A clarification of Chazal’s knowledge about Earth’s shape
Although we, Daat Emet, usually refrain from writing about things which have no practical Halachic implications (for our rabbis have already said: “We do not rely upon the words of Aggadah,” as we wrote on the portion ofVayeshev, see there), let us now deviate from our usual practice, because Jewish religious spokesmen, especially outreach people, are wont to wallow in delight about the knowledge preserved in the Talmud and the Zohar (on the book of Leviticus, see below), as though Chazal, in their era, knew correct things about Earth (such as its being spherical) while Gentile wise men of that period didn’t know this at all. From here, they say, we have a proof that Chazal and the author of the Zohar were inspired by the Shechinah or the Divine Spirit, who revealed secrets about the build of the planet Earth to them. They make a big deal of this as a great proof of the Shechinah’s revelation, etc.
We will discuss two issues: first, whether the Sages believed Earth to be the center around which the stars revolve (the geocentric view, attributed to Aristotle) or merely a planet revolving around the sun, which is the center of the planetary system (the heliocentric view). Second, we will discuss whether the Sages knew of Earth’s spherical shape.
It should be said immediately that Chazal had no idea about the sun being the center of the planetary system, and completely erred on this matter. We will also prove that Greek researchers knew of Earth’s spherical shape centuries (!) before Chazal and when this knowledge reached our Sages they mixed it all up, and their statements on this issue were strange, odd, and incorrect.
About the sun being in the center of the planetary system (as is known to everyone, this heliocentric view is correct): On this, Chazal erred and followed the mistaken geocentric view of Aristotle, that the sun orbits around Earth. We have already explained all this in Pamphlet 4, see there (see especially the strange things Chazal said about the location of the sun during the day and at night). To remove all doubt, we will quote the words of Maimonides in the Laws of the Torah Foundations, chapter three, halacha four: “All these wheels which orbit the world are spherical like a ball, and Earth is hung in the center.” There are no sayings or hints in any place in the words of our rabbis which support the view that the sun is the center and Earth revolves around it.
About the spherical nature of Earth, we will briefly cite what was known to the Greek researchers. Thus it is written in Encyclopedia Hebraica, entry Eretz, p. 1047: “As opposed to the common view, which attributes to Columbus the innovation about Earth’s spherical shape, for as long as the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic view ruled, the knowledge of Earth’s spherical shape and of its (approximate) size was the province of all educated men.”
The first to recognize the spherical nature of Earth was Pythagoras, who lived in the 6th century BCE; see Encyclopedia Hebraica, entry “Pythagoras,” p. 805.
Eratosthenes, who lived in the 3rd century BCE (some 500 years before Rabbi Simeon Bar Yochai, the “author” of the Zohar) even calculated the circumference of the planet Earth; see in Encyclopedia Hebraica, entryEratosthenes, p. 801, about how brilliantly he calculated it. Thus it is written about him: “Eratosthenes’s calculations — despite their inexactitude, inescapable in the conditions under which his measurements were made — are one of the most amazing astronomico-geographical calculations, and it gave science an (approximate) idea of the planet Earth’s size.”
We will say, incidentally, that the heliocentric view was also known to the Greek researchers; it is attributed to the astronomer Aristarchus of Samos (see entry in Encyclopedia Hebraica, p. 874), who lived in the third century BCE. Yet his ideas were not accepted, because they contradicted Aristotle’s geocentric view, until Nicholaus Copernicus (1473-1543), whose heliocentric theory holds to this very day. See Encyclopedia Hebraica, entry Astronomiyah, p. 784.
It is clear and well-known that the educated men of the world knew about Earth’s spherical shape back in the sixth century BCE, hundreds of years before Chazal and the Zohar. Not only did the Greek researchers know that Earth is a sphere, they even calculated the circumference of the planet some 2300 years ago!
Earth’s spherical shape was clear and known to the Greeks, as we stated above, but to our rabbis these matters were not at all clear and unambiguous, as we will show.
