Discover more from Rationalist Judaism
The Firming and Flattening of the Firmament
This is a long post, but a very important one, so please bear with me!
The story so far: About two weeks 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.
Last week, 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. This was especially significant 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.
Now, I've been at this game long enough to realize that one can never, ever use arguments to convince anti-rationalists that they are wrong; they are always creative enough to come up with something. But I was curious to know what it would be. Would they resort to saying that all the Rishonim and numerous Acharonim misunderstood Chazal?
They came up with something else instead. In the comments on this blog, as well as on one of the anti-Slifkin blogs (it's a strange sort of honor to have websites that are singularly dedicated to opposing one's views), they came up with the following: True, Chazal mistakenly believed the rakia to be a solid dome. However, this is not part of the mesorah, since this was not their Torah tradition. Rather, it was a case of their using contemporary scientific knowledge to shed light on the Torah. And Rambam says that astronomical matters were matters for which there was no mesorah.
To this, I responded as follows: Throughout the Gemara, we find countless examples of Chazal using Torah to shed light on knowledge of the natural world. But we never (to my knowledge) find them using knowledge of the natural world to explain the words and concepts of Tenach! Furthermore, since in the ancient world everyone believed that the sky is solid, there is no question that when each of the Sages received their Torah education from their parents and teachers, they were taught that the rakia is a solid firmament - as were their parents and teachers in turn.
As for quoting Rambam that there was no mesorah on astronomical matters - first of all, the idea of my opponents taking Rambam as the final word on mesorah is quite funny. Rambam, who claims that the mesorah of Judaism is largely identical to Greco-Muslim philosophy?! In any case, Rambam's statement is with regard to astronomical matters that Chazal had to figure out in order to create and apply halachos, not with regard to cosmology - the basic structure of the world and the meaning of basic words and concepts in the Torah.
But let's learn a little more about Chazal's view of the rakia. As we will see, it is definitely a case of their using Torah to shed light on science, not the other way around. Please note that this post is not discussing yours or my view of the meaning of rakia, which will be the subject of a future post, but rather Chazal's view of the meaning of rakia - and please keep all comments on that point.
The main discussion is in the Talmud Yerushalmi, at the beginning of Maseches Berachos. After discussing how the sun passes through the thickness of the firmament after sunset (before circling around behind it), the Gemara quotes a range of views about how thick the firmament actually is. It then discusses the distances between the land and the firmament, and between the firmament and the "upper waters" (I will discuss the nature of the "upper waters" in a future post). Then, since it cited the verse "Let there be a firmament," it brings the following discussion about that verse (and a similar version is found in Midrash Bereishis Rabbah 4:2):
Rav said: The heavens were fluid on the first day, and they congealed on the second day, as Rav said: "Let there be a rakia" means "Let the rakia become solid, let it become congealed, let it become encased, let it become taut."
The commentaries explain that Rav is addressing the difficulty that if the heavens were already created on the first day, what exactly happened on the second day when God created the firmament - which the Torah identifies as being the heavens? Rav is thus answering that the heavens were only created on the first day in fluid form; it was on the second day that they solidified into the firmament.
But how did Rav know this? The Perush Charedim says that he is deriving it from "Let there be," which implies giving it substance and strength. A different explanation is given by Radal (on the Midrash), who explains that Rav is deriving it from the actual word "rakia" (which is only introduced on Day Two). Rakia refers to something solid, as we see in the passuk, "Can you help Him tarkia the heavens, firm as a mirror of cast metal?" (Iyov 37:18).
The Yerushalmi and Midrash also bring another answer to the question of what exactly happened to the heavens on the second day:
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).
The commentaries explain that Rabbi Yudeh ben Pazi is following the view that the heavens were created on Day One as a single drop. Thus, what happened on Day Two is that they were stretched out flat like a cloth. He derives this from the passuk which shows that rakia, as a verb, refers to flattening out gold i.e. taking a lump and stretching it out in two dimensions.
The Gemara continues:
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.
The Gemara then cites some related exegeses:
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).
From all this, a few things are evident. First of all, Chazal used derashos to derive knowledge about various aspects of the firmament - how it was made, its dimensions, and so on. Now, some people might define mesorah as being "that which was received since Sinai," and they might further claim that such derashos do not fall into that category. But I find it hard to believe that my traditionalist opponents are ready to write off so many of Chazal's derashos (and there's no reason why it would be limited to only these) as being "not part of the mesorah." (When Chazal make a derashah that the four animals with one kosher sign are the only such species, can this also be simply written off as "not part of the mesorah"? I look forward to Rav Shlomo Miller suggesting that!)
The second point is that, while Chazal used these derashos to derive knowledge about specific aspects relating to the firmament, it was obvious to them all that the basic nature of the firmament is something hard and flat; after all, there are numerous explicit pesukim describing the nature of the firmament, as well as other pesukim which shed light upon the basic etymology of the word. That's not to claim that there aren't those in recent times who explain these sources differently. But Chazal's traditions were clearly in accordance with the straightforward meaning.
In a future post, I will bring further pesukim which shed light on the nature of the rakia, as well as a variety of other sources. But it's clear that Chazal's mesorah was that the rakia is a solid body that is stretched in two dimensions - otherwise known as a firmament. Does this cause a religious problem? If you're a traditionalist, it certainly does, which is why they have to find a way to weasel out of this. But following the rationalist approach of certain Torah authorities, this does not pose a problem at all, as I shall later explain.