scientific advancement that they - Chazal - did not have. How could this possibly be, unless they were arrogant? I assume that they were not, and therefore, it is perfectly rational to conclude that they were presenting their understanding to demonstrate an approach as to how to interpret nevuot within the framework of one's scientific knowledge.

    I must say that it seems to me that you are bent on saying that Chazal could not possibly be correct in the "timeless" manner, while recognizing that they were incorrect on the "timely" manner. Why is that?

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  25. Here's one of the nicest graphics on this that you'll see. "The ancient Hebrew Conception of the Universe to illustrate the account of creation and the flood.":

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/michaelpaukner/4077736695/sizes/o/in/photostream/

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  26. I really don't think that they believe in the existence of a solid dome above the earth. If I am wrong, I will gladly retract.

    You missed my point.
    You should retract first and confirm your accusation afterward. Otherwise, you can be accused of blatantly propping up a straw-man.

    Second, you are not being open to a number of plausible alternatives.
    #1 they concede to Rebbi's assessment that the Chachmei Yisroel were incorrect because Rebbe was a member of Chazal. Other statements of Chazal seem to advocate a spherical earth. And many rishonim as well.

    #2 They concede to the Rambam's generalization about Chazal and the loss of mesorah in astronomy but not to where the Rambam affirmed there IS a mesorah like special creation vs. evolution.

    #3 They are simply withholding judgment on the matter of rakia to see if all the sugyos must be interpreted as espousing Babylonian cosmology. They don;t decide these questions by comparative studies with non-Jewish texts

    As an aside:
    Don't you find it noteworthy that the Chachmei Yisroel CONTRADICTED the Non-Jewish sages? If the Chachmei Yisroel themselves are simply adopting earlier non-Jewish beliefs (Babylonian), why do they depict it as their own?

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  27. I take back the first option. I realize that this was not addressing the solid dome aspect of cosmology.

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  28. If Tom were right, why didn't some Rishonim avail themselves of his "approach" as a device to salvage Chazal's credibility rather than meekly concede that they were mistaken?

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  29. Rabbi Slifkin,

    You said: "[T]he idea of the advancement of science is a modern concept; in ancient times, people did not believe in such a thing, and often believed the reverse (that the ancients had more knowledge which is constantly being lost)."

    For the Aristotelians this is not true. In fact, the give-and-take between theory-formulation and the identification of new theory-busting observations would have been known directly from the mastery of the logical works. At issue is the intent of the universal quantifier of the syllogism's major premise. At stake is whether one's syllogism is demonstrative or sophisic. Al-Farabi notes that the battle is won or lost at the start, with the Categories, and that there were entire traditions of "Aristotelianism" that had gotten it wrong.

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  30. Why is it unreasonable to you that God instructed the neviim to prophesy in such a way as to have valid meaning for different generations, each within its own timely knowledge of the universe?

    It's not. That's perfectly possible. However, that would require using words and phrases that can be interpreted in different ways. Sometimes, there are such words and phrases. But not every word and phrase can be interpreted in different ways.
    (By the way, I'm not only referring to navi, but also to Chumash.)

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  31. Josh - because the issue at hand for them was whether one ought to follow the best science even when it is proffered by non-Jews vs. following incorrect science when proffered by Jews. The rishonim were not discussing the validity behind Chazal's current science in interpreting nevua. In other words, the agenda of the rishonim was not to "salvage Chazal's *credibility*" - that was never even a question in their eyes.

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  32. Here's a thought experiment for you: if you were an all knowing being who wanted to communicate something to people in 1500, but wanted that message to be true and relevant to people in 1600, 1700, 1800, 1900, 2000, 3000, 4000, etc. how would you do it?

    If it's a message about law, morality, etc., it can be written without any time-limited references. But if I am saying something about the physical reality, then unless I am using words that are extremely vague and ambiguous, there is simply no way to make it possible to interpret according to multiple different understandings of the reality. If the goal is to teach scientific truth, then it is certainly not possible to teach this via words that can be interpreted in terms of contradictory positions. However, if the goal is the moral/ theological message involved, and the science is just the packaging, then it makes no difference if the science is based on one particular worldview.

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  33. According to your understanding Chazal knew that they had scientific knowledge that the ancients didn't have

    Where did I say that?

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  34. "It's not. That's perfectly possible. However, that would require using words and phrases that can be interpreted in different ways. Sometimes, there are such words and phrases. But not every word and phrase can be interpreted in different ways.
    (By the way, I'm not only referring to navi, but also to Chumash.)"

    I don't know how this answers my question - it seems to me to be too vague to have meaning (was it supposed to be an answer?) - at any event, I am curious as to the result of the thought experiment I suggested to you.

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  35. "According to your understanding Chazal knew that they had scientific knowledge that the ancients didn't have

    Where did I say that?"

    I did not claim that you said that - I used that fact as an opening step to ask a question. I assumed that you would agree with the fact. Do you disagree? If so, are you saying that Chazal thought the science current in their time was exactly the same as the science of 1000 years earlier?

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  36. "But if I am saying something about the physical reality, then unless I am using words that are extremely vague and ambiguous, there is simply no way to make it possible to interpret according to multiple different understandings of the reality."

    So an omniscient being COULD NOT come up with a way to express a message to the ages that involves a truthful depiction of the physical world, such that the description could be understood based upon the science of each age? I would not be so bold as to tell God what He apparently cannot do! Especially because Chazal viewed the pesukim as being concordant with their scientific knowledge, the rishonim viewed the pesukim as being concordant with their scientific knowledge, and modern chachamim view the pesukim as being concordant with their scientific knowledge. Sounds like God actually succeeded!

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  37. are you saying that Chazal thought the science current in their time was exactly the same as the science of 1000 years earlier?

    I highly doubt that they thought that they had truths that were unknown 1000 years earlier. More to the point, I do not remotely think that they only tentatively believed that the sky was solid.

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  38. So an omniscient being COULD NOT come up with a way to express a message to the ages that involves a truthful depiction of the physical world, such that the description could be understood based upon the science of each age?

    Not if He is being specific. God cannot do the logically impossible. He cannot say that a square has four sides, and simultaneously mean that it has three sides and five sides.

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  39. Especially because Chazal viewed the pesukim as being concordant with their scientific knowledge, the rishonim viewed the pesukim as being concordant with their scientific knowledge, and modern chachamim view the pesukim as being concordant with their scientific knowledge. Sounds like God actually succeeded!

    No. The differences between Chazal's and the Rishonim's scientific knowledge were not relevant vis-a-vis scientific knowledge. Modern chachamim can only view the pesukim as being concordant with their scientific knowledge by being totally dishonest in their interpretation of either science or the pesukim.

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  40. Tom, do you believe that Chazal were incorrect in saying that the sun goes behind the sky at night? Maybe in our day, we can interpret it to mean that the sun goes around the other side of the world at night!

