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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Chazal and Mistakes in Science

I am learning Bava Basra in the mornings and I just learned daf 25b. After learning this sugya I cannot understand how anyone can say that Chazal were not mistaken in science.

The gemara there has a dispute between R' Eliezer and R' Yeshoshua.

R' Eliezer says that the world is like a three-walled building; the north side is not covered; The sun travels along the inside of the building during the day. When the sun reaches the northwest corner, it goes above the building (therefore we can't see it, and goes eastward overnight, and rises in the northeast in the morning).

R. Yehoshua says, the world is like a box, the north side is covered;

1. When the sun reaches the northwest corner, it goes (through a window) in back of the box.
2. "Holech El Darom v'Sovev El Tzafon" - the sun (always) travels along the south by day, and circles around the north side by night.

It is absolutely clear that the above is incorrect. We know that the world is not covered by anything and the sun doesn't go behind it. We know that the Earth spins and this is what causes the Sun to rise and set and we know that the Earth revolves around the Sun. These are not theories, they are facts and they are undisputable, we have all seen the pictures from space with our own eyes contradicting this gemara.

The Maharal explains this gemara allegorically. He understands that Chazal hid deeper meanings in statements like these describing the world. However, even according to the Maharal, Chazal did not just make this up, they were describing the world as they knew it, which was mistaken, and through that telling us secrets of Torah.

I will be thrilled if anyone can explain this gemara based on the observable facts that we have seen about the world. I do not believe that it can be done.

In the same vein as R' Nathan Kamenetsky said in his shiur at YU, I say, if believing that this portrayal of the movement of the Sun as the gemara describes is correct, is one of the Ikkarei Haemuna, we are in very deep trouble indeed.

36 Comments:

At 11:36 AM, Anonymous Boruch said...

The Maharal explains this gemara allegorically. He understands that Chazal hid deeper meanings in statements like these describing the world. However, even according to the Maharal, Chazal did not just make this up, they were describing the world as they knew it, which was mistaken, and through that telling us secrets of Torah."

I'm not sure how the "however part follows". Lets assume that Chazal are revealing secrets of Torah by way of "science" of there day. Surely if their intention is to reveal something spiritual, and we agree with this spiritual truth, then there is indeed no "mistake".

This would be akin to them using some now defunct language to describe something. Even after the language dies out, the message surely remains.


The above assumes you have the right p'shat in the Maharal. I have to look at it again, but from memory, I seem to remember that he expalins they were not talking in a physical sense at all, in which case, the scientific facts make no difference, since according to him, chazal were not talking of such facts, rather deeper metaphysical truths.

 
At 1:57 PM, Blogger bluke said...

Whatever the pshat in the Maharal is, Chazal used what they thought was a true description of the world to convey it. It makes no sense to say that Chazal just made up the description of the sun's movements. They clearly understood that the sun moved that way. In other words, Chazal followed the science of the day with respect to the motion of the sun and were mistaken.

 
At 2:47 PM, Anonymous Boruch said...

But the Maharal is saying that they never intended it to be a "true" (i.e. physical) explanation. In which case, how is it mistaken if science talks about what we perceive and chazal were talking about the metaphysical?

 
At 2:57 PM, Blogger bluke said...

You really think Chazal made up a picture of the sun moving around that they thought had no connection with reality? Why would they do that? My understanding is that they took what they thought was the physical reality and used it to express metaphysical concepts. This means that they didn't care if the science was right or wrong it served their purposes, but it does mean that they were mistaken in science.

 
At 3:48 PM, Anonymous Boruch said...

"This means that they didn't care if the science was right or wrong it served their purposes, but it does mean that they were mistaken in science. "

If I use a popular understanding of some phenomenon as a moshol for something else, am I endorsing the popular understanding? IOW if they "didn't care if the science was right or wrong" how is using such science, which they know might be wrong, and endorsement of that science?

 
At 3:54 PM, Blogger bluke said...

A few points:
1. What it means is that Chazal could write something that appears in the gemara that is mistaken. In many places a statement like that will get you put into cherem.
2. we see that Chazal accepted the science of their day
3. The terminolgy of this gemara is quoted by the Rishonim when discussing when tzeis hacochavim is, they talk about the sun going through the חלון, we see that the Rishonim understood that chazal were describing reality.

 
At 4:01 PM, Anonymous Boruch said...

1) Not mistaken just an analogy.
2) Used to to convey deeper truths
3) The Maharal would have also know that.

 
At 4:35 PM, Blogger bluke said...

