Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Rambam Knew Math!!!

There has been a question that I have had regarding an opinion stated by the Rambam for which I think I may have finally found the answer. Before I delve into it, let me provide some background. As many are familiar with, Chazal understood that the constellation that serves as the backdrop to the sun is considered to be the mazal of the month (since we see the sun from a different part of our orbit every day, the sun appears to slowly move across the constellations behind it. The path it "takes" is known as the ecliptic). In Sivan, for example, the stars that are behind the sun are those that form the constellation Teomim, Gemini; therefore, Teomim is the mazal of Sivan.

The issue that one can have with this is that, currently, this is no longer true. Over hundreds of years the stars shift, relative to us, and currently things are one constellation off. The stars that currently reside behind the sun during the month of Sivan are actually those that form the constellation Shor, Taurus.

The reason for this shift is usually described by comparing the earth to a spinning top (dreidel). As a top spins it also wobbles. The earth's wobble is relatively slow; it completes one "wobble" every twenty-five thousand plus years. During the in between time, the constellations slowly "shift" and that results in the system that Chazal put forth not being recognizable to us.

The Rambam notes this phenomenon in his Mishnah Torah (Yesodei HaTorah 3:7) and provides a relatively accurate rate of wobble (1 degree per approximately seventy years; interestingly enough this number is also given by the Ibn Ezra in his Sefer HaTa'amim. The Greeks felt it was more like 1/100; the Arabs refined it more in line with the number chosen by the Ibn Ezra and Rambam. It was only after Newton provided his theory of gravity that the currently accepted number of 1/72 was chosen). The Rambam mentions that the mazalos have shifted and states that the mazal of a month is not connected to the physical arrangement of stars, rather, it is connected to the time of year and, therefore, the mazal of the month of Sivan (from our example) is still Teomim. The Rambam then informs us that the time the names of the constellations were chosen was during the time of the Mabul, Great Flood.

Since Chazal and the Greeks seem to agree on the names, positions and forms of the constellations, it stands to reason that they would agree upon where the exact borders between constellations can be found. The problem I had with the Rambam was the if one does the math of when the Mabul was and "moves" the stars back to their relative positions, he will find that the vernal equinox was located in the constellation of Shor (both using the 1/72 ratio agreed upon by contemporary science, and the 1/70 provided by the Rambam himself). The vernal equinox is the place where the sun is on the first day of spring. Since Nisan is the month that this should be happening in, the vernal equinox should be in T'leh, the mazal of Nisan. The Rambam was certainly capable of doing the simple math of calculating how many degrees one needs to move the constellations based on how many years had passed since the Mabul. How could the Rambam state that the constellations shift at a rate of 1/70 and in the same halacha mention that the origination of the names of the mazalos was in the time of the Mabul!?!

The answer seems to be that the assumption that Chazal necessarily agreed with the Greeks as to the place of the borders is incorrect. There is a discrepancy in Rashi as to where the stars of Kimah are located, either in T'leh (Rashi R"H 11b) or in Shor (Rashi in a note at the end of R"H). The Rashash on Midrash Rabbah in last week's parsha (that's why I decided to post this now) writes that these "Rashis" are in disagreement and that this reflects a disagreement between Shas and the Midrash Rabbah. (Rashash Bamidbar Rabbah 10:8:29; also see 30 in which the Rashash refers to an alligator as an Akrav) I believe many would assume (and perhaps the Rashash himself believes) that the disagreement is that we do not know what Kimah is and there are different star patterns that are being suggested (perhaps the Hyades would be the other opinion). I, however, believe that it is possible that all agree that Kimah is the Pleiades (the conventional translation), and the disagreement is where the borders of Shor and T'leh are (and, perhaps, other borders could be disputed).

If correct, Kimah was in T'leh at the time of the Mabul. It would, therefore, be logical to assume that the Rambam would be of this second opinion and then his statement makes sense perfectly (based on his calculations).

