Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What the Firmament Really Is

With apologies for how long it took to get to this post!

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

Then, I pointed out that Chazal's belief in a firmament was not merely of halachic interest to them, but was also how they interpreted the Torah itself, in its mention of the rakia and Shamayim. In a follow-up post, I brought a number of sources which elaborated upon Chazal's view of the firmament, as well as showing how they derived these ideas from the pesukim. For example:

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

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

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but here, "like a mirror of cast metal" - that at every moment, they appear as freshly cast (i.e. as beautiful as when originally made).

Now, all this was deeply problematic for those who oppose the belief in the universe developing over billions of years and evolution due to these notions going against Jewish tradition. For aside from the fact that Jewish rationalist tradition was clearly to interpret Genesis in such a way that we do not need to deny scientific facts, the topic of the rakia presented another argument: That even these staunch traditionalists are going against Jewish tradition in their acceptance that there is no firmament and that Chazal's and the Rishonim's view of the rakia was incorrect.

Their response was to claim that there was no mesorah about the nature of the firmament. Rather, different figures amongst Chazal had different ideas, based on some sort of combination of science and their understanding of Torah, but there was no mesorah about it. In another post, I showed how this was wrong; there was an unequivocal mesorah that there is a firmament - that is to say, a dome above the earth, made of some sort of substantial matter (i.e. not air or space), on the surface of which the sun travels, and which obscures the sun when it passes behind it. This was the universal, uncontested, view of Chazal, based on Pesukim such as that in Iyov 37:18: "Can you spread out the heavens with Him, hard as a mirror of cast metal?" as well as various other usages in Tenach of the root רקע.

And now for the climax: What actually is the rakia?

The answer is that Chazal were absolutely correct. Unlike the anti-rationalists, who (ironically) take the position that Chazal did not know how to learn Tenach and were interpreting the pesukim incorrectly based on mistaken speculation, I think that Chazal were absolutely correct in their interpretation of the pesukim. The etymology of rakia reveals that it clearly refers to a flattened, solid surface. The pesukim in Iyov 37:18 and Yeshayah 40:22 are likewise unequivocal. The Rishonim who defined the etymology of the word rakia, such as Radak and Ibn Janach, also explain it in this way. Finally, I strongly recommend that people read the definite study on this topic which can be freely downloaded, Paul Seely: "The Firmament and the Water Above Part I: The Meaning of raqiaà in Gen 1:6-8," from the Westminster Theological Journal 53 (Fall 1991) 227-240.

As to how to reconcile this with the fact that there is no dome - this is exactly the same challenge as the Scriptural descriptions of the kidneys and heart housing a person's mind, of the dew descending from the heavens, and of the universe developing over six days. The solution is to say that "the Torah speaks as in the language of men," according to how that principle was explained by certain authorities. This approach is not without its own difficulties, but it is necessary and it can be understood in different ways. A full explanation can be found at the end of my monograph on the kidneys. Meanwhile, here is a brief quote from Rav Hirsch:

Jewish scholarship has never regarded the Bible as a textbook for physical or even abstract doctrines. In its view the main emphasis of the Bible is always on the ethical and social structure and development of life on earth; that is, on the observance of laws through which the momentous events of our nation’s history are converted from abstract truths into concrete convictions. That is why Jewish scholarship regards the Bible as speaking consistently in “human language;” the Bible does not describe things in terms of objective truths known only to God, but in terms of human understanding, which is, after all, the basis for human language and expression. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Collected Writings vol. 7 p. 57)

Elsewhere, Rav Hirsch explicitly notes that although there is no actual solid layer surrounding the earth that could be called a firmament, Scripture nevertheless uses that term because that is how the sky appears to man; as a dome over and around the earth (Commentary to Genesis 1:6; cf. Rabbi Akiva Eiger, in his note to the phrase u’vokeya chalonei rakia in Siddur Otzar HaTefillos p. 672, and Maharzav to Midrash Bereishis Rabbah 6:8).

