Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Sunday is Sun-Day

This Sunday is Sun-Day - the day that Daf Yomi reaches the famous page of Gemara recording the dispute between the Sages of Israel and the non-Jewish scholars regarding where the sun goes at night. The Sages of Israel thought that it doubles back and passes behind the sky, which they related to their understanding of various Scriptural verses. The non-Jews said (correctly) that it passes on the other side of the world. And Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi concedes that the non-Jews appear to be correct.

Every single Gaon and Rishon, and many Acharonim, agree that this is indeed an argument about where the sun goes at night. And the majority of Gaonim and Rishonim, as well as many Acharonim, understand the Gemara as saying that the Sages of Israel were indeed mistaken (other Rishonim say that the sun does indeed go behind the sky at night). No other topic better demonstrates the validity of the rationalist approach to Chazal and science. No other topic better demonstrates that the charedi Gedolim, who condemned this approach as being heresy, are either out of touch with the history of rabbinic thought in these areas, or are deliberately rewriting it.

While I completely goofed up in not focusing on this topic at the time of the ban on my books, I've since researched it in great detail. My monograph The Sun's Path At Night has been available for a while, but I'd like to take this opportunity to also release a different publication, which contains much of the same material, but presented in a significantly different way. It's my thesis that I used to enter the doctoral program at Bar-Ilan. Rather than simply list all the different views on the topic, it presents them in historical context, showing that the change in attitudes to this topic began in the sixteenth century, and exploring the reasons for this. You can download it at this link.

I hope that you enjoy these publications, and please share them with others - especially those who are under the misconception that normative Jewish thought regards Chazal as having been divinely inspired in their understanding of the universe. Perhaps readers could print a few copies and put them out in shul, especially for those studying Daf Yomi. Chag sameach!

16 comments:

  1. It's an interesting coincidence that today's Google doodle has the 194th birthday of Foucault. Using Newton's laws of motion, Foucault showed that the precession of his pendulum with its latitude dependent period, which he calculated, demonstrated the earth's 24 rotation on its axis.

    Perhaps we can update our knowledge beyond the 15th century by acknowledging that the sun does not go around the earth.

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  2. Hi Rabbi -

    They are all wrong, and nobody knew it until half a millenium ago. But that's ok! Progress!

    Hag Sameakh,
    Michael Singer

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  3. Thanks for the article. Your chapter summaries and chapter title numbers don't match.

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  4. 1) I have been told that New Heavens and a New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought by Jeremy Brown references your monograph.

    2) I think that this has been discussed before, but a minor point of contention: I question your assertion on page 19 that Ramban and Ran gave any credence to the Babylonian model. They endorsed Rabbeinu Tam's reconciliation of the texts in Pesachim and Shabbos and his understanding of R' Yehudah's meaning. R' Yehudah definitely did believe in a Rakia. Minchas Cohen makes this very explicit and explains how he can rule like R"T, when he knows full well there is no Rakia: the solution is stated in terms of concepts that R' Yehudah would use, but the Halacha remains that you have to wait to that level of darkness for Tzais, even though the darkness has another explanation.

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  5. Chag sameach, one and all!

    Fascinating and instructive. Temujin spent a pleasant morning with two tankards of a hot and sweetened effusion of ground and roasted Arabian beans, enjoying Rabbi Slifkin's post and his two papers on the topic. From these, Temujin learned the that while the Sages of Israel erred factually both in their cosmology and in their accepting the verity of the Gentile scholars' model of our universe's composition and mechanics through no fault of theirs, they displayed an astonishing spirit of reason and a depth of wisdom that is truly revolutionary for their times and indeed, for any age. They planted what we may indeed regard as a seed of true science in Jewish thought, a clear and concrete lesson that in our struggle to understand our Creator's work, the honest search for emet stands above established or comforting assumptions, authority and status. From this we may learn too that even a remarkable and precious "teaching moment" can be easily ignored, obscured and devalued with weak rationalizations, distractions and metaphysical flights of fancy.

    That the shift towards an outlook of infallibility of authority and metaphysical interpretations took place during what we think of as the European Renaissance is hardly surprising. Contrary to popular assumptions, it was a time when reason was in the descendant, a time when it was thought, by the most respected minds in the greatest seminaries and universities, that witches flew and caused crops to wither, demons grinned from every nook and cranny, pseudo-Messiahs led the masses towards a New Age, letters and numbers acquired supernatural meaning and Jews obsessed over Gentile blood. Unfortunately, even in our day the echoes of that intellectual illness which affected rich and poor, the learned and the ignorant, Jew and Gentile, continue to reverberate.

    Temujin enjoys the exercise of projecting intellectual trends and curious philosophical coping mechanisms and wagers that Rabbi Slifkin's recent challenge will in time provoke even greater flights of mystical fancy in certain obscurantist quarters. Watery spheres and filaments, heavenly windows for the Sun to scoot to and fro and mystical solar emanations penetrating myriads of worlds will, like Dr Frankenstein's monster stand up and thrash around with a surge of Galvanic currents supplied by new endeavors in pseudoscience. New, undeveloped and poorly understood scientific fields offer the greatest possibilities for such and thus, we may expect neuroscience and quantum mechanics to provide the raw material for this new wave. One's money is on quantum physics, specifically in the increasingly popular quack offshoots thereof. It already provides presumed vindication to the flat Earth theorists, who cook up a rich tcholent of bits and pieces of scientific hypotheses with a seasoning of unrestrained idiocy; string theory meets black hole thermodynamics to paint a two-dimensional holographic universe which may be, after all, a projection of our mysterious minds. There, a flat Earth, nay a flat universe; it's that easy. Temujin will keep his eyes on future crops of self-published sforim and will report any amusing developments.

