Dialogue: The Rebbe and the Professor
Contradictions Between Torah and Science
Question: Many people who received a secular education and scientific perspective in their youth, and who only later returned or are in the process of returning to Judaism, are bothered by the contradictions that there seem to be in several areas, between the Torah’s statements and the conclusions reached by science.
There are some instances where the contradiction is about matters that took place in the ancient past. In these cases, science’s approach is extremely hypothetical, and is based on extrapolating present data to a possibility far enough away that it is beyond the purview of scientific statement. This issue has already been dealt with fully. However, there are also instances where the discussion is about direct, present-day phenomena.
For instance: In Talmud, as well as in Rambam’s writings, there is a discussion about worms that are spontaneously generated, rather than being born. Zoologists nowadays consider this impossible. There are other similar examples. How does one respond to such questions?
1. Should we just declare that the truth of Torah is above and beyond any doubt, and nothing more?
2. Should we point to the mistaken points and lack of foundations of the scientific views, whenever they contradict the Torah?
3. Maybe we may say that in these instances we don’t properly understand the meaning of the Torah’s statements?
Response: First and foremost, the third possibility definitely does not stand up to scrutiny. The literal meaning of Torah’s words must always be upheld. Terrible damage has been caused by the attempts in the past — and that are again being made — to “smooth” some people’s inner confusion and perplexity by arguing that the words of Torah should be understood non-literally.
This is especially forbidden when dealing with areas that are relevant to practical Halacha. The question that you mentioned is of this variety: The existence of spontaneously generated worms is mentioned with regard to the laws of Shabbat, since such creatures may permissibly be killed on Shabbat. It is therefore obvious that there is no issue of a parable here; we are talking about real, live, and factual entities.
It is also forbidden to undermine the literal meaning of the verses with regard to the six days of creation — days, not eras! — since it is connected with the fundamental concept of the Shabbat day, which was established on the seventh day of the world’s existence, as well as with specific laws concerning Shabbat.
On the other hand, there is no need to ignore the seeming contradiction. Someone whose faith is strong is not bothered by such a contradiction, since the foundation of our faith is that the Torah of truth is the ultimate truth. However, if some people do feel bothered by what seems to them to be a contradiction, it is obviously necessary to examine seriously and in detail the root of the contradiction, and to prove the mistake in a specific experiment or theory. It is also possible that an unjustified generalization or inclusion has been made in the extrapolation of some scientific result or another.
The issue with spontaneously generated worms is very simple. True, experiments do allow for following the process through which a worm [larva] develops from an egg. And, when there are also explanations for the process of how these eggs were laid, that allows for the conclusion that these specific worms were created through a reproductive process. However, when eggs found in rot are identified as belonging to a specific species of worm, and the worms found there also bear signs of belonging to that species, that in no way proves that it is impossible for these worms to have appeared without the eggs, through spontaneous generation.
In fact, every single individual worm has certain unique characteristics, so that no two specifics are exactly the same. The argument that a particular worm is exactly identical to those evolved from eggs under observation cannot be correct. And, even if it were true, that would not mean at all that it is impossible for these worms to have been spontaneously generated.
In general, experimental science cannot fundamentally prove anything impossible. It can only talk about the possibility of something that has been witnessed, but that in no way proves the impossibility of that which they have not yet managed to see or recreate. Science, especially in light of thermodynamics, only establishes the probability of a given event. Therefore, according to the modern scientific approach, the concept of “an impossible event” has now been exchanged for “a low-probability event.”
Miracles, Providence, and Laplace’s Argument
However, one need not take this idea to the other extreme, and argue that all of the miracles mentioned in the Torah were not supernatural events, but were rather natural phenomena, albeit low-probability ones.
The most basic of principles in our Torah is that the Holy One, blessed be He, directly supervises the world, and establishes the direction of every event and occurrence. It is upon this, among other things, that our understanding of prayer is based. A Jew’s prayers are not just an expression of gratitude and amazement at G‑d’s greatness, etc. They can also affect the chain of events in the world, in accordance with the requests and petitions expressed in them — if such is G‑d’s will.
In this context, it is worthwhile to note that according to Judaism and Torah it is completely impossible to agree with Laplace, who said that if he was given the complete and precise state of the universe at any given time, he could mathematically determine the future, as well as the past. Such extreme determinism does not sit well with modern scientific thought. To a Jew, however, it is absolutely out of the question.
G‑d recreates the world anew at every moment, vivifying and directing the entire world down to its minutest details. It is dependant on His will whether the extrapolation of laws based on the events of yesterday and today will indeed be true tomorrow.