I have no doubt that many people will insist that the word rakia can be understood in a scientifically accurate manner. But as far as I am concerned, they are simply not evaluating the text honestly, due to their religious convictions that nothing in Tenach can be scientifically inaccurate. I discussed this in my post "Modern Orthodox Charedim." I will conclude with a quote from Rav Kook:

It is already adequately known that prophecy takes its metaphors to guide mankind according to that which was then well-known in the language of men at that time, to direct the ear according to that which it is able to hear in its time… The intellectual truths of the depths of Torah are elevated and exalted far beyond these; the human illustrations—whatever they may be—with regard to the nature of existence, certainly also have a particular path in the ethical development of mankind… in each generation, according to his way of framing things, which constantly changes. (R. Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Adar HaYekar, pp. 37-38)


  1. The Zohar depicts the Rakia explicitly in non-physical terms, e.g. as the separator between what is revealed and what is not revealed, or between Holy and the Holy of Holies (see below). Therefore, this did not start with the Ramchal or the Maharal.

    יהי רקיע בתוך המים להבדיל בין הקדש ובין קדש הקדשים, עתיקא לזעירא אתפרש ואתדבק לא אתפרש ממש

  2. "Jewish scholarship has never regarded the Bible as a textbook for physical

    How do you quote this statement when R Hirsh is going against all the Rishonen and Chazel that you quote all the time saying they are mistaken by taking the bible and Gemora as physical facts

    shmuel w

  3. I agree, I think that Rav Hirsch somewhat overstated things with that sentence, to put it mildly!

  4. "cf. Rabbi Akiva Eiger, in his note to the phrase u’vokeya chalonei rakia in Siddur Otzar HaTefillos p. 672, and Maharzav to Midrash Bereishis Rabbah 6:8).

    Are you trying to say that Rabbi Akiva Eiger would agree with you that "ALL of the Rishonim "got the phat 'right' and did not take the Gemorah as they interpreted and Rabbi Akiva Eiger didn't believe that the Bible is also a textbook for physical

  5. If you disagree with R. Hirsch then why quote him?

    Your conclusion that Chazal interpreted G-d's Torah correctly, and that the Torah meant to convey that a non existent dome was created on Day 2 of a creation week that never occurred, begs the painfully obvious question:

    WHY would G-d author a Torah that intentionally fools the Torah's adherents? What is the purpose in that? Could not the Torah have taught its ethical lessons without inserting wrong beliefs about physical reality?

    It seems to me that THAT is the question you need to address if you want to get to the very bottom of the Rakiya issue.

    1. why are you operating under the assumption that god wrote it.. it seems clear to me that you dont have enough information to justify such a claim.

  6. Are you trying to say that Rabbi Akiva Eiger would agree with you

    No! He saw it as a figure of speech.

    If you disagree with R. Hirsch then why quote him?

    I agree with the latter part of what he says.

    WHY would G-d author a Torah that intentionally fools the Torah's adherents? What is the purpose in that? Could not the Torah have taught its ethical lessons without inserting wrong beliefs about physical reality?

    I provide a possible answer for this in the new, third edition of The Challenge Of Creation. It's also addressed in the sources referred to in this post:

  7. If I would have been bothered by the question in the first place, then this answer would not be adequate.

    Why does the torah describe the width of an object that does not exist? Is the torah describing the perceived width (keloshon benei adom)?

    No matter how many times you quote that monograph, I'm not spending 5 dollars on it. Is it still bringing in money?

  8. Why does the torah describe the width of an object that does not exist?

    It doesn't.

  9. R' Natan, as Nachum Boehm pointed out, you tread on dangerous grounds when you assume that the author (or authorizer) of Genesis either deliberately mislead the reader into thinking that the heavens were a solid vault, or was unaware of its true nature. After all, why add a new, misleading term, 'rakia', to designate the heavens when 'shamayim' would appear to be sufficient?

    More to the point, your analysis of the meaning of the word 'rakia' is incomplete. While 'roka' in Tanach often conveys the meaning of stamped or beaten, it also conveys the idea of overlay as in "roka ha'aretz all hamayim". The latter doesn't necessarily carry the implication of a solid medium. The root meaning of 'rakia', it seems to me, is a layer. Now, a layer may be formed by stamping a malleable solid, but it is not confined to such a medium or process.

    Hence, I totally disagree with your characterization of those who would differ with your understanding of the word 'rakia'.

    "I have no doubt that many people will insist that the word rakia can be understood in a scientifically accurate manner. But as far as I am concerned, they are simply not evaluating the text honestly, due to their religious convictions..."

