This essay will examine the Sages’ knowledge of the Earth and the heavenly hosts to remove any illusion in the believers’ hearts that Chazal received these matters by tradition or were graced by Divine inspiration and so their words are “as nails stuck fast forever.”
Rabbi Saadiah Gaon (b. Egypt 882) wrote a book called Beliefs and Views. In his introduction he writes: “And if they tell you, ‘How shall we discuss the issue of knowledge and fine details which we believe based on the calculations, their being understood and accepted, while the people push aside this work to the extent that they say the discussion leads to apostasy and heresy?’ This is only so for the ignorant; the ignorant of this city think that any who travel to India become wealthy…and much more it would be best not to speak of…but we, the congregation of Israel, investigate and take an interest.”
According to Rabbi Saadiah Gaon, all who fear investigation and examination are ignoramuses who make up bogeymen of their own imagination. Therefore anyone with an ember of the Divine image still burning in his body and soul must prepare for a penetrating and fearless discussion. This introduction has been written for all the ignoramuses who use the crown of the rabbinate to forbid reading what Daat Emet publishes, claiming it leads to apostasy.
Before we begin with the Sages’ knowledge of astronomy, we will present you the reader with what we now know [we thank Shachar Dolev]: We live on the planet Earth, a planet whose diameter is 12,756 km and whose circumference at the equator is 40,102 km. The planet’s surface area is mostly covered with water (oceans) and less than a third is dry land. The dry area is divided into six continents: Europe, Asia, Africa, America, Australia, and the Antarctic continent, each of which has a complex and decidedly not round shape. In any case, there is no ocean “without end” since in whatever direction you sail you will in the end reach dry land.
At a distance of some 384,000 km the moon winds on its way. It, too, is of spherical form and its diameter is 3,476 km. The moon does not shine on its own; it reflects the sunlight. The planet Earth (and with it the moon) orbits the sun. Each orbit takes an (astronomical) year. The sun is a ball of gases, mostly hydrogen and helium, with a diameter of some 1,400,000 km. It radiates heat which occurs as a nuclear reaction (like an atomic explosion) and not as a burning. Our great distance from the sun (some 149,000,000 km) protects us from the great heat. The planet Earth also revolves on its axis like a spinning top. Each revolution takes a day. To us on the planet it looks as though the sun and the whole “dome” of the sky turn around us. In addition to the planet Earth (and the moon), another eight planets orbit the sun: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. Some of these bodies are smaller than Earth (like Mars) and some are very large (Jupiter is eleven times larger), but none of them shine on their own; they reflect the light of the sun. The system of sun and planets is called the solar system.
There are some 6,000 stars visible to the naked eye in the dome of the heavens. (Using a telescope tens of thousands more can be seen.) Each star is a body like the sun. Our distance from the closest of the stars is 13,760,000,000,000 km. Though it gives off almost twice as much light as our sun, it is seen as a point of light in the night skies because of its vast distance. The rest of the stars are even farther off. The great distance does not allow us to know its actual size, but since it is twice as bright as the sun, it is probably also twice as large. There are stars which are ten times as large as our sun.
Because of our limited grasp of distances, it seems to us humans that the stars are equally distant from us and therefore they form a sort of dome over our heads.
This is the reason the early ones created the term “sphere of the zodiacs,” for they mistakenly combined stars (suns light years distant from each other) into groupings they called the zodiac.
This knowledge of the universe and the heavenly bodies was not gathered in a single day; it was gathered over the course of many centuries. Some important milestones in this process, to help the reader understand the opinions of our rabbis: Around the year 500 BCE the accepted view was that the Earth is like a round, shallow plate. In its center is the dry land and around it is the great sea. All items are comprised of four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. Each element has a natural place: earth, for example, is below and fire above. Stones contain a great deal of the element earth, and so tend to be downward. A hundred years later the Greeks were already describing the earth as a sphere. Around the Earth are spheres of crystal wrapped around each other; it is impossible to move from sphere to sphere for there is a very real partition between them. The planets are “planted” in the crystal spheres (including the sun, the moon, and the five planets). The final sphere includes the stationary stars. Thus, the relative motion of these spheres causes the change from day to night (the sun’s sphere), the movement of the stars and the orbit of the zodiac’s sphere (the sphere of the stationary stars). The heavenly spheres are perfect and composed of the fifth element–ether. The Greek philosopher Aristotle even added that the air which surrounds the earth (the atmosphere) is surrounded by other spheres of pure elements: the earth (earth vapors), water, air, and fire, and around them are the crystal spheres of the planets. This theory held for nearly two thousand years, and was even warmly adopted by the Christian church. It was only in the 16th century that new ideas began competing with this description. Copernicus suggested that the sun is the center of the universe and the earth orbits it. Tycho Brahe (one of the greatest astronomers, born in 1546 in Denmark) saw a comet and calculated its orbit out to the edge of the spheres–proving that they are not real, as had been thought. A hundred years later Newton formulated his mechanical laws and succeeded in describing with great precision the movement of the planets as we now know them.
Now let us look at Chazal’s knowledge:
According to Chazal, the world looks so: the dry land is surrounded by ocean, and at the edge of the water the dome of the sky begins.
Minor tractates, tractate Derech Eretz 7:38: “Abba Chanan said, quoting Shmuel HaKatan, ‘This world resembles a man’s eye. The white is the ocean which encircles the whole world. The black is the settled land’.”
In the Jerusalem Talmud, tractate Avodah Zarah 3:42c: “R’ Jonah said, ‘When Alexander of Macedon ascended above he saw the world as a ball and the ocean as a bowl [surrounding the earth]’.”
Similarly, in the Zohar volume 3 (Numbers), portion of Shelach Lecha 161b: “Come see. When the holy One, blessed be He, created the world, he placed the ocean surrounding all the inhabited earth” (Sulam translation).
Even the Mishnah Berurah [Rabbi Yisrael Meir of Radin, c. 20th cen.] explained why we bless on the ocean and not on the Mediterranean (228:2): “It is on the ocean, the greatest of all seas, encompassing the whole world, on which they set a blessing to be said, due to its size. But the sea which one crosses to get to the land of Israel is not, for this purpose, called a great sea, and a blessing is made upon it only as on all other seas.”
In Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer chapter three it is written, “The waters of the ocean stand between the edges of heaven and earth. The edges of heaven are spread upon the waters of the ocean, as is written, ‘He sets the rafters of His lofts in the waters'” (Psalms 104:3).
It is clear that according to the Sages the dome of the heavens touches the earth.
Length of the earth and the distance between the heavens and earth
The distance between the eastern and western edges of the earth is as the distance between the earth and the dome of the heavens, as is clear from the Sages’ answer to Alexander of Macedon (356-323 BCE): “Alexander of Macedon asked ten things of the sages of the south. He said to them, ‘Are the heavens further from the earth or the east from the west?’ They said to him, ‘From east to west. You should know: when the sun is in the east, all look at it [and are not blinded]. When the sun is in the west, all look at it. But when the sun is in the middle of the sky, they do not look at it [because of the radiance–this is because it is closer to the earth when it is at the height of the heavens than when it is at the eastern or western edge].’ The Sages say, ‘The two are equal, as it is written (Psalms 103:11-12), “For as the heavens are high above the earth…as east is far from west.” If they were differing distances the Scripture should have described the mercy of the Heavens using the further distance, so you are forced to conclude that the distances are equal, and that the reason one can look at the sun at sunrise and sunset is that the hills and mountains which are in the path of the sun shade it; this is not so when the sun is at the top of the sky. Though the distances are equal, there is no way to look at it because there is nothing blocking it'” (Tamid 32a).
The distance between the eastern edge of the earth and the western and between the earth and the dome of the heavens is the distance it would take a man 500 years to walk. “[The distance] between earth and the sky is the distance of 500 years” (Pesachim 94a). [Chazal measured this distance based on the units of time it took the average man to walk it, at the rate of 40 km per 24 hours. Pesachim 94a: “How much does an average person walk in a day? Ten parsaot (40 km).”] According to this calculation the distance is 365x500x40=7,300,000 km. Rava had a different opinion: “The world is 6000parsaot [24,000 km].”
(We will cite here as a sidebar Ibn Ezra’s puzzlement. Those who built the Tower of Babel planned to build a tower to the heavens. “Come, let us build a city and a tower with its top in the sky” [Genesis 11:4]. In midrash Bereshit Rabba [Vilna ed.], parasha 38, they commented: “And to the Lord our G d. They said, ‘We do not accept that he took the heavens as His own and gave us the lower realms. Let is make a tower and place an idol at its top with a sword in its hand so it looks as though it is battling the heavens’.” Ibn Ezra had a different opinion–in his commentary on Genesis 11:5 [Shitah Acheret]: “It was explained [by the Sages] that they wanted to fight G d. Possibly a spirit of folly came over them. According to what is said, the distance between heavens and earth is the distance it would take 500 years to walk. Were the top of the tower close to the heavens, how would they get the clay up there? The tower would not be completed in a thousand thousand thousand years, in innumerable years, and it would need to be incredibly wide. Also, one who goes up on the high mountain in the land of the Romans, if he does not bring water up with him to continually place in his mouth, he will die of thirst. How can a man reach the top of the sphere of air or the sphere of fire, and both these are under the heavens? How can the matter say to its creator, ‘What will you do?’ How can a man fight his creator and remain alive?”)
According to Chazal, how many heavens are there?
“Rabbi Judah said: There are two heavens, as is written (Deuteronomy 10:14), “The heavens and heavens of heavens belong to the Lord your G d.”
Reish Lakish said: Seven, and they are vilon, rakia, shechakim, z’vul, maon, machon, aravot.
Vilon does nothing at all. It comes in with the morning and goes out with the evening, and each day renews the act of creation, as is said (Isaiah 40:22): “Who spread out the skies like gauze, stretched them out like a tent to dwell in.”
Rakia in which the sun and moon, the stars and constellations are set, as is said (Genesis 1:17) “And G d set them in the expanse of the sky,” and as written in the Zohar (Introduction, 8b): “The rakia, in which are the sun, the moon, the stars, and the zodiac.”
Shechakim in which millstones stand and grind manna for the righteous…
Z’vul in which are Jerusalem, the Holy Temple and the altar, and the great minister Michael brings sacrifices upon it….
Maon in which are the groups of heavenly hosts who sing praises by night and mind the honor of Israel by day…
Machon in which are the stores of snow and hail, mists and the dew, the storm, and the steam-cave; their doors are fire…
Aravot in which are justice, law, and charity, the storehouses of life, peace, and blessing, the souls of the righteous, the spirits and souls which are yet to be created and the dew with which the holy One, blessed be He, will revive the dead…and the throne of glory…and the high and mighty king rests upon them…” (Chagiga 12b). [See our essay The Body of G d]
In Pesachim (94a) the thickness of the heavens and the spaces between them are discussed: “R’ Yochanan the son of Zakkai said: from the earth to heaven is the distance of 500 years, and the thickness of heaven is the distance of 500 years. Between each of the heavens is the distance of 500 years.” [Rashi wrote: “The world is the distance of 500 years wide. Go figure the 10 parsaot (which a person walks) in a day and you will reach several thousand”–which is 7,300,000 km.]
There are practical halachic implications to the Sages’ claim that there are seven heavens:
The Mishnah Berurah explains why we say the verse “The Lord is G d” seven times during the Neilah prayer of Yom Kippur: “The reason is to escort the Schechinah upwards through the seven heavens” (Mishnah Berurah 726:11).
They also determined the number of coils in a bundle of tzitzit, based on the number of heavens (Menachot 39a): “How many coils are there (in tzitzit)?…The least should not be less than seven, and the most no more than 13. The least should not be less than seven–for the seven heavens. The most should not be more than 13, for the seven heavens and the six spaces between them.”
