Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Wind And The Ibex

(A re-post from two years ago, in honor of Rosh Chodesh. Chodesh Tov!)

Barchi Nafshi, the chapter of Tehillim that we recite on Rosh Chodesh, is one of my favorite chapters. It's a glorious description of the beautiful harmony of God's universe. There's a wonderfully poetic account of the weather functioning, and the animals going about their business; the stork nesting in the cedar tree, the ibex on the high hills and the hyraxes hiding in the rocks (ironically, there is a hyrax watching me as I write these words. Strange but true.) Man, too, is mentioned, as an integral part of the natural world, harvesting its produce for his needs and benefit. And there is the humbling description of how the mighty leviathan was created, as God's plaything, to sport in the ocean; a verse for which I gained new appreciation on one memorable boat trip, as you can read about on the archives of my other blog.

It's just wonderful to think that these praises of the natural world, composed thousands of years ago, are still being recited today! Our heritage is extraordinary. And, far from dying out, it is constantly being reinvigorated in new ways. About ten years ago, my wife purchased a video in Mea Shearim entitled "Barchi Nafshi." It was a montage of video clips from National Geographic channel and other sources, depicting the creatures and processes described in Barchi Nafshi. The montage was set to music - a combination of Jewish music, classical music, and the soundtrack from Last of the Mohicans, with Barchi Nafshi being recited in the background. Sure, it was amateurish, but I loved it.

The Kolmus Journal of Torah Thought, published with last week's Mishpachah magazine, also finds Barchi Nafshi to be inspirational, but for a different reason:
David HaMelech writes, "Oseh malachav ruchos - He makes winds his messengers" (Tehillim 104:4). Again, science has borne out what David HaMelech wrote a few thousand years ago. We now know that weather phenomena are fundamentally rooted in the velocity, force, and direction of the global winds, which factor heavily in the fickle nature of weather prediction, because winds are nearly impossible to predict.

Later, the article has an excellent discussion of some of the wonders of the weather system, which is what Barchi Nafshi actually tells us should inspire us. But before that, the author draws inspiration from the fact that David HaMelech said something that was only recently discovered by modern science. While such inspiration is certainly not the point of Barchi Nafshi--and to focus upon it is to miss the point--is it true? Does Barchi Nafshi reveal that David HaMelech knew the discoveries of modern science that were otherwise unknown in the ancient world?

Well, first of all, it should be noted that the verses preceding and following this verse are certainly not congruent with our knowledge of the universe. Verse 2 describes God spreading out the heavens like a canopy. No doubt, people today will insist that this is poetic, but this is simply imposing modern conceptions upon the text. Certainly Chazal understood it to mean that the heavens are a solid dome over the earth, as I shall document in the near future. Then verse 5 describes how God "established the earth on its foundation; it shall never move." As an earlier article in Kolmus observes, there were Acharonim who insisted that this is literally true, and dismissed Copernicus as a result. In fact, the list of Acharonim who took this stance is far more extensive than the article notes, as I shall document in a future essay. The only suggestion that it was not literal came from those who had already been convinced of the correctness of the Copernican revolution, and who decided to innovate a new understanding of the verse in order to make it harmonious with modern science. So it is hardly accurate to cite Tehillim 104 as an example of how the revelations of modern science were known thousands of years ago. It's better to cite it as an example for the approach of Rav Kook, based upon Rishonim such as Rambam, that the prophets presented their timeless spiritual messages within the framework of their ancient worldview of the universe--and in this case, an exceptionally beautiful portrayal of this framework.

But there's another problem with the article's claim, in the very passuk being quoted. The passuk says, "He makes winds His messengers." Now, this could mean two things. It could mean that winds are His messengers, just like all sorts of other things are God's messengers. But the article in Kolmus takes it in a different sense; to mean that winds are the primary agents in the weather system. I don't know if this is true or not. But what I do know is that the author has conveniently omitted the second half of the passuk! The passuk continues, "His servants are flashing fire (i.e. lightning)." Now, either this means that lightning is the co-primary agent in the weather system--which is clearly not the case--or, what I consider much more likely, that the pesukim are not at all discussing primary agents in weather control, merely the fact that all nature does God's bidding.

