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The Sun’s Path at Night
Rewriting Jewish Intellectual History: A Review of Sefer Chaim Be’Emunasom
Part 10: The Sun’s Path at Night
One of the most basic sources for saying that Chazal were fallible in scientific matters is the Gemara discussing various disputes concerning astronomy:
The Rabbis taught: The Sages of Israel say that the celestial sphere is fixed and the constellations revolve [within it], and the sages of the nations say that the sphere revolves and the constellations are fixed [within it]. Rebbi said: A response to their words, is that we have never found the Great Bear in the south and the Scorpion in the north. Rav Acha bar Yaakov objected: But perhaps it is like the axle of a millstone, or the hinges of a door socket.
The Sages of Israel say, During the day, the sun travels below the firmament, and at night, above the firmament. And the scholars of the nations say, During the day the sun travels below the firmament, and at night below the ground. Rebbi said: Their words seem more correct than ours, for during the day the wellsprings are cool and at night they steam. (Talmud, Pesachim 94b)
At face value, this passage is saying that Rebbi acknowledged that the Sages of Israel erred in believing that the sun travels behind the sky at night. (In the versions of the Gemara cited by some Rishonim, Rebbi’s concession was regarding the first dispute regarding the sphere and constellations.) But is this the true meaning of the Gemara? According to Rambam, yes:
It is quite right that our Sages have abandoned their own theory; for everyone treats speculative matters according to the results of his own study, and every one accepts that which appears to him established by proof. (Guide for the Perplexed 2:8)
Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam states likewise, both in his Letter on Aggados and in Milchamos Hashem. So does Tosafos Rid:
I have discovered that Rabbeinu Tam answered in the same manner as have I, except that his explanation followed the view of the sages of Israel, who say that the sun travels behind the covering of the firmament – above the sky – at night, whereas I have followed in my explanation the view of the gentile sages, who say that the sun travels below the earth at night, and whose opinion is the main one, as it says in the chapter “Mi Shehayah Tamei” (Pesachim 94b). (Tosafos Rid, Shabbos 34b, s.v. Eizehu)
Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi is explicit that this was a scientific dispute which was decided in favor of the non-Jewish scholars (this is in the context of his ruling that it is permissible to teach science to non-Jews):
In Pesachim, in Chapter Mi Shehayah Tamei, the Rabbis taught: The Sages of Israel say that the celestial sphere is fixed and the constellations revolve [within it], and the sages of the nations say that the sphere revolves and the constellations are fixed [within it]. Rebbi said, Their view appears more correct. The implication is that they were disputing each other, each side bringing proofs to support its position. If there were a prohibition [against teaching non-Torah knowledge to gentiles], how could [Chazal] have informed [the gentiles] of their proofs and disputed with them until Rebbi decided between them and said that their view appears more true? (Responsa Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrahi #57)
Rabbi Yitzchak Arama explicitly states that it was a scientific dispute in which the Sages erred due to their limited time spent studying astronomy:
If the stars themselves moved, as was thought by the Jewish sages who said that the celestial sphere is fixed and the constellations revolve within it, one might then conjecture that they moved of their own accord, and mistakenly conclude that they did so with their own independent power. But they are merely like nails affixed to the spheres [forming] their orbits, which carry them, and which are in turn carried by the great sphere… With regard to the rabbis’ teaching that the Sages of Israel say that the celestial sphere is fixed and the constellations revolve within it, and the sages of the nations say that the sphere revolves and the constellations are fixed within it, the sages of the nations triumphed, and the Jewish sages conceded to their view, as it says in the tractate – for this means that the stars are bodies at rest, not moving independently, implying, in turn, that they have no independent abilities, doing whatever they do only because of God. This truth was discovered first by the gentile scholars and their kingdoms because of their immense efforts in pursuing this study [of astronomy], which they concentrated on in order to serve [the heavenly bodies]... in the foreign ways of their religions, which the Torah forbade; while the Jewish sages did not need to know [all this astronomy] – except as it related to the intercalation of months and the timing of the seasons and the new moons, necessary for the Torah and [its] commandments.... The rest they considered foreign and a waste of time – foreign matters that they were never permitted to study.... (Akeidas Yitzchak, Parashas Bo, Chap. 37)
