Friday, November 19, 2010

Our World, Their Universe

As demonstrated in my monograph The Sun's Path At Night, the unanimous view of the Rishonim was that the Sages of Israel believed that there is a firmament, a solid dome over the earth, upon which the sun and stars move. And I see no reason to think that the Rishonim were mistaken.

Incidentally, this sheds light on the word olam. When studying or translating rabbinic texts, people often wonder whether to translate olam as "world" or "universe," and are puzzled as to why the same world is used for both. The answer is that, in the view of Chazal, they were one and the same. Only with modern conceptions, when the Earth is a small planet floating in the vastness of space along with countless other planets and stars, is the "world" significantly different from the "universe." But in the ancient Babylonian cosmology, where the entire universe is a dome over the earth, they are one and the same structure.

This leads to the final part of Mishpachah magazine's Kolmus supplement that I had not yet discussed. The lead article on geocentrism vs. heliocentrism features a sidebar entitled "The Position of Chazal Regarding the Nature of the World." It lists four purported examples of Chazal disagreeing with the "science" of their era and eventually being proven correct. Let us examine each in turn:

1. It contrasts the non-Jewish beliefs in the world resting on pillars, water, elephants or turtles with the verse in Iyov 26:7 stating that the Earth is suspended in an empty void, citing Rashi that "the Earth is suspended in the air, held by Hashem's power." (Although note that this is not what Rashi actually says, ayin sham, v'ain kan makom leha'arich.)

Yet there are numerous other pesukim which do describe the world as resting on something - "He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved" (Tehillim 104), "For the pillars of the earth are God's, and he set the world upon them" (1 Samuel 2:8), "He shakes the earth from its place and makes it pillars tremble" (Job 9:6), "He spreads the earth out over the waters" (Berachos). Thus, there are a range of descriptions in Tenach, just as there are a range of descriptions in other cultures, some of which fit with modern science, many of which do not. So what system is being used here to determine when something is meant literally, and when it is meant allegorically?

2. It claims that, in contrast to other ancient scientists who thought the world to be flat or shaped like a drum or arch, the Yerushalmi and Midrash note that the earth is in the shape of a sphere.

In fact, the ancient Greeks knew full well that the earth is a sphere. Certainly most of Chazal believed the earth to be flat, as documented in my monograph and many other sources. The Yerushalmi and Midrash, at best, represent a minority of Chazal who shared the same view as the Greeks. In fact, even those sources speak about the earth being "like a ball in a dish of water," which hardly fits with the earth as we know it. Furthermore, as R. Josh Waxman notes, these sources seem to say more about Greek beliefs (perhaps subsequently adopted by Jews) than they say about Chazal's beliefs.

3. It says that while the ancient Greeks believed the celestial bodies to be made out of an unearthly quintessence, Chazal knew them to be composed of the same material substances that we have on earth.

I haven't looked into this thoroughly yet, but I'm not at all sure that the citation from Chazal (unfortunately no source is given) means what it is claimed to mean. And certainly most of the Rishonim agreed with the Greek view.

4. It cites a Midrash and Zohar which attest to people living on the other side of the world.

Yet in fact, the Midrash is referring not to Australians, but to the two-headed denizens of the subterranean netherworld (see Sacred Monsters pp. 210-212). And as for the Zohar... well, as Chasam Sofer would have said, that's not exactly evidence of what Chazal held!

In summary, since we have clearly seen that Chazal subscribed to the ancient Babylonian cosmology of the earth as a flat or near-flat disc with the rest of the universe as a dome above it, it is ludicrous to talk about Chazal being ahead of their time with regard to understanding the nature of the world and the universe.

Now, I happen to have inside info that this sidebar in Kolmus was not part of the original article, but was later added following instructions from the editor, who was concerned that the article was too maskilic and that they needed to show their True Charedi credentials. Since that is the case, and since Mishpachah is doing a very valuable job, I can't criticize them for doing their job.