    Do you believe that Chazal were incorrect in the refuos that they prescribed? Maybe they can be interpreted as correlating with modern medicine!

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  41. Anyway, this is getting too close to the topic of what the pesukim actually mean, which, as I said, is for a future post. Your claim regarding the point of this post is that Chazal were never really convinced that the rakia is a solid dome; they just tentatively thought that, knowing that they were just interpreting it according to the science of the day and that this model may someday be proven wrong. I find that utterly ridiculous. It's like saying that we only tentatively interpret the pesukim about the sun rising in the east to mean that the sun rises in the east, and we are well aware that in the future we may discover that the sun actually rises in the west.

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  42. "Your claim regarding the point of this post is that Chazal were never really convinced that the rakia is a solid dome; they just tentatively thought that, knowing that they were just interpreting it according to the science of the day and that this model may someday be proven wrong. I find that utterly ridiculous."

    You have significantly misrepresented my claim here, and then go on to ridicule the misrepresentation. I find that somewhat disingenuous. I did not say that Chazal were never really convinced that the rakia is a solid dome. I will explain by way of example. When Newton proposed his theories in the Principia, I would assume that he was convinced of them. I would also assume that being the great scientist that he was, Newton would respond to the question "Sir Isaac - I gather that you are convinced of your theories; but are you so sure of them that you think that they will never be surpassed in the future by a better, different theory?" that Newton would respond by saying "It is certainly possible that my theories will be supplanted; but what can I do? Within the framework of my knowledge now - this is the only truth I see, and within that framework, I am convinced of it."

    Do you deny this to be the case? Do you think that Newton would say that his theories would never be supplanted? On the other hand, if he agreed that he could readily see them to be supplanted in the future, does this make his attitude toward his theories "unconvinced"? Does it mean he was doubtful of them?

    The same with Chazal who interpreted nevuot based upon their scientific knowledge. Are you suggesting that Chazal never recognized the possibility/probability that scientific knowledge would advance? Did they think that the ancients (let's say 1000 years before Aristotle) had the scientific knowledge that Aristotle did as well, and that he contributed nothing new to science?

    Just because they interpreted nevuot based upon their scientific knowledge, and they recognized that science would advance, does not mean that they were unconvinced of their interpretation. They operated based upon the only thing they could use - their minds and the knowledge that they had...analogous to "asher yihyeh bayamim haheim...."

    Now I would like to hear why you find THIS understanding to be "ridiculous."

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  43. "Modern chachamim can only view the pesukim as being concordant with their scientific knowledge by being totally dishonest in their interpretation of either science or the pesukim."

    This is like saying that Chazal can view the dream of Yaakov and the ladder as referring to the various galuyot only if they are being totally dishonest in their interpretation of the pesukim. Of course it's dishonest...if you are predisposed to saying that the dream is limited to being only about angels going up and down a ladder, since that's what the pesukim say!

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  44. You think that Chazal had the same mindset towards their understanding of pesukim that Newton had towards his scientific theories?!

    The number of unreasonable assumptions in your approach is astounding. You assume that Chazal believed that scientific knowledge progresses. You assume that Chazal believed that their understanding of the cosmos was scientific knowledge rather than Torah knowledge. You assume that their understanding of the rakia was not something that they received as a mesorah.

    But I think that your biggest error is this: You assume that Chazal saw science as shedding light on our knowledge of Torah. It's the reverse; they saw Torah as shedding light on our knowledge of science. There are countless examples in Shas of Chazal attempting to learn facts about the world from pesukim. Naturally, they saw the Torah as the repository of all wisdom.

    So when the Torah very clearly appears to describe the existence of a solid firmament, and this was the traditional understanding, and nobody in the world disputed the existence of such a thing, it is ludicrous to posit that they were open to the possibility that this was incorrect and that science might eventually show otherwise. Even if they were open to the possibility of science proving science wrong, they certainly would not imagine that science could prove Torah wrong, or that it could prove that they had misunderstood something very basic and unambiguous in the Torah.

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  45. This is like saying that Chazal can view the dream of Yaakov and the ladder as referring to the various galuyot only if they are being totally dishonest in their interpretation of the pesukim.

    No, because it's a DREAM, and dreams by their very nature are subject to interpretation. But to say that "kohl ohf kanaf" means "flying insects and not birds" is simply not honest; it's just not what the words mean.

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  46. Issac said...

    I really don't think that they believe in the existence of a solid dome above the earth. If I am wrong, I will gladly retract.

    You missed my point.
    You should retract first and confirm your accusation afterward. Otherwise, you can be accused of blatantly propping up a straw-man.


    You must be joking. You seriously think that there is a reasonable possibility that people today believe in the existence of a solid dome above the earth? You know, Issac, I'm really getting tired of how all your comments are intent on disputing me, even if it's with the most absurdly ridiculous claims.

    Second, you are not being open to a number of plausible alternatives.
    #2 They concede to the Rambam's generalization about Chazal and the loss of mesorah in astronomy but not to where the Rambam affirmed there IS a mesorah like special creation vs. evolution.


    A loss of mesorah about astronomy does not mean a loss of mesorah about the basic meaning of words and concepts in the Torah.


    #3 They are simply withholding judgment on the matter of rakia to see if all the sugyos must be interpreted as espousing Babylonian cosmology. They don;t decide these questions by comparative studies with non-Jewish texts


    As I showed very clearly, it's the unanimous view of the Rishonim as to what Chazal meant, as well as the view of many Acharonim. If they are saying that all the Rishonim are wrong, then (a) let them make a case for why that should be accepted, and (b) it destroys their case about how we must accept that the world is 5771 years old because that's the mesorah.

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  47. "The number of unreasonable assumptions in your approach is astounding."

    OK - let's take them one by one.

    1) "You assume that Chazal believed that scientific knowledge progresses."

    Why is this unreasonable? As I asked earlier, do you think that Chazal viewed that scientific knowledge 1000 years before Aristotle, and scientific knowledge 500 years after Aristotle were one and the same? Are you saying that Chazal thought that Aristotle contributed nothing new to science? Who's being unreasonable here?

    2) "You assume that Chazal believed that their understanding of the cosmos was scientific knowledge rather than Torah knowledge."

    I'm not really sure what you mean by this. When the amora Shmuel speaks of the need for one to know the "layout" and the path of the stars in the heavens, did he derive the knowledge of the stars that he had from pesukim or from observation and charts of the motion of the stars? Chazal viewed their knowledge of the cosmos as being truthful - that truth coming from pesukim and from scientific observation, where each was in harmony with the other. More on that idea below.

    3) "You assume that their understanding of the rakia was not something that they received as a mesorah."