Regarding your 3rd point, we can always say that. For example, how can any Acharon ask a question on a Rishon, or the Rishonim themselves ask a question on the Gemara, they were greater, they must have known that. The answer is that this is the way Torah works and therefore to say the Maharal must have known that is not an answer.

 
At 4:38 PM, Anonymous Larry Lennhoff said...

Boruch
I'm not sure which of 3 things you are trying to say:

1) Are you saying the chazal did know that their way of describing the movements of the sun and earth was false, but did not care because the analogy was useful for the spiritual point they were actually making?

2) Are you saying Chazal neither knew nor cared whether the physical descriptions given were factual, but since they were two 'scientific' views of the day went ahead and used them to make a spritual point?

3) Are you saying Chazal believed the descriptions to be true, and also believed they reflected a deeper truth in the spiritual world, and that because of the correctness of that spiritual truth we shouldn't say Chazal were mistaken at all - i.e., the spiritual truth outweights the mistaken factual part of the statement?

Kol Tuv

Larry

 
At 10:10 PM, Anonymous daat y said...

after the comments of Baruch can you see how someone can believe that.

 
At 10:46 PM, Blogger bluke said...

I looked up the Maharal in Beer Hagolah. It is clear to me from the Maharal that he understands that the gemara is describing how things work while also giving us a deeper meaning

 
At 2:12 AM, Anonymous Nobody said...

I have some old notes about how to understand this Gemara, which I may pull up at some point, but for starters three points:

1) It is impossible to say that Chazal thought that the sun is not behind the earth shining on the moon at night, as this is fundamental to understanding Kiddush Hachodesh. And the calendar based on Chazal's understanding of Kiddush Hachodesh proves itself in the calendar we use.

2) In order to understand it, it is important not to look at the words to speak in the language you are used to, but rather to understand the concepts as Chazal use them. That may seem like an esoteric point, but if you change the reference frame of the discussion, understanding what they are saying can be and is very different. Especially when you start thinking about how this may not be a macholkes in metzius.

3) There is no denying that Chazal view the world as geocentric. If that is all you are concluding from this gemara, fine. However, your understanding of the current science, let alone what facts are "undisputable" is very off. For starters see here, for example, especially in the comments where he relies on "stellar parallax, stellar aberration, etc." to demonstrate that the earth rotates on its axis. That is a far cry from "undisputable." See also the quote from Sir Fred Hoyle here as well as the whole article here.

My point is that simplistic statement that these facts are "undisputable" really misunderstands the state of modern science. Especially the "fact" that the earth rotates around the sun, which isn't a fact at all, in the scientific sense.

 
At 9:59 AM, Blogger bluke said...

I am not sure what you are driving at.

Do you really believe that the Earth doesn't revolve? That there is a roof on the Earth with windows?

 
At 5:04 PM, Anonymous Nobody said...

"Do you really believe that the Earth doesn't revolve?"

I believe that that is what Torah says. I'm actually surprized that you are surprized by that.

"That there is a roof on the Earth with windows?"

No, I think Chazal are using such terms as a moshel for the phenomena they are really refering to. Kind of like when pesukim refer to Hashem's arms.

 
At 5:16 PM, Blogger bluke said...

Why are you surprised, to the best of my knowledge the fact that the Earth revolves is an established scientific fact. There are satellites in orbit that are based on this fact. There are pictures from orbit which show this. The links that you posted were not exactly convincing. This would seem to be one of those places where chazal relied on the mistaken science of their day.

 
At 6:07 PM, Anonymous Nobody said...

"Why are you surprised,"

I was surprised you were not aware of the geocentric view of Chazal.

"to the best of my knowledge the fact that the Earth revolves is an established scientific fact."

I guess it depends on your definition of established fact. Prior to relativity, they insisted that the earth's revolution around the sun is an established fact. Then they took that back. That doesn't lend much weight to something being "established fact" as having objective value.

"There are satellites in orbit that are based on this fact. There are pictures from orbit which show this."

The orbit of satellites does not demonstrate earth's rotation, and I doubt there is any scientists who would claim that. They would certainly be throwing out 100 years of the Theory or relativity and its principle of general covariance (well general covariance is only 90 years old, but still ...). They may describe it as the earth rotating, because they conclude that for other reasons, but that it is not at all the same thing.

"The links that you posted were not exactly convincing."

What were you looking to be convinced of?

"This would seem to be one of those places where chazal relied on the mistaken science of their day."

I am more concerned about discounting Chazal through the mistaken (understandings of the) science of today.