    I will grant you that mistaken ideas can be found in Nach since they are the product of human understanding - even if inspired. Mistaken ideas can certainly be found in the Talmud. I do not subscribe to the idea, however, that the same can be said of the torah. That would place the authorship of the torah on the same footing as that of the other books of the bible or subsequent writings.

  10. Y. Aharon, the article by Seely neatly refutes your claims about rakia not meaning something solid. Besides, even leshitascha, it doesn't help; there is no layer of anything above the earth in which the stars are placed.

    I find it odd, and ironic, that you disagree with my characterization of those who would disagree with this as doing so because of religious bias. For in this very comment, you make it clear that as a matter of religious principle, you are unwilling to accept that the Torah could contain scientifically inaccurate information!

  11. @ Y Aharon: "[Rakia] doesn't necessarily carry the implication of a solid medium."

    Maybe, maybe not, and the Chumash doesn't spell out the solidness of the rakia, which might mitigate the extent to which one would take the idea of "the Torah speaking in the language of man" with respect to this topic.

    However, that's only a part of the picture. We're still left with Iyov describing the rakia as solid, and Chazal understanding the rakia to be solid as well (based on the grammatical root of rakia together with Iyov). Thus, at the very least, we still end up with the fact that everyone has an understanding of the meaning of rakia in the Chumash that is different from Iyov as well as Chazal.

  12. OK let me make sure I have this straight. Based on your other posts and comments, The torah does not describe the thickness of the sky but the mesorah does and the mesorah is rejected in light of our current knowledge.

    Can you please define mesorah?

  13. R' Natan, my objection to the paragraph that I cited was your use of the phrase "they are simply not evaluating the text honestly". I would not have such objections had you written 'objectively' instead of 'honestly'. Of course I have a prior bias based on my belief that the torah was divinely authored or authorized and, therefore, should not contain erroneous descriptions that can't simply be attributed to idiomatic language. While there are limits to reinterpretation of torah phrases and descriptions, interpreting 'rakia' as the atmospheric layer seems perfectly acceptable to me. As I see it, 'shamayim' refers to everything outside of the solid earth, i.e., space. 'Rakia hashamyim' then refers to the atmospheric layer, i.e., the immediate space surrounding the earth. You have not, however, responded to Nachum or me as to how you reconcile your views about the rakia with the authorship question.

    Tzurah, I am not bothered that the anonymous author of Iyov (yes, I know the debate in T.B. Bava Batra about authorship) uses an expression that implies a solid rakia. That is either poetic license or a mistaken belief. Nor am I bothered that other illustrious ancient Jewish figures believed the rakia to be solid. That was a conventional belief which is no longer acceptable given the clear evidence against it. My objection is only to imputing such an erroneous idea to the torah.

  14. If the rakiya is a solid dome, what's the pshat on Ber. 1:20:

    ועוף יעופף על-הארץ על-פני רקיע השמים
    "And flying things will fly over the land, over the surface of the rakiya of the heavens."

    Shouldn't it say that the birds will fly "tachat ha'rakiya" (underneath it)? If it's solid presumably they'd bump up against it, no? And even if they could get above it, (e.g. through one of the "windows") wouldn't they drown inside the "upper waters"?

    The above pasuk seems to indicate that the rakiya:

    1) has a surface ("al p'nei")
    2) is permeable (the birds can get above it)
    3) is invisible (we can see the birds flying on top of it from below)

    We also know that:

    4) there's water above it ("mayim asher me'al la'rakiya")

    Maybe then... The rakiya is that invisible surface (lit. "expanse") on which the clouds (upper mayim/"sham-mayim") rest/glide. (Otherwise what keeps the clouds from just falling to the ground?) Yet somehow it's not exactly solid given that birds can fly above it, "on the surface of the rakiya" (i.e. at cloud-level).

    I'm not taking sides here, just trying to get pshat.

  15. I'm not spending 5 dollars on it. Is it still bringing in money?

    "yakov r", are you this obnoxious to your friends, or just people whose ideas you don't like?

  16. After all, why add a new, misleading term, 'rakia', to designate the heavens when 'shamayim' would appear to be sufficient?

    Y Aharon:

    Why do you think the Torah invented the word רקיע, such that having to explain this new term to our Ancestors would have involved willful deception?

