Friday, October 27, 2017

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.

Friday, October 20, 2017

The World's First Boat?

For 100 years Noach toiled and endured much ridicule from his neighbours as he built the ark. Sure enough, Noach had the last laugh when the flood finally came and wiped out everyone else on the planet. Having completely denigrated Noach and ignored his warnings, the people were completely unprepared. However, the ark was nothing more than a large boat. Didn’t anyone have a boat of their own to escape the destruction of the flood?

This fascinating question was asked of me by R’ Sander Goldberg of Baltimore and he followed it up with a fascinating answer from his sefer נחל חיים (Page 30.) There is some discussion regarding the general climate and environmental conditions before the flood and how they were changed forever by the flood. One of the principal catalysts for these theories is the first reference to seasons after the flood (8:22) which seems to imply that there were no seasons beforehand.


מלבי"ם writes that before the flood planet Earth was not on the 23.5 degree tilt on which it finds itself currently. The tilt was as direct consequence of the environmental havoc wreaked by the flood. When the earth is not tilted the climate conditions throughtout the world are at complete equilibrium. That is to say that weather conditions are completely uniform throughout the world and throughout the year. There is simply no reason for conditions to be any different in one place from another. Cloud cover as we know it did not exist either. After all, a partially cloudy sky means that there are clouds over one part of the land and not over the other. Rather, the skies slowly became saturated with moisture uniformly and once every forty years, writes מלבי"ם, the entire earth would be drenched with rain and the process would begin anew. (This explains why the people were not overly taken aback by the flood when it began.) מלבי"ם also attributes the longer lives lived before the flood to the consistency of the climate.

(Now THAT's climate change!)

Another condition that would result from a world climate in equilibrium is uniform atmospheric pressure. Without varying pressure, there can be no wind. Wind is a result of air moving from a high pressure area to a lower pressure area like the air flowing out of a balloon. Before the age of the motor, all large boats relied on wind to move. If there were no wind, there would have been no boats. This explains why Noach’s project appeared so strange and also explains why no one else had any means to survive the flood.

(He goes on to explain that due to this extreme difference in global climate fermentation was something that did not happen before the flood and that explains how Noach could go so terribly wrong afterwards getting drunk - alcohol hadn't existed either.)

Interesting Calendrical Facts About the Mabul

We are taught that the Mabul began at midday. (Bereishis 7:13) Rashi cites that the reason for this was to demonstrate that, with Hashem's protection, Noach was able to enter the Teivah in front of all the wicked people of his generation and none of them was able to harm him.

Rav Yehonasan Eibshitz zt"l offers an additional explanation that has to do with the way the calendar works. Rav Eibshitz mentions that the historic date which the dove found dry land in the year after the Mabul was the first of the first month and was a Shabbos. If so, then the year preceding this one, the year when the Mabul began, the first day of the first month was Tuesday. (Clearly Rav Eibshitz is using a regualry styled year in which half the months contain 30 days and the other half have 29. The months alternate with 30 then 29 and so forth throughout the year.) Since the first month was a Tuesday then the subsequent month, the month in which the Mabul started, started on a Thursday. Thus, the 17th of that month, the day which the Mabul started, was Shabbos. Since the Gemara teaches that rain on Friday night is a blessing, the rain, instead, began during the daytime as not to give the wicked people even one iota of blessing. (Taanis 23a) Rav Eibshitz continues that, additionally, the mazal of Shabbos daytime is Saturn which symbolizes mass destruction and that was befitting for the beginning of the Mabul. (See Rashi Berachos 59b and the Ibn Ezra's Reishis Chachma) (Tiferes Yehonasan Bereishis 7:13)

Emunah in Time and Space

The advances in modern science over the years have allowed us to learn much about the history of the world. Scientists have been able to establish a pretty clear picture of all that preceded us. However, the instant of creation is a point beyond which no discoveries may be made. Even the most prominent of scientists, such as Stephen Hawking of the University of Cambridge, have come to the realization that "the creation lies outside the scope of the presently known laws of physics." What existed before the creation of the world is beyond human understanding. The simple explanation for this is that before the world was created, whatever it was that existed lacked the basic components necessary for human conception.