    Mesorah from where? From Sinai? If you think that, then since the "mesorah" turned out to be wrong, it means that God taught Moshe a lie. Anyway, where do you get the idea that their concept of rakia was from a mesorah? The burden of proof on this lies with you not with me. You cannot just make up mesorahs.

    4) "You assume that Chazal saw science as shedding light on our knowledge of Torah. It's the reverse; they saw Torah as shedding light on our knowledge of science. There are countless examples in Shas of Chazal attempting to learn facts about the world from pesukim. Naturally, they saw the Torah as the repository of all wisdom."

    My understanding is that Chazal viewed the world as the "book of nature" and the Torah as the "book of instruction." Both books were written by the same Author. They therefore understood that there cannot be a true conflict between the books. On the contrary, each book sheds light on the other.

    From the above, it follows that your next quote is very much mistaken:

    "So when the Torah very clearly appears to describe the existence of a solid firmament, and this was the traditional understanding, and nobody in the world disputed the existence of such a thing, it is ludicrous to posit that they were open to the possibility that this was incorrect and that science might eventually show otherwise. Even if they were open to the possibility of science proving science wrong, they certainly would not imagine that science could prove Torah wrong, or that it could prove that they had misunderstood something very basic and unambiguous in the Torah."

    The Torah "very clearly *appears*" to describe rakia as a solid dome only to someone whose knowledge of science suggests that it is a solid dome. If someone in the 21st century read the Torah in its original for the first time, with no preconceived notions, I find it hard to believe that he would immediately read the word rakia as clearly meaning a solid dome. Chazal used their knowledge of nature to understand Torah, and their understanding of Torah to understand nature. They knew that their knowledge of nature was not perfect, and they worked with the best of what they had. I fail to understand why this is "ludicrous." (By the way - why the visceral language? Can we not discuss this without the highly charged language here?)

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  48. Are you saying that Chazal thought that Aristotle contributed nothing new to science?

    Chazal had very little interaction with Greek philosophy. Who's to say that they thought that he made significant contributions? And is there a single case of them accepting it against their understanding of Torah?

    When the amora Shmuel speaks of the need for one to know the "layout" and the path of the stars in the heavens, did he derive the knowledge of the stars that he had from pesukim or from observation and charts of the motion of the stars?

    There aren't any pesukim which discuss that. But there ARE pesukim which speak about the nature of the sky/firmament!

    Mesorah from where? From Sinai?

    Maybe. Certainly from their ancestors. Do you think that when they learned Chumash and Nach, their ancestors and rebbeim said, "we have no idea what this means, let's just make it up based on what our Babylonian neighbors are saying about the universe"?

    My understanding is that Chazal viewed the world as the "book of nature" and the Torah as the "book of instruction." ...each book sheds light on the other.

    There are plenty of examples of Chazal using Torah to shed light on science. Can you point to a single example of their using science to shed light on what the Torah means?

    The Torah "very clearly *appears*" to describe rakia as a solid dome only to someone whose knowledge of science suggests that it is a solid dome. If someone in the 21st century read the Torah in its original for the first time, with no preconceived notions, I find it hard to believe that he would immediately read the word rakia as clearly meaning a solid dome.

    Absolutely not true. Study the etymology of the word rakia, and look at all the descriptions of the rakia and the Shamayim throughout Tenach.

    By the way - why the visceral language? Can we not discuss this without the highly charged language here?

    Sorry, I'm sure you're a nice guy and all that, but I really do think that what you're saying is absolute nonsense! Furthermore, I have never heard anyone else every suggest such a thing - and I've heard a lot. Chazal believed that the Torah refers to the firmament, not that they believed themselves to be explaining Torah according to their scientific knowledge!

    But your latest comments reveal that it's pretty clear why you are driven to say this. As far as you are concerned, the Torah itself does not and could not possibly teach that there is a solid firmament, right?

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  49. I'll get to your other points in a subsequent comment. But I had to comment on your last part first -

    "But your latest comments reveal that it's pretty clear why you are driven to say this. As far as you are concerned, the Torah itself does not and could not possibly teach that there is a solid firmament, right?"

    This comment reflects, I think, that you don't understand my point at all. I have been suggesting all along that the Torah was written by the omniscient Creator in such a way that we can validly understand its description of nature in accordance with the best scientific knowledge of the time. So, no - I do not agree that the Torah could not possibly teach that there is a solid firmament. I think that the Torah's language allows for the interpretation of a solid firmament, which was at one point the best scientific knowledge of the time, as well allowing for other interpretations consistent with later science. R' Yonah ibn Janach and the Radak both have in their classic dictionaries the definition of reish.kuf.ayin. as "that which is spread out." That is the denotation. The denotation does not, on its own, necessarily refer to a solid dome.

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  50. "There are plenty of examples of Chazal using Torah to shed light on science. Can you point to a single example of their using science to shed light on what the Torah means?"

    Apparently Rabbi Josh Waxman can. See here:

    http://parsha.blogspot.com/2010/05/how-did-chazal-know-that-hemophilia-is.html

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  51. What I meant was, you do not believe that the Torah could possibly teach that there is a solid firmament TO THE EXCLUSION of other meanings, correct?

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  52. If you are asking me if I believe that the Torah cannot be false in an absolute sense, then the answer is yes, I do believe that the Torah cannot be false in an absolute sense. Do you?

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  53. "There are plenty of examples of Chazal using Torah to shed light on science. Can you point to a single example of their using science to shed light on what the Torah means?"

    Apparently Rabbi Josh Waxman can. See here:

    http://parsha.blogspot.com/2010/05/how-did-chazal-know-that-hemophilia-is.html


    How is that an example of Chazal using science to explain what a pasuk means?

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  54. If you are asking me if I believe that the Torah cannot be false in an absolute sense, then the answer is yes, I do believe that the Torah cannot be false in an absolute sense.

    I don't know what you mean by "absolute," but I am talking about conveying information about the natural world that is incorrect. Which I believe to be possible, but you believe to be impossible.

    So this is a religious issue for you. As a religious belief, it MUST be possible that the Torah's words are scientifically accurate. Hence it is only natural that you insist that Chazal could not have been certain that they were understanding the Torah correctly.

    And if there's one thing that I've learned, it's that it's futile to get into endless arguments with people when it's a religious belief of theirs which is at stake.

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  55. "I don't know what you mean by "absolute," but I am talking about conveying information about the natural world that is incorrect. Which I believe to be possible, but you believe to be impossible."

    I've seen you cite the maxim "chotamo shel hakadosh baruch hu emet." According to you, the Torah can contain false information - information that should be interpreted exclusively as being false, to paraphrase your own wording on this point. Is this emet?

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  56. This is something that I will be discussing in a future post.

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  57. In any case, you are essentially like someone who insists that Chazal are infallible, and therefore when they spoke about the sun going behind the sky at night, it must be something that has different interpretations, and in our day we can interpret it as correlating with modern physics.