The course of the sun according to Chazal: The sun is in the second heaven, with all the other stars. In Pesikta d’Rav Kahana (Mandelboim ed.), appendix to parasha two: “R’ Yannai and Reish Lakish said: ‘Here a day comes, burning as an oven’ (Malachi 3:19). G d was greatly merciful with us in this world, for he did not place the sun in the heaven which we see…This tells you that the holy One blessed be He placed it in the second heaven. Why the second? For if it were placed in the heaven which we see the sun would be so hot it would burn all creation. Therefore it was placed in the second heaven.” Thus wrote Rashi on Psalms 19:7, “Nothing escapes his heat–were it placed in the lower heaven no man would be hidden from its heat; the sun and the moon are in the second heaven.”
So, too, is it with the course of its rising and setting (Pesachim 94b): “The sages of Israel say, ‘During the day the sun travels beneath the heaven and at night above the heaven.” In tractate Bava Batra 25a, R’ Eliezer and R’ Joshua disagree about its precise course: “R’ Eliezer said the world is like a porch [with three walls and with no wall on its northern side]. The north wind does not turn [the sun does not pass through the northern side of the world] and when the sun reaches the northwest corner it bends and rises above the heaven [and continues its orbit eastward in the heaven]. R’ Joshua said the world is like a cube [closed on all sides] and the north wind turns. When the sun reaches the northwest corner it circles and comes back behind the dome [above the top of the heaven which prevents the rays of the sun from reaching the earth at night].”
The sun passes through the thickness of the heavens through windows prepared for it: “Three hundred and sixty five windows did the holy One, blessed be He, create in the heavens. One hundred eighty three are in the east and one hundred eighty two are in the west. Some were created for the sun and some for the moon” (Shemot Rabbah [Vilna], parasha 15). Similarly in the Jerusalem Talmud, tractate Rosh Hashanah 2:58a, “Three hundred and sixty five windows did the holy One, blessed be He, create to serve the world. One hundred eighty two are in the east and one hundred eighty two are in the west. One is in the center of the heaven, from which issued the start of the Creation” (see pamphlet 4).
Come see how, up to this very day, religious Jews act as though science has not advanced. Chazal in Pesachim 94b bring the opinion of the gentile sages, stating that the sun at night is below the ground and not above the heaven. Rabbi brings proof for the opinion of the gentile sages:
“Rabbi said: Their words seem more correct than ours, for during the day the springs are cool and at night they boil (when the sun warms them beneath the ground–Rashi). Rabbi Nathan said: During the summer the sun travels the height of the heaven, and therefore the whole world is warm while the springs are cool. During the winter the sun travels at the edges of the heavens and therefore the whole world is cool and the springs boil.”
From this mistaken view of reality Chazal made a Halachic ruling: “Rav Judah said: A woman should not knead [dough meant for Passover matzoh] except with waters which have rested” [cool, and not hot, so they must be drawn from the springs and left to rest in a vessel until they cool–Pesachim 42a]. The Rosh wrote on tractate Pesachim 2:30: “Rav Judah said: A woman should not knead except with waters which have rested. Rashi says this is because during the month of Nisan the springs are warm, for it is still the rainy season and the sun travels at the edges of the heavens. Therefore you fill [the vessel] at night and let it cool until the next day. Rabbi Avi HaEzri wrote that if this is the reason, then when one draws [the water] in the morning and leaves it to rest until evening, it is permitted; and it can be said that this is what they did in Papuniya [see Pesachim 42a]. And they may also draw from the rivers. But Rabbi Eliezer of Metz explained the reason as being that the sun travels at night beneath the earth, as the gentile sages said, and it says further (94b) that their words are more correct than ours. Therefore there is no choice but that [the water], at night, be separated, and therefore water drawn at the start of night is permitted immediately, but it is forbidden to draw after the start of night. It was a worthy custom of the early ones who would draw from the river at the start of the night of the 14th, for the springs and wells were warm, but not the rivers, as written in the section of He Who Was Impure (ibid.): the sun follows four courses–in Nisan, Iyar, and Sivan it travels in the mountains, etc. Therefore in Nisan it does not travel in water.”
Thus ruled the Mishnah Berurah, who lived in the twentieth century, completely ignoring what was known: Mishnah Berurah 455:2: “But water which has rested overnight–in a vessel after being drawn. The reason is as Rashi wrote in the Gemara, that the springs during the month of Nisan are warm, for the sun then travels at the edges of the heavens, close to the earth, and warms the springs. There are those who say that it is because the sun travels under the earth at night and warms the springs, and therefore the sages forbade using water for making dough immediately after it was drawn from the earth [it is considered warm water with which it is forbidden to knead, see section three] until it stays in a vessel and cools off.”
The most interesting answer, amusing to any reasonable person, is the Ben Ish Chai’s answer in his book Ben Yehoyada on Pesachim, as quoted in the HaModia newspaper of 14 Iyar 5759 by Rabbi Dov Landau as an answer to Daat Emet questions: “What the Jewish sages said, ‘during the day the sun travels below the firmament and at night above the firmament’ does not speak of the body of the sun but of its spiritual power.” Amazing–the sun is below the heaven, but its spiritual power is above the heaven. There’s no end to the nonsense.
The idea of the vilon, the first heaven, is not clear enough above. According to Rashi the vilon comes out in the evening and separates off the sun. His words are puzzling, for if so, how do we see the stars at night, though they, too, are in the second heaven? The Tosafot asked about this, but their idea of the vilon as that which causes the shining is just as puzzling, for it is the sun which shines and not the vilon–a question raised by the author of the Turei Even.
It seems that according to Chazal the vilon really does not serve any purpose and is transparent. Its function is to come in and go out with no real purpose. But the Gemara in Berachot (58b) implies otherwise: “Rav Huna quoted Rav Joshua as saying the vilon is ripped and as it moves the light of heaven is seen through it.” Rashi explains that the vilon is ripped and through these rips the light is seen.
Moving planets–According to the definition of the Encyclopedia Hebraica (entry kochvei lechet), planets are “solid heavenly bodies which orbit stationary stars…specifically, the name is given to the solid bodies which orbit the sun.” Based on this definition you immediately understand that Earth is a moving planet, for it orbits the sun. You also see that the sun is a stationary star and not a planet.
