Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Heresy of Victoria Falls

Not my best picture of the Falls, but this one shows a rainbow!
Right now I am at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge in Botswana, leading the Torah-In-Motion 2017 African adventure. Yesterday, we visited the spectacular Victoria Falls, one of the seven wonders of the natural world. It's an extraordinary sight - twice as tall as Niagara Falls and much wider, with a thundering noise that can be heard many miles away. Victoria Falls takes your breath away, and it cries out for a berachah. But does it indeed deserve one?

The berachah recited on natural wonders is Baruch Oseh Maaseh Bereishis, "Blessed is the One Who makes the work of Creation." It is officially prescribed as being for natural wonders such as mountains, deserts, oceans, large rivers and suchlike, and while gigantic waterfalls are not mentioned, it is fairly clear that they would be included in the same category.

But there is a slight wrinkle. When was Victoria Falls created? I was once sent the following halachic discussion from a mailing list of Rabbi Eli Mansour:
"Hacham Bension Abba Shaul (Israel, 1923-1998), in his work Or Le’sion, writes that in Israel, one who sees Mount Hermon recites this Beracha. The Halachic authorities add that the Beracha is also recited upon seeing the Himalayas, the Rocky Mountains and the Swiss Alps. There is some discussion as to whether the Beracha should be recited upon seeing the large mountains in the area of Rome. The Gemara relates that Rome did not exist at the time of the world’s creation, and it was formed later. On the day King Shelomo married Pharaoh’s daughter, the Gemara tells, G-d was angry and sent the angel Gabriel to thrust a stick in the Mediterranean Sea. Ground eventually formed around this area, and this became Italy. Thus, as the region was not included in G-d’s original creation, one cannot recite the Beracha of “Oseh Ma’aseh Bereshit” in reference to its mountains.
Another interesting question discussed by the Poskim relates to the recitation of the Beracha upon seeing the Grand Canyon. Geologists claim that the canyon was formed over time by the Colorado River, and thus did not exist at the time of creation. However, they believe that this process occurred over the span of hundreds of thousands of years, while we believe that the world is not that old. Therefore, we may assume that the Canyon has existed since creation, and thus the Beracha is recited."
This discussion is based upon the premise that the blessing of "Who makes the work of Creation" can only be pronounced upon something that has existed since Creation. However, it appears to me that it makes little difference whether one believes that the world is a few thousand or several billion years old. The blessing is referring to the entirety of Creation, not the beginning of Creation, and it therefore includes the end of Creation. So whether one believes that mountains and the Grand Canyon and Victoria Falls were created as they appear now, or one believes that they developed over long periods, it's still part of Creation.

The numbered red lines show the past locations of the falls.
However, once you look at a satellite map of the area, it's really hard to deny that Victoria Falls reveals the world to be much, much more than a few thousand years old. The satellite image shows that Victoria Falls has been in eight different locations over history. The explanation for this is that the plateau over which it flows has many large cracks filled with weaker sandstone, some of which run north-south and others which run east-west and are larger. The river runs north-south, so as it erodes the rock, it cuts back to the north, but when it reaches an east-west crack, it opens it across the entire width of the crack. This is something that continues to take place, extremely slowly and gradually, and the seven past locations of the falls clearly show that it has been doing so over a very long period indeed.

There's more to discuss on this, but it's been a very long day, with a riverboat safari and a game drive in neighboring Botswana in which we saw hippos and elephants and crocodiles and kudu and giraffes and impala and eagles and buffalo and baboons, so I'll leave it here, with just a few photos!

View from the riverboat safari
"Behold now, Behemoth!" (Iyov 40:15)

But can he jump?
This is exactly how I looked as a kid. Now I have less hair on my head.


  1. I made a quick post on this issue a while back:

  2. Niagara Falls has also moved -- about 7 miles south since it was first created about 11,000 years ago.

  3. What about the Dead Sea? The lowest place on Earth is certainly as much a wonder as the highest? "The lowest exposed land on Earth is at the Dead Sea shore, at -413 meters. The deepest lake bottom in a below-sea-level depression also belongs to the Dead Sea at -750 meters. ". And if you subscribe to the story that the Sea came into being as a result of the destruction of Sodom, then it is certainly the result of a direct Divine act.