It is therefore important to note that when we say that all phenomena mentioned in Torah are definitely possible and definitely happened — even if at first glance they seem to contradict the norm — it is not enough to view that as a result of modern science’s viewpoint that there is no validity to the notion of impossible events but rather only improbable events. This could be taken to mean that the miracles mentioned in Torah are no more than natural events, just highly improbable ones.
The Torah’s worldview negates any possibility of happenstance, since every event happens only with the knowledge and will of the Creator. Therefore, it would be very wrong to attempt to explain away the miracles discussed in the Torah as extraordinary, but naturally possible, events.
It’s true that most events in the world happen within the context of what is called “the natural order” (which was also, of course, established by G‑d), in a manner that the Divine providence is concealed.
It is also true, on the other hand, that from the perspective of modern science one cannot claim that the miracles related in the Torah were impossible. But it is also completely forbidden to demote a miracle to the level of a regular natural event — whose only uniqueness is in the low probability of this occurrence — since that would take away from the ethical and Halachic connotations of the miracle.
It is also worthy to note that the attempts made by various people to allow non-literal interpretations for several areas in Torah in order to relax the confusion of youth that had lost their way between Torah and science, are very dangerous, as the example of the six days of creation blatantly proves. All one has to do is accept that the discussion is not about days, in the traditional sense, but about eras or periods, and this immediately begins to blur the boundaries of halacha. After all, the entire sacred concept of Shabbat — a day of rest and holiness — is immediately left without a basis.
Absence of Evidence; Not Evidence of Absence
Returning to the issue of spontaneous generation of worms, we can say that indeed from a scientific perspective their spontaneous generation has a probability of close to nil. (It should be noted that according to modern calculations, the possibility of spontaneous generation even of much lower level organisms is considered to be nil. In fact, today the theories of spontaneous generation of life, which were once so popular, have been completely rejected by science.) However, their generation through a particular means — for instance, from rot — can regularly occur as a result of Divinely ordained natural laws that are directly implemented by Him in each specific case.
It is worthwhile to repeat that the fact that not a single biologist has managed to follow the process of spontaneous generation does not prove anything. A simple illustration of this last point can be seen in the joke that — in its time — was commonly told in the Yeshivot: A child was convincing his friend that in their village they had always had wireless communications. His proof: As much as he dug up the gardens and yards, he didn’t find a single telegraph wire…
As far as the living organisms discussed earlier, it should be added that we don’t even know which Latin word fits their name in Hebrew, Peresh. But that should not at all lead one to conclude that one can doubt the facts as stated in Torah.
Discussing Scientific Conclusions
Question: Is it correct to conclude from all of the above that it is imperative and beneficial to discuss and analyze the conclusions reached by the natural sciences in the light of Torah, rather than simply ignoring these conclusions?
Response: There is no doubt that it is beneficial and imperative to explain how scientific concepts fit with Torah’s truths, since there are people who need such an explanation. By doing so, it is possible to free their hearts of confusion and worry. For instance, in Torah and the Talmud there is often mention made of the connection between the diameter and circumference of a circle. In general, it is accepted th at the circumference is equal to three times the diameter. It would be stupidity to imagine that the Sages of the Talmud were not aware of the number pi. After all, they calculated extremely complicated and precise astronomical equations using pi, when establishing the Jewish calendar. It is enough to note the fact that they lived several generations after Archimedes — and other non-Jewish intelligentsia — who used pi in their calculations, and often mentioned the number. It is obvious that the cases in the Talmud where three is used is simply a case of rounding it off to the nearest whole number.
There is indeed one case in the Talmud (regarding the “sea” made by King Shlomo) where it discusses a round pool of water. Its diameter is recorded as ten cubits, and its circumference as thirty. Here it would seem that even were the number rounded off it should have been thirty-one. The solution to this problem is simple. The circumference of the pool was indeed exactly thirty cubits. The diameter, therefore, was slightly less than ten cubits. However, it is rounded up to 10, the nearest whole number.
Similarly, we can explain Rambam’s statement with regard to the ratio of the size of the sun and that of Earth, if we reckon the corona of the sun as well (as we previously discussed). There are many other such examples.
Science’s Purpose in the World
A general answer about the place of science in relation to Torah is as follows:
“All that G‑d did, was for His sake” — all that G‑d created in His world was created solely for the service of holiness. Every single creation has its specific way in which it may be beneficially utilized for the benefit of the world. As an example, atomic energy is an extremely beneficial force. It is merely dependant on how it is used. It can be used to attain natural treasures, which will assist mankind in his divine service, or for the opposite extreme — to commit acts of murder and destruction, Heaven forbid.
“Science” is also one of G‑d’s creations. To the extent that it is true and good (i.e. except for “scientific” theories which are based on falsehoods!) it is beneficial to man, and to his lofty goal — serving G‑d.