Chazal, who thought that Earth was the center of the world and that the sun and stars circled it, ruled that the sun is a moving planet, and of course Earth was not considered to be such: “All stars serve the seven main stars, namely Sun, Venus, Mercury, Moon, Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars” (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer chapter five).
So, too, in the Zohar volume three (Deuteronomy) on the portion of Haazinu, folio 287a: “There are seven heavens, as we have learned: vilon, rakia, shechakim, z’vul, maon, machon, aravot…there are seven stars: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury, and Moon.”
In Chazal’s opinion, as we have seen above, the moving planets are also found in the second heaven.
The Zodiac–According to Chazal, the zodiac is also found in the second heaven, along with the sun, the moon, and the other stars. Rashi wrote, on Tractate Rosh Hashanah 11b: “The sphere of the sun is round. Half of it is above the heaven and half below. Twelve zodiac signs are fixed in it and this is their sequence: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces….Six are placed below and six above, and when the sphere turns one rises on this side and its opposite sinks on that. Each sign always rises for two hours and the one opposite sets, so they all serve over the 24 hours of the day. In Nisan Aries begins to rise in the morning light.” [According to this, the stars are fixed in the sphere and the sphere moves.]
The Maharsha, in Chiddushei Agaddah, wondered about what is written in tractate Chagigah 12b: The heaven in which the sun and moon are fixed…this is not in accordance with the astronomers, who say that the sun and moon are not fixed in one sphere; there is a separate firmament for each star [one for the sun, one for Jupiter, etc.].
This is the way the zodiac moves:
Our rabbis say: “This is what the sages of Israel said, ‘The sphere is set and the zodiac moves.’ The gentile sages said, ‘The sphere moves and the zodiac is fixed.’ Rabbi said, ‘As counter to their words–we never find Ursa Major in the south nor Scorpio in the north. [For some reason Rabbi thought the sphere moved south to north.] About this did Rav Acha the son of Jacob ask him, ‘Perhaps the sphere moves east to west and that is why you never see Ursa Major in the south?'” Indeed, Rabbi’s words are very difficult to understand. (Pesachim 94b).
The size of the stars in the skies–Chazal thought something very odd, that the stars were the size of Earth or, as they put it, the size of the inhabited area. They brought as proof of their words the observation that when walking from place to place a star will still appear to be at the same angle. They did not consider that the great distance is what causes the angle of the star to remain constant though a man walks from east to west.
To make the Gemara’s words comprehensible to the reader we will briefly introduce them: According to Rava the length of the world (Earth, the inhabited area) is 6,000 parsah (24,000 km), and the Gemara asks about this: “Rabbi Nathan said: The whole inhabited area sits under a single star. This you should know, because a man fixes his eye on a specific star and walks east–the star is before him. If he walks in any direction–it is before him. Therefore the whole inhabited area is under a single star! So, there is a problem [with Rava’s view]” (Pesachim 94a). Rashi explains: “The whole area inhabited–by people. ‘Is under a single star–and how many stars are there in the heaven? An uncountable number. If one star supports the whole inhabited area and we know that the inhabited area is more than 1,000 parsah, how many stars are there in the heavens, each with its own inhabited area, seas and rivers and deserts? There may be only six stars, for the world is 6,000 parsah. Yet, there are many more; indeed, more than 6000 stars for every parsah. If one walks to the east–at the end of the world, after many years, he will still see [the star] in the same position as when he saw it when he stood in the west. If it did not cover the whole inhabited area, if he saw it over his head when he was in the west, he would not see it over his head when he was in the east, he would see it at an angle, as he has moved below it.” So, to know the length of the world one must count the stars in the sky and multiply them by 1,000 parsah. These words are strange and it is now difficult to comprehend how the Sages made their calculations.
The Tosafot questioned this odd Talmudic statement, for it contradicts another which says that “the whole world is one third water, one third desert, and one third inhabited.” According to Chazal, the whole inhabited area is under one star, so there should only have been three stars in the heavens. They gave several answers, and from them you can see how ridiculous and absurd things get: that the ocean is not included in the waters, its area is very great, and there are many stars above it. Or that Chazal’s words relate only to stars in the zodiac, while the other stars are all very small. They also asked: If the inhabited area is the distance of 500 years (7,300,000 km) and each star is the size of the inhabited area, how can the skies hold so many stars? They answered, along with the answers already cited, that the dome of the heavens is large and has enough space for many large stars, but they still wondered how the midrash could say that one star has its head at the earth. If it is the size of the inhabited area, how can it come out for the inhabited area?
(For those who are interested, we will directly quote the Tosfot (Chagiga 12a): “From one end of the world to the other–the distance of 500 years (see above, 13). As it is said [of one of God’s names], Shaddai–he who said ‘Enough.’ He did not expand the world any more, for He said ‘I am the Lord of sufficiency, who reproduces and multiplies. I am the one who said the world was enough.’ Do you wonder why it is 500 years, no more and no less? It may be said that this comes from ‘Shaddai.’ The word comprises three letters, shin, daled, yud. If you take the yud-nun, lamed-taf, and vav-daled left of those letters after forming the word Shaddai, it equals 500. I have heard this from R’ Menachem the son of R’ Azriel, see the section on He Who Became Impure (Pesachim 94, ibid.) The whole world is under a single star. Then where are all the stars we see in the skies? Some say they are above the ocean, as stated in Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, that the measurement includes only all the other waters, but the ocean’s measure is known only to its Creator. Yet in a different midrash we find that the “one third water” which the world comprises is the ocean; and this is what Rabbi Binyamin wrote in his yotzer prayer: “This is the sea, a third of His world, one hundred and sixty and six and more is its measure.” So, this midrash contradicts what is said in Pesachim. Still, it may be said that [in Pesachim] it speaks only of the zodiac signs in the sphere, while the rest of the stars are small. It seems to me that all the midrashim can be reconciled, for [the stars] are all placed in the dome of the sky and it would be much bigger than the earth were [its layers] stretched out one besides the other according to the boundaries of the land. Come look–a tent stretched is a type of tall dome, but were it lying on the ground it would be in folds. As is written in the story of Sisera (Judges 5) the stars fought from their orbits in the heavens, see Rashi’s explanation. It is also written in the midrash that the measure of the star is 500 years, as from the heaven to the earth, for one end is in the firmament and the other is in the ground. Then how can [other stars] shine on the world, it all being beneath one star? It should be said that they share their light, or that there is a difference between the constellations of the heavenly sphere and other ones.”)