 
At 6:14 PM, Blogger bluke said...

There is absolutely no question that the scientific consensus today is that the Earth revolves. There is a reason why the links that you sent me are listed under pseudo-science.

You are repeating the same discredited arguments about relativity that have been bandied about for years. No one took back the idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

It is amazing how people like you are willing to accept science when it suits your purposes but as soon as science contradicts what you are saying science is wrong etc.

What are your scientific credentials? From everything that I have read about Geocentrism it is truly pseudoscience babble.

 
At 7:44 PM, Anonymous Nobody said...

"There is absolutely no question that the scientific consensus today is that the Earth revolves."

I didn't claim otherwise.

"You are repeating the same discredited arguments about relativity that have been bandied about for years. No one took back the idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun."

Sir Fred Hoyle is no one? They took back it being an established fact. That is all I said. They still think that the earth revolves around the sun, it is true, but they don't invalidate anymore thinking of the sun as rotating around the earth once a year. They keep the model for ease of calculations and/or cultural reasons. "An arbitrary choice of coordinate systems."

"It is amazing how people like you are willing to accept science when it suits your purposes but as soon as science contradicts what you are saying science is wrong etc."

I think you have me confused with someone else. Nothing I wrote supports such a conclusion about what I am willing to accept or not.

I am dispationate about scientific conclusions. I don't take them as inherently true or false. My definition of truth doesn't come from science.

Science, of course, deals in objective facts, but those are very different from its conclusions. I have no problem with their facts. However "scientific fact" is often a term which really means conclusions. And conclusions are arrived at via a method. And that method contains a lot of assumptions.

Which leads me to the conclusion that a claim is neither true nor false just because it is "established science."

"What are your scientific credentials?"

I don't claim to have any.

"From everything that I have read about Geocentrism it is truly pseudoscience babble."

What is interesting about the discussion in the link is which facts are used to discredit geocentrism. Orbiting satelites is not one of them. (The point is not that science is absolutely correct in its understanding of orbiting satellites, rather that even as proponents of a geokinetic view they wouldn't use it as evidence, so it certainly can't be used to demonstrate a geokinetic conclusion).

 
At 8:34 PM, Anonymous MNR said...

Just for clarification, does "Nobody" think that the Earth is at the center of the universe, and that the Sun revolves around the earth? If so, what of simply - pictures from space that show that the earth revolves around the sun?

 
At 9:07 PM, Blogger The Observer said...

I'd advise you all go and read my geocentrism posting again. Especially the part about distinguishing the Earth's daily (i.e. diurnal) rotation on its axis from its yearly (i.e. annual) revolution.

I'm not sure what you are referring to when you call the links psuedo-science, except that if it is the concept of and arguments for geocentrism, then I agree with you.

On the other hand, what are these "pictures from space" that purport to show the earth revolving around the sun. Anyone have a link?

 
At 9:16 PM, Blogger The Observer said...

But back to the gemara. Doesn't this explanation disagree with the one in Pesachim which has the sun passing through the firmament during twilight? Over there, they directly address the disagreement between this view and that of the non-Jewish sages, coming down on the side of the latter. Yet the former view is the basis for the length of halachic twilight. Or so it seems.

 
At 12:36 AM, Blogger bluke said...

I am not sure what you meant, what explanation disagrees with the Gemara in Pesachim?

 
At 5:42 PM, Anonymous Nobody said...

Hi observer, nice of you to drop by.

Your geocentrism post was very interesting but it left two points unexpanded:

1) It didn't recognize the reasons in the Torah for a geocentric view beyond Pesukim. In Torah, of course, literal reading of Pesukim is hardly the whole picture.

2) More importantly, it didn't mention, until prompted in comments, what the evidence is that underlies diurnal rotation. And the article you link to is pay only.

So a couple of questions, if you don't mind ;)

1) What is the evidence (or more precisely, what is the etc., besides stellar parallex and stellar aberration)?

2) What is the timeline of when this evidence was accepted. That is, when was Mach believed to be correct (if at all) and when was that view regarded as discredited? Immediately? More recently?

As for the gemara in Pesachim, some Rishonim hold that Rebbi was agreeing with the argument of the non-Jewish sages, but not accepting their view. For a more complete collection of Rishonim on the issue, Encyclopedia Talmudis is a good resource. I believe it was under הנץ-החמה.

The halacha as practiced now (that is, not according to Rabeinu Tam and those who agree with him) is that both those gemaras are not the halacha, but rather the gemara that Rabeinu Tam ascribes to the beginning of shkia is actually the end of shkia and these gemaras are more aggadeta.