I have included a recreation of these constellations and borders as they were in the time of the Mabul. The recreation reflects the currently accepted numbers and, therefore, if one were to draw a vertical line just to the right of Kimah, the equinox would still be in Shor. One must keep in mind that the Rambam had a ratio of 1/70 and not 1/72. According to his calculations, the equinox would be a few degrees more to the left and Kimah would barely be in T'leh. The Rashi that is of this opinion calls Kimah "the tail of T'leh" making this position seem accurate.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Midrash Similar to Mythology

How does one address the issue that there are many instances when Midrashic teachings are extremely similar to Greek mythology? There are many instances where the storyline expressed by a Midrash will be similar to a mythological legend, sometimes the two are identical (examples will be cited). This question has bothered many for centuries and many answers have been proffered. Many are comfortable with stating that the Greeks stole Jewish concepts and incorporated them into their own ideologies. The problem that some have with this approach is that the culture of the Greeks and that of Chazal seem so diametrically opposed that it seems unreasonable that one would have taken from the other.

I would like to offer a theory and offer an example to support it that is pertinent to Matan Torah (and, of course, would love to hear feedback). Chazal understood that the natural forces of both science and history are encoded and symbolized by the stars. They can be deduced via knowledge of the movements of the stars (the original 4 8 constellations) and the associated symbolism between the stellar patterns and various items. (See Ibn Ezra Shemos 33:31 and Rabbeinu Bachye Bamidbar 23:9; also see Ibn Ezra's Reishis Chachma) For example, the Torah was given in the month of Sivan and the mazal of Sivan (the constellation that rose with the Sun during this month in ancient times) is Teomim, Gemini the Twins. Twins demonstrate a connection between two entities that is unmatched elsewhere. When united they display a complete state not possessed by others. The name Teomim may have its roots in the word Tam meaning complete. (See Midrash Tanchuma Haazinu 1) It was in this month that Klal Yisrael united with Hashem via the Torah.

The Greek mythology is depicted in the night sky. The constellations tell over these legendary stories. One can find the constellation Perseus near Andromeda, Cetus, Cassieopeia and Cepheus. These figures play the roles in a storyline that has monsters, heros and damsels saved at the last minute in Greek mythology.

Since Chazal agree with the basic depictions of the constellations, (see Ibn Ezra's Reishis Chachma) then it stands to reason that they saw elements in the natural world that express these concepts. I do not know if the Greeks took from Chazal, had a tradition dating back to Adam or if this was a natural science that they were able to uncover, but it seems that they also studied the sky and created their myths based on the constellations. That being said, if they express these concepts in a similar fashion to the way a Midrash is stated, it should not be shocking. Of course, the Greeks did distort (and even worship) these ideas and concepts and the figures turned into gods and the stories did not display their true meaning (if the true meaning was ever completely uncovered), but this definitely helps show why similarities not only can, but should occur between mythology and Midrash. (Unfortunately, the symbolism behing the aforementioned constellations is beyond the scope of this post, but the symbolism seems to depict the idea of the Sotah and that Hashem will eventually bring back His wife, Klal Yisrael, even though she has strayed from Him.)

The example with Matan Torah can be seen in with the constellations, Aquarius, Aquila and Cepheus. Aquarius is a Water Pourer, but is also associated with the child of the highest god in Greek mythology. Aquarius represents the "child" of Hashem in reality as it is the mazal of Klal Yisrael. (Ibn Ezra Shemos 31:18) This child was taken by an eagle, Aquila, to rejoin his father in the spiritual realm. We are taught that Hashem took us from Egypt to be his premier nation "on the wings of eagles." (Shemos 19:4-5) In the month of Sivan when Gemini would be rising with the Sun, Aquarius would be setting in the west. At this time, Cepheus, a constellation that represents a king, is seen at the height of the sky sitting in his throne. The "son" Aqaurius is standing on the ground in the west, but immediately next to him is the eagle, Aquila, to take him to his king, Cepheus. It seems pretty clear that the Greeks were (wether knowingly or not) expressing Matan Torah in their legend.

There are many other examples like this (like the story of Procrustes), but unfortunately this post cannot go for forever.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Lifetime of Space Travel

In this week's parsha we are informed of the size of the Klal Yisrael's standing army in the Wilderness. Only those above twenty years of age were eligible to fight. This number seems somewhat arbitrary since the age of adulthood is considered to be thirteen. Rav Yehonasan Eibshitz resolves this by giving some background.

Rav Eibshitz quotes a verse from Tehillim that states that the average life span of a human is seventy years. The numebr seven has extreme celestial connotations, as the natural world is perceived as being under the influences of the seven planets, the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn (a theme discussed in the some of the past few posts).

These planets are depicted as orbiting the Earth (this is how the human perceives them) and the order of the orbital circles is as follows (from farthest to closest): Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury and the Moon. Rav Eibshitz suggests that each planets plays a role in the development of the human and each has influence for ten years.