Rambam, besides his greatness in Torah and his exalted holiness, also possessed a genius intellect and encyclopedic knowledge of philosophy and the natural sciences. Although his main work was the Yad HaChazaka — an illustrious and valuable Torah work — he found it necessary to still write after that the Guide to the Perplexed, which deals with philosophy and science, since he wanted to use this knowledge for service of G‑d and His Torah.
Thus, he uplifts philosophy and science — by utilizing them as a means to a higher end. It can be explained like this:
The commandments in the Torah — although they are a revelation of G‑d’s will, and therefore are meaningful and significant in spiritual terms — require first a practical, physical preparation.
For instance, regarding Tefillin, G‑d commanded us to place them on our hands and heads every morning. One might have thought that G‑d Himself would create ready-made complete sets of Tefillin, and all we would have to do is don them. After all, He wants us to wear them.
However, that’s not the way it is. A craftsman must prepare the boxes, the straps, and the parchment; a scribe must write the specified segments of Torah on the parchment; and the Jew who needs the Tefillin must purchase them with money that he has earned through hard work.
Another example is the etrog that we use for a blessing on Sukkot: One might have expected that on the morning of the first day of Sukkot an etrog should appear for every Jew, so that he could fulfill the Mitzvah. However, the fact of the matter is that a Jew must work before the holiday arrives, and search for a beautiful etrog. Sometimes a lot of involvement, time, and money are needed to acquire an etrog.
Preparation for Torah and Mitzvot
In other words, in order to fulfill G‑d’s commandments, one first needs physical preparations, which enable and facilitate the G‑dly intent inherent in the commandments themselves. One may similarly view the natural sciences in relation to the Torah itself. They can serve for some people as a means of preparing to accept of the yoke of Torah and Mitzvot.
In other words: Besides for the sciences serving as “a shovel to dig with, i.e. something that can be used to earn a living so that one can serve G‑d,” their main value is only when a person “knows to use them for Divine service or for His Torah,” for then the sciences are transformed, they become a part of Torah.
It is, by the way, interesting to note that Rambam begins his most important work — the Yad HaChazakah – Mishna Torah, which is essentially the first Code of Jewish Law — with the Book of Mada – Knowledge. In this book, one can clearly see the manner — and the extent — through which one can grasp, understand, and know G‑d’s existence through human intellect.
According to what we have said, one can see in this introductory book of Rambam, how the utilization of the natural sciences serves as a physical preparation for the study of the Mitzvot and specific laws which will be dealt with in the rest of Yad HaChazakah.
This physical world, together with all of the supernal, spiritual worlds, receives its vitality from the Torah. It can, and must, be fully and completely utilized for a deeper understanding of Torah and a deeper connection with it. It is extremely dangerous to see the Torah as something separate and detached from the world and from day-to-day life, as a certain professor in Jerusalem does.
The argument that Torah is a “lofty” and transcendent ideal and cannot be used to derive practical directives for day-to-day life, and that day-to-day life does not teach us to understand the Torah better, is really an attempt to lower the Torah, and to distort its significance.
Knowledge and Choice
Question: Many of those just beginning to study Torah have a hard time reconciling two very central concepts in the Jewish worldview: Divine knowledge, and free will. At first glance, it would seem that G‑d’s definite knowledge of the future makes it impossible for human beings to have free choice, for they are forced to act in accordance with G‑d’s prior knowledge. What can be said about this issue?
Response: That this question bothers beginners is not a surprise. What is disturbing is that even many who consider themselves knowledgeable about Torah also get befuddled about this concept. The truth is that the answer is very simple, and can be expressed in a few short sentences.
Let’s say A knows what B is going to do. Does that force B to a particular behavior? Definitely not. True, G‑d’s knowledge is different than a person’s, since G‑d’s knowledge must be concretized and actualized (just as through G‑d’s word everything came to be). However, since G‑d chose to give man free choice, He dissociates His knowledge — in this regard — from forced actualization, for if He did not do so He would be forcing man to behave in accordance with His knowledge.
If that explanation is not enough, there is another point worth noting. Nobody is disturbed by the question of how G‑d’s knowledge of what happened yesterday fits with the concept of free will. However, G‑d is beyond the limitations and boundaries of time. To Him, there is no difference at all between “tomorrow” and “yesterday.” Anything that is true with regard to “yesterday,” remains true about “tomorrow” as well.
[The Rebbe was then asked about extra-terrestrial life. His answer appears at the end of the chapter on Aviation and Space.]
By the Grace of G‑d
23rd of Elul, 5728
Greeting and Blessing:
I am in receipt of your letter of September 10th, in which you touch upon the question of whether the sun revolves around the earth or vice versa, in view of the fact that you heard from a college student that the truth is that the earth revolves around the sun.