In the Gemara, Chagiga 12a, it is written: “Rabbi Elazar said: Adam reached from the earth to the firmament, as it says, ‘From the day G-d created Man upon the earth’ (Deuteronomy 4:32). But since he became corrupted, the holy One, blessed be He, placed His hand upon him and made him smaller, as it says, ‘You shaped me before and behind, You laid Your hand upon me’ (Psalms 139:5). Rav Judah said in the name of Rav: Adam reached from one end of the world to another [Rashi: When he was prone, his head was in the east and his feet in the west], as it says, ‘From the day G-d created Man upon the earth and from one edge of the heavens to the other edge of the heavens.’ [Rashi: he stood on the earth and reached the heavens] But since he became corrupted, the holy One, blessed be He, placed His hand upon him and made him smaller, as it says, ‘You laid Your hand upon me.’ But these two verses contradict each other! [Is it from east to west or from the earth to the heavens?] No, there is no contradiction — the distance between earth and the heavens is as the distance between east and west.” The Gemara explicitly states that Earth is flat, for the first man laid prone from “the end of the world” in the east to “the end of the world” in the west. Thus is written in the Shvut Ya’akov responsa (by R’ Jacob Reischer, born c. 1670), part 3, paragraph 20: “The words [of the Greek astronomers] are based on the notion of Earth as a sphere, in contradiction to what the discussion of this topic in our Talmud (Chagiga 12a) implies.” According to the Shvut Ya’akov we find that Rav Judah, who lived in the third century CE (that is, 900 years after Pythagoras!) still thought the Earth to be flat.
And R’ Zerachiah HaLevi of Gerona (12th century) wrote in his commentary HaMaor HaGadol on tractate Rosh Hashanah 20b (found in regular editions of the Talmud on the pages of the Rif’s commentary), explaining the secrets of intercalation of years: “The first [point] is the eastern edge [of the dry land]; its inhabitants live at the ocean’s edge in the east. The second point is opposite the first, at the western edge [of the dry land]; its inhabitants also live at the ocean’s edge, but in the west. The third point is between the first two and is called the navel of the earth; its inhabitants are those who live in Jerusalem and all of the Land of Israel. And the fourth point is opposite the third, under the earth; it is also between the first two points, and is called the navel or the heart of the sea, or the point of the depths. Between each point of these four and the one opposite it there is a distance of 12 hours…and from each point to the next one there is a distance of six hours…When it is morning for the residents of the east, it will not be morning for Jerusalem residents until six hours later.”
Check and see how many mistakes R’ Zerachiah made when he came to reveal us the secret of the years’ intercalation. Jerusalem is not the center of the dry land (even if by the latter one means only Europe, Asia, and Africa) and the hemisphere opposite Jerusalem is not “the depths” but continents and oceans, just as the hemisphere of Jerusalem is. (But know that from the odd things R’ Zerachiah wrote, our rabbis learned where the day starts — that is, which meridian is to be counted as the Halachic equivalent of the International Date Line — see Chazon Ish, Orach Chaim, Kuntress 18 Shaot, where he expanded on the words of R’ Zerachiah).
In the Jerusalem Talmud, tractate Avodah Zarah, chapter three, fol. 42c, it is written: “That the earth is made as a ball. R’ Jonah said: when Alexander of Macedon wanted to rise above the earth, he went up higher and higher until he saw the world as a ball and the sea as a bowl.” So R’ Jonah considered Earth as floating in a bowl of water, though it is not completely clear whether, in his opinion, Alexander “saw” the world as an actual ball or as round (like a ball) in circumference only, but otherwise flat like a coin. From the words of Radak (on Isaiah 42:5) it is evident that he understood the world to be round at its circumference only, as a coin is: “So the earth was round like a ball, but when the Lord gathered all the water which was on the face of the earth into one place for plants to grow on it — which is implied in the word vtzeetzaeyah — He made the earth, which is the dry land, as though it were flat, for people to sit upon it, like a man who spreads something and flattens it, like a silversmith who flattens metal plates.”
Even Nachmanides held as the Jerusalem Talmud did (Numbers 7:2): “Therefore [Nachshon, the leader of the tribe of Judah] brought a bowl, to represent the sea which surrounds the whole world and resembles a bowl…a silver basin to represent the world, which is made as a ball.”
The Tosafot on tractate Avodah Zarah 41a, s.v. k’kadur: “That the world is round, as it is said in the Jerusalem Talmud of Alexander of Macedon, who rose up and up until he saw the world as a ball and the sea as a bowl; ‘the sea’ is the ocean which surrounds the whole world.”
