Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Gemara's Aliens or Others' Ignorance?

Breaking news this week was that NASA successfully landed its rover, Curiosity, on Mars. This was a tremendous accomplishment and truly is a testament to the advancements that science has made over the past decades! One of the goals of Curiosity is to see if there are leftover materials on Mars that would indicate whether life ever existed on our neighboring planet. Because of the renewed interest in this topic I decided to repost the following.

 I have no idea whether or not life exists on other planets and, as the joke goes, sometimes I wonder if intelligent life even exists here on Earth (it's a joke!). People ask me this all the time and for reasons unbeknownst to me they think that whether life does or does not exist elsewhere has some sort of deep theological issues associated with it. I am not sure why, either possibility does not seem to create any dilema or even a different understanding of the Torah in my opinion. Nevertheless, this discovery has made the news and reminded me of this post.

I have heard the following pasuk, and its associated Gemara, cited so many times, as a proof from Chazal that aliens exist, that I felt it an appropriate post (Shoftim 5:23),

"ארור מרוז אמר מלאך ה ארו ארור ישביה"

“Cursed is Meroz said the angel of HASHEM, cursed are its inhabitants, etc.”

The Jewish nation had just decimated the superpower of the world’s leading army. Sisera, Yavin’s most skilled general, and his army were annihilated. Devorah and Barak then proceeded to laud Hashem’s praises. In the midst of their song, they give thanks and credit to those that helped in the war effort and they admonish those that chose not to come and help. Meroz was one of those that chose not to help.

Meroz is not a common name or place in Tanach and, therefore, the Meforshim come to help the reader understand what Meroz is. The vast majority state that it was a city that was in close proximity to the battlefield. The Gemara, itself (Moed Katan 16a), offers two explanations as to what Meroz was.

The first explanation is that Meroz was a leading individual of a nearby area. As such, he had military influence and could have brought his army to help. The second opinion is that Meroz is a star.

The Gemara then cites from an earlier verse that stated that even the stars of the heavens did battle with Sisera.

Based on this, many have assumed that if Meroz is a star, and Devorah cursed its inhabitants, then, obviously, Chazal were under the impression that intelligent life exists in other parts of the universe. I have even heard many state that the striking similarity in sound between Meroz and Mars makes it likely that there used to be (or is) life on that planet. However, this would seem to be an error since midrashic sources refer to Mars as Ma'adim and it is unreasonable to assume that it would just be referred to as a non-descript star.

Unfortunately, this all seems to be based on a little bit of ignorance when it comes to how Chazal, and Rishonim, refer to astrological influences. Every area of the world is considered to be under the influence of part of the sky. The influence is called the ruling party and the people of the land are called its inhabitants (See Ibn Ezra's Reishis Chachma and Sefer HaTa'amim). It seems much more likely, that the Gemara was referring to this extremely familiar concept than to space aliens which are not a common talmudic theme.

The proof to this is the first statement of the Gemara. That opinion felt that Meroz was an important individual. Obviously, the inhabitants of this individual would be those living under his rule. Unless, of course, one wants to go so far as to suggest that this is proof of a parasitic species of warriors that inhabit their leaders.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Mysterious Midrash

The parsha begins with Avraham Avinu sitting at the doorway of his tent awaiting the opportunity to invite guests in for a meal and, perhaps, teach them of Hashem's ways. The Torah tells us that Avraham was sitting there in the heat of the day. (Bereishis 18:1) Rashi cites from a Midrash that Hashem took the sun out of its shield in order for its rays to be more powerful. Thus, the day was unnaturally hot. Since the pasuk says that it was in the heat of the day, it must mean that it was an unnatural heat. What exactly could this Midrash be referring to when it mentions that the sun was taken out of its shield? Also, why are we to assume that the wording of, "in the heat of the day," means an unnatural heat, maybe it just means during the hottest part of the day?

By analyzing a perplexing passage from Rabbeinu Bacheye's commentary to this portion one can, perhaps, gain better insight. Rabbeinu Bacheye cites a Midrash that Avraham was sitting at the doorway at the fourth hour of the day. This is the a time when, historically, people would be hungry and looking for a meal. Therefore, Avraham wished to capitalize on this opportunity to find a wayfarer in need of a meal and invite him in. It is unclear what Midrash Rabbeinu Bacheye is citing from because we do not seem to have anything that expresses this point. Additionally, this Midrash appears to be in conflict with the Gemara in Berachos (27a) that seems to state that Avraham was sitting there at midday. Why would Rabbeinu Bacheye choose to convey the message of an obscure Midrash as opposed to the Gemara's interpretation?

