The Science of the Sages

      My recent piece on “Jewish Accomplishment,” especially the parts detailing our Sages’ knowledge of science even in the ancient world, elicited some derisive comments from Jews who apparently have difficulty with religious authority. It is strange how nominally Orthodox Jews can be contemptuous of Chazal, whose words sustain us and whose ideas guide us until today. To take just one example, who can contemplate a Pesach without the contributions of Chazal ? The whole seder is a tribute to their divinely-inspired wisdom and prescience. Most of the hagada consists of verbatim selections from the Mishna, Gemara and Midrashim, and remain both relevant and inspirational after thousands of years. Can the critics claim similar accomplishments ? Of course not. Can they even aspire to those accomplishments, with their theme sedarim of environmentalist/feminist/unionist/etc. hagadot? To judge their success, talk to me in about a thousand years. (Actually, I would like that – talk to me in a  thousand years.)

     Part of their ridicule was based on certain scientific errors that the Talmudic Sages allegedly made, which to them, completely discounted and trivialized the knowledge of science they did have. But the critics make a conceptual error, likely out of ignorance. We should be rightly proud and astonished at Chazal’s knowledge of science, but that is not to say that scientific knowledge is a legacy of Sinai and part of the Mesorah of Torah. All it means is that intelligent people have an obligation to study the science of the times, and to keep current on the latest developments in all spheres of knowledge. From that perspective, their correct conclusions are astounding, and their “errors” were simply based on the flawed scientific information of the day none of which played a direct role in the realm of psak. (Bear in mind that formulations such as “spontaneous generation” were not only consistent with the science of the times, but with another basic halachic corollary – for purposes of halacha, physical phenomena are as we see them in their natural and unaided state. “The Torah speaks the language of man,” as do human beings generally in colloquial discourse. That is why the halacha, and normal people, refer to “sunrise” and “sunset” even though technically the “sun” is neither rising nor setting. So, too, “spontaneous generation” is perceived by the naked eye, even if it is not actually occurring.)

   Are there individuals who can derive scientific knowledge from the Torah ? I imagine there might have been, and might be, but I do not know any. We have no scientific mesorah, only an obligation to seek wisdom from every source and acknowledge the truth regardless of its spokesmen. Hence, the great Rebbi Yehuda HaNasi had no qualms about conceding that on a certain scientific matter (involving the sun’s rotation) in which the “wise men of Israel” disputed the “wise men of the nations” that “their view is preferable to ours,” i.e., the view of the non-Jewish scholars should prevail (Pesachim 94b). For that comment, Rebbi was not dismissed as Prince of Israel, nor was his official Tanna Society card confiscated. He is merely praised by us as a person of integrity.

    The critics should be gratified by such statements, and intellectual honesty, which was unheard of in the ancient world, through medieval times and even today, especially in “religious” circles. Jews never entertained persecuting a Galileo Galilei figure, whose scientific conclusions aroused the enmity of the 17th century Catholic establishment. (He recanted. Fortunately, he was pardoned by Pope John Paul II in 1992, and he received a posthumous apology from the Church.) The point is that persecution of scientists was and is unknown in Jewish life, except, I suppose, when scientists exceed their areas of expertise and begin pontificating on matters of morality and mesorah.

     The Torah was not given to us as a book of science, history, archeology or any secular realm but rather as divine wisdom that governs how man should live and pursue spiritual and intellectual perfection.

     How is it that some Jews cannot take pride in the mindboggling scholarship of our spiritual shepherds, then and now ? For example, one should marvel at the fact that the length of the solar year (according to Rav Ada bar Ahava) is 365 days, 5 hours, 55 minutes and 25-25/47th seconds, while the US Naval Observatory calculates it as exactly the same, except for 25.439 seconds. It doesn’t matter whether it was Rav Ada’s calculation or derived from the science of the day; it is clear from the dispute in the Gemara that he did not simply parrot an opinion but did his own independent research – as Chazal did regarding the conduction of electricity through metal, or (what became known as) Halley’s Comet, or that Chazal perceived the earth as “a ball” (Bamidbar Rabba 13:14) and verified it experientially. (Many such fascinating tidbits about the wisdom of the Sages in all areas of life are found in “A Book of Jewish Curiosities” published in 1955 by my wife’s grandfather, David M. Hausdorff a”h.)