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  58. "In any case, you are essentially like someone who insists that Chazal are infallible..."

    I know how much you can't stand it when people put words in your mouth, so why are you doing that to me? I clearly and openly stated numerous times that I maintain that Chazal were incorrect in their scientific assessments because they were going with the best scientific knowledge of their time. How do you read that and conclude that I maintain that Chazal are infallible?!? I am amazed at the course this discussion has taken.

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  59. I didn't say that you DO insist that Chazal are infallible! I said that you are essentially LIKE such a person, in that you take a text to which you ascribe infallibility for religious reasons, and then (to avoid a conflict with science) say that its terms do not have a specific meaning and can be interpreted in all kinds of different ways. They do with Chazal exactly as you do with Tenach.

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  60. So you're saying that Tanach is fallible?

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  61. As I said, this is something that I will be discussing in a future post (and which I have also discussed several times in the past). It's not the topic of this post, and I don't let comment threads go off-topic.

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  62. By the way, Tom, you never answered my question: If we found an ancient text describing the world as a disc on four elephants being supported on a giant turtle, is this something that can equally well be interpreted to match the ancient Babylonian model, the Ptolemaic model, the Copernican model, and the modern model?

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  63. Assuming that the author of the text was some unknown person, I would say no. In contradistinction to a text written by the omniscient Creator. Now before you go on about a double standard here, let me illustrate with an example. If I told you that I found an old text that says as follows: "I will reveal to you a great secret about life: one who is complete is very complete," would you delve into it or would you laugh at it? If you didn't know who wrote it or in what context it was said, you would probably ignore it as gibberish, or at least no better than a Chinese fortune cookie. If, on the other hand, you knew the author to be a profoundly wise man whose words are very deep and meaningful - someone like the ibn Ezra (Vayikra 19:19 on the secret behind shatnez), then you would probably take it seriously and delve into the esoteric hidden meaning. If I saw an old text describing the universe as a disc supported by animals etc., and I didn't know the authors - or even better, I knew them to be fanciful writers - I would not take the text seriously or literally. If I knew the author to be the Creator of the universe, I would delve into its deep, esoteric meaning. Of course, my assumption is that the Creator of the universe would not write falsehood or gibberish.

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  64. I'm not talking about what the author had in mind; I'm talking about what the words themselves can mean. Are you saying that if written by a person, the disc-elephants-turtle description CANNOT be equally interpreted to refer to match the ancient Babylonian model, the Ptolemaic model, the Copernican model, and the modern model, but if written by God, then they can? How can that be?

    Is there no way to determine, using linguistic tools, what words actually refer to (be it a single meaning, or a limited range of meanings)? What you are saying is that when God uses words, they have no innate meaning whatsoever, and can mean whatever you want them to mean!

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  65. Kuzari and Baal HaMeor explain a sugya in Rosh HaShanah as discussing the issue of a dateline. As Kuzari himself notes, this implies that the world is a sphere and has no absolute east and west. A flat earth has an absolute east and west and, thus, the issue of a dateline does not arise. Thus, it is inaccurate to say that all the Rishonim held that Chazal believed in a flat earth.

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  66. Hmmm... I'm not sure that the Kuzari is claiming that Chazal themselves believed in a spherical earth, but the Baal HaMeor does seem to be saying that. I'll have to look into this, thanks for the reference. But my claim about the Rishonim was regarding the Gemara in Pesachim 94b being literal, and with regard to the existence of a firmament. A spherical earth does not negate the existence of a firmament.

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  67. Following this thread up until this point, I have to say that I have enough respect for Chazal's honesty to realize that they would want no part of Tom's perverse attempts to defend them by trying to make it appear as though they intended that which they clearly didn't intend.

    If you read him long enough, you come away with the same queasy feeling in your stomach that you would be left with after reading those equally deceptively appealing apologetics aimed at demonstrating that Christianity has, in fact, replaced Judaism as the "true" religion.

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  68. Rabbi Slifkin,
    Can you address Menachem G's comment soon?
    Thanks!

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  69. Um, I already did, didn't you notice?

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  70. "I'll have to look into this, thanks for the reference" - Rabbi, it doesn't seem you posted your findings yet. Anyway, how radical would it be if we found that the Baal Hameor held this way? I know you did an internet class called "Chazal's belief in flat earth," but have you written a post on it? I can't seem to find a post exclusively on that issue. Is one in the works?
    Thanks for the learning!

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  71. It is never surprising to find that someone believes that Chazal agrees with them. But I would be very curious to know how the Baal HaMeor would have explained the Gemara in Pesachim. Probably he would have said that different members of Chazal had different views. Regarding Chazal's view of the earth, I am currently working on a write-up of that topic.

    As I said, though, none of this has anything to do with the firmament. Round-earthers also believed in a solid firmament.

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  72. "If we found an ancient text describing the world as a disc on four elephants being supported on a giant turtle, is this something that can equally well be interpreted to match the ancient Babylonian model, the Ptolemaic model, the Copernican model, and the modern model?"

    I don't see why not. What the earth stands on is irrelevant to the motion of the Earth and stars, from a literary perspective. Is the disc flat, or is the disc curved to create a crust with the inner core of the earth being a giant slow moving turtle? Does the turtle walk in a circle or an ellipse? Do the elephants and turtles create the mass needed to pull the earth in the proper orbit?

    Again, none of the models you asked about care what the earth stands on, only on how it moves. The fact that the earth is egg shaped and not spherical doesn't affect any of these theories either.

    To further push this to the absurd. The four elephants and turtle could be the cause for Einstein's bend in the space time fabric, they just exist on a dimension you can't see. But the words given as you have given them, do not preclude any model of motion.

    If you want to go even further, you could argue that the Disc, 4 elephants and turtle each refer to one the various sections of the Earth's structure. 1. continental crust - 2. oceanic crust - 3. upper mantle - 4. lower mantle - 5. outer core - 6. inner core

    Words have meanings, but language is a flexible thing.

    As far as the rakia goes, everybody knows that rakia really refers to the M-brane that separates our universe from all the others :P

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  73. A loss of mesorah about astronomy does not mean a loss of mesorah about the basic meaning of words and concepts in the Torah...

    ...As I showed very clearly, it's the unanimous view of the Rishonim as to what Chazal meant, as well as the view of many Acharonim. If they are saying that all the Rishonim are wrong, then (a) let them make a case for why that should be accepted, and (b) it destroys their case about how we must accept that the world is 5771 years old because that's the mesorah.


    You are failing to understand the point.
    This is not for you do decide what they should hold. It is a question of what they in reality hold.

    Just because you feel there isn't a serious alternative to your understanding of the texts involved doesn't give you license to accuse them of dismissing what you take as a mesorah.

    They can dispute you on numerous points of contention whether you feel they can be points of contention or not.