    It's safe to assume that the word predates Sinai, and was already being used to describe their conception of the sky before God or any of the נביאים used it in their writings.

  17. Well, let's see, Roka haaretz al hamayim... Yeah.
    haaretz - land - is definitely solid.

  18. If the rakiya is a solid dome, what's the pshat on Ber. 1:20:

    ועוף יעופף על-הארץ על-פני רקיע השמים
    "And flying things will fly over the land, over the surface of the rakiya of the heavens."

    You mistranslated it! Al pnei does not mean "over the surface of." It means "on the face of." The rakia is a backdrop.

  19. While there are limits to reinterpretation of torah phrases and descriptions, interpreting 'rakia' as the atmospheric layer seems perfectly acceptable to me.

    Aside from the word always referring to a solid, flattened layer, there is also the fact that the stars are placed IN the rakia.

  20. "Mistranslation" is a bit strong. It depends on the context. When referring to a horizontal surface (which is most of the time), "al pnei" can easily translate to "over the surface of". But you're right that sometimes it means "against" or "across", as in the phrase "al pnei Yereicho" (Dev. 32.49), and also can mean "during the lifetime of" (e.g. Ber 11.28).

    When referring to a vertical surface that you see in front of you (like the parochet, or a "backdrop"), the phrase typically used is "el pnei" (alt. "el mul pnei", "el nochach pnei) - i.e. "toward" as opposed to "upon".

    So birds can either be thought of as flying "against the backdrop" of the rakiya (though "el pnei" might have been a better choice) or "upon/over the surface" of the rakiya.

    How about the clouds? According to what you're saying, they're also "in front of" (i.e. below) the rakiya. But couldn't one argue that in fact they're resting above the rakiya? It's reasonable to speculate that clouds were seen as needing a surface to rest on - otherwise they'd fall. Plus, if clouds = the "sham-mayim" which is above the rakiya, then it fits the text of Bereshit - the rakiya indeed separates the upper waters (clouds) from the lower waters (seas).

    Another support is Yechezkel 10.1 which refers to "the rakiya that is al-rosh ha'kruvim (above the kruvim)", referring to the cherubs on the Ark cover. Why is that called a "rakiya"? Because the Anan Hashem (Cloud of Glory) is resting directly on top of it.

    The very concept of Hashem coming down from shamayim in the form of a "cloud" itself points to the clouds being the "sham-mayim", the mysterious realm above the rakiya. And when the Cloud descends it requires part of the rakiya to also descend to earth so as to support the Cloud above it.

    This isn't the only way to interpret how the rakiya was conceptualized, but it's certainly within reasonability!

  21. But the stars are placed IN the rakia!

  22. Good question. Two possibilities:

    1) It was understood that there were multiple rakiyas, in the plain observational sense of there being clouds moving along multiple "surfaces", above/below one another. The stars/luminaries are on a higher rakiya. They are ב "on/in" because they don't appear to have height/depth, as opposed to the clouds which are על "upon/above" because they do have height, which means the tops of the clouds sit well above the rakiya.

    2) The rakiya itself has height/depth. Just as there is an upper surface to the lower waters, so too there is a lower surface to the upper waters. The clouds are על, resting on that lower surface of the rakiya, whereas the stars are ב, within the upper "depths".

  23. Come on, David, what about Occam's Razor? Your explanation is extremely contrived. Did you read Seely's essay?

  24. David Meir,

    Thanks for those interesting ideas. It is pleasant to see someone who may not agree with our host (R. NS), but who is at least engaging with what he has said.

  25. Rav Slifkin,

    Pardon me, I am unaware of Occam's Razor being a standard of hypothesis formation when it comes to literary analysis or theology.

    Further, with regard to Occam's Razor, it sort of depend on your axioms as to how it is applied. In this case David Meir is assuming that axiomatically

    1) The torah is error free
    2) That the torah does not set out to deliberately and accidentally mislead the reader.

    With these two axioms in mind, does David's explanation so violate Occam's Razor.

  26. Rav Slifkin,

    Based on Pshat, does Rakia necessarily have to refer to the interface between earth and space?

    Could it refer to the physical boundaries, such as the extent of earth's atmosphere, or the extent where earth's gravity is subsumed by the sun's gravity field, or perhaps it even might refer to the physical boundary between Sol's gravity field and the rest of space?