Saturn governs the first ten years and this is recognized through its Hebrew name, Shabsai, which comes from the same root as Shabbos and means to rest. Saturn has the slowest apparent orbital motion and appears to be resting. A human spends much of these years at home and not able to go out into the world. Thus, Saturn's influence is clearly seen.

The next ten years are those of Jupiter's influence. Known by the Hebrew word for righteousness, Tzedek, Jupiter is perceived to have some of the most beneficial and almost holy qualities. It is during the next ten years that the child will attain adulthood (thirteen for a boy and twelve for a girl) and be able to accomplish his holy task in this world by performing mitzvos.

Rav Eibshitz then suggests that Mars, known as Maadim meaning red, takes over. Mars is associated with blood and death and it is at this age that the human has the appropriate celestial qualities that make him a warrior. Therefore, it is at this stage that the Torah says men should be drafted.

Rav Eibshitz does not tell us why the following thirty years are under the influence of the Sun, Venus and then Mercury. He, instead skips to the last ten years of the average human's life and tells us of the associated lunar traits. Perhaps, from age thirty to forty one is considered to be associated with the Sun because the Sun is the most powerful of the planets. Its abilities and physical influence on Earth make it seem as if it is the most powerful celestial force. These middle years of the human are when he is able to accomplish much of what he will be able to accomplish. These years are the peak of his life.

From forty to sixty he is first influenced by Venus and then Mercury. Perhaps, these planets are chosen because they are both between Earth and the Sun (not in the perceived orbits mentioned above, but in the actual way they orbit the Sun). As such, they are only visible in the sky during the evening twilight and then into the early night or from late night into the morning twilight (Mercury being the closest planet to the Sun is actually never seen during night, but always in twilight). They are never seen in the middle of the night. Perhaps, this is symbolic of the aging of the human and the entrance into the twilight of his life. First with Venus which is visible sometimes just after or before twilight, and then with Mercury which is only seen in the twilight.

Lastly, the person's years from sixty to seventy are governed by the Moon. This is very pronounced, says Rav Eibshitz, by the person turning white. His hair turns gray and then white (I am just praying that I still have hair, at the rate I am going the chances are slim). The Moon is the whitest of the planets and its Hebrew name, Levana, comes from the same grammatical root as that of the word for white, Lavan.

(In case you have been noticing, a lot of the material for my posts, recently, has come from Rav Yehonasan Eibshitz. He seems to understand a lot of symbolism, especially numerical symbolism, to be intertwined with this type of astrology. If you enjoy this type of astrological expression I would highly encourage purchasing the chumash that is currently marketed as his peirushim and contains the Tiferes Yehonasan, which has this type of stuff on chumash, the Ahavas Yeshonasan, which has this type of stuff on haftarah and Divrei Yehonasan which contains a pilpulistic commentary to the chumash. Alternatively, Rabbeinu Bachye seems to offer a lot, as well, albeit with an extremely different style. I must admit, I personally am drawn more to Rabbeinu Bachye's style as it often is more associated with astronomy and I am more drawn to that as opposed to astrology. The style of the upcoming book is more of that nature and so were some of the older posts, but Rav Eibshitz's certainly catches my attention.)

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Determining the Identity of the Unicorn

Before I get into this post, let me first give a very basic overview as to what a constellation is. If one looks toward the sky he will be able to see hundreds, if not thousands, of stars (unless it is cloudy, daytime or he lives close to a city with lots of lights and pollution). It would be virtually impossible to discuss the different regions of the sky if they were not divided into smaller units. Throughout history, humankind has recognized different areas of the sky as being distinct sections. Each defined grouping of stars was pictured as an object (i.e. a lion, bull, etc.) and these formations (like connect the dots) are constellations. It is similar to looking at a map of the U.S. and then subdividing it into fifty states.

In the times of the Greeks there were forty-eight constellations, and the Ibn Ezra contends that Chazal agree with both this number and the actual division. These were considered to be Divinely created and to exert influence on life on this planet. As time continued, people decided that they needed to subdivide the sky into more regions (without any Divine intervention) otherwise it would be too difficult to converse with one another. The new divisions, which became standardized, provide a framework for both scientists and laymen to discuss the sky with relative ease. These constellations were generally created by astronomers interested in contemporary science and not astrologers who were interested in the influences of these regions. As such, the names of these often reflect more scientific objects such as Microscopium, etc. Currently, there are eighty-eight recognized constellations.