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  74. Issac, of course they (and you) won't consciously admit to going against the mesorah. It's always possible for someone to wriggle out of it. But the intellectual gymnastics that are involved become more and more convoluted. Why do you think that it's so difficult to get any anti-rationalists to seriously engage the topic of the firmament? Let's see their arguments!

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  75. Incidentally, Issac, you have made 130 comments on this blog to date, every one of them criticizing me. I'd like to hear YOUR response to all the Rishonim and Acharonim that I cited concerning Pesachim 94b.

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  76. I personally need to look into this issue further, but my take is that the Torah sometimes uses words which in the ancient context assumed a scientific reality which did not exist. That doesn't make the Torah's message "false"-rather the Torah is speaking in the "language of men" and conveying a message in the scientific vocabulary which was understood at the time.

    The question of what are the limits of the elasticity of other layers of interpretation of the same word (s) is clearly a very involved question. Personally, I don't see why if there are scholars who see layers upon layers of ways to interpret (l'havdil) poetry or literature why the same can not apply to the Torah. Written texts by their very nature must be pliable to the mindset, assumptions, society of the interpreter. "Meaning" also can change based upon these factors.

    When can a level of interpretation be considered a legitimate one from the standpoint of Judaism? Now that's a huge and fascinating topic!

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  77. It should be noted that all the foundation theories for the earth (pillars, turtles, water, etc.) are all unequivocally false (regardless of how you interpret the words).
    Why?
    Because the Earth isn't supported by anything. It is actually in a constant state of falling towards the Sun, but its tangential velocity is such that it maintains a relatively constant distance from the Sun.

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  78. "It should be noted that all the foundation theories for the earth (pillars, turtles, water, etc.) are all unequivocally false (regardless of how you interpret the words)."

    Again, you fail to recognize the fluidity of language.

    Does "the earth" refer to the planet, dirt, the crust, fertile soil, home, a land or country, humanity? The dictionary lists 13 different independent definitions of the word. The words "foundation" and "support" also have various meanings depending on the intent of the reader.

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  79. Tom, where did you go? You didn't reply to my last question:

    I'm not talking about what the author had in mind; I'm talking about what the words themselves can mean. Are you saying that if written by a person, the disc-elephants-turtle description CANNOT be equally interpreted to refer to match the ancient Babylonian model, the Ptolemaic model, the Copernican model, and the modern model, but if written by God, then they can? How can that be?

    Is there no way to determine, using linguistic tools, what words actually refer to (be it a single meaning, or a limited range of meanings)? What you are saying is that when God uses words, they have no innate meaning whatsoever, and can mean whatever you want them to mean!

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  80. Sorry - I was away at an academic conference. By way of answer to your last question, I just want to get this whole issue straight, up until now:

    1) The Torah uses the word "rakia" which literally means "that which is spread out."
    2) "That which is spread out" does not, in and of itself, mean "fixed dome."
    3) Chazal understood the Torah's word "rakia" to refer to a fixed dome.
    4) The science of the times of Chazal just happen to maintain that the "heavens" are composed of "fixed domes."
    5) Rather than say that Chazal understood the word "rakia" as "fixed dome" (which it does NOT *literally* mean) because of their scientific understanding, you prefer to say that they understood it as "fixed dome" because that's what the Torah really meant by "rakia" to the exclusion of any other meaning. Despite the fact that "that which spread out" does not literally mean "fixed dome."
    6) The implication of your preference is that not only were Chazal wrong, but the Torah was wrong as well. Even though, once again, the term "that which is spread out" does not, in and of itself, mean "fixed dome."

    I mentioned this proposition of yours (without saying who proposed it) to a non-Orthodox professor of Biblical studies at the conference I attended. His reaction was, and I quote, "Sounds like someone has an agenda here."

    With all of the above, your question about God using words without meaning is not relevant to what I am claiming.

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  81. I don't get you. You don't respond to my question, and instead you confuse the topic entirely. Who is talking about "fixed domes"? The point is whether it is SOLID, not fixed!

    Now, I haven't yet posted my post about what the Torah actually means. Suffice it to say that there is an abundance of evidence from throughout Tenach that it refers to something solid. And your etymology of rakia is based on extreme selectivity of sources.

    It's amazing that you talk about ME having "an agenda," when YOU have explicitly acknowledged that it is a religious belief for you that the Torah cannot be inaccurate!

    Now, you are claiming that Chazal were consciously aware that they were interpreting the word based on the science of their times, which could potentially change. I pointed out a number of unfounded assumptions in this claim, which you did not address. I would also point out that you indicate that a solid firmament belief existed "in the times of Chazal" - but in fact, it existed from much earlier, so Chazal would have received a tradition that rakia refers to a solid firmament. In particular, I pointed out that Chazal believed that their knowledge of Torah informs their knowledge of science, for which there are numerous examples in Shas. I challenged you to bring a single example of Chazal believing that science informs their understanding of Torah, and you didn't produce one. So your idea that Chazal had no tradition about what rakia means, no indications from elsewhere in Tenach, and consciously decided to interpret it based on their knowledge of science, leaving it open to reinterpretation, is simply ridiculous.

    I then addressed a different point: (next comment)

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  82. Your claim that the Torah can refer to all kinds of different scientific models. We had a dialogue, which concluded with me asking as follows: Are you saying that if written by a person, the disc-elephants-turtle description CANNOT be equally interpreted to refer to match the ancient Babylonian model, the Ptolemaic model, the Copernican model, and the modern model, but if written by God, then they can? Is there no way to determine, using linguistic tools, what words actually refer to (be it a single meaning, or a limited range of meanings)?

    I await an answer to your question. Although I am not hopeful that we will get anywhere, since your religious agenda is clear.

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  83. And by the way, I checked Ibn Janach, and you are totally misunderstanding him. He most certainly does explain the root rka to mean something solid, since he explains it to mean a surface that is spread out, in the sense that a tablecloth is spread out, not in the sense that stars are spread out across the galaxy, or particles of dust in the air. In other words, it refers to an object with substance - a solid or liquid - being spread out in two dimensions, not space being dispersed in three dimensions. Sounds like someone has an agenda... (I was NOT going to bring up the topic of your obvious religious agenda, but since you first raised the charge of "agendas," it bears pointing out that yours is far more fundamental than mine.)

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  84. And now I checked Radak too. Surprise, surprise, you also misrepresented him. He is very clear that rka means spreading out in the sense of spreading out a flat, solid surface. When you blow up a balloon, you are not being markia the air in the balloon!

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  85. "Who is talking about "fixed domes"? The point is whether it is SOLID, not fixed!"

    The point that I made is just as applicable to "solid" as it is to "fixed" as will be seen below.

    "your etymology of rakia is based on extreme selectivity of sources."

    Without providing other, different definitions from classical sources, this claim is meaningless.