The Gemara cited above is trying to determine how much of the day can be considered morning. At one point it cites a verse that states that when the sun is hot it will melt the manna and this is applied to the beginning of the fourth hour. The Gemara challenges this by asking that perhaps it means until midday since the sun continues to heat up until that point. To this the Gemara cites the pasuk from our parsha and says that since our pasuk is referring to midday, the pasuk referring to the sun's heat must mean until the fourth hour. Rashi explains that the pasuk from our parsha mentions that the day is hot as opposed to the other pasuk which mentions that the sun is hot. The implications of our pasuk are that it is not just the areas in direct sunlight that are hot, but even areas that are normally shady are hot since the pasuk says, "the heat of the day," and not, "the heat of the sun." Once we find that the Torah uses two forms of expression when referring to the heating of the sun and day, the Gemara concludes that the two must be referring to different times of the day. The one mentioning when the sun is hot is not as hot as the one that mentions that the day is hot.

Perhaps, the above understanding can help answer all the above questions. The normal implications of the wording of our pasuk indicate a time when even shady areas are hot and this is midday because the sun is high in the sky and the actual shadows are relatively small. This leaves a significant area that is normally covered in shade to be exposed to the heat of the sun. This time is called in the "heat of the day." Since this language is conveying this message, the other pasuk cited in Berachos refers to the fourth hour which is when the sunny areas begin to feel hot, thus it is called, "the sun's heat." It is important to note that it is irrelevant to the Gemara whether or not the time period discussed in the pasuk in our parsha was actually midday. The Gemara is just proving that it is referring to a time when both sunny and shady areas are hot. This would normally occur at midday and that means that the other pasuk must refer to the fourth hour. However, since Hashem took the sun out of its shield it is possible that the phenomenon of shady areas being hot actually happened earlier and it just felt like midday. The Torah is just letting us know where the sun was positioned and not how many hours of the day had passed.

Rabbainu Bacheye's Midrash provides the logic upon which it is based. Avraham would sit in the doorway at the most opportune time. Since people are hungry at the fourth hour, it stands to reason that this event happened at that time. If so, how could it be that the pasuk uses language to tell us that the heat was equal to that of midday, the pasuk should have stated that the sun was hot since this is less extreme? This would seem to be where the Midrash that Rashi cites starts from. It must be that Hashem took the sun out of its shield, meaning that he raised it higher in the sky so that the rays were more direct and there were fewer shadows. The heat was comparable to midday, but the actual time was only the fourth hour. Thus, Rabbeinu Bacheye, the Midrash cited by Rashi, and the Gemara all complement each other as opposed to contradict one another. I apologize if this was confusing, this is not normally the style in which these posts are written. I just found it pretty amazing that the elusive identity of the Midrash of Rabbeinu Bacheye might actually be a Midrash that was in plain sight!!!

Lot's Twilight Escape

There is a dispute in the Gemara as to the length of halachic twilight in the morning hours. One opinion mentions that this is a 4 mil time interval and the other states 5. As a proof to the opinion of 5 the Gemara cites from this week's parsha when Lot was escorted out of Sedom in the early hours of the morning. The Gemara maintains that he traversed a 5 mil distance in the exact amount of time between dawn and sunrise. (See Pesachim 93b)

Although this proof is ultimately rejected because it seems that Lot was rushing and the Gemara is referring to people traveling at an average pace, it seems that barring this point that the Gemara would have been content with this proof. The question one may ask is that twilight periods vary based on latitude and also based on the time of the year. How did the Gemara know that the case of Lot was a good proof, perhaps, it happened in a location other than the one the Gemara was discussing, or at a time of year different from the one in the Gemara?

The Gemara's discussion was regarding Korbon Pesach, so we can deduce that the location of its discussion is in Eretz Yisrael. We can also deduce that the time of year it was discussing was at the beginning of spring since that is when Pesach falls. How did the Gemara know that Lot's escape was at this time and location?

Regarding the location, the Gemara easily knew that Lot's escape was in Eretz Yisrael because it happened in Sedom. The Gemara also seems to be of the opinion of the Bereishis Rabbah regarding the time of Lot's escape. Bereishis Rabbah maintains that it happened on the second day of Pesach. (Bereishis Rabbah 48:12) In fact, Rashi also mentions the fact that it was on Pesach. (Rashi Bereishis 19:3) So, with these facts being presented one can clearly see that had it not been for the fact that Lot was running for his life, the Gemara would have had an adequate proof.