Now, let's talk about unicorns. There is a constellation called Monoceros. Monoceros is Greek for unicorn (mono = one and ceros = horn; interestingly, often times if you exchange the "c" in a Greek word for a "k" you get the Hebrew word, for example, Okaynus, and Oceanis for the word for Oceans. In this instance you get keresh) and that is what this constellation depicts. There is a discrepancy as to when this constellation was "created", but it seems that it was in the sixteenth or seventeenth century. It appears that Plancius is the first confirmed source for it and Bartsch(ius) definitely included it in his later work. A notable point is that there is discussion as to whether the, slightly earlier and very reputable historian, Joseph Scaliger allegedly claimed to have seen this constellation in a much earlier ancient Persian source. If so, that would, perhaps, place it as far back as the time of Chazal. If the Persians' unicorn was similar to that of the ones mentioned by Chazal, then this information could be used to ascertain this beast's identity.

About a year ago I made, what I feel, is a big discovery. I was learning the Ibn Ezra's Reishis Chachma for my upcoming sefer (sorry, I had to put in another shameless plug). When the Ibn Ezra delineates the constellations he only mentions the standard forty-eight of Chazal. However, he constantly refers to other segments and star patterns in the sky. This would be comparable to looking at the map of the U.S. and, in addition to the states (our constellations), we could also see some counties and regions. These are currently referred to as asterisms (i.e. the Big Dipper which is a segment of the constellation Ursa Major). When discussing Gemini, the constellation associated with the upcoming month of Sivan, the Ibn Ezra discusses some nearby asterisms. One of them is, you guessed it, Monoceros!!! At first I was completely amazed. It seemed that I had historical proof that this "constellation" did, in fact, predate (since the Ibn Ezra lived hundreds of years before) and that Scaliger's claim may have validity. Not only that, but the Ibn Ezra also refers to all the objects mentioned in his work as having influence on the planet, a suggestion implying that these are Divinely created asterisms. Since the only Reishis Chachma that I was able to get was a translation I set out to find a copy of the original Hebrew (something I had wanted to do anyway).

I finally located a copy published in 1939 that contained the original Hebrew as well as a French and English translation. The Hebrew reads "חיה בעלת קרן" which does sound like unicorn, but, I must concede, is not definitive anymore since one could argue that it just means a horned animal. I do find it very unlikely to be something other than the unicorn, though, because what is the likelihood of that happening in the exact location of the modern Monoceros which Scaliger claims predates its "modern creation".

Based on Scaliger's testimony and the above proof, it seems that Plancius and Bartsch were aware of the older asterism and decided to include it into the sky as a constellation (by the way, there is no reason to suspect that they intended to present this as their own creation, rather, it is very possible that they just intended to upgrade an asterism of ancient to the status of constellation in order to divide the sky into smaller parts). Scaliger's alleged sighting in the Persian source would have included a picture of the animal (it was common to draw the stars with fancy artistic representations of their associated items behind them) and it stands to reason that Plancius was aware of this information. Therefore, they would have known the Persian unicorn's true identity, which would probably be identical to the Ibn Ezra's.

There has been speculation as to the possibility of the unicorn being a giraffe. The giraffe has two horns on the top of its head, but another bump in the middle of its head. If it is the unicorn, then, what Chazal meant when they said an animal with one horn between its eyes was that in addition to two regular horns it had a third in between its eyes. The translation as unicorn would, then, be in error. If the giraffe is the only species of unicorn mentioned then, perhaps, the above stellar discoveries put a little doubt on this assertion (in addition to the asterism/constellation being called Monoceros as opposed to Triceros). There is another constellation created by Plancius and charted by Bartsch, Camelopardalis. In case you haven't figured it out, camelopardalis means giraffe in Latin (originating from the Greek) and Plancius was dedicating this region of the sky to this animal (once again, camel = gamal, o = u and pardalis = bardalis, a spotted cat like an ocelot; this would show the Hebrew equivalent of a mix between a camel and bardalis, a giraffe does look something like a mix of the two). The fact that there was another constellation created by the same people indicates that the two cannot be one and the same. The depiction that is in use, stemming from Plancius and Bartsch, is a horselike creature with a horn on its head.