    "Now, you are claiming that Chazal were consciously aware that they were interpreting the word based on the science of their times, which could potentially change. I pointed out a number of unfounded assumptions in this claim, which you did not address."

    This is amazing. It is as if you didn't see my comment of November 23 - 9:19 am - which goes through each and every "assumption" that you critiqued, one by one. I did not address it?!?

    "I challenged you to bring a single example of Chazal believing that science informs their understanding of Torah, and you didn't produce one."

    Uh, yes I did. I cited Rabbi Josh Waxman's website which quoted talmudic sources of Chazal observing phenomena in the world to understand Torah. I didn't produce one?!? You seem to have "selective memory" here.

    "I await an answer to your question. Although I am not hopeful that we will get anywhere, since your religious agenda is clear."

    I already answered it directly on November 23 - 4:29 pm. You didn't like the answer because you want a linguistic way to understand meaning without knowing who the author is or what his intent was. This is meaningless, as I showed from the ibn Ezra's quote. Yet you still want to know what a word or phrase means WITHOUT the author's intent or context. So I ask you, without knowing the ibn Ezra at all, what is the profound wisdom of "He who is complete is very complete"?

    You are mistaken about ibn Janach - he does not include "solid" as part of his definition. The examples that he brings involves solid surfaces, but "spreading something out" does mean that it has to be solid. See Tehilim 104:2 - "Who coverest Thyself with light as with a garment, who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain."

    The bottom line is that unless you can produce evidence that Chazal interpreted rakia as a solid dome due to a mesorah that they had, rather than due to their understanding of the world of nature through observation, science, etc., you are making an assumption. And an assumption is a rather flimsy basis upon which to conclude that the Torah can contain falsehood. Especially when the idea that the Torah can use words that will have valid multiple meanings, just as literature does (as HaRazieli so aptly pointed out) will result in maintaining that the omniscient Creator did not present a falsehood in His book.

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  86. "He is very clear that rka means spreading out in the sense of spreading out a flat, solid surface."

    Wrong. As above, his definition does not contain the idea of solid. His examples happen to involve solids; his definition does not. Of course his examples involve solids - most spreading does involve solids. But that is not part of the DEFINITION. Tehillim speaks about light as a covering, as a parallel to spreading out the heavens. So the light is spread out, even thought light is not a solid (unless you want to say that David Hamelech was speaking about the substance of photons). By the way, the heavens (shamayim) which are spread out, are not rakia. No one understood shamayim as being a solid, so it is clear that non-solids can be "spread out."

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  87. As I already pointed out, Rabbi Josh Waxman's website quoted talmudic sources of Chazal observing phenomena in the world to understand Torah, but this not Chazal using science to understand what the words in the Torah actually mean!

    Now let's see what Ibn Janach says. He defines it as פורש שטחה. How do you translate that? And Radak says שתקן שטחה להיות הצאצאים עליה.

    I also pointed out that in antiquity everyone believed the heavens to be solid - which means that Chazal would have received this as a tradition.

    It's ironic that you cite Tehilim 104:2, since this is very clear evidence against your position. First of all, there is no reason to assume that "Who covers" is an exact, precise synonym with "who spreads out," but even if it was, "like a garment" implies a two-dimensional surface. And "spreading out like a curtain" most certainly connotes a flat surface!

    You again make mention of the idea that "the Torah can use words that will have valid multiple meanings," and yet you STILL have not responded to my question on your position about whether words in the Bible can have whatever meaning you want them to have. The fact that "He who is complete is very complete" is an ambiguous phrase which would have different meanings depending on the author, does not mean that every word can mean whatever you want it to mean!

    But all this is pointless, right? There is nothing whatsoever that would convince you that Chazal really held that rakia means a solid firmament, because you equate that with the Chumash actually meaning a solid firmament, and as a certain type of Orthodox Jew, it is a fundamental of faith for you that the Torah cannot be wrong.

    Unless you have an adequate response to that last point, I will not post any further comments from you; it's as futile as a debate with a flat-earther or anti-evolutionist.

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  88. >>>> In particular, I pointed out that Chazal believed that their knowledge of Torah informs their knowledge of science, for which there are numerous examples in Shas.

    You are making it sound like Khazal were monolithic on this issue. I don't think they were, as is also true of many other issues and hashkofot. My reading of Shas is that many (maybe even most) held of “sod Hashem l’rei-ov” but examples like Pes. 94 indicate that others must have held otherwise.

    The interesting thing to me about the Gemorrah in general is that the redactors presented all/many differing views on a particular issue. The question I always had was did they report only views, clinically, or did they allow their own views on such matters to influence what they eventually included in Shas.

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  89. Elemir, I wasn't claiming that all Chazal held that all scientific knowledge can be obtained from Torah - they clearly didn't. I was pointing out that they all held that Torah tells us science, not that science tells us what pesukim mean.

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  90. "(I was NOT going to bring up the topic of your obvious religious agenda, but since you first raised the charge of "agendas," it bears pointing out that yours is far more fundamental than mine.)"

    Lets be fair... you brought up his religious agenda 3 days before this post was written.


    I am curious about this solid/gas dichotomy you bring up.
    In the english phrase "Spread out your canopy of peace", is "peace" a solid object?

    I really think a post needs to be devoted to how you decide when language is referring to physical literal things and when language is used in a poetic fashion to describe something by metaphor.

    When, in your mind, is Torah a Shir and when is it a history book?

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  91. R. Shimon bar Yochai, in the Zohar, wrote that the Earth is a round globe.

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  92. "I also pointed out that in antiquity everyone believed the heavens to be solid - which means that Chazal would have received this as a tradition."

    What makes something "the science of the day", and what makes something "tradition" in your model?

    Normally, when someone speaks of tradition, they mean things which were given over at sinai, and thus would not be in 100% agreement with what was being said by other nations of the time. Otherwise, whats the point of transferring that information over at sinai or through prophecy? It's already known by science!

    Your statement could just have easily read.. and should be read
    "I also pointed out that in antiquity everyone believed the heavens to be solid - which means that Chazal used the science of the day to translate Rakia."

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  93. Lets be fair... you brought up his religious agenda 3 days before this post was written.

    When did I do that?

    In the english phrase "Spread out your canopy of peace", is "peace" a solid object?

    No, but "canopy" is. However, in this case, canopy is a metaphor.


    I really think a post needs to be devoted to how you decide when language is referring to physical literal things and when language is used in a poetic fashion to describe something by metaphor.


    It's in the works.

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  94. R. Shimon bar Yochai, in the Zohar, wrote that the Earth is a round globe.

    No, he didn't. See this post: http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2010/10/you-dont-mess-with-zohar.html

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  95. What makes something "the science of the day", and what makes something "tradition" in your model?