And now we will bring you the words of the Chatam Sofer, who lived close to our own time (1762-1839). He is one of those who taught his students “suitable” things without checking their veracity, sitting, rather, in his study hall and discussing the Earth’s build based on the words of Chazal and their conjectures. He did this instead of opening a science book and studying it to prevent tripping his students into error. In his Responsa (Responsa Anthology, section 26, s.v. perek sheni) he wrote: “Now, some things and data suitable for students need, with G-d’s help, be clarified; they are about the foundations of this world, its build and the processes which it undergoes. First: on the day when the Lord created the earth, He made the world of four elements: fire, wind or air, water, and ground. They have four natures: hot, damp, cold, and dry. The earth is made of ground, and is the coarsest and thickest of all, rounded like a true sphere, and the waters surround it on all sides — there is no part empty of them, and the earth is not seen at all from any side. The waters are thinner than earth; they flow down and are lighter. And the air surrounds the water from all sides; it is lighter than the waters, and as you go higher it is thinner yet. The element of fire surrounds the sphere of air on all sides. It is said that it does not give light as does our fire, for if it did, it would light up the night. But don’t think that because of its lightness it cannot be grasped by sight, as air which is below us cannot because it is too light. It is not, for if it gave light it would be seen, for our eyes see the glow of the sun and the stars, which are undoubtedly lighter because they are above, yet their glow is seen. From this phenomenon you conclude that the foundation of fire is not a shining body. Some of the earlier rabbis say that the foundation of fire is not above, but below, buried in the foundations of the earth, as it is written, ‘darkness on the face of the abyss,’ which is the foundation of darkness — and therefore we find the fire in the mountains of the islands, in Vesuvius in Naples or in Etna in Sicily; there is also a tower of fire in the islands of the sea; see Nachmanides on the portion of Bereshit [1:1].” Woe is to us for such words of nonsense. Earth as an onion surrounded by water (?), and the water is surrounded by air, while the air is surrounded by fire which “does not give light”? These words have no connection whatsoever to reality.
The whole issue of Chazal’s knowledge and the knowledge of Jewish sages through the ages about the build of the planet Earth can be best summarized with a quotation from the Encyclopedia Hebraica, entryGeografiyah, p. 69: “The leading opinion amongst Jewish sages until the second half of the 10th century was of a round and flat Earth [like a coin] surrounded by ocean waters and floating in the abyss like a boat on the sea (Midrash Pikrei D’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 5 [from the 8th-9th centuries] and Midrash Konen [from the 10th century]). Knowledge of the Earth’s spherical shape reached Jewish sages in Islamic countries through Arabic astronomy; it is mentioned in the book about intercalation of years by R’ Hassan the son of R’ Hassan, the dayan of Cordoba in the last third of the 10th century. At approximately the same time R’ Shreira Gaon and R’ Hai Gaon rejected the view that the sky is as a tent over a flat Earth. In the 11th century the spherical nature of Earth was already widely accepted by Jewish sages in Islamic countries, and from them spread to Provance and Italy. Ibn Gabirol placed it at the base of his cosmology in Keter Malchut. The first composition on “the form of Earth” as a sphere was written by R’ Abraham the son of Hiyah HaNasi c. 1125. According to this book–which follows Ptolemey–the eastern half of the sphere is dry land and the western half is ocean. The dry land is divided into climates (latitudes), and the book lists the countries within each climate. With the recognition of Earth’s spherical shape, the belief in the centrality of Jerusalem was adjusted by changing it from the center of the world to “the center of the settled world.” The mistaken belief that the distance between Jerusalem’s longitude and the longitude of the Iberian Peninsula’s western edge in the west, or between Jerusalem’s longitude and the longitude of the eastern edge of China in the east was 90 degrees was common among Jews (and Christians) until the great discoveries of the 15th century. It is brought in detail in the books most famous and popularly accepted: the Kuzari (ch. 2, paragraphs 18-20) by R’ Judah HaLevi, Sefer HaMaor HaGadol [brought above] by R’ Zerachiah HaLevi of Gerona, and Sefer Yesod Olam (part 2, ch. 3) by R’ Isaac son of Joseph HaYisraeli. Once in the Zohar (on Leviticus 3:1–this is the Zohar which we will cite below) it is mentioned that Earth revolves on its axis [See entry Eretz, p. 1046: “The idea of Earth’s daily rotation on its axis was first brought by Heraclides of Pontus and Ecphantus the Pythagorean (in the 4th century BCE).] People [in the Zohar’s view] were standing on the Earth’s sphere both above and below, and while it was day for some, it was night for others and vice versa — that is, there were ‘antipodes’ [people on both sides of the Earth’s sphere, standing in such way that their feet line up against each other. Plato was the first to use this term to denote the inhabitants of the continent he envisioned on the other side of Earth’s sphere; this supposition stems from the recognition of the Earth’s spherical shape by Pythagoras and his school (6th century BCE)] in the western half of the sphere.”