K’sil–Ash–Kimah–It is difficult to figure out how much the sages of the Talmud knew of these constellations. This is what the author of the Chavat Yair answered when asked about Rashi’s puzzling statement in Berachot 58b: “Scorpio is the Pleiades and is part of the constellation of Aries…We do not know what Scorpio has to do with Aries, as they are nearly as far apart as east is from west…” This is his answer (Chavot Yair 219): “These are the limits of my ponderings, a mountain out of a molehill. Therefore do not continue to question and demand this wisdom of me, for I tried to pursue it but saw that it takes much effort and brings little fruit–so I left it, and you do the same, turning instead to the body of the Torah.”
These are the words of the Tosfot (Bava Metzia 106b): “Rashi explained that the Kimah are the tail of Aries, as said in Berachot (58), but he was not accurate. The Great Bear is the tail of Aries and the Pleiades are close to it.”
According to Ibn Ezra (Job 38:31), “The early ones said that Kimah are seven small stars at the end of Aries, and they appear to be six. It seems to me that it is one large star which is the left eye of Taurus.”
We find it appropriate to copy the words of Encyclopedia Hebraica, entryastronomia (pp. 808-809) so the reader will see the confusion and will not say the sages’ words came from the Divine Spirit or astronomical knowledge which they had, superior to the gentile sages’. “The constellation of k’sil, according to early Biblical commentators (R’ Saadiah Gaon, R’ Yonah Ibn Janach, and others) was Canopus, but according to the Septuagint, the Vulgate, and most of the newer commentators, k’sil is Orion…Kimah, according to most early Biblical commentators as well as most modern commentaries, are the Pleiades…R’ Ibn Ezra opposes this accepted interpretation and identifies Kimah with Aldebaran. The Vulgate in two places translates the name Kimah as Arcutaurus. Some of the new commentaries think Kimah is Sirius. From Shmuel’s words (Berachot 58b) it would seem he identified the Scriptural Kimah as the zodiac constellation Scorpio [see what we have written above, that Rashi added Scorpio to Aries].Ash…According to Rav Judah the son of Ezekiel, ash is the constellation calledyuta in Aramaic, and the Talmud (Berachot 58b) notes that there are those who say yuta is in the tail of Aries, and some say at the head of Taurus…It is reasonable to suppose that the tail of Aries is the Pleiades, located below the tail of Areis, while the head of Taurus is the Hyades …The Septuagint translates ash and ayish as the evening star, Venus…some sages, including R’ Abraham Bar Chiya the Nasi, and in their wake several modern Scriptural commentators, think ash and its children to be Ursa Major and Minor, called in Arabic binat na’ash–the women standing by a deathbed, who mourn the deceased and keen.”
Since Chazal erred in their knowledge of the stars and spheres, Maimonides wrote in Moreh Nevuchim part three, chapter 14: “Do not ask me to reconcile [the Sages’] astronomical sayings with how things really are, for scholarship was then lacking and they spoke not from tradition received from the prophets, but from the knowledge of scholars of their own generation or what they had heard from the scholars of their generation. This is not a reason for me to say, upon finding their sayings which are true, that they are indeed untrue or came out to be true through coincidence. Still, as long as one can interpret a person’s words in a way that agrees with demonstrable reality, this is the better way for the exalted man who admits to the truth and upholds it.”
Now we will bring the opinion of the astronomer rabbis–Maimonides, Ibn Ezra, and Abraham bar Chiyah the Nasi–whose opinions are different from the Talmud’s as you can see for yourself:
According to Maimonides in Laws of the Fundamentals of the Torah, chapter three halacha one:
“The spheres are called sky and rakia and z’vul and aravot, and there are nine spheres. The closest of them is the moon’s sphere, and the one above it is that of Mercury, the third above that contains Venus [in Moreh Nevuchim, part two, chapter nine Maimonides writes: “Know that there is controversy amongst the early scholars whether the spheres of Venus and Mercury are above or below the sun”], the fourth the sun, the fifth Mars, the sixth sphere containsJupiter, the seventh Saturn, the eighth contains all the other stars seen in the skies [the sphere of constellations], and the ninth sphere is the sphere which turns each day from east to west, which encompasses and circles everything. You see all the stars as though they were all in one sphere though they are really one above the other because the spheres are pure and clear as glass and sapphire. Therefore the stars in the eighth sphere appear to be below the first sphere.”
Thus is it written in Moreh Nevuchim part one, chapter 7, “To use an analogy, just as Reuben is one man made up of various organs, flesh, bones, and sinews, from salts and spirits, so is the entire universe comprised of the spheres and the four essences and what is composed from them. There is no vacuum at all, just a solid entity whose center point is Earth. The waters surround the earth and the air surrounds the waters. Fire surrounds the air and the fifth essence surrounds the fire. They are many spheres, one inside the other. There is no empty space between them nor any emptiness at all. Their circumferences touch each other and all orbit uniformly. There is no difference in speed between them nor any tardiness; no sphere will once go faster and once go slower. Each adheres to its own nature in speed and manner of movement, but some go faster and some go slower. The fastest of all is the sphere which encircles everything…Those bodies, the spheres, are alive, with souls to move them.”