    It might be that the resentment of the critics stems from their discontent with some of the Sages’ moral mandates, especially when they conflict with the modern agendas over which so many obsess and through which they sit in judgment of the qualifications of the Talmudic masters and their descendants. Or, it could simply be a testament to the dearth of Torah knowledge among some Jews, who have never learned with a Torah master and so cannot distinguish between mesorah, halacha, homiletics and general knowledge.

    And that is a crying shame. Ignorance of our heritage is the bane of Jewish existence, but does not stop Jews from weighing in on many subjects beyond their current capacities. In a world in which Koreans have fallen in love with Talmud study ( as the fount of all Jewish wisdom, should Jews willfully deprive themselves of their own heritage ?

     The secret of Jewish life is summed up by two words from the hagada of the Sages:  Tzei u’lmad – “Go forth and learn!” Then we will all take pride in our origins and heritage, in our commitment to wisdom and intellectual honesty, and in the special blessings that G-d bestowed upon His people on Pesach, this holiday of our founding.


15 responses to “The Science of the Sages

  1. Very few of the criticisms of your post that I’ve seen online (there were either none directly commenting on the original or you chose to not print them) showed “difficulty with religious authority.” They did, however, show a problem with attributing advanced scientific knowledge to chazal that they did not appear to have.

    You wrote: “… no credit is given to the Talmudic sages for their scientific discoveries – probably because they are unknown to the world at large.”. It is not a lack of respect to chazal’s religious authority to note that they made few, if any, documented scientific discoveries, and in fact, were heavily dependent on the science of their times. This idea is neither controversial nor new, and in fact was the dominant view of this issue (on the rare occasions that it came up) until modern times.

    You wrote “it is clear from even a superficial understanding of the Talmud that most of our Sages assumed the earth was a round sphere (not flat) and revolved around the sun” with no supporting documentation. R’ Slifkin and others have quite convincingly demonstrated quite the opposite.

    You wrote: “Chazal in several places (e.g., Sanhedrin 106b) refer to the laws pertaining to “a tower that flies in the air”, recognizing that airplane flight was a physical possibility” as proof of Chazal’s technological awareness. By that standard, the legend of Icarus shows that the ancient Greeks understood aerodynamics and hang-gliding.

    By all means, call for us to take pride in our heritage: the lunar calendar, for all its flaws, is indeed a remarkable achievement; however, that was not what you wrote. You very specifically called for people to be astonished at chazal’s advanced scientific knowledge, which they did not possess, and discoveries, which they did not make.

  2. You say they did not possess such knowledge, because they were not “documented.” But they were “documented,” in the Talmud. That was my point. You can explain away these statements that they didn’t really mean what they were saying, but then you are projecting your own conclusions onto their statements, and for your own reasons.

  3. Please cite a single example of a scientific discovery made by chazal documented in the talmud. I confess to not being baki bekol shas, but I am unaware of a single statement in the gemara that shows prescient scientific knowledge by chazal without resorting to tortured readings which go against the traditional understanding of the text.

    On the other hand, there are no shortage of talmudic sources showing that chazal’s scientific knowledge was consistent with that of their contemporaries and erroneous by modern standards. From a plain reading of the talmudic text, it is clear that Chazal believed that menstrual blood becomes milk (Niddah 9a), that the sun disappears behind a solid spherical firmament in which the stars are fixed(Pesachim 94), and that lice spontaneously generate. These views are consistent with the science of that time, and there is no reason to assume that they were speaking allegorically. This idea does not diminish my admiration and reliance upon them one iota.