It greatly surprises me that, according to your letter, the student declared that science has resolved that the earth revolves around the sun. The surprising thing is that a person making such a declaration would be about one half a century behind the times insofar as the position of modern science is concerned. This belief is completely refuted by the theory of Relativity, which has been accepted by all scientists as the basis for all the branches of science.
One of the basic elements of this theory is that when two bodies in space are in motion relative to one another (actually the theory was initiated on the basis of the movements of stars, planets, the earth, etc.), science declares with absolute certainty that from the scientific point of view both possibilities are equally valid, namely that the earth revolves around the sun, or the sun revolves around the earth.
An essential point in the above conclusion is that it is not based on a lack of more definitive knowledge, but this is the inevitable conclusion based upon the present position of science, namely that in principle it is impossible that there would ever be scientifically proven which of the two, the sun or the earth, revolves around the other.
Needless to say, any particular scientist, like any individual, is entitled to his own opinion as to which alternative he prefers, or that he simply is inclined to believe in one rather than in the other.
However, this is only an expression of a personal preference, which any individual human being is entitled to. But it would not be true to say that science has resolved the question in favor of one school of thought against the other.
To be sure, there were scientists who made such declarations over one half century ago, as mentioned above, and this provides at least some explanation why the textbooks in the elementary schools have still retained that outdated position. However, it is surprising that a college student, who has already passed through high school and has entered college, and should therefore have some knowledge of the theory of Relativity, should attribute to science such an unscientific and obsolete statement.
To sum up the above, it is clear that where one says that it is possible to be a scientist and accept the idea that the sun revolves around the earth, and another one says that science rejects this idea – I emphasize the word science, as distinct from scientist, a human being - no more, as mentioned above – the first one has both his feet firmly on a scientific foundation, modern science, while the second one appears to have remained in the world and time of Copernicus.
I assume from your letter that it is unnecessary to emphasize to you the truth that a Jew's life and his daily conduct must revolve around the Will of the Creator, the Creator of heaven and earth, in a way that it is expressed in action, since, as our Sages said the essential thing is the deed.
The present days of Elul are particularly auspicious to advance and to go from strength to strength in this direction, and to do so with joy and gladness of heart. Hoping to hear good news from you, and wishing you and yours a Kesivo v'Chasimo Tovo, for a truly good and sweet year,
Elemental Components of Matter
By the Grace of G‑d
18th of Teveth, 5720
Greetings and Blessings:
I received your letter of January 10th, in which you ask my explanation of the reference of the four basic elements (Yesodoth) mentioned in Chapter 1 of the Tanya, and you ask me how it is possible to reconcile this with modern chemistry which recognizes over one hundred elements.
Profactorily, I must make at least two corrections in your letter.
One, the origin of that statement in the Tanya, is not as you write, but it is to be found in the Medrash Rabba Bamidbar 14:12, and at greater length and in greater detail in many parts of the Zohar, and further explained in other books of the Kabbalah.
Two, modern chemistry does not recognize over one hundred basic elements but a considerably fewer number if matter is to be reduced to it's basic components or particles, (for the so called elements are themselves made up of atoms, which are the smallest particles into which an element can be divided and yet retain its properties and characteristics, but the atoms themselves are further made up of further smaller particles), such as electrons, protons, and neutrons.
Thus the answer to your question lies in the proper definition of the terms under discussion. For as indicated above, the so called element is not the basic particle matter. Even the term atom, which originally meant something invisible, is an archaism now employed only for convenience, as it no longer corresponds to its original meaning.
Similarly when we speak of an individual as being an element of society this does not mean that the individual himself is not composite.
This should be borne in mind when we consider the term Yesodoth in the Zohar, Medrash Rabba, Kabbalah, etc. and of course, in the Tanya and other Chabad sources. This does not mean something that under normal circumstances is indivisible or unchangeable.
I might also mention that there is another school of learning which conceives these four Yesodoth, not in their physical aspects, but rather qualitatively, this is to say, fire in the sense of the properties of heat and dryness; water, in the sense of coolness and humidity etc.
I hope that this will answer your question, if you have any further questions do not hesitate to write again.
With all good wishes, and with blessing,
Where is Heaven?
By the Grace of G‑d
22nd of Iyar, 5721
Greetings and Blessing:
I received your letter of April 24th, in which you write about the apparent contradiction between the latest scientific attempts to penetrate outer space, especially reaching the moon, which seems to you to contradict the statement in the Torah that the Heavens belong to G‑d, and the earth He gave to the children of man.
Actually there is no contradiction at all, if you consider the term earth not in the narrow sense referring only to our globe but in its proper sense, as meant in this verse, which includes also the atmosphere and the whole physical universe, with which mankind is concerned and directly affected by. We must not confuse the terms “Heaven and the planets". The stars, planets, moon, etc. are not called Heaven, since Heaven is something spiritual, whereas those planets are physical and belong in the physical universe.