Ibn Ezra’s opinion in Exodus (long commentary) 20:14 is similar:
“One of the generation’s sages said that the nine spheres stand for the nine numbers which are the foundation of each number, and so, too, the nine commandments (of the Ten Commandments). The first commandment is not one of the nine, for it represents the honor of G d who speaks; he is the one in the number ten. The second commandment, ‘You shall not have,’ is for thehighest sphere, the one which leads all other spheres in a mirror of its movements, from east to west, over the course of 24 hours. It concerns [the prohibition on] worship of other gods, to show that it is G d’s power which makes the spheres move. Many think that it is the Creator, for it has no corporeal form. The third commandment, ‘Do not bear,’ represents the zodiac sphere in which all the heavenly host aside from those in the seven spheres reside. The distinguished object which circles all others and their forms, represented by the fourth commandment, the commandment of the Sabbath, is the sphere of Saturn, for the experimenting scholars say that each of the heavenly servants has its own day of the week in which its strength is manifest…The fifth commandment, ‘Honor,’ represents the sphere of Jupiter, which points to peace and justice and mercy, rewards, and honors those to whom honor is owed. The sixth commandment, ‘You shall not murder,’ represents the sphere of Mars, which points to bloodshed and wounding. There is disagreement amongst scholars of the zodiac whether Venus is above the sun or below it. Indian sages have brought proof that Venus is above. The seventh commandment, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ represents the sphere of Venus, which points to sexual relations and licentiousness. The eighth commandment, ‘You shall not steal,’ represents the sun’s sphere, which points to force, and which conceals all secondary powers which join it, for it does not allow their light to shine forth. The ninth commandment, ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ represents the sphere of Mercury, which points to language, and the tenth commandment, ‘You shall not covet,’ represents the moon’s sphere, for it is lower than all other spheres and points to lust.”
In a similar vein wrote Rabbi Abraham the son of Chiya the Nasi (start of the 12th century, Barcelona; he believed in the influence of stars on man’s destiny–Encyclopedia Hebraica, entry Avraham bar Chiya) in his book The Form of the Earth and of the Spheres of Heaven and the Order of their Stars’ Paths, second section:
“Know that the great philosophers who investigate the fundamentals of the creation of the heavens and of all that exists in the world said that there are nine spheres. Seven are for the moving planets, the eighth is the sphere of the zodiacs and the stationary planets, and the ninth encompasses everything…this is the opinion of the philosophers, though there are some who say there are ten spheres…The sages of astronomy did not speak of the ninth sphere…for they had no proof of it from visual observance…they count eight spheres in the heavens, the highest of them being the sphere of the zodiac, which circles all other spheres.”
One who looks at his book will see that all his words are taken from Greek and Arab scholars. He does not mention Chazal’s opinion at all. The wise person will understand.
Rabbi Alashkar, who noticed the difference between Maimonides’ opinion and that of the sages of the Talmud about the course of the sun–which has practical implication for the times of day and night and the start and end of the Sabbath (see pamphlet 4) wrote (Responsa of Rabbi Alshakar section 96): “Though the other commentators OBM, the authors OBM, Maimonides OBM in chapter eight of the second part of Moreh, and the Geonim OBM think, as do the gentile sages, that the sphere orbits and the constellations are fixed, that the sun travels beneath the earth at night and based on this that there is no need to travel the thickness of the firmament nor to be opposite the opening [as the sages of the Talmud thought], for the sphere is that which sets beneath the horizon and there is only one setting: the sun sinks slowly beneath the horizon until it fully enters and disappears from sight.”
Some of our rabbis the Achronim made no distinction between the sages of the Talmud and Maimonides’ opinion; they asked questions and remained in great confusion (Responsa Chavat Yair section 219). “We must discuss how, if the sun is above in its sphere, we see the light of the stars in the eighth sphere. If during the day we do not see them because of the light of day, how do we see them at night? Is not the sun in its sphere below them? Its light should shine through its sphere, for the spheres are all transparent, and that is why the stars shine through seven spheres.”
He did not notice that according to the sages of the Talmud the stars are in the second sphere, as we have clarified above, along with the sun, and that the spheres are not transparent, which is why the sun’s light does not show fully.
To conclude this section we will show you, the wise student, how our rabbis settle the contradictions which have been found. They try as hard as they can to find a settlement, until it reaches ludicrousness and absurdity.
This is how the Chatam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Sofer, b. Frankfurt, 1762-1839) settled the contradiction between the Talmudic Sages and Maimonides on the issue of the length of the world. According to Chazal it would take 500 years to walk it, making it 7,300,000 kilometers, and according to Maimonides it is 24,000 kilometers.
Responsa Chatam Sofer, collection of answers section 91:
“Answer: The words of Chazal on this and matters like this, which we cannot grasp, are more precise and deep than any of the ways of the philosophers. But so that one who doubts will not say “you have excused me,” I will show you something wonderful, and from there you will learn not to doubt, G-d forbid…It is known that the width of the sphere is 360 degrees, and since the sphere is round and the volume filled, and the diameter is equal on all sides, it comprises 360 parts or degrees on any side you choose…now make a calculation. If the circumference of the Earth is 24,000 mil…you would need 600 days in a direction to circumnavigate the [planet Earth] one time. When we have done so 360 times, we will need to multiply the 360 times by 600 days, and we’ll get 216,000 days to encircle the world and properly know its comings and goings….It is more than 500 years by 33,500 days, which is 89 years and 15 days. According to our calculation it takes 589 years and 15 days to encircle the world, so we must say one of three things: either when Chazal said 500 years they meant 500-odd years, dropping the 89 years and 15 days since they weren’t a full 100 years. This seems objectionable, since 89 years is a large enough number and close to 100. Or we could say that their calculation is more precise than that of the philosophers; Maimonides wrote that it is 24,000 milwhile they (Chazal) were more precise and perhaps it is only 20,000-odd mil, and they are more trustworthy. Or we could say that Chazal didn’t mean the calculation I have given at all, that they were speaking of another calculation which we do not know…All of Chazal’s words are upheld and stable.”
This is how our contemporary rabbis answer Daat Emet’s questions:
First they state that the words of Chazal are beyond their grasp.
Then they make things up and tie Chazal’s words to things they never said: “The circumference noted is for the 360 degrees which divide the circle.”
If matters still are not settled, they explain that Chazal were not precise or that scientists erred, or that there is another explanation of Chazal’s understanding. They then conclude with words of praise and encouragement “All of Chazal’s words are upheld and stable.”