    1. "The deepest lake bottom in a below-sea-level depression also belongs to the Dead Sea at -750 meters. "
      What about lake baikal?
      From Wikipedia: "The bottom of the lake is 1,186.5 m (3,893 ft) below sea level, but below this lies some 7 km (4.3 mi) of sediment, placing the rift floor some 8–11 km (5.0–6.8 mi) below the surface: the deepest continental rift on Earth."

      The requirement that the surface of the lake has to be below sea level as well seems to be a bit arbitrary.

  4. > On the day King Shelomo married Pharaoh’s daughter, the Gemara tells, G-d was angry and sent the angel Gabriel to thrust a stick in the Mediterranean Sea. Ground eventually formed around this area, and this became Italy

    That must have really surprised the people who were living there.

  5. This one is a softball for a young earther: obviously the changes occurred during the Mabul. In fact, it is the close-minded scientists' insistence on rejecting the Mabul which leads them to such far fetched theories about rivers moving around. Who ever heard of such a thing?

  6. There is also a berachah to be made when seeing Lot's wife--but I saw a documentary that Lot has had several wives over the years. (Pillars of salt are created in the Dead Sea region, and then weather away.)
    --Yehudah Posnick

  7. Can someone explain how a falls can move?

    1. In the case of Niagara Falls, the edge of the cliff erodes over time due to the massive flow of water over its edge, so that edge moves "backwards" (upstream) over time.

      Niagara Falls is apparently moving south, towards Buffalo NY / Fort Erie ON at an average rate of one foot per year.

  8. watch your back!

  9. mishnah berurah assumes it is for the beginning of Creation

    mishnah berurah 228:4

  10. We also recite the beracha "oseh ma'aseh bereshit" when witnessing a thunderstorm, which is no more than a few days old.

    Rivers move all the time, and not only on geologic time scales.
    In the past year, the Yukon's Slims River has disappeared due to glacial retreat, and the Kaskawulsh glacier's meltwater now flows south into the Gulf of Alaska, instead of north into the Bering Sea.
    The Mississippi is held to its present course by the Old River Control Structure, without which it would likely already have changed course into the Atchafalaya.
    On smaller scales the Mississippi changes course all the time, as is evident from oxbow lakes near the river. It is also visible on political maps, where course changes have created exclaves on state borders.

    1. There's a Tosfos about the border of Eretz Yisroel with respect to the Yarden moving in bova metsia. So even the most religious types won't be able to claim that phenomena doesn't exist.

  11. This topic relates to religious sensibility and the issue of scientific fact vs. traditional beliefs. There is much evidence for the movement of oceanic and continental plates that has changed the face of the earth over time. Subduction of the Pacific plate under the North American created the uplift resulting in the Rockies some 65 million years ago. Similarly, the subduction under the South American plate created the Andes. The mountains weren't present billions of years ago. The Himalayas and Alps are of more recent vintage - albeit, some tens of million years ago. If the Talmud concludes that one shouldn't make a b'racha upon seeing the mountains around Rome (Apennines?) - so be it. That p'sak is independent of how the Italian peninsula came to be. Scientifically, it is the result of a collision of a Mediterranean plate with the European continent that produced the Alps, just as the Himalayas were formed from the collision of the Indian subcontinent with the Asian plate. The peninsula long predated Rome or Shlomo. As has been pointed out, the b'racha of 'oseh ma'asei bereishit' need not imply that the feature in question is as ancient as the earth. The earth has changed - a fact noted by David in 'borchi nafshi'. Lightning, which occasions the b'racha, need not have been present at the beginning as long as it can be used as a model for seemingly divine activity. The movement of waterfalls by erosion or the course of rivers by land movement should therefore be irrelevant to making a b'racha over natural wonders. It's an expression of a feeling of awe over a sight and connecting that feeling to GOD.

    Y. Aharon


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