Maharam Alashker notes that the majority view is to accept the position of the non-Jewish scholars:
It is known and obvious that the description (given by Rabbeinu Tam) is true only according to the opinion of the sages of Israel, who believe that the sphere is fixed and the constellations revolve within it, and that the sun travels behind the firmament’s covering at night. But the authors and commentators other [than Rabbeinu Tam], and also the Rambam… and the Geonim, accept the view of the gentile sages, that the sphere revolves and the constellations are fixed in it, and that the sun travels below the earth at night, according to which theory it is not necessary for the sun to travel through the thickness of the firmament or opposite the opening in it, for it is the sun that descends below the horizon, there being only one sunset… (Responsa Maharam Alashkar #96)
Lest one think that such an interpretation of the Gemara was only given by those Torah scholars who lived prior to the revelations of kabbalah, it should be noted that many prominent Torah scholars of more recent times also interpreted the Gemara in this way. Rabbi Yair Chaim Bacharach (Chavos Ya’ir) writes that the Sages of Israel were making errors in the factual reality:
The blemish of one who errs in the study of Kabbalah is greater than that of one who errs in astronomy… albeit the common denominator [of Kabbalah and astronomy] is that [such errors reflect] mistaken understanding of the factual reality. And [in astronomy, unlike Kabbalah] almost nothing is entirely agreed upon and not subject to dispute, as per the dispute between the Jewish and gentile sages regarding whether the sphere is fixed and the constellations revolve, or the sphere moves and the constellations are fixed in it. And see The Guide for the Perplexed Part II, the end of Chapter 8 and Chapter 9, (where Rambam cites the dispute and says that the knowledge of astronomy in Talmudic times was incomplete); and the Tannaim dispute whether the sun travels above the covering of the sky at night or below the earth… (Responsa Chavos Ya’ir #210)
Rabbi Moshe Schick stresses that the opinion of the Sages of Israel was not received from Sinai (in stark contrast to the claim of R. Schmeltzer!) and was a speculation that has now been scientifically proven false:
Regarding the question concerning what is written in Tosafot, Berachot 2b, s.v. “dilma”; in Rashi, Pesachim 93b, s.v. “mei’alot hashachar”; and in several other places – that the sun enters into the thickness of the firmament [at night] – which contradicts the conclusion of the Gemara on Pesachim 94b, where Rebbi says, “Their view (that the sun travels beneath the earth at night) appears more correct (nir'in) than our own”; and where the word nir'in is used, Tosafot on Eruvin 46b, s.v. “Rabbi Eliezer etc.” writes that we rule accordingly, and the Rosh, in Chapter Kol Sha’ah, and the Tur and Beit Yosef (Orach Chaim 455) concur, as they quote from Rabbi Eliezer of Metz that the sun travels beneath the earth at night, and we therefore knead [matzah] dough only with water that has sat at least one night since being drawn. Even more perplexing (than Rashi and Tosafot’s contradiction to the Gemara's conclusion) is the statement established in the Shabbos prayers: “He who opens daily the doors of the gates of the east and breaches the windows of the sky; He brings the sun out from its place, and the moon from its resting-place, and illuminates the world” – which implicitly concurs with the view that the sun enters the thickness of the firmament [at night].
It seems to me that such matters that were not received by Chazal as halachah leMoshe miSinai, but rather were said according to their own reasoning. And with something that is not received [from Sinai] and has no root in our Torah, but rather comes from investigation and experience, it is difficult to resolve conclusively. And there are many occasions when the sages determined, according to their own intellects, that a matter was a certain way, and the subsequent generation analyzed the matter further and disputed the earlier view. Any conclusion drawn from experimentation is can be considered only probable, [not certain]. Indeed, in the dispute on Pesachim 94b, Rebbi said that the gentile sages’ view appeared more correct, but he did not express certainty; for a matter like this, which is investigated only by finding evidence [of one view or the other], cannot be resolved with certainty. In truth, according to the reading of the Gemara found in The Guide for the Perplexed, the Jewish sages recanted their position; but according to our reading, Rebbi said only that the gentile sages’ view appears (nir'in) more correct...