I Can't Believe Its Not Fresh

In the beginning of the Parsha we see that Avraham Avinu went to tremendous lengths in order to prepare feasts for the passersby that were lucky enough to be his guests. During the feast that he served the three angels that visited him after his bris, he had Sarah Imeinu make bread from three se'ah of fine flour, he had three oxen slaughtered to serve three separate tongues with mustard, and he had butter and milk brought to them. We see clearly how dedicated Avraham was in his hachnasas orchim. (See Bereishis 18 and Rashi's commentary.)

It is interesting to see that Avraham did not seem to have anything prepared for these wayfarers. We are taught that Avraham epitomized kindness. One would have thought that he would have had food prepared for the occasional guest that might accept an invitation. Nevertheless, in this week's storyline we see that Avraham clearly asked the visitors to rest for a bit while he went to prepare their food. Why would Avraham risk losing these guests by not having food ready for their possible arrival? The answer is simple, Avraham wanted evrything to be fresh. What sojourner could pass up a fresh meal filled with the choicest foods? Avraham knew that he would not lose guests if he asked them to relax while he prepared them a meal that was fit for a king. Therefore, he purposefully did not have food ready for their arrival. Additionally, while they rested Avraham would have ample time to strike up a conversation with them and teach them about Hashem.

It is so interesting to note that Avraham clearly wanted everything to be fresh so that he could serve his guests the finest delicacies. The meat was freshly slaughtered and the bread was freshly baked. Why then was the milk and butter only brought to the meal and not milked and churned that day? (See Bereishis 18:8) Perhaps, the answer lies in the date of this monumental feast, Pesach. (Rashi, Bereishis 18:10) It is prohibited to milk animals in order to drink their milk on Yom Tov, and it is also prohibited to churn butter on Yom Tov. (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 505:1; and Rema 510:5) As such, Avraham would not want to be violate this holy day. Therefore, he had butter and milk prepared in anticipation that guest might arrive, but the rest of the meal was prepared on the spot.

A Scratch on the Wall

According to the Midrashim quoted by Rashi, Yitzchak was born precisely a year after the angels visited Avraham and Sarah, on the first day of Pesach. (According to the gemara Rosh HaShanah 11a the angels visited on Sukkos.) Rashi (21:2) writes that HaShem gave Avraham a sign. On the day the angels visited, HaShem made an etching in a wall and told Avraham, "When the sun reaches this point again next year, you will have a son." This sign requires some clarification. How exactly did this work?

An object that is standing upright in the path of the sun will form a shadow on the ground. The exact direction of the shadow depends on the position of the sun in the sky. As the sun moves through the eastern sky in the first half of the day, the shadow will be pointing westward and vice versa for the second half of the day. However, the exact direction of the shadow, i.e., its northerly or southerly bearing, will constantly change. As well, the size of the shadow is dependent on the north/south position of the sun as well. These are the principals behind the sundial. All of the factors change throughout the day and the daily patterns change throughout the year as a result of the change in direction of the earth's tilt. However, one thing is certain. At midday, the sun is not in the eastern sky or the western sky. Rather, it is either due north or due south, depending on where you are in the world. What is relevant to us is that since Eretz Yisroel, at approximately 31o North, is above the Tropic of Cancer (23.5o North), the sun will always be in the southern sky at midday. The size of the shadow depends on the angle of the sun in the sky which depends directly on the time of year.

Any sign involving a shadow would surely have been simplest to arrange at midday. It is therefore most noteworthy that the gemara (.ברכות כ"ז) infers from the words (18:2) "kechom hayom," in the heat of the day, that the angels visited in the sixth hour. After the food was prepared and served and the angels conversed with Avraham, it seems altogether plausible that it was exactly midday. It seems that the sign that was given was that at that moment, the southern wall (or other standing object) was casting a shadow on the northern wall. The scratch that was made on the wall indicated the end of the shadow. When the shadow reached the exact same point at midday sometime in the next year, it would indicate that a complete year had passed.

With all this considered the Midrash is quite troubling. All these details are specific to the solar year. However, Yitzchak was born precisely one year later by the lunar calendar, not the solar calendar. What significance could any sun-related sign have to the passing of a lunar year?