    Fanciful perhaps, but these are real physical boundaries.

    Just a thought

  27. I agree that the simplest, most straightforward pshat wins.

    But is the notion of a solid dome with clouds underneath it the simplest explanation? I don't think that's so clear.

    To address Yossi's point, I'm not coming in any axioms about Torah. All I'm doing is trying to link the psukim to what a simple Bronze Age observer might think of when he/she looked up at the sky:

    1) The clouds are suspended in the air and gliding along what appears to be a surface.

    2) Rain comes from clouds. They hold the mayim.

    The Torah speaks about mayim above the rakiya. Thus, clouds (+ the entire upper realm) = the "sham-mayim" above the rakiya.

    Is that really so contrived? Seems like a simple explanation to me!

  28. Just to add to my previous comment,

    The extremities of earth's atmosphere do provide a real physical and solid barrier between the interface of "space" and earth. That very real physical barrier causes all sorts of engineering concerns for NASA (and other space agencies) and is the reason for the Space Shuttle disaster.

    (In my naive "unscientific" "untheological" explanation.

    (Not that I think this is how Gazal understood "firmemnt", but I am trying to uphold the axiom that the Torah is not misleading.)

  29. Actually,

    The more I think about it, the more solid the interface between the atmosphere of earth and outer-space is.

    Not only do we have the physical barrier of the atomsphere, the ozone layer acts as a barrier to UV radiation, and the magnetosphere (vanderwall forces) protect the land from the ravages of electromagnetic radiation.

    Again, I am not really trying to force a literal interpretation of the chumash, rather, I am trying to show how we could understand the words of chumash from a modern sientifically literate perspective.

  30. For the third time: the stars are placed IN the rakia!

  31. Believe it or not, I'm not just trying to frustrate you here! :-)

    My main point:

    Neither one of our positions is a slam dunk. I have to explain the stars IN the rakiya (which I did by speaking of the rakiya as having height, which makes sense for a number of reasons), and you have to explain how it is that clouds are not the best candidate for "upper waters" / "sham-mayim" and have to postulate an unseen reservoir of water above the stars.

  32. Wrong on both counts!

    1) Saying that the rakia has "height" to include the stars only works if that height is the size of the universe. Which then totally contradicts the etymology of rakia as a flattened layer.

    2) There's no drawback in postulating that there is reference to an unseen reservoir of water above the firmament, since we know that this is exactly what the ancients believed!

  33. Isn't the idea that bronze age people knew rain came from clouds an erroneous/anachronistic modern assumption? I didn't think it was known that rain comes from clouds until much more recent physics.

  34. I agree with Seely that 'shamayim' is a more general term than 'rakia'. As mentioned previously, 'shamayim', as I see it, includes everything outside the solid earth, while 'rakia' means sky or the earth's atmosphere. I have not seen a demonstration against my thesis that the root meaning of 'rakia' is layer, whether solid or not. The relationship between 'rakia' and shamayim' is made more explicit when the torah speaks of 'rakia hashamayim', the sky in the heavens. Therefore, the stated placement of the sun, moon, and stars in the 'rakia hashamayim' can't be taken literally. It means that the light they produce appeared in the sky, not that these bodies actually reside in it. The fact that this verse must be given a non-literal interpretation is also mandated by the scientific conclusion that many stars visible to the eye are older than the sun and earth. Certainly, the sun is at least as old as its satellite, the earth. The moon, according to the current understanding is somewhat younger than the earth, having been formed in a truly enormous grazing collision between the proto-earth and a mars-sized planetoid. It is far older, however, than the appearance of bodies of water on earth.

    The sequence of creation in Genesis I should therefore be interpreted as the sequence of appearance of the various creations, as would be seen from the earth. The cause of this successive appearance in the 6 creation 'days' (or eras), as I see it, is the fact that 65 million years ago the earth was blanketed by an opaque debris cloud from a gigantic asteroidal impact that destroyed much of the life forms, including dinosaurs, that had populated the earth at the time. Gradually this cloud diminished in opacity by dust and mist settling such that diffuse light, clouds, warmth from solar radiation, heavenly bodies, and proliferation of animal life on sea and land followed in succession.