But I have to do my job, too. And claiming that Chazal were ahead of their time with regard to understanding the nature of the world and the universe is not only false, but also dangerous. Creating such a false image can lead to severe disillusionment and bitterness when people discover the truth. We should be respecting Chazal as great Torah scholars who produced an astounding compendium of debate, laws and ethics - not as modern scientists.

27 comments:

  1. > Concerning the title:
    "Our World, Their Universe"
    If I can simply reiterate a comment from a previous post:

    "Don’t let ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality fester"

    > "Creating such a false image can lead to severe disillusionment and bitterness when people discover the truth. We should be respecting Chazal as great Torah scholars who produced an astounding compendium of debate, laws and ethics - not as modern scientists.>

    How about respecting them as tzaddikim, or at least men righteous enough to be worthy of miracles happening to them (ex: Pinchas ben Yair, Yochanan ben Zakkai, Choni haMaagel, Chanina ben Dosa)? Is there a danger in promoting this image? Can it lead to disillusion and bitterness?

    Oh, your post was excellent, as usual.

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  2. I thought this shiur would interest you - at about the 45 min mark, R Herschel Schachter talks about the dangers of denying legitimacy of other people/areas of Judaism and the world.

    He talks about it with regards to the mitzvah of chinuch - that it's dangerous to teach it to your kids, but the issue is the same as what you've been stressing.

    http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/752392/Rabbi_Hershel_Schachter/Parsha_Shiur_-_Vayishlach_5771

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  3. "But I have to do my job, too. And claiming that Chazal were ahead of their time with regard to understanding the nature of the world and the universe is not only false, but also dangerous"

    Mishpacha no doubt does this to give people chizuk. There are two problems for some, however:

    1) The article's sidebar, and similar ones, don't cite sources like the Shvus Yaakov who thought that Chazal thought that the earth was flat. Even if the response is that the truth is like the Maharal, it is not a complete presentation, and can lead some to doubt the intellectual rigor of arguments in favor of Torah and Judaism, which brings me to my next point.

    2) There are challenges beyond Science and Torah in history and other areas. Even if one is aware of such issues and has not resolved them, it can be helpful if one feels that one lives in a community where truth is respected. One can respect people of great levels of faith, if one sees in some areas, such as Science and Torah, that they are honest in their presentation. Thus a lack of honesty in Science and Torah can be detrimental to viewing a part of the global community of ma'aminim.

    It is for this reason why I think R. Slifkin's method of discussion, ie, intellectual honesty, is important even if one disagrees with the conclusions. It's the depth and intellectual honesty of a discussion and struggling with problems, not necessarily the conclusions or definitive answers, that leads to respect for Torah observant people, as I see it.

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  4. Yet even if the zohar was composed at the end of the thirteenth century, that is well before the copernican revolution--so regardless, the zohar strayed from the science of its day.
    see this article from the menorah journal in 1900: http://books.google.com/books?id=LX0pAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA77&lpg=PA77&dq=Philosophy+and+Qabbala:+The+Zohar,+Copernicus+and+Modern+Astronomy.&source=bl&ots=73BCSzh4gh&sig=T3pvrZLpQSvcJELKVOar1-S9-sw&hl=en&ei=ORbDSbHJCYXjnQfC2-DYDg&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=2&ct=result#v=onepage&q=Philosophy%20and%20Qabbala%3A%20The%20Zohar%2C%20Copernicus%20and%20Modern%20Astronomy.&f=false

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  5. See also the Jewish Encyclopedia article on the zohar, which discusses this passage:
    "But apart from all these considerations, the contents of the Zohar clearly indicate that the work is the production not of a single author or of a single period, but of many authors, periods, and civilizations; for it combines the most puzzling incongruities and irreconcilable contradictions with lofty ideas and conceptions which would do honor to a genius of modern times, and also mystic teachings of the Talmudic period with those of the Geonim and later Cabala. To determine the country in which the work originated and the time at which its teachings began to develop, it is necessary to ascertain where and when the Jews became intimately acquainted with the Hindu philosophy, which more than any other exercised an influence on the Zohar. As an instance of Hindu teachings in the Zohar may be quoted the following passage:(Zohar, iii. 9b).