Now we will return to the words of the Zohar. (We will not touch upon the question of who wrote the Zohar, be it Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai in the 2nd century or R’ Moses de Leon in the 13th century; this issue deserves a special essay.)
Before we bring the words of the Zohar, you must know that the Zohar wrote many things on what was known to him about the world, and also erred on many points. We have already brought his words on the portion of Bereshit(Zohar, vol. 1, fol. 33b): “Rabbi Eliezer says: it is a mirror-like light which does not give off light on its own, but gets light from higher sources and receives it.” Of course, diligent scholars sent us many letters, all saying the same thing: the Zohar spoke of the spiritual world and not of the physical. The Ramchal preceded them in his book Adir BaMarom, part one, BeSha’ata DeTzlota DeMinchah DeShabta: “…for do not we all know that the firmament surrounds the world on all sides and the sun’s setting is naught but its sinking down — so how can we imagine that it comes in above the firmament? And in fact, even those who formulated our prayers coined the phrase, ‘He opens the windows of the firmament and takes the sun out from its place’…All these things seem untrue based on what we see with our eyes — but the truth is that even though the spheres and the stars are physical things, they have an internal nature which stems from spiritual roots, in the secret of the sefirot of ‘asiyah. And all things which you find our rabbis OBM saying about the sun and the other stars and which do not seem to match what we see – all these speak of their internal nature, which is the main point of providence. But one who does not know the ways of wisdom cannot achieve more than the external nature which can be physically sensed. But the main point is the internal nature of things, which follows the patterns of internal providence…and the truth is that all this is the secret of the upper and the lower, while the lower only gets the very ends of the upper, as explained in another place.”
What is evident from these words is that it is impossible to learn real science from our rabbis, for all they say is “the secret of the upper and the lower,” completely sealed from any realistic perception. But the outreach people, who stop at no lie, immediately jump at any of the rabbis’ words which match reality and cite them joyfully to prove Chazal’s knowledge in natural sciences. They do not understand that by doing this they only bring scorn and ridicule upon themselves, because as long as they speak of “the secret of the upper and the lower, while the lower only gets the very ends of the upper” there is nothing to check and ask about, for the secret will cover any nonsense. But if the Zohar spoke of sensible and real nature of things, it is easy to show that it erred in many different places.
Now we will cite the words of the Zohar, vol. 3, on the portion of Vayikra, fol. 9b-10a (according to the translation of the Sulam, sections 134-145): “R’ Judah started: ‘And G-d said, Let there be a firmament in the water…’ — come see: when the holy One, blessed be He, created the world, He created seven firmaments above and seven lands below…and all these firmaments are one on top of the other, like the skins of onions which are one on top of the other…So, too, are the seven lands below. All are settled, but some are above and some below, and the Land of Israel is above all of them and Jerusalem is the highest of all settlements. The scholars who live in the south saw in the books of the early sages and of Adam that thus all those countries are divided. They are all below as the firmaments are above, that is, stacked one above the other. Between each two countries there is a firmament which divides between the two, and so all the lands are specified by name, and amongst them are heaven and hell. There are in these lands creatures different one from another as there are above [in the firmaments], some of which have two faces, some one, and the looks of one are not like the looks of another…Just as the worms in the earth have red skins, black, and white, and some have many colors, so too are these creatures different one from another, and they live only 10 years. In the book of Rav Hamnuna Sava it is explained in more detail that all the world rolls in a circle like a ball, these down and these up [that is, the creatures on the sphere are in opposition to each other, and the seven parts of the ball are the seven lands (the Sulam commentary)], and all the creatures in six lands are different in their appearances in accordance with the differences of air in each place, and they stand on their feet as other humans. Therefore there are places in the world that when it is light for those on one side of the sphere it is dark for those on the other side of the sphere, for these it is day while for those it is night; and there is a place in the world where it is always day and there is no night, except for a few moments. And what is said in the early sages’ books and in the book of Adam [that the seven lands are one beneath the other, with firmament between them (Sulam)] — thus it is [we do not disagree with it, although it says that the whole world is a single sphere