The fact that G‑d created the so-called heavenly bodies to serve our world, and to give light, warmth, and energy to it, and placed them in the firmament of the sky at a certain distance from our earth, does not preclude man's attempt to learn all about them.
Similarly, when the Torah states that G‑d placed the moon in the sky so to give light on earth, this does not exclude the possibility of man's landing on it as some future time. The meaning of the verse the Heavens belong to G‑d, etc., is in the sense that while G‑d is everywhere, including the Heavens, man was placed in the physical universe, and is part of it, and, therefore, must make the most of it, as long as there is life on this earth. There is nothing in actual scientific experiments and accomplishments that contradict the Torah, nor is there such a possibility since the Torah is Truth.
Judging by your writing and background, I firmly hope that you are conducting your daily life in strict accordance with the Torah, which is called Toras Chayim, the Law of Life, and the Mitzvoth whereby Jews live, and that you attempt to make steady advancement along this road, in compliance with the principle that All things of Holiness should be on the upgrade.
The Nature of Time
Time itself is also a creation. Prior to creation there was no such thing as time.
This idea is expressed in a discourse of the Alter Rebbe, in Siddur im Dach, in the name of the Maggid of Mezeritch. Some have posed pointed questions on this notion based on such statements of our Sages as:
a) “Rabbi Yehuda said in the name of Rabbi Shimon: This [the verse “and there was evening and there was morning, one day”] teaches us that the order of time existed beforehand as well.”
b) “The Torah existed for two thousand years before the world.”
However, on this issue Chassidut follows the opinion of the Rambam, that time is a created entity. His view is echoed by many other Jewish greats, such as Rabbi Sa’adya Ga’on, the Rashba, Rama MiPanau, Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, et al. See further in Shomer Emunim about all of this.
What is Time?
On a deeper level, we can resolve this contradiction as follows:
The concept of “time” includes two distinct aspects:
a) Measured time, which is measured through movement.
b) The flow of time itself.
This second aspect is called by Jewish philosophers the “amount of time” or “form of time”; the Sefer HaIkkarim calls it, “time that cannot be measured.”
The Sefer HaIkkarim is of the opinion that only measured time is “created.” The essential flow of time itself, on the other hand, is not a “creation” per se. The truth is, however, that ultimately even it was created, as is explained in Derech Mitzvotecha by the Tzemach Tzedek, and several times in Sefer Asarah Ma’amarot.
The Creation of Time
The Chassidic explanation of this matter is: Since time is made up of finite parts, it is impossible that even the greatest possible combination of these finite parts should ever result in an infinite span of time. Just as one moment is absolutely removed from infinity, so too is the largest imaginable unit of time necessarily finite. And since it is finite, it had to be preceded ultimately by the primordial void. Thus time could not extend back infinitely into the past, but rather must have originated in a timeless condition. This is true not only with regard to our concept of time, which is measured by the movements of the heavenly spheres, but rather even with regard to the essential aspect of time, for even “non-measurable time” can be divided into finite components.
Just as spiritual reality is not bound by the limitations of physical space, which is comprised of units such as inches and feet, etc., so too can it not be bound by the limitations of physical time. We, in our finite physical mindsets, cannot imagine any entity truly outside of the dimensions of time and space. We can only recognize that it exists, but cannot really know what it is.
The Order of Time
Given the above, how does the Midrash in Bereishit Rabbah maintain the existence of an “order of time” before creation? Several explanations are given in Sefer HaIkkarim, in Rabbeinu Bachya on the Torah, etc., which show that the Midrash does not intend to imply that time itself is infinite or primordial.
The view of Chassidut is brought in Derech Mitzvotecha (ibid) whch explains at length that the concept of “the order of time” is more ethereal and spiritual than time itself and serves as the source of time. This is implied as well in Sefer Pardes Rimonim, and Avodat HaKodesh.
Time was brought into being by the Creator, who is completely higher than time, through a process of tzimtzum and hitpashtut, constriction and expansion. This can be compared to the ebb and flow of vitality in the human respiratory and circulatory systems. The lung or heart creates a vacuum, analogous to the Divine withdrawal in the first tzimtzum. Then the void is filled from beyond, whether the lung with air, the heart with blood, or the first tzimtzum with Divine light.
The life force is first condensed and united with its source. In the next stage the life force is brought down further to be dispersed throughout the system just to return again, in a process of ratzo v’shov, advance and return. This process embraces two opposites, the unity of the life force within its source together with its extension beyond its source. Physical light as well has this property of illuminating at a distance while being bound within its source.