    "In the book of Hamnuna the Elder we learn through some extended explanations that the earth turns upon itself in the form of a circle; that some are on top, the others below; that all creatures change in aspect, following the manner of each place, but keeping in the same position. But there are some countries on the earth which are lighted while others are in darkness; and there are countries in which there is constantly day or in which at least the night continues only some instants. . . . These secrets were made known to the men of the secret science, but not to the geographers"

    The theory that the earth is a sphere revolving on its own axis, which immortalized Copernicus, was previously known only to the Hindus, who were instructed in the truth of it by Aryabhatta in the first century before the common era. As far as is known, the Vedanta school of the Hindu philosophers found nowhere, outside of its place of origin, so many admirers as in Persia in the eighth century. Under its influence the Mohammedans of Persia founded many mystic sects, among them being that of the Sufis, who for many centuries were very numerous. This mystic movement did not fail to exercise an influence upon the Persian Jews, and there arose among them various sects, such as the 'Isawites, the Yudghanites, etc., the tenets of which, so far as can be ascertained from the scanty information concerning them that is available, bore more or less the stamp of the Vedanta philosophy. Thus the Yudghanites abstained from meat, led ascetic lives, set aside the literal meaning of the Torah for a supposed mystic interpretation, and believed in metempsychosis, etc. All these sects had their sacred writings, which they kept secret; and these writings probably formed the nucleus of the Zohar, which is a mystic commentary on the Pentateuch, as the upanishads are the mystic interpretation of the Vedas and other Brahmanic scriptures. In its peregrinations from Persia to Spain the Zohar probably received many additions and interpolations, among which may have been the various names of the Tannaim and Amoraim, as well as the allusions to historical events.

    Read more: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=142&letter=Z&search=zohar#ixzz15lAXu51U

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  6. Here is another article from this history of science journal Isis, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Mar., 1937)p. 396:
    "After the Twelfth Century, references to the theory [of the Earth's diurnal rotation] multiply, there being in the subsequent era at least six writers who discuss the hypothesis. Five among these, AL-SHIRAZI, ABU-L-FARAJ, AL-KATIBI, GIOVANNI CAMPANO DA NOVARA, and Saint THOMAS AQUINAS reject it, but the extent and seriousness of a majority of their discussions indicate that the hypothesis was pressing strongly for recognition. Its lone advocate is RAB HAMNUNA THE ELDER, who is described in the Zohar as stating in his "Book" that the inhabited world "turns round in a circle like a ball."

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  7. To all those sending me the animated videos on "The Slifkin Debate" and
    "Yeshiva guy says over a vort" - yes, I have seen them, and yes, they are hilarious!

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  8. WFB: According to Rav Menachem Kasher, the Zohar is saying no such thing. He points out that the Zohar is simply saying that the earth is round and that its upper half is inhabited. The phrase mitgalgela b’igula does not mean “rotates like a circle” but rather means “is round like a circle.” He also notes that some people mistakenly insert the word tadir (perpetually), in order to make the Zohar refer to the earth rotating. See “Ha-Eretz o Ha-Shemesh Merkaz Ha-Olam,” Talpiot, Year Two, Vols. 3-4 (Tevet 5710) pp. 407-408.

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  9. Noty sure if this is what Josh points out, but if I recall the yerushalmi correctly, it's talking about what might constitute an avodah zarah statue, indicating this was a representation (the world as sphere) idolaters might make.

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  10. "yes, I have seen them, and yes, they are hilarious!"

    Aren't you afraid that some people might follow krum's lead and mock the Talmud? The mocking in the video was not just directed at some yeshiva students.