I particularly enjoyed the answer that Pi offered in the comments:
On pasuk 18:10, Seforno says: שוב אשוב אליך - למועד המילה כפעם בפעם.‏ This suggests that the time the angels would return a (solar) year later was not the exact day of Yitzchak's birth, but rather some time later. The book קונטרס די שמיא by Alexander Shutz on pages 18-19 claims that the ריב"א asks your question, and that ר' צבי יודא פריידמאן suggests the following answer: The angel Rephael would come back three days after Yitzchak's bris mila to heal him, which would be (about) 11 days after his birth, so that could have been the occasion when the sun reached the line that was marked on the wall.

Witnesses to Sedom's Destruction

Rashi on 19:24 notes that the destruction of Sedom happened at day break, when the sun and moon were in the sky at the same time. This was because they used to worship the sun and moon. HaShem therefore brought the destruction when both were out as a proof to all the sun and moon worshipers that the sun and moon are powerless. Had the destruction taken place when they were not in the sky, one could have argued that they were not "there" to save them. This is a rather simple statement by Rashi but the astronomical basis for it is quite interesting.

It is not always that the sun and moon are out together at day break. It is also not always that it is the only time that they are out together. The moon rises and sets approximately 49 minutes later each day. This is a result of the moon orbiting the earth. Just as the moon's position is reset at the end of every month, so are its rising and setting times. (The math is as follows: Every full moon cycle (month), moonrise and moonset make a full circle of 24 hours such that the times are as they were precisely one month previous. The figure of 49 minutes is achieved by dividing 24 hours by the duration of the lunar cycle, 29.5 days, 44 minutes, 3 and a third seconds. More precisely, the figure is 48 minutes, 45.5 seconds.)

At the beginning of the month, the moon follows a very similar schedule to the sun. The moon rises at the beginning of the day and sets at sundown. As the month progresses, the moon rises and sets later and later. At the middle of the month, the moon has virtually the opposite schedule to the sun. It rises when the sun sets and sets when the sun rises. As we enter the second half of the month, the moon begins to rise later in the night and thus, becomes visible at the beginning of the day.

The Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 50) teaches that Sedom was destroyed on the 16th of Nissan. As explained above, at that time of the month, the moon would have risen shortly after sunset and set very shortly after sunrise. Therefore, the only time in the entire day that both the sun and moon were out at the same time was very early in the morning and that is why the destruction took place specifically at the very beginning of the day. [Nevertheless, it is puzzling that Rashi uses the term "Alos HaShachar" which refers to a time before sunrise.]

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Uncountable Stars

In this week's parsha (15:5) HaShem brings Avraham Avinu outside and tells him to observe the uncountable stars and tells him that his progeny will be likewise uncountable. Rashi there quotes a Midrash that states that HaShem removed Avraham from the atmosphere and placed him above the stars to observe them. R' Chaim Kanievsky questions, why was this necessary? Why was it not sufficient to simply look at the stars from where he was?

He answers that we are taught in the adjacent commentary to Rambam's Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah (3:8) that there are a finite number of stars visible from Earth, 1022 to be exact. Beyond the scope of our vision there exists an abundance of stars which are too many to be counted. Being shown the stars from Earth was simply not impressive enough. Avraham had to be removed from Earth in order to appreciate the true extent of the berachah.

Blogger Ari S.said...

The number 1,022 is also seen in Ibn Ezra's Reishis Chachma (on astrology). He cites Ptolemy just like the Rambam mentions in a few places (i.e. hilchos kiddush hachodesh) that his knowledge of astronomy comes from the Greek sources. Ptolemy (in the Almagest) does have this number. It is pretty clear that he (and the rishonim) were aware that there were many more. In fact, the way Ptolemy and Ibn Ezra cite it is to show how the constellations are formed. It seems that this number refers to the bigger and brighter stars.

The average person can see approximately 3 - 4,000 stars (the faintest being about magnitude 6). Perhaps, another idea expressed in the pasuk could be that it is impossible to count them at once. Some are below the horizon at times and others seasonal. Some are only seen at northern latitudes and others at southern. Maybe Avraham had to go high above in order to get an angle above them to see them at one time.

Jewish people have been dispersed throughout many countries during our exile. This is often to our benefit because it provides a defense mechanism. It is much more difficult for an enemy to ever annihilate us because of this. Maybe we are being taught that you will never be able to see all the Jews in one spot to count because they will be dispersed. In the ensuing pesukim of the covenant, there are many references to the exile.