The same thing occurred when G‑d first emanated the inclusive light — that with which G‑d “glanced and saw to the end of all generations with one glance” — which is the original source that includes all of time at once. It was later divided into six separate middot (sefirot). Each middah is drawn forth after the previous one has been ‘removed.’ This is called “the order of time”: It is not tangible time in the sense that we refer to it, but rather the concept of preceding and following. Only later, in the level of malchut, which is the source of the worlds of Creation, Formation, and Action, is there real time, in the sense of past, present, and future. Even there, however, time includes greater sections at once. For instance, in the heichalot of Yetzirah, fifteen of our years are included in one glance.
One should in any case be conscious of the distinction between these two notions of time, relative and absolute, as many people confuse these ideas and therefore reach confused conclusions and errors. For instance, many students of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity — which deals only with the first aspect of time — have mistakenly associated it with the second aspect as well. This led them to extremely strange conclusions, which are beyond the scope of this work.
In a private discussion the Rebbe told Prof. Branover, with reference to the “twins paradox,” that only measured time is affected according to Einstein’s theory, but a person’s age is connected to the “essential passage of time,” for it is set by G‑d through His Divine Providence, and is not changed at all.
By the way, in the more recent publications of one of the great experts on Einstein’s Theory, the physicist Professor Moshe Carmeli deals with the existence of an “essential time” which cannot be changed at all, in conformity with the Rebbe’s view.
11 Tishrei, 5712
Peace and Blessing!
…With regard to your question concerning the role of Aggadah in the
Talmud, particularly those of dealing with medicine, I want to point out that you are touching upon two distinct questions Aggadah in Talmud, and Medicine in the Talmud.
As to the question of Medicine in the Talmud, they are not at all as fantastic as they may appear. As a matter of fact, many medical suggestions in the Talmud have been confirmed in recent years as to their therapeutic value, although medical science had long derided them.
Generally speaking, however, inasmuch as the nature of the human organism has undergone many changes since those days, the medical advice contained in the Talmud cannot be applied nowadays. But it is quite certain that in their days the remedies were quite effective.
For references consult: Tosafoth Moed-Koton 11a; Kesef Mishneh, Ch. 4 of Hilechoth Deoth, Ch. 18, and sources mentioned in Sdei-Chemed, vol. of Kelolim, under the Klal 54, where it is mentioned stated that due to organic and environmental changes, medical treatment and remedies of old are no longer applicable generally.
In the history of Medical Science many illustrations are cited as to changes in both in man's susceptibility to disease and treatment, the development of virus attack, new diseases, etc. There is quite a lot of literature on the subject, and there is no need for me to enlarge upon this subject. I am surprised that you do not mention in your letter anything about your activities in influencing others to bring them nearer to Torah and Yiddishkeit, which serves also to strengthen one's own convictions.
The Size of the Sun
B”H, Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, 5722
Peace and Blessing!
The statement in Sha’ar HaYichud V’haEmunah (chapter 7) that the sun “is approximately 167 times the size of Earth” is based on the Rambam’s ruling in Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 3:8. (In his introduction to Perush HaMishnayot he gives a more precise measurement of 166 3/8 times the size.)
It seems that people have challenged you with the alleged view espoused by modern astronomers, according to which the sun is four to five million times the size of earth, or more.
Just as with all other “scientific” questions of this type, the questioner is obviously ignorant about science as well!
Astronomy’s assertion that the sun is 4 to 5 million times the size of the Earth is with regard to the volume, while Rambam is discussing the diameter. True, modern science’s estimate of the diameter of the sun is right now about 110 times the size of Earth’s, rather than 170. However, that measurement of the sun’s diameter takes into account only certain layers of the sun, and not all of them. The outer layers (according to today’s astronomers) change (in a cycle of constriction and expansion) greatly from time to time; also, not all of them can be seen— some can only be measured by their effects, etc. Thus, it is hard to measure them.
Similarly, they don’t take into account the protuberance. At times, this protuberance was measured as having reached such sizes, as to take the sun’s diameter to more than 170 times the Earth’s diameter, after which it again constricts, etc. This is not the place to write at greater length.
Eclipses: Fate and Freedom
On the Verse, “Let there be luminaries… and they shall serve as signs…” Rashi quotes the statement of our Sages: “When the luminaries are stricken it is an ill omen for the world, as in the verse ‘Be not dismayed at the signs of heaven, etc.’ But when you comply with the will of G‑d, you need not worry about punishment.”
Regarding the cause of eclipses the Talmud says, “On account of four things the sun is stricken: if the head of the rabbinical court dies and is not properly eulogized, etc. On account of four things the luminaries are smitten: on account of writers of forged documents, etc.” In other words, eclipses are related to people’s actions.