We shouldn't be using shtick to make Barchi Nafshi inspirational. Especially when the shtick doesn't even work. Barchi Nafshi doesn't need it; it is already a beautiful, inspirational tefillah. Unfortunately, most Jews today are too urbanized and exiled to really appreciate the descriptions of nature in Barchi Nafshi. I'll bet that most people reading this don't even know what some of the animals in Barchi Nafshi actually are. To compensate, I'll conclude with an incredible video from the Life series which illustrates the verse, "[He made] the high hills for the ibex":


51 comments:

  1. Your last paragraph is so true and so few people see it. The Galut has disconnected Jews from Nature. Nature was given to us to know HaShem - The disconection is a major major source of our trouble.

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  2. I'll conclude with an incredible video from the Life series which illustrates the verse, "[He made] the high hills for the ibex"

    Your pairing of the video with the pasuk is excellent! What a beautiful portrayal.

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  3. Yes, I too used to cherry-pick psukim to show "future knowledge" (e.g. 1000 years in Your eyes are like a day as referring to Relativity and time-dilation), until I repented for the error of my ways!

    That there is creative thinking involved in these "drashot" is true. That there is a desire to expose the "hidden greatness" of Torah is true. But when it comes at the cost of reasonability and common sense, it ends up making Torah and Torah Jews look foolish.

    @משה רפאל

    This disconnection is the price we pay for progress. It's actually part of the Geulah process, not just Galut (like eating from the Etz Ha'Da'at).

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  4. Your pairing of the video with the pasuk is excellent!

    Thanks. Before watching this video, I never realized that the high hills are not just a place for the ibex to live, but also a place for them to seek safety - matching the rocks for the hyraxes.

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  5. Two small points:

    1. You may have missed the dig at weather predictions. This is a favorite line of the anti-science types, including the Jewish ones: "How can those scientists tell us what happened millions of years ago if they can't predict the weather?" (The answer is astoundingly obvious: The past isn't the future.)

    2. I'm afraid you can't just say that "Chazal" understood the heavens to be a dome. The Torah pretty clearly states the same thing, much in line with views of the universe prevalent at the time and place.

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  6. Re. 2. - I was leaving that for a future post.

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  7. "This disconnection is the price we pay for progress. It's actually part of the Geulah process, not just Galut (like eating from the Etz Ha'Da'at)."

    Someone once explained to me that the disconnection is progress in itself - we disconnect from the material in order to achieve the spiritual. If you mean something similar, I remain speechless.

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  8. Maybe someone can remember...
    There was some famous non-Jewish person who said something like, "It is worth learning Hebrew just so that you can read Psalm 104."

    So it is hardly accurate to cite Tehillim 104 as an example of how the revelations of modern science were known thousands of years ago.

    You're not suggesting that there are some cases where it just might be accurate to quote a verse from Scripture (or Talmud for that matter) as an example of how the revelations of modern science were known thousands of years ago, are you?

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  9. Aha, I found the answer:

    German Philosopher J.G. Herder (quoted in Sidney Greenberg's *A
    Modern Treasury of Jewish Thoughts*, p. 184), writes:

    "It is worth studying the Hebrew language for ten years in order to read
    Psalm 104 in the original."

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  10. "[He made] the high hills for the ibex"

    Modern science would say that this is completely backwards: the ibex adapted itself (over generations) to live in the high hills.

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  11. You're not suggesting that there are some cases where it just might be accurate to quote a verse from Scripture (or Talmud for that matter) as an example of how the revelations of modern science were known thousands of years ago, are you?

    I don't know of any.

    Modern science would say that this is completely backwards: the ibex adapted itself (over generations) to live in the high hills.

    I discuss this exact point, regarding this exact passuk, in The Challenge Of Creation. There's nothing necessarily scientifically inaccurate about the way that the passuk presents it.

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  12. Artscroll comments the following to Tehilim 104:

    At first glance, the remote and barren mountains appear to serve no purpose, but in fact they were created to provide a habitat for the wild mountain goats. This runs counter to the secular theory of evolution which teaches that organisms adapt to the specific nature of their particular environments. The Torah teaches, however, that the environment was created to suit the needs of the specific animals which were destined to live there. Evolution supposes that the high forms of life developed and emerged from lower forms which preceded them, but the Torah teaches that the lower forms of life or nature were created to serve the higher forms which were ordained to follow them (sic). Thus, tall trees were created to serve the needs of high-flying birds. High mountains were created to provide shelter for wild goats.

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  13. Could you imagine what a modern, scientifically updated version of Barchei Nafshi could sound like?