    This is not the occasion to elaborate on the above thesis. I offered this very brief summary of my understanding of Genesis I only as a means of deflecting criticism that my objection to R' Natan's understanding of 'rakia' is a mere dispute of non ANE linguists on the meaning of words in Tanach. Rather, it appears to be a disagreement on how to view torah. I would hope that R' Natan doesn't approve of Seely's viewpoint even if he accepts his specific arguments.

  35. So the fact that the pasuk is scientifically inaccurate, PROVES that it can't be taken literally?!

    I offered this very brief summary of my understanding of Genesis I only as a means of deflecting criticism that my objection to R' Natan's understanding of 'rakia' is a mere dispute of non ANE linguists on the meaning of words in Tanach. Rather, it appears to be a disagreement on how to view torah.

    In other words, it's not merely a dispute of non ANE linguists on the meaning of words in Tanach; it's a dispute of non ANE linguists who are religiously compelled to maintain their position.

  36. Look, Y. Aharon, if you want to engage in an act of faith and believe that the rakia is the atmosphere and that the passuk in Iyov is wrong and that when it says that the stars were placed in the rakia it just means that their light appears in the rakia, that's fine. But please don't claim that this is an objective analysis which is just as plausible as what Chazal and Biblical scholars say. (When Chazal AND Biblical scholars agree on something, that should tell you something!)

  37. Lawrence Kaplan comments:

    It should be noted that, as is clear from the end of the article, Seely is a Conservative Christian who defends a notion of biblical inerrancy. So, for him, this scientific inaccuracy does not contradict the truth of the Bible.

  38. R' Natan, where did I imply that my argument represents a proof of my position? That argument was merely to counter your assertion that 'rakia' must imply a solid medium. Nor is my assertion that "vayietain otam birkia hashamayim" should be interpreted as "their light was made to shine through the rakia" intended as some kind of proof. It is merely an interpretation designed to conform the text to physical reality. If someone doesn't feel the need for such conformation, then they may well disregard my effort.

    The alleged agreement between the sages and biblical scholars on this matter (you have only shown that Seely and some others take this viewpoint) doesn't prove anything either. The sages didn't have the physical evidence against their belief, and the biblical scholars who would agree largely assume that the torah is just another ANE document containing dated conceptions. No surprise there.

  39. Is that really the case, that ancient peoples did not associate rain with clouds? It's hard to fathom given the fact that there is never rain without cloud cover - i.e. it's about as straightforward an empirical connection as you can make!

  40. Just a couple of points.

    If you want to be literal, what you see in the sky are not actually stars.

    What I mean is, If you were standing next to a star, what you would see is NOT what a person from earth with the Hubble telescope would see. And the further away the star, the larger that difference would be.

    What we actually see is a representation of the star. So to be 100% scientifically accurate about what humans see in the sky, it is not the actual star which exists lightyears away, but instead a combination of atmospheric and spacial conditions, which gives us an approximation of what that star looked like X years ago.

    In other words, what we see from earth, is only what we see because of the atmosphere. So if you want to argue that the stars are literally in the rakia (i.e. something close to earth, however you define that thing), you can do so.

    Secondly, I believe the Gemora itself says that the water from above comes from the clouds, which itself comes from the oceans.

    I do not deny that Chazal understood rakia to be a solid dome, but I do deny that the word Rakia means a solid dome.

    Just as "firmament" as an English word can refer to a solid dome, or it can refer to the expanse of the sky.

    Just looking it up on wikipedia, it says that "Rakia" is mistranslated as "firmament" and instead should be translated as "expanse", while one bible translates it as "dome".

  41. Also interesting is this picture, where a person is able to stick his head out of the "dome"...

    How solid could they have believed that dome to be?

    also, didn't you mention earlier that there is a gemora where they argue about the thickness of the Rakia?

  42. David Meir, I think it's an error to make an assumption like that. I'm sure there is evidence and someone with expertise in physics and the history of science could confirm or deny whether the weather premise is true based on historical documents, but short of that I think to assume it is a mistake.

    It only makes sense to you because with your modern mindset and knowledge you already know that rain comes from clouds so it seems logical in hindsight or retrospect, sure, but someone not knowing that as fact to begin with has no idea where rain is coming from. Sure sometimes it comes with clouds but it also comes with dark skies so maybe the rakia (if it existed) is ejecting the rain from the waters above and God puts clouds with it to scare us. Who knows what an ancient person thought.

