Chazal’s Use of Science

Wikipedia claims (following the Jewish Encylopedia and pretty solid academic consensus):

Like most ancient peoples, the Hebrews believed the sky was a solid dome with the Sun, Moon and stars embedded in it.

But I don’t think this is necessarily so.

It is true that there was a belief in the notion of a semi-spherical shell around the world, that the sun travels under during the day, and then back around and over at night among many ancient peoples. But Jewish discussion of the idea is from an era when the Babylonians and Persians had much much more accurate observations than the Greeks, and it is the Babylonian cosmology. Tannaim (eg R’ Eliezer on Bava Basra 25a) and the earlier Babylonian amoraim mapped the Torah to it, much the way rabbis today talk about Relativity and QM in the Torah. Given that it was the dominant science in their milieu, this was actually the rational choice. There is no indication that this was also “Ancient Hebrew” belief on the subject.

Meanwhile, in Israel, the later tannaim and amoraim switched over to the Ptolemaic system as Ptolemy’s work took over the scientific consensus in their region. (See Pesachim 94b) And the debate shifts — it is taken for granted that the raqia is a spherical shell around the earth, and the question they debate is whether the stars are affixed in the raqia, or move around on their own in front of it.

As opposed to the many rishonim agreeing that all of chazal held the same view, it is uniquely the position of Rabbeinu Tam who says Rabbi Yehudah didn’t actually switch views to the Ptolemaic system. The talmud in Pesachim says that he found the sages of Athen’s words “appear to be more correct than ours”, the sages’ of Israel’s. The idiom would usually mean that they are indeed more correct, as can be seen. Rabbeinu Tam (as relayed by the Shitah Mequbetzes on Kesuvos 13b) interprets the line as saying they appear more correct, but in reality the Greek astronomy is mistaken.

In contrast, the more straightforward read is that of R’ Hai Gaon, R Sherira Gaon, the Rambam, the Tosafos Rid, the Rosh, the Ritva, the Smag….

In my opinion, it is more important to note the meta-issue… The general tendency is not an assertion that the Torah is a source of scientific theory. Chazal simply understood the pesuqim as per then-contemporary science. And it is recorded in the gemara (except according to Rabbeinu Tam) that they changed their opinion when a new theory came along. Just as we today would with our contemporary science.

None of which means our sages thought the raqia was a shell because the Torah said so. Rather, that the Torah looked to them like it was talking about a shell they took for granted existed — because their local scientists did. In the same way, the Rambam’s or Ralbag’s heavily reliance on Aristotilian Natural Philosophy now seems dated. it is likely 2,000 years from now, Jews are going to find our explaining Genesis using General Relativity quite antiquated and misguided. Yet, it may be appropriate for us to do so, because it is our best understanding of the world and thus the verses.

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