There is a famous question: The fact that the ‘luminaries are stricken’, i.e., that the sun and the moon become eclipsed, is a matter fixed in the nature of the cosmos, occurring at set intervals. In fact, one can even calculate in advance when it will occur. So how can we say that it happens as a result of human failings when it is really an unavoidable fact of nature?
Over the course of time, certain people have used this “question” as “proof” that not everything the Sages said is correct. Thus, they excused and justified their own behavior, i.e., their decision not to fulfill Torah and Mitzvot.
The truth is, however, that one’s lack of Torah observance is not really because of his “intellectual questions”; it is rather because of the “appetite” of his emotions. The questions are no more than excuses to justify his improper behavior. That is why he can be comforted even with such a “question” that can be completely dispelled with even a little thought.
It is well known that in Mishnaic and Talmudic times, the non-Jewish sages already knew the calculations to predict solar and lunar eclipses. Anyone who knows Jewish history (from the narratives in the teachings of our Sages, and — in greater detail — from the history texts of that era) knows that the non-Jewish scholars were in close contact with the Jewish Sages about matters of philosophy and science. They even traveled to meet each other and debate about various areas of knowledge, including astronomy.
And even for those who are obstinate and unwilling to admit that the Jewish sages had a comprehensive knowledge of science and astronomy and that it was through them that this knowledge came to the non-Jews, it is nevertheless certain — completely beyond contention — that at the time when non-Jewish scholars knew about solar and lunar eclipses, our Sages knew as well, through the above-mentioned contact. This is especially true regarding astronomy, as the Sages had a particular interest in knowledge that impacts upon the Mitzvah of setting the Jewish calendar.
It is therefore apparent that our Sages’ statement — that eclipses are an ill omen, and that they come because of specific misdeeds, etc. — cannot be contradictory to the necessity of eclipses according to the laws of nature.
Theoretically, one could explain that the statement that “eclipses are an ill omen, etc.” does not refer to the occurrence of the eclipses themselves, but rather to the fact that the person has seen one. Since the point of G‑d exhibiting an “ill omen” would be so that the people should return to Him, they must obviously be able to see the sign.
Accepting this premise would answer our original question: All that is required by the laws of nature is the eclipse itself. Nature does not require that we be able to see the eclipse, since there could be clouds, etc., which conceal the eclipse.
This detail is dependent on human behavior: When people commit those “four misdeeds,” they are shown an ill omen by being able to see the eclipse, while if they are behaving properly there are clouds to conceal the eclipse, so that there is no “ill omen.”
However, this explanation is not satisfactory.
(First of all, there are some locations where there are almost never clouds, such as in Egypt. But in addition to that…)
From the wording of our Sages, “when the luminaries are eclipsed,” the implication is that the ill omen is the eclipse itself, and not the sighting of it.
This is why the Talmud differentiates there between Jews and heathens: “When the sun is stricken, it is an ill omen for heathens. When the moon is stricken, it is an ill omen for the ‘enemies of the Jews’; for Jews count by the moon and heathens by the sun.” The eclipse in their behavior causes the eclipse of the sun and moon. Solar and lunar eclipses (and failings) come as a result of the eclipses (and failings) in the behavior of heathens and Jews, respectively.
Thus, it is obvious that when Jews are behaving properly, there should not be any lunar eclipse at all (and not just that if there is one it would not be seen).
There is a simple explanation:
The idea that “when the luminaries are stricken it is an ill omen” (and that this happens “on account of four things…”) is: When an eclipse occurs it is a sign that this time is dominated by a “mazal ra” — bad luck, or literally, an evil constellation. It is a time that has a predilection for tragedy. That, in turn, causes it to be a time more prone to being punished for the “four things.”
This is why “when you comply with the will of G‑d, you need not worry about punishment.” If people are behaving as they should, there is nothing for which to be punished — even if it is a stricter time.
According to this interpretation, there is no longer any problem arising from the fact that eclipses must occur at predetermined times, in accordance with the laws of nature. Obviously the eclipse itself is not a consequence of human behavior. It is merely a sign of a period of tragedy, a time especially predisposed to punishment for the four things. These times (of bad luck etc.) with their omens are indeed predetermined within the nature of G‑d’s creation [just like the times enumerated in tractate Shabbat: “One who is born on Sunday… will be a… etc.].
Some explanation is still needed:
The Talmud differentiates between Jews and idolaters. “When Jews are complying with the will of G‑d, they need not fear all of these… ‘Do not be frightened by the signs of the heavens, though the nations are frightened by them’ — the idol worshippers shall be frightened, but the Jews need not be frightened.” In other words, under the very same circumstances that Jews “need not be frightened” (i.e. when they “are complying with the will of G‑d”), idolaters “shall be frightened.”