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  11. We can't ignore the statements by Chazal and Rishonim that do in fact reveal marvelous scientific wisdom. For instance:

    1. R. Yehoshua knew (Horios 10a) about the periodicity of comets 1600 years prior to its discovery by modern science.

    2. Regarding the number of stars: Considering that the unaided eye can only see 2-3 thousand stars, it is amazing that our Sages cited a figure (1,064,340,000,000,000,000, Brachos 32b) close to the same order of magnitude as that which scientists have only recently been able to establish (trillions, according to Encyclopedia Brittanica).

    3. Rashi on the Gemara in Shabbos 106b had already noted the phenomenon of the grasshopper’s blindness 400 years before the field of optometry began.

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  12. Aren't you afraid that some people might follow krum's lead and mock the Talmud? The mocking in the video was not just directed at some yeshiva students.

    What? I didn't notice any mocking of the Talmud.

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  13. Pianoman, not a single one of those examples works. How much do you look into these before publicizing them? It doesn't do the honor of Chazal and the Rishonim any good to make such fallacious claims.

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  14. "Roka` ha'aretz `al hammayim" is a bracha in massechet Brachot, but its source is Hallel Haggadol.

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  15. None of them work? Then please show me - don't just say so before "publicizing" this alleged fact of yours!

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  16. OLAM in Tanach always refers to time everlasting. (Ibn Ezra)

    The intermediate usage in Hazal was EON or EPOCH.

    The Final meaning was physical WORLD

    see Shamma Friedman article in Leshoneinu

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  17. Balashon blog also did a post on OLAM

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  18. Periodicity of comets:
    Many ancient cultures recorded comets. And the periodicity of Halley's comet is 76 years, not 70 years as stated by R. Yehoshua.

    Number of stars: See http://observantastronomer.blogspot.com/2006/03/number-of-stars-in-universe.html

    Grasshoppers: The reason why they can be caught in the early morning is that they are cold, not because of dew blinding their eyes.

    Tell me, did you think that Chazal were mistaken about believing all the stars to be small lights that are embedded in a dome over the earth, yet knew true facts about the stars that would be unknown until millenia later? And that Rashi was mistaken about the existence of mermaids and various facts of human anatomy, but knew the finer details of grasshopper physiology?

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  19. Many ancient cultures recorded comets. And the periodicity of Halley's comet is 76 years, not 70 years as stated by R. Yehoshua.

    1. Establishing the periodicity at 70 years is an absolutely incredible estimation given the fact that its reappearance wasn’t actually recorded until approximately 1500 years later, hence the title Halley’s comet, who lived in the 1700s! (By the way, its orbital period varies between 75 and 76 years, but ranges from 74 to 79 years. See http://journalofcosmology.com/AncientAstronomy106.html)
    2. Yes they obviously recorded the *existence* of comets in ancient cultures, but their cycles weren’t known until later. Regarding Halley’s comet: “Clear records of the comet's *[existence]* were made by Chinese, Babylonian, andmedieval European chroniclers, but were not recognized as *reappearances* of the same object at the time. The comet's periodicity was first determined in 1705 by English astronomer Edmond Halley, after whom it is now named.” –wikipedia, see http://journalofcosmology.com/AncientAstronomy106.html
    ---
    Number of stars: See http://observantastronomer.blogspot.com/2006/03/number-of-stars-in-universe.html

    1. I didn’t see anywhere there that actually invalidates my point. Again, considering that the unaided eye can only see 2-3 thousand stars, it is amazing that the Gemara lists a number exponentially larger, which hasn’t been discovered until recently.
    -------
    Grasshoppers: The reason why they can be caught in the early morning is that they are cold, not because of dew blinding their eyes.

    1. How sure are you? What’s your evidence against Rashi? I still find it remarkable that Rashi concluded as such without knowing anything about optometry (since the field didn't exist until 400 years later, as I said).
    -------
    Tell me, did you think that Chazal were mistaken about believing all the stars to be small lights that are embedded in a dome over the earth, yet knew true facts about the stars that would be unknown until millenia later? And that Rashi was mistaken about the existence of mermaids and various facts of human anatomy, but knew the finer details of grasshopper physiology?