  43. Y. Aharon, if the Torah is to be taken literally as a source of information about the physical world what do you do when it is demonstrably wrong? I won't bore you with a tedious repetition of examples. People with much more Torah than I have already done so.

    One doesn't even have to go as far afield as paleontology or cosmology to find examples. There are plenty of things one can see and touch that fill the bill.

    One can reject all evidence a priori. In that case there's no sense discussing the matter. Debating a rock would be just as productive. But I would be happy to ask such a person to show courage of his convictions with regards to medicine or pest control.

    One can also take current knowledge and declare that it was predicted by the texts and the Sages. The weaknesses of that approach should be obvious.

    The more intellectually honest approach is to weigh the actual evidence and draw one's best conclusions from it. Torah is Torah, but its principles must be applied to our best understanding of the real situation. If commentators - no matter how brilliant and holy - were mistaken about matters of fact they were mistaken. Conclusions reached with perfect logic from a false premise are still in error.

  44. Todd, I never stated that the torah must be correct in some literal sense. Only that torah, if it is to be treated as divine writ, can't be incorrect. When confronted by established scientific facts (not conjectures) which contradict a literal understanding of the torah text, one should, therefore, resort to reasonable reinterpretations. Of course, what is deemed 'reasonable' is a subjective matter. I offered a very brief summary of how I understand the creation 'days' in a way that is consistent with such established scientific facts. One of the features of such an understanding is that 'rakia' is treated as the earth's atmosphere. This, in turn, is based on my understanding of the root meaning of 'rakia' as layer. The blog owner is entitled, of course, to disagree. He should, however, comment on the implication of his position, i.e., that the author of the Genesis text believed in the false presumption of some solid heavenly vault, or had no compunction about unnecessarily propagating a falsehood by using the word 'rakia'.

  45. Y. Aharon, I put it to you that if your fundamental axiom is that "Torah is divine writ and cannot be scientifically incorrect," then even unreasonable interpretations will appear reasonable to you.

  46. R' Natan, as I stated, 'reasonable' is a subjective matter. Offering an explanation without qualification that doesn't even satisfy the offerer is another matter. I don't believe I am guilty of that. My other comment still stands, however.

  47. Nahum Sarna's Understanding Genesis does a good job outlining the ANE conception of the universe, and what the actual peshat in the Chumash is. Once you see it that way, and read the psukim, it takes a fantastic amount of effort to not understand rakia as a physical separation.

    It should be noted that when, during the flood, the Torah says that the "windows of the Heavens opened," it literally means that something physical opened. It's not a metaphor.

    It would be interesting to see what the comments/discussion for this blog would be like if all the comments that still insist on a fundamentalist approach were simply elided. God forbid we actually have a purely rational discussion without some good old fashion irrationalist muddying of the waters! I'd like a way to rate comments/commenters as rational or irrational, and then set a threshold so that I can only see comments from those with a rational rating greater than some minimal value. This is probably asking too much of Blogger/Google though. Oh well.

  48. Nice article and comments.
    assume Rakia means 'expanse'.
    as others noted there are many candidates for layers in the expanse:
    clouds, ozone layer
    asteroid belt
    metor belt
    as far as the stars being in the expanse:
    i was also thinking as i someone else already noted, we see the lstars not where they are now, but their trails as they reach us.
    see SPIRAL cosmological redshift hypothesis why distant starlight not only aligns with the Torah narrative and timeline but attests to it.
    in 'Distant Starlight and Torah'
    SCM has deep-time doctrine dogma bias in it's premise and assumptions so is far from the best description of the actuality .
    with SPIRAL we see the actuality alighns with what Chazal knew but did not understand, ie
    a start to the universe.
    early stellar formation
    a big bang expansion into a static spherical universe.
    an Earth centric universe. (SPIRAL -Earth-Sun ecliptic centric is the actuality)
    all these align with the highest probability understanding of our natural observations.

  49. R'Natan, this was a great post and an even better convo in the comments section. What really needs to be done is to compose a Rationalists definition of biblical inerrancy. (I know I'm like a decade late on this.)

  50. This link is the best approach on the web for this issue. Https://


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