All who see will smile and all who hear will grin about how our rabbis twist and turn instead of admitting they erred.
The influence of the stars on our world
Our rabbis treated the stars, the constellations, and even the spheres themselves as independently conscious and the possessors of souls, as Maimonides wrote in Laws of the Fundamentals of Torah, chapter three, halacha nine: “All the stars and constellations possess souls, knowledge, and intelligence. They live and are aware of Him who spoke and the world came into being. Each according to its size and merit praises and glorifies its creator as do the angels. As they are aware of the holy One, blessed be He, so are they aware of themselves and the angels above them. The knowledge of the stars and the spheres is less than that of the angels and greater than that of man.”
So, too, is it written in Sefer HaIkarim, third essay, chapter four: “The spheres have intelligent souls, as agreed by all the sages.”
Not only do they have souls, they mediate and influence in the relationship between the physical and upper worlds, as Ibn Ezra wrote in Exodus 6:3 (long commentary): “We know that G d created three worlds (Exodus 3:15–the lower world, the middle world, and the upper world) as I have mentioned. The lower world receives power from the middle world [the spheres and the stars], each in accord with the upper world. Since man’s soul is higher than the middle world, if his soul is wise and acknowledges G d’s actions as being without intervention or through a middleman, if he places the desires of the lower world aside and isolates himself to cling to G d, if during the pregnancy the stars predict something evil will occur on a specific day, G d to whom he clung will encircle him and protect him from harm. So, too, if it is shown that a person will be infertile, G d will give him potency and he will have children. Therefore Chazal said that G d told Abraham to free himself of his horoscope. This is close to the idea that the stars do not have sway over Israel…This is the secret of the whole Torah.” Rabbi Joseph Tuv Elem (14th century CE) explained in his book Safnat Paneach (on the portion of Acharei Mot) Ibn Ezra’s opinion of why Jacob married two sisters, despite the explicit prohibition against this in the Torah. “The principle is that the prohibition on these sexual relations is only in the land of Israel because of the portion of the upper world which rules over it, [the planet] Mars, the enemy of [the planet] Venus which rules over pleasure and sexual relations. Mars hates lechery [and sexual relations within the family]. Also, the sun has sovereignty over the land of Israel and the sun [influences the progress of] the intelligent soul. These things are explicit in his book Reishit Chochma.”
Thus wrote Nachmanides in his explanation of the verse, “G d placed them in the firmament…to rule by day and night” (Genesis 1:18): “Perhaps the sovereignty is through the power of nobility which the leaders of the lower world possess, and through their power all leaders rule. The constellation which rises during the day will rule it, and the one which rises at night will rule that, as is written (Deuteronomy 4:19), ‘of which G d has given to all the nations.’ This is what the Scripture meant (Psalms 147:4) ‘he counts the number of stars and gives names to each,’ and (Isaiah 40:26) ‘each he calls by name.’ Calling them by name divides their power. This one has the power of justice and honesty, this one the power of blood and the sword, and so it is for all the powers, as is known in astrology, and all is through the highest power and His will.”
Since the stars and the zodiac influence our lower world, Maimonides wrote in Laws of Idolatry chapter two, halacha one: “The main point of the commandment about idolatry is not to worship any creation, neither an angel nor a sphere…even if the worshipper knows that G d is the lord but he still worships this creation…do not, in your heart’s thoughts, think to worship them as mediators between you and the Creator.”
According to our rabbis the worship of stars and the zodiac has some substance to it; they do influence the material world, and the worship of stars and the zodiac was forbidden to the Children of Israel so that they would worship G d with no mediation from the world of spheres and stars.
So you can understand Maimonides’ opinion when he wrote that the main point of the commandments is the uprooting of star and sphere worship so that one should believe in G d with no mediator. In early times everyone, including the Jews, believed that the world of stars and the zodiac mediated between G d and man (Moreh Nevuchim part three, chapter 29): “You already know that in many places the Torah said that the primary intention in the entire Torah is to uproot idolatry and erase its memory…For our entire Torah, to whose roots and edges you should turn, means to erase those ideas from hearts and their memory from the world, and to erase them from hearts…This was the first overarching purpose of the Torah, and they, OBM, told us in their commentary on His words: ‘everything the Lord your G d commanded you through Moses.’ They said this teaches that all who embrace idolatry reject the entire Torah, and all who reject idolatry embrace the entire Torah. Understand this.”
Now we will bring proof from the Talmud of the stars’ influence on the lower world, our world:
Shabbat 156a, free translation: A man who is born on Sunday will be greatly righteous or greatly wicked. On Monday, he will be emotional. On Tuesday he will be wealthy and an adulterer, on Wednesday wise, on Thursday charitable, on Friday he will follow the commandments, and on the Sabbath he will be elevated and holy. According to Rabbi Hanina it is not the day of the week which determines, but the hour of birth and which of the seven planets represents it. (See the order of hours in Rashi on Shabbat 129b, s.v. d’kayamalei ma’adim.) One born under Sun will be a person who enjoys his own things only and who cannot keep a confidence. Under Venus he will be wealthy and an adulterer, under Mercury wise, under the moon he will be a successful thief, under Saturn his thoughts will be annulled, under Jupiter he will religiously follow the commandments, under Mars he will draw blood, either as a doctor or a ritual slaughterer, as a murderer or as a ritual circumciser. Rabbi Hanina said: The planets make one wise, the planets make one wealthy. Israel is ruled by the planets, and prayer and charity cannot change one’s destiny. Rabbi Jochanan said: Israel is not ruled by the planets, and prayer and charity can change one’s destiny, as G d answered Abraham’s argument when he looked at his horoscope and saw he would not sire a son: “Jupiter, which is your sign, when it is in the west causes one not to procreate. I will move it to the east so that you can procreate…” (In all opinions the planets bear influence, the only question is whether prayer can change one’s destiny. This is what the Tosafot say in bringing the gemara of Moed Katan 28a: Longevity, childbearing, and income depend on the planets and not on righteousness, for Rava and Rav Chasida were both very righteous; one died at age 92 and the other at 40. About this the Tosafot write, “In the merit of the planets–sometimes they make a difference and sometimes they do not.”)