    1. Why can’t we say that some facts they knew (as I have shown) and others they didn’t know? Or perhaps they are metaphorical (and the Rishonim that take them literally were speaking before the alleged rejuvenation of the deeper side to these gemaras, like the mehaleich of the Maharal and others)? I am using valid, evidence-based approaches to understanding Gemara and rishonim, so you can’t deny what I’m saying unless you are using valid, evidence-based approaches, and include all the sources and rationales I am using, which you have yet to demonstrate.

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  20. 1. Do you think that R. Yehoshua had access to records of previous appearances of Halley's comet, or not?

    2. I don't think that there's anything at all remarkable about making a statement about there being an amazingly large number of stars - especially since the language used implies that it is more of a poetic statement rather than a precise calculation, and as a precise calculation it is incorrect!

    3. Your comments on Rashi are the most bizarre:

    How sure are you?

    The basis for saying it is (a) observations that they become dormant early in the night, way before the dew condenses, and (b) our extensive knowledge of insects reveals that it is the cold that makes them dormant. This is based on my own experience with them as well as the cumulative body of scientific knowledge. I am far more confident in this, than in the statements of someone living 900 years ago, with whom there is absolutely no reason to believe that he had any special insights into the insect kingdom.

    What’s your evidence against Rashi?

    So I need to prove that dew is nothing to do with it, otherwise you have valid evidence that Rashi was ahead of his time scientifically? What a bizarre reversal! If you are trying to show that Rashi was ahead of his time scientifically, it is up to you to prove that grasshoppers are indeed blinded by dew and that it is because of this that they are dormant in the early morning rather than due to the cold.

    I still find it remarkable that Rashi concluded as such without knowing anything about optometry

    What???!! Why on earth is it remarkable, when there is no reason to believe that it is actually true? This statement reveals you to be a "True Believer" rather than being objective.

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  21. 1. Do you think that R. Yehoshua had access to records of previous appearances of Halley's comet, or not?

    -What difference does it make – again, we are not talking about the *appearance* of this comet, but *periodicity*. The fact of the matter is that he had knowledge of the *periodicity* of this comet, something officially unknown until 1500 years later! There is absolutely no evidence, thus far, that the *periodicity* was known back then.

    2. especially since the language used implies that it is more of a poetic statement rather than a precise calculation, and as a precise calculation it is incorrect!

    -The fact that it is not a precise calculation is irrelevant. What is relevant is that this Gemara challenges all previous notions – and even common sense – that there are allegedly exponentially more than the mere thousands of stars people thought existed back then! And poetic? Give me a break! Are you yourself, Natan Slifkin, actually claiming that this Gemara is metaphorical, something the Maharal would say?!?!? I assume not. But poetic? I thought Chazal speak literally – which is an argument you yourself repeatedly make!

    3. with whom there is absolutely no reason to believe that he had any special insights into the insect kingdom.

    -That’s exactly my point! There is no reason to believe so because it could be ruach hakodesh…duh.

    So I need to prove that dew is nothing to do with it, otherwise you have valid evidence that Rashi was ahead of his time scientifically? What a bizarre reversal! If

    -I’m not claiming that. See above.

    you are trying to show that Rashi was ahead of his time scientifically, it is up to you to prove that grasshoppers are indeed blinded by dew and that it is because of this that they are dormant in the early morning rather than due to the cold.

    -that’s not my point. It’s irrelevant whether he is right or wrong here. My point is that rashi used a optometrical concept that wasn’t known in his time. Why would he dare make such a claim? Is it logical to say what he said – dew blinding the eye? Doesn’t seem so. Therefore, how does one explain this aspect of this rashi?

    What???!! Why on earth is it remarkable, when there is no reason to believe that it is actually true? This statement reveals you to be a "True Believer" rather than being objective.
    -see above

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  22. Rambam stated explicitly that the Guide represents the true wisdom. If anything, the quotation sheds light on the potential psychological phenomenon that occurred inside the Maharal's mind - that he could not imagine that such a great Torah scholar as Rambam truly held views so different from his own.