This requires explanation: If an “ill omen” just means a time when punishments are especially harsh (for not keeping the four things) — and the meaning of “complying with G‑d’s will” is that one has not transgressed and therefore will not be punished — why should “the idolaters be frightened” if they have not transgressed His will?
The explanation is as follows:
The way a mazal – “constellation” affects a specific time period (not only with regard to rewards and punishments meted out then, but also) with regard to a person’s behavior, is that the “constellation” creates a predilection for a specific mode of behavior, or for certain deeds (whether for good or for…). For instance: “Most of a person’s wisdom is achieved only at night.” This does not mean that a person cannot have success in daytime study of Torah. It is just that the night is a time that is especially auspicious for success in Torah, more so than by day — since by day greater toil is needed to ensure success.
The same is true with regard to the statement in tractate Shabbat that “one who is born on … will be a…” — that the nature and characteristics of a person are dependent on (the astronomical context) when he is born.
That doesn’t mean that the constellation has an inevitable effect on the person who is born during that time period. “Freedom is granted to every person” whether to be righteous or the opposite; it is impossible that one’s “innate predisposition should draw him immutably to something.” Rather, the sign of that time merely creates within the person a “slight partiality” to a specific thing. If one works on himself, he can overcome his natural tendencies, and even transform them.
This is similar to that which is explained in Rambam’s Shemoneh Perakim: “A person cannot be born to success or failure;” he can only be “by nature predisposed to success or failure.” Thus, one’s nature does not affect one’s free choice.
Then what does one’s nature do?
One who is “by nature predisposed to success” will not have to work as hard to make the choice to become something, since his nature assists him. (Nevertheless, he still has free choice to choose to be the opposite.) The one who is “predisposed to failure,” on the other hand, must work much harder to make himself successful. (On the other hand, this in itself is proof that he was given greater energies and potential than the other person, for “according to the size of the camel is the load” — a person is only given such challenges that he can manage.)
The same is true of those innate qualities that come as a result of (the astronomical sign of) the time when a person is born. While the Talmud states “one who is born on… will be a…” that does not mean that the person is forced to be so; it is just that he needs to apply more strength and toil to overcome this nature.
[A similar idea is true of those days that are called “inauspicious days” and the like. It is merely that during those times a negative occurrence is more likely — which is why extra caution is suggested on those days, such as the rule that “one should not start an endeavor on Monday or Wednesday,” etc. — but it is in no way certain to happen.
That is why the rule that “one should not start an endeavor on Monday or Wednesday” is only applicable where it does not conflict with the rule that “one may not pass over an opportunity to do a Mitzvah.” Also, as long as the right effort is put into it, it is feasible to have success even on an inauspicious day.]
According to all of the above we can explain the statement “when the luminaries are eclipsed it is an ill omen for the world” as meaning [not only that it is a calamitous time, when one is more easily punished for improper behavior, but also] that it is a time when there is aroused in the nature of man a partiality and bias towards a certain bad behavior. At the same time, that does not mean that he has no choice but to behave that way inasmuch as he has the ability to overcome his predisposition.
[According to this, we can appreciate the specificity of the illustration the Talmud uses for the concept of a solar eclipse: “A human king made a banquet for his servants, and placed a lantern before them. When he got angry, he said to his servant, take the lantern away from them….” In other words, it is “his servant” who “removes the lantern,” rather than the king himself. The eclipse and the ill omen are something that is completely within nature (the King’s servant)].
Following this track, the statement “On account of four things the sun is eclipsed…” means [not that the eclipse of the luminaries is because of actual misbehavior in these four areas, but rather] that because during these times there is a predilection towards the “four things,” this is why the luminaries are eclipsed.
Now we can also understand why specifically Jews are told “not to be frightened,” and not idolaters:
Idolaters can also overcome the natural predispositions etc., caused by the time period and behave properly — for although they do not posses the ultimate degree of free will, they would not be punished unless they were sinning “independently.” Yet they are ruled by the laws of nature. Thus, it would require a great amount of work and toil etc. to break the natural effect. Therefore, “non-Jews will be frightened of them” — they are fearful of the predispositions caused by nature.
Jews, on the other hand — if they increase in their Divine service — are higher than the measures and bounds of their nature. They “fulfill the will of their Creator,” and so they are higher than nature (even than “the signs of the heavens”). Thus, “they are not afraid of all these.”
Not only are Jews able to overcome their nature (through hard work etc.), but rather they don’t take these “signs of the heavens” into account in the first place — they can begin endeavors on Monday and Wednesday, etc. The ultimate level is when we no longer have to pay attention to the rules of nature at all. This is the way G‑d behaves with righteous people (and “Your nation are all righteous”) — a clearly miraculous manner that is completely beyond nature.