Regarding the fundamental issue: the text of the [Shabbat] prayer quoted above has already been questioned in Sefer HaBrit, ma’amar 4 – Shnei Me’orot, Chap. 20, where he explains that it is the poetic style to describe things based on how they appear to the human observer [as opposed to how they really happen]. Regardless, in our Gemara it is not decided one way or the other, and we must [therefore] observe the stringencies resultant from each view. Therefore with regard to water passing the night we implement the stringency resulting from the [gentile sages’] view; while Rashi and Tosafot described [the sun’s movement] according to the Jewish sages of the time [of the dispute in the Gemara]. Although scientists now agree – and it is apparent to the eye and by experimentation – that the sun travels below the earth [at night], the [Shabbat] prayer describes it based on how it appears to us... (Responsa Maharam Schick #7)
Chacham Yosef Chaim (the “Ben Ish Chai”) likewise, in contrast to R. Schmeltzer’s assertion that everything in the Gemara is a metaphysical truth received from Sinai, explains that the view of the Sages of Israel was a scientific speculation that has since been disproved by modern science:
Know that regarding what R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua say here regarding the motion of the sun, was said according to their intellectual assessment, according to whatever seemed true to them in the science of astronomy. And they did not determine these things and establish them as true; rather, each went according to whatever appeared to him in accordance with his principles of astronomy; they did not say these things as a tradition from their teachers. And therefore, nowadays, when the principles of astronomy are widespread, and they have devised observational tools for the stars and constellations and the globe and the elevations of the sun, they have seen and know many things that can be genuinely determined and universally agreed upon, [such as that] the sun travels below the earth at night on the other side of the globe… And if the Sages of Israel said their view [regarding the sun’s motion at night] from their tradition, how could it be said that the words of the non-Jewish scholars seem more correct? And how could one bring a proof from the argument regarding steaming waters to contradict matters that were received via tradition, Heaven forbid? Rather, it is certain that the Sages of Israel did not determine these things to establish them as true; rather, they said that their intellectual assessment suggests it according to the science of astronomy that they possessed in their era, and they only suggested it as a possibility… (Chacham Yosef Chaim, Benayahu, Bava Batra 25b)
There are many, many more such views; I have merely cited those that are most prominent and explicit. The overwhelming consensus of Rishonim and Acharonim is to interpret this account in the Gemara at face value, that Rebbi conceded that the Sages of Israel had been bettered by the non-Jewish scholars in astronomy.
But when R. Schmeltzer cites this section of the Gemara, in chapter 27 (p. 134), the only view from the Rishonim that he cites is that of Rabbeinu Tam, who held that the non-Jewish scholars only had more powerful arguments but the truth lay with the Sages of Israel. R. Schmeltzer completely ignores Rambam, Tosafos Rid, Rav Yitzchak Arama, Maharam Alashkar, and the others, merely parenthetically referring the reader to his later establishing of Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam’s statement as being a forgery! And while he cites a number of Acharonim who follow in the approach of Rabbeinu Tam or Maharal, he does not mention the view of Chavos Ya’ir, Maharam Schick, Rav Hirsch, or the Ben Ish Chai.
Furthermore, what does R. Schmeltzer mean by citing Rabbeinu Tam as the only legitimate approach from the Rishonim? Does he likewise believe that the sun really does pass behind the sky at night? In a footnote, R. Schmeltzer cites several kabbalists who reinterpret Rabbeinu Tam’s position to be referring to a metaphysical reality. In the introduction, on p. 12, R. Schmeltzer likewise states that the statement of the Sages of Israel “is true and absolutely in accordance with its literal meaning, even though it is not so according to the eyes of flesh-and-blood,” explaining that the Sages of Israel were making a statement about the metaphysical reality.
Yet R. Schmeltzer neglects to mention that many other authorities interpreted Rabbeinu Tam quite literally. We have already noted that Tosafos Rid and Maharam Alashkar understood Rabbeinu Tam in this way, and they pointed out that Rabbeinu Tam’s view has been rejected. Lechem Mishneh (Hilchos Shabbos 5:4) likewise interprets Rabbeinu Tam in accordance with his plain meaning, and notes that his view is problematic in light of the Gemara favoring the opinion of the non-Jewish scholars.
So, in discussing this Gemara, R. Schmeltzer ignores the vast majority of Rishonim and Acharonim in favor of the opinion of a single Rishon, and he furthermore ignores how several Acharonim interpreted this Rishon in accordance to with its plain meaning. Again, he is forced to do so, since according to R. Schmeltzer’s definition of heresy, all these authorities are guilty of espousing heresy.
 Note that R. Schmeltzer, on p. 95, cites Maharam Alashkar’s statement that the relationship of his generation to that of the Rishonim was like that of a monkey to a man. R. Schmeltzer equates this to mean that Chazal spoke entirely with ruach hakodesh and were infallible; but from the statement of Maharam Alashkar regarding the dispute in Pesachim, he was clearly not of this view.