    1. From your words, I see that you clearly don’t realize how great the maharal was. (and maharal writes very respectfully about rambam, judging him favorably) Besides, it’s not like he said he couldn’t “imagine that such a great Torah scholar as Rambam truly held…” (as you write) – he judged Rambam favorably, just as Rambam asks the reader in his intro to the moreh.

    2. Evidence that the Maharal is correct can be found in the intro to the moreh, here: “I adjure any reader of my book, in the name of the Most High, not to add any explanation even to a single word: nor to explain to another any portion of it *except such passages as have been fully treated of by previous theological authorities* (my emphasis): he must not teach others anything that he has learnt from my work alone, and *that has not been hitherto discussed by any of our authorities*."

    "Right" in what aspect? You think that the Maharal was correct in how he explained Pesachim 94b, and all the Rishonim were wrong?

    1. right in terms of their derech halimud and approach to the mesorah. I don’t know if the maharal was correct, but I do know that the rishonim have a valid position to take, that chazal were speaking literally, which is the pashtus of the Gemara there. The maharal holds differently, preferring to go against the grain, and a scholar as great as himself has every right to do so. (besides, we find acharonim arguing on rishonim, such as the chasam sofer and vilna gaon – and maharal is a very early acharon, so it’s for sure not a problem for him to argue on rishonim. Yes it’s a big chidush to argue on so many rishonim, but his position is a valid one, and you must judge him favorably that he had very logical reasons for his peirush there.)

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  23. I'm having second thoughts as to whether there was some Talmud-bashing in Krum's video. I'm not convinced there is and I'm not convinced there's not. It could be our biases that lead us to our opinions. I would like for you to ask your readers what they think. (I wonder if knowing Krum's blogging history would be helpful.)

    Be that as it may, I still think that the videos don't just mock the yeshiva student, but mock the derech he gets from his rebbeim. At the very least, krum makes no effort to avoid this impression. Now, you are usually very careful not to mock those you call anti-rationalists; rather, you politely show how you disagree with them (except, of course, with those who are dishonest), but it's still a valid part of our MEHsorah. Don't you wish Krum was more careful?

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  24. I put up a post this morning regarding the proof of dew blinding grasshoppers.

    http://parsha.blogspot.com/2010/11/does-dew-blind-grasshoppers.html

    kt,
    josh

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  25. Of course the Greeks knew that the earth was round and, not only that, but Erestothenes of Cyrene actually came up with the correct size in the 2nd century B.C.E., some 400 odd years before Rebbi codified the Mishna. Another thing bothers me. The gemorah has several references to Pi being equal to 3. How could they not know the correct value?

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  26. Raphael Kaufman, the Tana'im had no direct contact with Greek or Helenistic savants. What they knew about nature or mathematics was, at best, filtered through the Romans that they encountered. The Romans were a more practical people and used mathematics as a tool for their engineering projects. Using 3 as an approximation to pi was presumably acceptable in such work provided safety factors were incorporated. Besides, they chose to interpret the verse in Kings I as a precise description (the Yam of Shlomo had a diameter of 10 amot and a circumfrence of 30). In reality, they understimated pi (3.14159..)by 4.5%. Their underestimate for sq. rt. 2 (1.4142...) as 7/5 was closer (1.005%). Tosafot demonstrates that 7/5 was only an approximation to the diagonal of a square with unit sides, and was aware that mathematicians do not accept that the value of 3 represents pi.

    In any case, the sages were comfortable with using realistic approximations in practical cases. There was no perceived need for mathematical rigor. Nor were they familiar with the writings of the Alexandrian naturalists such as Eratosthenes (earth's circumfrence), Archimedes (good approximation to pi), or the oral tradition of Pythagorus (diagonal of a rectangle in terms of the sides).

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  27. "And claiming that Chazal were ahead of their time with regard to understanding the nature of the world and the universe is not only false, but also dangerous."

    How about with respect to psychology?
    (Also, see the very first comment above.)

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