Tuesday, November 2, 2010
The Sound of the Spheres
In his fascinating post at the Seforim Blog, Dr. Marc Shapiro (to whom I am indebted for supplying me with the source in Shevilei David that I sent to Rav Feldman), refers to Rambam's discussion about the sound of the spheres in the Guide to the Perplexed 2:8. This is a topic which many people find cryptic, so I would like to discuss it, and also raise a point that I have not seen discussed before.
According to ancient views of the universe, the universe is comprised not of inconceivably gigantic tracts of outer space, but rather of crystalline spheres, nested like the layers of an onion. (I will soon be e-publishing an essay which discusses this in more detail.) In chapter 2:8 of the Guide, Rambam makes reference to the Pythagorean view that just as small objects make a sound when moved through the air at high speed (think of the noise that a yo-yo would make if you whirled it around your head), so too the spheres make noise as they revolve around us at great speed. Rambam says that Chazal were also of this view. He continues to note that Aristotle has disproved this notion, and adds that one should not be surprised that the Sages were mistaken, since they themselves acknowledged that the gentile scholars knew more about these astronomical matters than they did. (Elsewhere, Rambam indicates that even Yechezkel had this mistaken understanding, which was reflected in Maase Merkavah.)
I've started looking into this, and I am not at all sure that when Chazal spoke about the celestial bodies making sounds, they were talking about the same thing as the Pythagoreans, for two reasons. First, contrary to how Aristotle describes it, the Pythagorean concept of Musica Universalis (the music of the spheres) is usually explained to relate to the mathematical significance in the distances between the various celestial spheres, being more of a symbolic harmony rather than an audible noise. Second, even if it was an actual noise, where exactly did this noise come from? Reading Rosemary Wright's Cosmology in Antiquity, I am unsure. It seems that it was thought to be a noise caused by the actual spheres revolving through the air, whereas Chazal, on the other hand, spoke about the sound of the sun boring its way through the firmament (Yoma 20b, Bereishis Rabbah 6:7). As Rambam himself notes, this appears to have been based on their belief that the sun is not embedded in a sphere, but rather is a distinct body that travels through the surface of the crystalline firmament that encompasses the earth, making noise as it tunnels through it.
It thus appears to me that while Rambam was correct in describing Chazal as mistaken in believing the sun to make sound, I am not so sure that this was identical to the Pythagorean belief of Musica Universalis. And I think that if this is so, possibly Rambam himself may have noted this, since he describes Chazal as believing that the sun makes noise due to its moving across the sphere. But I have only just begun to explore this topic.