All the matter in the universe exists in three dimensions - length, width and height. We do not live in the two-dimensional world of comics and cartoons, nor can our minds conceive of something physically consisting of more than three dimensions. When a cube of a given volume is removed, it leaves behind a space, filled with air, of identical volume. However, before the creation of the world, there was nothing. The second pasuk of the Torah asserts that before creation, the world was "tohu vavohu." Rashi explains "vohu" as emptiness and void. He writes that "tohu" denotes astonishment and wonderment, as one would have been astounded by the emptiness that existed. Indeed, we are astonished to the point of incomprehension at the very idea of nothingness. It is beyond the grasp of human thought and will never be understood. An integral component of creation was the establishment of the infrastructure necessary for the existence of the world as we know it. On the second day, the waters are divided into the upper and lower waters. This is the first evidence of a dimension in creation. However, there was only one. Left, right, forward and backward did not yet exist - only up and down. The next day the waters were collected to form the oceans and reveal land. The three dimensions were now in place.


Although a physical object may be comprised of no more than three dimensions, there is another dimension commonly included as the fourth - time. Before the creation of the world, time did not exist either. In fact, the word "before" is probably a misnomer. Before implies that which preceded in time. If there is no time, there can be no precedence. This, too, is beyond the comprehension of the human mind. With the first day of creation, the concept of time was implicitly infused into the universe.


Perhaps, these ideas are directly pertinent to one of the central laws of Keriyas Shema. The essence of Shema is the acceptance of HaShem’s kingship upon us. One is required to include this concentration with the recitation of Shema or he does not properly fulfill the mitzvah (Shulchan Aruch OC 60:5). Ideally, this is accomplished with specific focus on the "ches" and "dalet" of "echad," as explained in 61:6. The ches corresponds to HaShem’s rule over the earth and the seven levels of Heaven. This is a one-dimensional focus in concurrence with the events of the second day of creation. The dalet corresponds to the four directions, essentially, the other two dimensions, over which HaShem rules. This coincides with the events of the third day. Hence, HaShem’s dominion over the three physical dimensions. The Mishnah Berurah (63:11), in the name of Levush and Magein Avraham, writes that "Baruch Sheim Kevod, etc." is subject to the same concentration requirements as the first pasuk. In this pasuk, as the words clearly indicate, we assert the eternity of HaShem’s kingship. In essence, we are declaring HaShem’s rule over the fourth dimension, time.


It also occurred to me that perhaps the requirements set forth in 61:6 regarding the specific כוונות should be augmented for modern times. The שולחן ערוך declares that we are to (mentally) proclaim השם's kingship on the heavens and earth and the four directions of the world. But in those times, that was the extent of what your average Yosef could fathom. The average layman knew little about the celestial bodies and what lies beyond our earth. However, nowadays, when all young school children are taught about the extent of our universe and are aware of the planets that make up our solar system, perhaps it is incumbent on us to have this in mind and proclaim השם's kingship on all of the universe as we know it.

The Two Luminaries


Pasuk 16 refers to the sun and the moon as "shnei hame'oros hagedolim", the two large luminaries but concludes by referring to the sun as the "maor hagadol" and the moon as the "maor hakatan". On this pasuk there is the well-known Rashi, quoting the Midrash, that the moon and the sun were created equal but the moon complained that "two kings cannot share one crown". Therefore, it was reduced to a smaller luminary. However, this is certainly an allegorical understanding of the pasuk. What, then, is the simple understanding?

In In the Beginning: Biblical Creation and Science, a fascinating book reconciling the Biblical account of creation with modern science, Professor Nathan Aviezer offers an eye-opening interpretation. An astronomical body is measured both by its true size and by its apparent size or angular diameter. The apparent size specifies how large it appears to an observer on Earth. This figure is the ratio of the true size of the object to its distance from the Earth. This figure is expressed as the angle that the object subtends from the position of an observer on Earth. That means, if you were pointing to the bottom of the object, the apparent size is the number of degrees you must rotate your arm to be pointing at the top of the object. The sun is 400 times bigger than the moon. It is also exactly 400 times further away from Earth. As a result, the apparent size for the sun and moon are identical at 0.53 degrees! Now we can understand the pasuk as follows: The first part of the pasuk is referring to the point of view of an Earth observer. From our point of view, the sun and moon are the biggest heavenly bodies and in fact, appear identical in size. The second part of the pasuk refers to the true size of the sun and moon.

Please see Pi's comment below with some nice alternative understandings of this פסוק.