 
At 7:57 AM, Blogger The Observer said...

Nobody,

I've posted a response of sorts over on my blog.

 
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At 1:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi,

I'd like to point out several things:

#1- The level of the Tanaim and Amoraim is not something that one today can really have any true idea on- there are instances of Techiyas Hameisim, as well as many other issues which could only be related to Tzaddikim Gemurim. Etc.

Therefore, one should certainly be seeking a deeper meaning to their words. Unless RaShI specifically explains it to mean its simple meaning.

#2- A persons belief in Judaism should surely be based on a fact other that specific details alone, but rather on the fact that 600,000 Jewish males of 'army age', as well as women and children were present by the giving of the Torah (which would be many million,) as well as the entire Redemption from Egypt.

Therefore, an endeavor at analysing the words of the Rabbi's should be an 'endeavor', and based on a genuine mission to discover. But not specifically related to evaluating Judaism or ones belief in Torah, C'V. (Just as one eats and sleeps etc. each day without knowing a fraction of what is truly occuring inside, yet this is what makes sense based on another direction- it gives life. So too one's choice in Torah is certainly based on a larger realization on its Truth, and coud not hinge on ones mission to understand a specific detail alone.)

#3- Once one sees that the words in Torah are not neccessarily easily understandable without great effort, since the ones who spoke them were not on the same level as this era, one should surely approach it with humility rather that a decision to print it as a choice between science and words which were said several thousand years ago. Since in fact such a choice is illogical for several reasons: Science by default and by definition does not 'know' anything, but rather observes and reports. Therefore, based on what is observable and reportable at a specific time, this is the conlusion. And that is surely why 'science' has redrawn its views each time a new concept is seen.

Based on this, one should place science as an interesting and surely decent pursuit, but surely not as an objective and absolute fact which could not change. And therefore it cannot possibly contradict what Torah says, since Torah is from G-d Himself, the Creator of the universe and all its creatures, with 'science' included.

In addition, besides for the general perspective on science and Torah, in this particular case, the issue is even more clear- in the current method of analysis, it is concluded that man cannot possibly ever know what revolves around what. This may change, but it remains the current logic in science as it sees what it observes.

There is a letter from the Lubavitcher Rebbe Shlita which addresses a similar issue- this is a link to it: http://www.chabad.org/therebbe/article.asp?AID=73253

In the end, however, man should realize that G-d wills the person to see Him and choose Good (Torah) not based on a forced conclusion, but based on his free choice. A fundamental part of Judaism is the freedom to choose, and this freedom can only exist if there is room to choose otherwise. And G-d gives man full choice in this area as well- He presents man with a fully 'independant' world which seems to function without any relation to anything above it, yet a Jew knows within, that there is a G-d, and that it is He who is the True reality. He can then choose which lense to use in his choice on life. He can choose to see a concealment of G-d, or he can choose to see G-d in the concealment itself. And when he chooses to see how the concealment is in G-ds intention, he can bring G-dliness into the physical world itself, thus fulfilling the second part of the verse '... and you should choose life'.

May we merit to greet Moshiach with the True and Complete Redemption, at which time it states 'The world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d, as the water covers the sea' and 'man will not have to teach man, since all will know' Etc., and may it be now!

We can help to bring it a reality through adding in Torah and Mitzvos, as well as learning about the times of Moshiach an Redemption in Torah, and helping others in the same way. And through living with the happiness of knowing that G-d wants to bring the Geulah (Redemption,) one can ask of HaShem that he too wishes for this, and this will hasten and bring it a reality immediately, as RaMBaM says- one should always view the world as half in merit and half on the opposite, and through one good deed, he can decide a good fate for himself, and 'push' the scale for the entire world towards good, and bring a salvation to the world.

May we hear good news,
Meir (rebbesmessage@yahoo.com)

 
At 6:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Every teenage putz with a computer who spent a year in a gemorah shiur thinks they know it all, don't they.

Chazal did describe the measure of chutspah at the end of days and they sure got that one right.

 
At 2:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the earth were still, that would mean the whole universe is spinning around it right?

That would mean almost everything int he universe would be traveling faster than the speed of light, which is immpossible.

However, since every speck of space and time were at the creation, everywhere is the center. So if you weant to single out earth, so be it. Its a non-scientific question.

However, we DO knwo the earths speed relative tot he "cosmic background reference frame", and we are NOT in the center of that.

 

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