    I meant that Chazal, when they were taught Tenach by their parents and rebbeim, were taught it with this meaning. They were not taught it without any meaning, and decided to explain it based on the science of their own day.

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  96. I've heard of people being biased toward the idea that the Author of the Torah does not write mistakenly.

    I think that's called Judaism.

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  97. Malcolm, believe it or not, there were many great Torah scholars over history who believed otherwise. They called it "dibra Torah k'lashon bnei adam." It's something that I discussed on several occasions in the past on this website, and to which I shall be returning in the future.

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  98. "there were many great Torah scholars over history who believed otherwise. They called it "dibra Torah k'lashon bnei adam."

    Could you please cite one great Torah scholar over history, aside from Dr. Isadore Twersky, who interpreted "dibra Torah..." the way that you did? Is there even one of the tannaim, amoraim, or rishonim who explicitly understand this concept the way that you do? Before saying that the Torah can be wrong, I think that this concept requires some type of solid basis. IIRC, even Professor Kaplan said that Dr. Twersky's reading of ibn Caspi on "dibra Torah..." was without a solid basis.

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  99. Sorry, I am not rehashing the entire topic again here and now. You can go through all the archives, or you can wait for my future post on the application of this topic to the firmament.

    I'm sure you realize that a statement such as "Before saying that the Torah can be wrong, I think that this concept requires some type of solid basis" clearly means that you are talking about the religious legitimacy of such a view, and that any attempt to actually analyze whether something in the Torah is scientifically correct or not would be entirely determined by its religious legitimacy - i.e. not objective? There's nothing wrong with that, but I hope it sheds light on why I'm not interested in endless arguments with such people as to whether or not the Torah is scientifically accurate.

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  100. How about a discussion whether scientists are scientifically accurate?

    Or do you believe whatever scientists beliefs are define accurate science?

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  101. I'm pretty darn sure that it is scientifically accurate to say that the universe is not a solid, flat firmament surrounding the earth in which the luminaries are embedded. Do you disagree?

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  102. That has nothing to do with my comment. If you didn't or couldn't address my point, that is perfectly fine.

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  103. If you're looking for a general guide to how to evaluate the more speculative areas of science, that is far beyond the scope of this website. It is also irrelevant, because the only scientific facts that I reference are those that are very well founded.

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  104. Wisdom and knowledge often have little to do with each other.

    There are plenty of people with lots of knowledge and command of huge numbers of facts who are foolish. Most of the time that description would apply to me.

    It is possible to be very wise and not know things. A very foolish doctor today knows infinitely more about how the human body works than did Rambam or Hillel.

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  105. "Sorry, I am not rehashing the entire topic again here and now. You can go through all the archives, or you can wait for my future post on the application of this topic to the firmament."

    Rabbi Slifkin - I did go through all of the archives of the past 3 years on your website, searching for every place the phrase "dibra..." occurred. I could not find one source in Chazal or the rishonim (other than the lengthy discussion about ibn Caspi, but only according to Dr. Twersky, which was confirmed as being doubtful by Professor Kaplan) that confirms your view of this idea. If I missed something please let me know. If I didn't, then please don't say that your view is confirmed by "many great Torah scholars over history" when there isn't even one that you can cite. This isn't a question of religious conviction - it's a question of the existence of sources that you claim, when they don't appear to exist.

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  106. Rishonim - Probably Rambam, and Ibn Kaspi (who, even if he does not go quite as far as Prof. Twersky claims, still goes plenty far enough, as even Prof. Kaplan agreed, IIRC). More recently - Rav Hirsch and, especially, Rav Kook. Check out Marc Shapiro's most recent post on the Seforim blog for sources and discussion.

    True, there's no source in Chazal saying such a thing. However, there's also no source in Chazal saying that God is incorporeal.

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  107. Elemir writes: "The interesting thing to me about the Gemorrah in general is that the redactors presented all/many differing views on a particular issue. "

    I used to be so comfortable when a rabbi would teach, "Chazal teach that..." ... until one day a friend asked with frustration, "do you mean A sage, or ALL of them?"

    In the case of Chazal and the shape of the earth, Gil Student shows a variety of opinions of Chazal:

    http://www.aishdas.org/toratemet/en_shape.html

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  108. That's funny.

    He first quotes Rambam that astronomical matters were matters for which there was no mesorah. But Rambam is talking about complex matters of astronomy - not the definition of basic words and concepts in the Torah! Rambam is not saying that there is no mesorah for what was created on Day Two! There are simply no grounds for saying that Chazal invented the definition of rakia.

    Note that he does not make any mention of the various pesukim speaking about the nature of the rakia and the Shamayim - something that I shall discuss at length in a future post.

    He also misunderstands the nature of the spheres that Rambam describes, due to his lack of knowledge of Greek philosophy and Ptolemaic astronomy. They are certainly not "force fields"!

    Finally, his claim that my choosing a "cartoonish" graphic to depict the ancient theory of the sun's path "is intentioned to increase incredulity and ridicule" is plain motzi shem ra. I simply wanted to clearly illustrate what Chazal meant, for people who do not understand.

    But it is interesting that he apparently concedes that Chazal were entirely mistaken about the nature of the rakia. This despite the extensive sugyos discussing it, e.g. in Chagigah.

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  109. I'm sorry to harp on this issue, but ibn Caspi, as per the discussion on your website in the past, maintains that dibra Torah... means that the Torah accommodates man's fears, etc., in cases where not doing so would be harmful to man. Anything beyond that application is not what ibn Caspi said, except according to Dr. Twersky - which Professor Kaplan acknowledged. That, along with "maybe Rambam" are not "many great Torah scholars" among Chazal and the rishonim. I agree that there are some rabbis of late who professed your idea, but they are in the minority, and do not have any concrete basis in the rishonim or Chazal.

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  110. As I recall, there was more to Ibn Caspi than that. See too R. Josh Waxman's comments on Parshablog. I think it can certainly be said that Rav Hirsch and Rav Kook were basing themselves on the Rishonim; see Marc Shapiro's post. And I agree that this position does not have any concrete basis in Chazal, but neither does God being incorporeal.

    By the way, let me guess... you don't think that rakia means a solid firmament, right?

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  111. http://parsha.blogspot.com/search?q=ibn+caspi+dibra+torah

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  112. I checked the link you cited. Once again, it deals with ibn Caspi's view that God addressed the people based upon their own fears, assuring them that He was protecting them. According to ibn Caspi, God addresses the people in their own framework, even if this means presenting an idea in the Torah which is not accurate (there is no external efficacy to Bilaam's curse - only what you think may be harmful). God does this to protect and reassure the people from within their own framework. The notion that God presents something in the Torah which is not accurate or true just because that's what the people believed, where it does NOT involve reassuring or protecting the people is NOT part of ibn Caspi's idea. To extend his notion to "non-protective" areas is to violate Occam's razor and to put something in ibn Caspi's mouth that he didn't say.