There was an incident with Samuel and a gentile astrologer who saw a man walking. The astrologer said “This man will go and die after being bitten by a snake.” Samuel answered him, “If he is an Israelite he will live by merit of the commandments.” In the end, they found the man alive and the snake dead, cut in half, because the man fulfilled the commandment of charity…
Another incident happened to Rabbi Akiva. He had a daughter. The astrologers told him that his daughter would die of a snake bite. Rabbi Akiva was very worried, but in the end, due to an act of charity, the snake was found dead by the crown on her head. (In tractate Avodah Zarah 55a it is written: “Zenon said to Rabbi Akiva: My heart and yours know that there is nothing real about idolatry.” It is possible that there is a difference between astrologers, who know something real, and idolaters who heal the sick and bring the rains; see there.)
Another incident: The mother of Rav Nachman the son of Isaac told him that according to the astrologers his son would be a thief. Therefore he must make certain that his son always wore a head covering so that he would always have upon himself the fear of Heaven and not steal. By accident his head covering once fell off and his desires overpowered him; he stole a bunch of dates.
In tractate Shabbat 119a it is said that an astrologer told Yosef Mokir Shabbat that he would get all the money belonging to his rich neighbor. This happened when the neighbor sold all his worldly goods and bought a precious stone. The wind blew the stone into the water, a fish swallowed it, and Yosef bought the fish together with the precious stone.
In Berachot 64a it is written that the sages wished to appoint Rav Yosef as head of the yeshiva. He refused, because astrologers told him that after he served two years he would die.
This is the Zohar’s opinion in Ra’ayah Meheimanah, volume three (Numbers), the portion of Pinchas, folio 216b: “Come see. All the creatures in the world, before the Torah was given to Israel, were dependent on the zodiac, even on matters of children, longevity, and sustenance, but after the Torah was given to Israel they were removed from subjugation to the planets…If he has no intention of fulfilling the commandments, his subjugation to the planets is not repealed, and it certainly is not for the boors, who are likened to animals…Their subjugation to the planets is certainly not repealed” [Sulam translation]. In Shabbat 129b Samuel orders that blood should not be let on Tuesdays, on which the planet Mars is responsible for blood and the sword.
After what we have written you will also understand well the Talmudic saying which emphasizes the great desire and will to worship idols (Sanhedrin 102b): “Rav Ashi said to King Menashe in a dream, ‘If you are so expert in halachot and the exact details of the commandments, why did you worship idols?’ [Menashe] answered him: ‘Had you been there [in Menashe’s generation], you would have tucked up the flaps of your garment and run to worship them.”
These sayings and stories of the Sages contradict Maimonides’ opinion in his Commentary on the Mishnayot, Avodah Zarah chapter four: “The righteous good people of our faith [it would seem he meant the Talmudic sages such as Samuel and Rabbi Akiva] thought that these things possess real power, only [their worship is] forbidden by the Torah; they do not know that these are false, irrelevant things and we have been warned by the Torah not to do them, just as it warns against all falsehood…”
Thus noted the Beit Yosef, based on Maimonides’ opinion, in Yoreh Deah 179:1 (3), s.v. katav haRambam, quoting what he thought to be the opinion of Nachmanides (and see the responsa of the Rashba, attributed to Nachmanides, 283): “From the section mi shehichshich (Shabbat 156a) we learn where we find one is permitted to listen to [astrologers] and believe their words–from Abraham, who said, ‘I looked at my horoscope,’ and from Rabbi Akiva (ibid.).He made certain she did something good, and after she was saved he said it was because of charity that she was literally saved from death. Therefore we see he did believe in it, as we do from the incident of Rav Nachman the son of Isaac (ibid.). But sometimes the holy One, blessed be He, performs miracles for his faithful and repeals the decree of the stars. These are the hidden sort of miracles, which work through the ways of the world, upon which the whole Torah is dependent. Therefore we do not ask about them but follow innocently, as is written (Numbers 18:13), ‘Be innocent with the Lord your G d.’ If one sees something in the stars which does not please him, he should do good deeds and pray a lot, but if his horoscope says a certain day will not be good for his work he should refrain from it; I think that one is forbidden to countermand the planets and rely upon miracles.”
You, wise student, see and understand that the gentile sages in recent centuries revealed to us that there is no difference between Earth and the other planets, that there are no spheres in the skies, that the whole idea of a sphere of the zodiac was invented from whole cloth. In fact, belief that planets have any influence has fallen by the wayside. We do not need commandments to remove idolatry from our hearts and we have already achieved the Torah’s main purpose, uprooting idolatry, through scientific discoveries and truly understanding reality. Understand that we can confirm how things really are only through unprejudiced research and examination.
We will conclude this section with the two great lights, the smaller light and the larger light, who clearly write and say that our ancestors said what they did from their own understanding and that therefore they erred:
The Meiri, in his book Beit HaBechirah (Shabbat 156a), in dealing with the dispute between the sages on whether the planets have any influence over the Jewish people, wrote: “Do not follow the statement which says that the planets have influence over Israel, for once there were sages who were confused by the lack of consistency in people’s rewards and punishments…They only said this upon seeing one who was righteous and wise and still poor and unsuccessful…This shows you that those statements were made only according to what they saw about themselves or others like them who suffered from poverty [despite their righteousness].”
The great philosopher Baruch Spinoza, in his book Theologico-Political Treatise (chapter 2): “Everyone has been strangely hasty in affirming that the prophets knew everything within the scope of human intellect; and, although certain passages of Scripture plainly affirm that the prophets were in certain respects ignorant, such persons would rather say that they do not understand the passages than admit that there was anything which the prophets did not know; or else they try to wrest the Scriptural words away from their evident meaning…If, again, it is permitted to pretend that the passage has another meaning, and was written as it is from some reason unknown to us, this is no less than a complete subversal of the Bible; for every absurd and evil invention of human perversity could thus, without detriment to Scriptural authority, be defended and fostered.”