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.


Phil said...

I bet if you were to ask people to "paint the scene" of Hashem telling Avraham to count the stars, everyone would paint a nighttime scene. But the pesukim seem to indicate that this event took place during the day! ("And it came to pass, that, when the sun was going down..." - Gen 15:12, which /follows/ the "count the stars" scene.") So, maybe one of the following ideas is true: A) Avraham was able to count only one star: the Sun. And that may have represented that which his "seed shall be", namely, just Yitzchak. B) Since Hashem asked him to count the stars, the only way Avraham would've been able to was if he had been brought outside the atmosphere (as the midrash teaches) where it would be dark.

Ari S. said...

That is a very interesting theory. I went looking through the previous posts because I thought that I had once commented on the fact that based on the pshuto shel mikrah that this was a daytime event, but I couldn't find anything. The two points that I would raise (but in no way undermine your theory) would be: 1) The Gemara (Shabbos 156a) adds a lot to the storyline and it therefore seems that the account presented in the Chumash is considered to be very lacking (of course your theory is based on pshuto shel mikrah and these added parts are completely drush).
2) Although in talmudic literature the sun is referred to as a star (one of the seven "mobile stars") and contemporary science has discerned that it is, in fact, a star; I do not believe there is any biblical reference to this celestial object as a star. The language used for the sun is always one that is specific to the sun itself and that of stars does not include the sun in the other places where stars are mentioned.

Phil said...

Today, I sat through a talk given by a rabbi to elementary school kids where the rabbi referred to the number of stars given by the Talmud, and how NASA confirmed that. (I know, the numbers are off. Building emunah through shaky proofs like this frustrates me.) He made a couple of other claims, and I'm wondering if he was off on those too. a) The midrash teaches that each blade of grass has an angel that says to it, Grow. (But the rabbi said it was a star, not an angel.) b)No one in ancient times, except us Jews, believed that the number of stars was so great, that it was in the thousands, max.
Can you tell me if there are any commentaries that say that the stars ARE the angels in that midrash? And if his second claim is true? Thanks!

Ari S. said...

I agree with you 100%. The source of the Midrash quoted is Bereishis Rabbah 10:6. The Midrash does not say "star" it says "mazal". Mazalos are not stars, they are references to quasi spiritual beings that are above the stars and have nothing to do with the number of stars. (See Rambam Yesodai Hatorah ch. 3/Rabbeinu Bacheye agrees with the Rambam's description, too.) This is something extremely different from what the rabbi was trying to convey and would nullify using it as a proof.

Phil said...

Thanks! How about the second question? Before NASA entered the scene, were there people who believed the number of stars were more than, say, 100,000? Or trillions?

Reuven Meir said...

"Before NASA entered the scene, were there people who believed the number of stars were more than, say, 100,000? Or trillions?"

Yes, see Berachos 32B where the number is given as ~10^18.

Also, as related to the topic of the post, see

Ari S. said...

The reason that I did not mention the Gemara in Berachos is because the language is vague and I am not sure that the Gemara intended to inform the reader how many stars there are. The Gemara uses confusing and ambiguous language in the passage. It claims there are 12 mazalos and each of these has 30 Cheil (army divisions?). Each of those has 30 Legyon (legions?) and those each have 30 Rahaton (?). Each Rahaton has 30 Karton (?) and each of those has 30 Gisterah (?). The Gemara then concludes that for each Gisterah Hashem hung 365,000 Kochavim (stars). Considering how nobody has any idea of the exact definitions of most of these words (in the context of stellar bodies) and that this passage could be referring to astrological influences or metaphysical attributes (often language of stellar objects is used to convey metaphysical bodies), I think it is difficult to state with certainty that it is an indication that Chazal intended it to discuss the number of physical stars that exist.

Secondly, even if the number was intended to express the true number of stars, the number is considerably off from the current estimate. The number one would arrive at from the Gemara is 10^18 (as Reuven Meir mentioned), whereas contemporary scientists estimate the number somewhere closer to 10^22 (as mentioned in the link Reuven Meir provided and also seen here While some people try to state that 18 is pretty close to 22, that is obviously ludicrous. Numbers given in scientific notation display how many zeroes follow the initial integer. Thus, a difference of 4 (22-18) would be the similar to me stating that I have close to a million dollars because I have $100. In truth the difference between 10^18 and 10^22 is astronomically greater than that because we are dealing with such large numbers to start with. See