    "The Earth hovers in a vacuum; she does not make a sound. She travels along her ellipse in perfect silence. The sun burns brightly, fusing elements in her core. The comets mark their orbits venting gas. The moon, torn from its mother planet, its rotation fixed to forever face us. The planet's continents grind slowly against each other making the ground tremble. The sea creatures, so many evolved, so wondrous their differences, each adapted to its own evolutionary niche. The creatures of the earth, from the simplest bacteria to its most complex. You gave man the ability to reason, you carved him from the lineage of primates, and blessed him with intelligence. You implanted a conscience within his soul. You gave him the gift of technology, to learn to create, and to discover. You let him soar into the heavens to seek conversation with you....."

    Sorry, got carried away a bit :)

    David

    (Has anybody else watched the Nat Geo special "Great Migrations" which began this past Sunday night?
    It's an incredibly beautiful nature documentary, and I thought if fit in perfectly with what this posting is discussing.)

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  14. David Ilan,

    Those would enough appreciation of science might be dazzled by your prose. It is common wisdom that some of our tefillos are not meaningful (even with adequate translation) until the underlying concepts are appreciated. Worse than the science deniers are the science amaratzim who dismiss what they don't even remotely comprehend.

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  15. Lawrence Kaplan Comments:

    The Hertz Siddur, p.582, quotes Herder. IIRC, so does the Hertz Humash. Also note the very fine quote from Humboldt on the same page.

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  16. משה רפאל - I'm happy to explain via email - I don't want to go too far afield from the topic here.

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  17. Doesn't it seem disrespectful of Kolmus to imply that all of the great rabbis of prior generations were not properly understanding this passage because the science at their times wasn't advanced enough? This is a clear misrepresentation of the great rishonim and acharonim who have come before, and Kolmus' keffirah must not be let to stand. Ban the journal and put them and their publisher(s) in cherem.

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  18. 'Barchi nafshi' is a beautiful, poetic essay on the wonders of the natural world and its dependence on its Creator. There is little or no need to attempt to interpret the language to make it scientifically accurate. Indeed, such attempts by people who have little real knowledge of that world is counter-productive in that it attributes their errors to the Psalmist. It is far better to read it as a poetic description, and to bask in its imagery. That linked video certainly heightens that experience.

    If you seek intimations of some advanced ancient knowledge, you may find it in another Psalm, "Tefila leMoshe" (psalm 90). It starts, "GOD, You have been a shelter for us over the generations. You are the Lord from world to world - before mountains were born, and the earth and habitat was formed". These verses can be interpreted as a recognition that there were worlds (eras on earth) prior to our world of great mountains and vast oceans, but that GOD ruled over all and arranged things so that humans could ultimately appear, survive, and dominate life. Not that the goal is power, but, rather, of stewardship which recognizes the sacredness of all existence and its Author.

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  19. Dear Rabbi Slifkin,
    Did you get my e-mail inquiry about homosexuality and evolution?

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  20. "I'm happy to explain via email - I don't want to go too far afield from the topic here."

    lerman7@zahav.net.il

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  21. "The passuk continues, "His servants are flashing fire (i.e. lightning)." Now, either this means that lightning is the co-primary agent in the weather system--which is clearly not the case--or, what I consider much more likely, that the pesukim are not at all discussing primary agents in weather control, merely the fact that all nature does God's bidding."

    Clearly you have no understanding of science or Torah. Lightning obviously refers to the passage of electrons from the skies to the earth. This is the second thing top nobel-prize winners have found out about the weather in recent years: it's dependent on the direction of the suns rays to the earth, exactly what lightning refers to. In his theory about electromagnetic wave propagation, Nobel prize winner Vitaly Ginzburg said, "In retrospect, I'm mamash mispoel that all of this was already in borchi nafshi."

    P.S. Awesome video.

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  22. "If you seek intimations of some advanced ancient knowledge,"

    "Advanced ancient knowledge" might be cool if there ever were any, but the point here is that these ineviatbly look idiotic, so please stop.

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  23. "Sorry, got carried away a bit :)"

    Don't apologize; that was really good.

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  24. David Ilan - I really enjoyed your modern rendition of the psalm! It's very inspiring. Nice work.

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  25. Wow, I have never seen that before! It's amazing how adept the ibex is at scaling those rocks!

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  26. ironically, there is a hyrax watching me as I write these words. Strange but true

    Ooooh! Like when the grasshopper hopped on R' Chaim Kanievsky's window as he was writing a sefer on grasshoppers!

    For some reason, I don't think this particular story will catch on quite as well

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  27. Avi writes: "Advanced ancient knowledge" might be cool if there ever were any, but the point here is that these ineviatbly (sic) look idiotic, so please stop."


    But you gotta admit, the following is cool!

    wiki/Antikythera_mechanism

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  28. "I don't know of any."