divided into seven parts (Sulam)], for it is written: ‘I praise You, for I am wondered by awesome things; Your work is wonderful,’ and it is written, ‘How numerous are Your works, O Lord,’ so both accounts are fit [for both are the words of the living G-d, and one should not ask how both can be correct if they contradict each other (Sulam)]. This secret has been handed to the masters of wisdom and not to those who travel to distant borders [naturalists (Sulam)], for it is a great secret of the Torah. Likewise, there are in sea many creatures different one from another, as it is written: ‘There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number — living things both large and small’…and all of them are like the creatures above…R’ Nehorai Sava went down to the great sea and the sea got stormy. All who were on the ship with him were lost, but a miracle happened to him and he went down through certain paths into the heart of the sea, and came out underneath in a different settled land. He saw these creatures, all small and saying prayers — yet he did not know what they were saying. Another miracle happened to him, and he rose back. Then he said: ‘Happy are the righteous who toil at the Torah and know the secrets of the upper worlds; woe to those who disagree with them and do not believe.’ From that day on, when he came to a study hall in which sages were speaking words of the Torah, he would cry. They asked him: ‘Why do you cry?’ and he said to them: ‘Because I did not believe the sages’ words [he did not believe what they said about the seven lands in which there are strange creatures, until he saw them (Sulam)], and I fear the judgement in the World to Come’.”
Here you have a great mess by the author of the Zohar. He brought two possible ways of viewing the world and accepts them both. One, close to reality, is that the Earth is spherical and the lands are on its surface. The second is absolutely groundless and fictitious, and he says they both are correct! Moreover, he brought stories that make no sense (heaven and hell are amongst all the countries, etc.), and even the story of R’ Nehurai who fell into the ocean and saw a country under the water. Any who hear it would laugh.
But come see what R’ Moses Cordovero (d. 1570), the Arizal’s teacher, wrote about such made-up stories in his book Pardes Rimonim (finished in 1548, a few years before Copernicus’s discoveries), part six, chapter Seder Amidatam, section three: “And within the Earth there are seven lands. I wondered about these seven lands and their nature, to the extent that I thought about saying that these seven lands, mentioned in description of the act of Creation and in the words of R’ Simeon Bar Yochai OBM, are naught but the climates into which the astronomers divided the world. But the Lord in His mercy brought to my attention many works and statements which render such assumption impossible, stating instead that the seven lands are actually inside the Earth…[here he copied the words of the Zohar which we brought above] And we know that these things are difficult for the human mind and upset the hearts of those who study them — but it is not appropriate for one who believes in their [the Sages’] tradition to doubt them. For it was not for naught that the Zohar tells about R’ Nehorai’s doubts: he was one of the great men of Israel and a receiver of the tradition… yet, despite his great righteousness and wisdom, he was punished by losing the ship, so that he saw with his own eyes a bit of these things. So, let the rest hear and fear, and sin no more. Now, based on the very words of this section it will be clarified how the Sages themselves were not completely expert on this matter…the things are proven on their own by true tradition, and one should not hesitate whether to accept them. And even if doubts come to the mind of one who studies the matter, as they came to my mind, it is appropriate to hide these doubts because they cannot be settled at present. Thus we will prevent those who are reluctant to accept the words of our rabbis OBM from coming up and making provocative statements based on our sayings.”
See how R’ Cordovero himself twisted and wrestled with this issue, until he finally accepted the Zohar’s nonsense about the existence of seven lands, one beneath the other….
And what does the Ramchal say about this? In his book Adir BaMarom, part one, BeSha’ata DeTzlota DeMinchah DeShabta, he brought the above section from the Zohar and wrote: “And about these things Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai said (on Leviticus, fol. 10a): ‘This secret has been handed…not to those who travel to distant borders,’ for they [Gentile researchers] perceive only the external features, but of the internal nature, which is the main one, they know nothing.”
Oh, how wonderful is this ” internal nature” which has no connection to reality. No experiment and no examination, no senses’ grasp and no understanding, no test and no result, no laws and no theory, no good and no purpose. Just the fog of mysteries and purple prose, a thing and its opposite without an explanation, with any good sense concealed under oceans of ink spilled.
From this no truth can ever sprout and no knowledge can be obtained by any.
Words of True knowledge.