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  6. zzzz....

    You're writing about this same topic too many times, e.g.:

    The Sun's Path at Night Redux
    The Sun's Path at Night, part III
    The Ever-Increasing List
    The Key to Everything
    Chalk Up Two More

    I think you need to find some new gemaros to discuss, or you'll have to rename your blog to TheSunsPath or Ra-Judaism.

    Also you didn't even mention that Sunday is the Equinox!

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  7. I find the biggest obstacle that prevents some people from accepting the fact that the Rabbis were scientifically fallible, is the false premise that if one of the statements from our sages have been proven not true, than all their statements must be presumed not true.

    This (just the possibility) makes many people feel a loss of faith in the Torah, leaving them with a feeling of insecurity, and cannot bring themselves to accept anything less then infallibility from our sages in all categories.

    They are then compelled to carefully scrutinize and question the accuracy of all of what the Rabbis have said. Some even being afraid of what they might find. Which is not really a bad thing. Because with every contrast there is always improvement.

    E.g. for me it has made me think twice, and therefore I have begun to do just that. That is to scrutinize every detail to the best of my ability. As a result my learning and understanding have (for me) reached to higher levels.

    We hear it had been written that the Torah is truth, that is to say anything not true is not Torah regardless of who said it.

    If God wants us to believe all that was stated by our sages. Then the Torah would have stated so directly, and the scientific evidence would be there as well, instead of the other way around.

    We must also ask ourselves "Wouldn't are sages having accessibility to today's scientific evidence not admit to the correctness there of?" Without any doubt they would.

    Our possible task therefore is, to find a way of separating the correct from the proven incorrect statements of our sages in an acceptable way for all (to be able) to accept.
    o

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  8. M. Singer,

    Not quite accurate. Aristarchus argued for heliocentrism nearly 2300 years ago, or during the time of the Second Temple.

    AW

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  9. AK said...
    zzzz....

    You're writing about this same topic too many times, e.g.:

    The Sun's Path at Night Redux
    The Sun's Path at Night, part III
    The Ever-Increasing List
    The Key to Everything
    Chalk Up Two More


    Six posts in 2.5 years is not overmuch, IMO.

    Also, this is a blog. Who looks back at old posts? If the topic is important and timely (due to Daf Yomi), what is the harm?

    I think you need to find some new gemaros to discuss, or you'll have to rename your blog to TheSunsPath or Ra-Judaism.

    Also you didn't even mention that Sunday is the Equinox!


    And why not post about the cross-quarter days as well? But that would be 10 posts of no novelty in 2.5 years.

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  10. Mind if I share?
    http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/797880/Rabbi_Aryeh_Lebowitz/Pesachim_Daf_94_-_The_Travels_of_the_Sun

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  11. Should we update our observance of Mitzvos in light of current scientific understanding?

    Consider mayim shelanu for passover matzah as an example. Please correct me if I am wrong, but is not the entire reason for letting water "cool" during the day based on the belief that the sun went below the earth during the night and heated the water? Is there any other rationale given in the Talmud? Why then is it so important to continue to do this? Why should not letting the water "rest" invalidate passover matzah? If one needs to know if the water is cool, just measure its temperature with a thermometer.

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  12. The OU daf yomi podcast used a recording from the last cycle (rabbi grossman) that did a reasonably good job of discussing the various approaches although rave elyashiv was given the last word. I would have been interested in hearing rabbi elefant as he has been pretty non-rationalist when these things have come up.

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  13. "Elijah Kramer"
    Dr. Marc Shapiro has discussed in tim classes that this surname for the Gra is erroneous and is a recent innovation and scholars are foolishly using it to sound sophisticated.
    So you might want to change that

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  14. "Should we update our observance of Mitzvos in light of current scientific understanding?"

    No.
    See the final chapter of Sacred Monsters.

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  15. I would have liked more illustrations in the monograph. Fortunately I just learned the sugya using the Hebrew Art Scroll edition which really helped me understand the sugya and your commentary. But your points would be clearer if you added illustrations. Are you accepting those in the Art Scroll or differing from them? It is coincidence that this topic comes out this year the week we read the creation story in Breshit. chaim

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  16. I recall during the Daf Yomi of the last cycle how some participants eyes rolled in puzzlement when we got to the passage prompting your discussion, given that both views discussed in the Talmud describing the sun's path are incorrect, at least insofar as there is no dome above the earth, that it is the earth, and not the sun, that is moving, and the waters are not warmed as a result of the sun traveling under the (flat) earth. This is no negative reflection on the greatness and courage of the rabbis of the Talmud, just a function of the times in which they lived and the state of scientific knowledge at that time.

    This is one of the many downsides of the "infallibility approach". People are surprised and discouraged when they see what is there, rather than expecting it as a normal course of events as you would when reading, l'havdil, other ancient texts. Your correct attitude is excluded by the infallibility assumption and can lead to the eye-rolling and puzzlement that you observed.

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