    So again, "probably Rambam" and an extension of ibn Caspi that is based on ungrounded assumption - is not many great Torah scholars throughout the ages. Particularly striking is the lack of any rishonim that you can cite.

    I have no idea what rakia means. I totally agree that Chazal said it means the firmament (solid domes). But this is not relevant to the issue of whether there is any solid support for your view, other than Rav Hirsch and Rav Kook. Two recent rabbis are not many great Torah scholars throughout the ages.

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  113. I don't think that you are accurately representing all the cases that Ibn Caspi discusses, such as the false signs and the trumpets. And even though Ibn Caspi does not discuss this exact kind of case, I think it's a kal v'chomer from the kind of cases that he does discuss.

    You say that you have "no idea" what rakia in the Torah means. Do you think that it is *possible* that it refers to a solid firmament?

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  114. By the way, it is important to bear in mind that between the time of the Torah and the time of the Rishonim, not much had changed in terms of science.

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  115. What are you referring to when you say the "false signs" and the "trumpets"? And what is the kal vachomer you infer?

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  116. Look at all R. Waxman's posts on it. The kal v'chomer is that if Dibra Torah takes into account beliefs that ought to be eradicated, kal v'chomer it takes into account beliefs that are of no consequence.

    You didn't answer my question!

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  117. I looked up the parshablog website, as you suggested. I must say that I was very disappointed, because in my opinion you really misrepresented the facts, at least with regard to the trumpets. Rabbi Waxman cited a comment by ibn Caspi which is very obscure, and he himself - Rabbi Waxman - admitted that his interpretation of ibn Caspi (which would support your view) is not contained in the words themselves, and that he could well be reading his idea into the words. Is this your proof that ibn Caspi holds like you? (I couldn't find anything about the "false signs" that you referred to - could you please be more specific?)

    As to the kal vachomer - I don't think that it follows at all. Ibn Caspi says that God accommodates for man's false beliefs where that accommodation is necessary for man to continue functioning so that he will ultimately come closer to God. This has no bearing at all with regard to a false belief that is irrelevant to man's not being able to function properly.

    Regarding your question - as of right now I have not seen any evidence from any of the rishonim or Chazal which says that God tells falsehoods in the Torah other than to accommodate man's "crises of faith." So, as of right now I would say that it is not possible that rakia could mean solid dome. If there were a rishon who says what you are claiming, then I would say that it is a machloket rishonim as to whether it could mean a solid dome. But so far, I haven't seen any evidence that such a side exists (other than in the more recent rabbinic writers like R. Hirsch and R. Kook).

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  118. Phil said...

    In the case of Chazal and the shape of the earth, Gil Student shows a variety of opinions of Chazal:

    http://www.aishdas.org/toratemet/en_shape.html

    November 25, 2010 7:23 PM

    R. Slifkin:
    I would like to know what your opinion on this essay is.
    Thanks.

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  119. So, as of right now I would say that it is not possible that rakia could mean solid dome.

    You mean that you would evaluate the evidence regarding the meaning of the word rakia in light of whether it is religiously acceptable to believe that it refers to a solid dome. In other words, your evaluation would be completely worthless and predetermined.

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  120. R. Slifkin:
    I would like to know what your opinion on this essay is.


    Mostly good, but I do not agree with his take on the Yerushalmi (see R. Josh Waxman's posts on it), and the Zohar is not evidence of a position held by Chazal.

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  121. (I couldn't find anything about the "false signs" that you referred to - could you please be more specific?)

    Follow the link, and keep scrolling down.

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  122. "You mean that you would evaluate the evidence regarding the meaning of the word rakia in light of whether it is religiously acceptable to believe that it refers to a solid dome. In other words, your evaluation would be completely worthless and predetermined."

    No - I mean that I would evaluate the meaning of a word/concept in Torah by the parameters that the great sages have taught. I think that's called "following the teachings of our chachamim" in approaching the Torah. I'm sorry that you feel that that is completely worthless.

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  123. It's not worthless from a religious perspective - it's a great act of dedication that may require great creativity. But as an objective evaluation of what the word means, it's worthless.

    And it's very unlikely that you'll consider Rav Kook's approach viable.

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  124. "I'm pretty darn sure that it is scientifically accurate to say that the universe is not a solid, flat firmament surrounding the earth in which the luminaries are embedded. Do you disagree?"

    What is the "fabric of space time"? Is it solid? Does it translate as "rakia"?

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  125. R. Slifkin.

    A very good question has been raised with regard to whether the "Rakia" discussed as part of the sun's path at night in Pesachim is the same "Rakia" created on Day 2 and refered to on Day 4 in Maaseh Breishis.

    For example, Resh Lakish says in the Gemarah in Chagiga that there are 7 "Rakias", all with different names, the second of which is actually called "Rakia," which contains the celestial bodies. The rest of them contain metaphysical entities. Rav Acha holds there are 2 "Rakias." I do not know whether Resh Lakish (and R. Acha) means that the "Rakia" of Day 2, or Day 4, (or both or neither) is Rakia No. 2 in his list. Or that all 7 Rakias are the Rakia mentioned in Maaseh Breishis. Or something else.

    It cannot simply be taken for granted that all references to the rakia are identical, because there are in fact seven rakias identified by Chazal. You have your wirk cut out for you in this regard.

    There are multiple uses of the term "Rakia" and I am not at all convinced that the Rakia refered to in Pesachim is the same one refered to in Maaseh Breishis. I have not researched this (and don't really plan to).

    It is disturbing to me that you have been completely silent about all other discussions about Rakia throughout Shas and the Rishonim, leaving (me with) the impression that "Rakia" in Pesachim is the only "Rakia" there is.

    I feel misled. All I can say to be Melamed Zchus is that your series on the Rakia is a work in progress, and perhaps you were going to get to the part where you discuss the various views regarding the Rakia.

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  126. Nachum:

    My discussion of the rakia is very much a work in progress. I am also writing a more detailed discussion for a book. Do you really think that I would be ignorant of such a major discussion of the rakia, or deliberately ignoring a source that is problematic? That's not my way - and I wouldn't be so stupid as to leave myself open to being proven wrong!

    The discussion of the firmaments in Chagigah, while I will eventually discuss it regarding a different point, does not affect what I wrote so far. As you note, the second of them is actually called "Rakia," and contains the celestial bodies. So there you have it in black-and-white! Furthermore, this is the rakia of the Torah, since the rakia of the Torah is the one in which the luminaries were placed. So the rakia that Chazal were discussing regarding the luminaries in Pesachim, is the same rakia of the Chumash in which the luminaries were placed.

    Incidentally, the following sentence is not quite accurate: "The rest of them contain metaphysical entities." It would be more accurate to write: "The rest of them are said to contain entities that we now describe as metaphysical."

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