    The kind of possible example I had in mind would be of the following type: "JACOB AND THE SPOTTED SHEEP:
    THE ROLE OF PRENATAL NUTRITION ON
    EPIGENETICS OF FUR COLOR --
    JOSHUA BACKON" -- Jewish Bible Quarterly, XXXVI, no. 4 (144)

    (L.A. Poirier, "The Effect of Diet, Genetics and Chemicals on Toxicity and Aberrant DNA Methylation:
    An Introduction," Journal of Nutrition 2002;132)

    I'm not equipped, however, to evaluate Backon's analysis.

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  29. The ancients researched the mechanics of the Heavens extensively but they did not figure out what became trivial after Keppler and Newton.

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  30. Lawrence Kaplan Comments:

    Note how R. Slifkin resolved his dilemma re criticizing Kolmos. He criticizes their approach within the context of an insightful and uplifting essay on Borchi Nafshi.

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  31. I would like to take this opportunity to thank my readers for the comments to the previous post, which helped me decide the direction to take with this post.

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  32. Thanks for the edification on the ibex and for pointing out the beauty of the psalm.

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  33. Clearly you have no understanding of science or Torah. Lightning obviously refers to the passage of electrons from the skies to the earth. This is the second thing top nobel-prize winners have found out about the weather in recent years: it's dependent on the direction of the suns rays to the earth, exactly what lightning refers to. In his theory about electromagnetic wave propagation, Nobel prize winner Vitaly Ginzburg said, "In retrospect, I'm mamash mispoel that all of this was already in borchi nafshi." - Avi

    The above critique of R' Natan makes little sense and appears to be made up. First of all, Vitaly Ginzburg described himself as an atheist in his address on winning the Nobel Prize for physics in superconductivity theory. He would hardly have made a comment about being "mamash mispoel" about something in 'borchi nafshi'.
    Secondly, what has the direction of the sun to do with lightning discharges which occur at all hours of the day or night?

    Lightning is generally believed to be caused by the strong electric fields generated when cloud moisture undergoes rapid freezing and the lighter, positively charged ice particles (incorporation of some H+ ions) are separated from the negatively charged water (excess of OH- ions) by updrafts. The base of the thundercloud is then negatively charged and a positive charge is induced on the ground directly below. The discharge, which may be triggered by an ionizing cosmic ray, then occurs between the cloud and the ground or within the cloud cover. It's a natural phenomena rather than someone sending down lightning bolts. Of course, divine providence has a role, too, in protecting some people from harm.

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  34. Your last paragraph is so true and so few people see it. The Galut has disconnected Jews from Nature. Nature was given to us to know HaShem - The disconection is a major major source of our trouble. - Moshe Refael

    This disconnection is the price we pay for progress. It's actually part of the Geulah process, not just Galut (like eating from the Etz Ha'Da'at). - David Bar-Cohn

    Actually, both are true in my view. We were not meant to be merely creatures of nature, but to exercise some control over it through our independent understanding (the presumed theme of the etz hada'at). On the other hand, disregarding the lessons and inspiration available from nature is to disregard an important part of the divine handiwork.

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  35. Ditto Dr. Kaplan’s observation (November 10, 2010 3:52 PM), and with appreciation to Rabbi Slifkin for the excellent job.

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  36. Y. Aharon -

    You missed that Avi's comment (November 10, 2010 4:08 AM) was purely written in jest. Even if you would have been misled by the beginning of the comment, methinks the last sentence (with it's ludicrous "quote") should have been a dead giveaway as to the comical nature of the comment.

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  37. Michapeset, I would have said the same about Avi's post if it only referred to Prof. Vitaly Ginzburg's alleged quote. As it is, however, it contains more material that doesn't make much sense, but is not ironic. If I have misread Avi, he can feel free to correct my reading.

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  38. As it is, however, it contains more material that doesn't make much sense, but is not ironic.

    I think he just meant it to be nonsensical.

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  39. Maybe there's another side?November 15, 2010 at 10:14 AM

    I don't find it surprising that few comments that dare to question your words make it through, but I do find it surprising that you are guilty of the same "selective quoting" that you are so quick to accuse others of in your posts.
    In your original post, you chose to ignore that the editor of Kolmus wasn't writing his own theory when he wrote that science is constantly evolving and Torah is immutable; he was quoting the Maharal. Hmmmm... could it be that you thought that even your faithful readers would find it hard to swallow that you take on the Maharal impetuously?
    In this post, you wrote that this article ignores the second half of the verse regarding the wind. In fact, although the writer doesn't point it out, he does address the role of lightning in causing weather patterns very clearly. Were you in such a rush to edify your thirsty readers that you never made it to the end of the article?
    It's quite telling that in your circles, anyone who expresses doubt in science and wants to believe Chazal is a Neanderthal, but those who doubt Chazal and express and show fealty to science are brilliant intellectuals.

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  40. I don't recall having rejected any critical comments.

    I'm more than happy to attribute the view to Maharal. I'm not afraid to say that Maharal was a radical innovator in his approach, who was going against all the Rishonim.

    I'll check the article again, to see what he says about lightning. If I was mistaken in what I wrote, I'll readily retract.

    anyone who expresses doubt in science and wants to believe Chazal is a Neanderthal, but those who doubt Chazal and express and show fealty to science are brilliant intellectuals.

    I don't think that you have to be a brilliant intellectual to realize that Chazal's statements about the natural world were based on the wisdom of their era and are less reliable than modern science. It's the view of countless Rishonim and Acharonim, as well as being self-evident. Any rational person can realize it, you don't have to be a brilliant intellectual.

    Do you believe that the sun goes behind the sky at night? If you believe that, then, yes, you are very primitive.

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  41. Maybe there's another side?November 15, 2010 at 12:44 PM

    "I'm more than happy to attribute the view to Maharal. I'm not afraid to say that Maharal was a radical innovator in his approach, who was going against all the Rishonim."

    As you wrote it now, it is nothing but a sound bite. What do you mean by him being an innovator who was going against all the Rishonim? Did *ALL* Rishonim consider science immutable?

    Please do check the article, and please be brave and intellectually honest enough to leave this post up with a redaction at the beginning stating that the primary argument in the post was mistaken. It would be a shame to allow people to read the attack and only show the redaction at comment 47.

    Regarding your final point: How far does this view go? Do you believe that modern ethicists must have more accurate views on ethics than Chazal did because they are viewing them in the modern era with more information available to them?
    If the answer is no, I would love to understand how you can rationalize the difference between science and ethics.

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  42. 1. Okay, I have the article in front of me, and I see nothing about lightning bolts causing weather patterns.

    2. There are various issues in which Maharal was an innovator. With regard to the idea of Chazal's statements about astronomy being actually immutable metaphysical statements rather than the scientific beliefs of people a long time ago - Maharal was an innovator. I should have mentioned Maharal's name in the post, but it was just due to carelessness that I omitted it.

    3. Ethics is completely different than science; there's no way of empirically proving it.

    By the way, you didn't answer my question. Do you believe that the sun goes behind the sky at night?

    Finally, I find it odd that someone who doesn't post under their own name, asks me to be brave and intellectually honest!

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  43. I don't disagree with the overll point of the post at all, but I would note that the fact that Chazal take a pasuk literally does not mean that in context it should not be read figuratively/metaphorically and I think this is actually quite often true with drashas on poetic parts of Nach (and indeed sometimes Torah) that are darshened in a hyper-literalist manner. That's not necessarily true in this case of the world being on pillars or being covered by a dome, but it's certainly sometimes true.

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  44. God "established the earth on its foundation; it shall never move."
    I've wondered why my translation is "it shall not falter."

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  45. To David Ilan - re "The Earth hovers in a vacuum; she does not make a sound" etc.:

    That was actually quite good. You should expand upon it to match the whole Psalm. Or better, turn it into a "perek shirah" production. Watch out, or N. Slifkin will beat you to the punch, to complement his earlier edition. He can have the traditional and modern versions of Peresk Shirah.

    [RNS, go ahead and take my idea, just credit DF.]

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  46. Re: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antikythera_mechanism

    So it would seem this device, dated at around 100 BCE, would burst the bubble of those who attribute advanced scientific and mathematical abilities to those who created the Jewish calendar a few hundred years later.

    While still impressive, it can now be seen as having its roots in Greek technology. No?

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  47. Dear Rab Slifkin,

    It is interesting that you call yourself a rationalist but you spend many time discussing and making "rational excuses" to the aparently mistakes in the written torah when you have never argue rationally why should we think that the torah is divine in the first place?

    Dr Betech defends the idea that chazal never erred because the whole reason for why he thinks the torah is divine, it is because of the prophecies and the scientific knowledge of chazal that goes beyond the science of the ephoc (i heard this from his mouth)

    But you devote yourself to some ideology without clarifiying why do you think that this is true in the first place

    Me and your readers would love to hear about your foundations

    Kind Regards,

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