    Lehavdil, Neils Bohr and Isaac Newton will be eternally lauded by chemists and physicists. Their theories have been proven fundamentally wrong, but their legacy lives on completely untarnished. Nobody would dare teach chemistry or physics without using the Bohr atomic model or Newton’s laws of motion. The tanna’im, amoraim, rishonim and acharonim who shaped and maintained our mesorah deserve our respect and awe (as I heard in the name of a local gadol:: “im rishonim c’malachim, anu b’nei adam” – it is only if we see chazal as angels that we can consider ourselves human); however, that does not require us to give them attributes that they never had or claimed.

  4. If you read carefully, I emphasize that Chazal are not primary sources of scientific knowledge, nor is that considered Torah or mesorah, but that they – like all wise people – were versed in the wisdom of their times, the correct and the incorrect. More cannot be expected.
    However, it is therefore uncanny, and gratifying, when we learn of the correct insights they had that were not widely known in their times, if at all.
    – RSP

  5. I completely agree. That chazal in general made full use of the maxim “chochma bagoyim ta’amin” is, and should be, a matter of great pride and inspiration to us (and, indeed, should continue to be a challenge for those of us who wear the title “Modern Orthodox” (of whatever stripe)). That is, however, not at all what you wrote in your original post, and that is why it was so criticized. You specifically claimed that chazal made scientific discoveries and had scientific knowledge beyond that of their non-Jewish contemporaries; that is simply not supported by the general understanding of their writings.

  6. You seem to have difficulty accepting that Chazal obviously had superior intellects. I.e., it sounds like it would bother you if indeed their knowledge of science in certain areas exceeded that of their contemporaries. You should think about that.
    But the fact that it bothers you does not make it untrue. Thanks for writing.

  7. You seem to have difficulty accepting that Chazal obviously had superior intellects. I.e., it sounds like it would bother you if indeed their knowledge of science in certain areas exceeded that of their contemporaries.

    I said nothing of the sort, but just to make it perfectly clear:

    1) I accept as a matter of dogmatic belief that Chazal had superior intellects (in the sense of “ability to reason”) and superior yir’at shamayim compared to anyone in the following generations. I acknowledge them as my intellectual, moral, religious, and inspirational source.

    2) I do not accept as a matter of dogmatic belief that chazal had scientific or worldy knowledge that was superior to that of their non-Jewish intellectual contemporaries or modern scientists. From what I see, the scientific statements in chazal demonstrate impressive familiarity with their contemporary science. I have not seen any statement from chazal that clearly demonstrates knowledge of science beyond that of their contemporaries, or discovery of scientific principles unknown at their time. You made the claim that chazal had such knowledge and made such discoveries. If you’d like to immediately silence your critics, all you have to do is demonstrate a single example where a statement by chazal clearly demonstrates scientific knowledge unknown by their contemporaries.

    3) I would not be disturbed in the least if there were unambiguous proof that chazal had superior scientific knowledge. Such proof would increase my admiration for chazal. The lack of such proof, however, does not in any way diminish said admiration. Kindly stop assigning to me motivations or emotions that I have not stated or implied.

  8. “You made the claim that chazal had such knowledge and made such discoveries. If you’d like to immediately silence your critics, all you have to do is demonstrate a single example where a statement by chazal clearly demonstrates scientific knowledge unknown by their contemporaries.”

    I mentioned four – “Thus, the Tosefta (Shabbat, Chapter 7) notes that an iron bar may be placed on a roof to attract lightning – long before old Ben Franklin discovered electricity. Chazal in several places (e.g., Sanhedrin 106b) refer to the laws pertaining to “a tower that flies in the air”, recognizing that airplane flight was a physical possibility, if then a practical impossibility. Rabban Gamliel used a telescope that could distinguish objects a kilometer away (Eruvin 43b). Rav Yehoshua knew of Halley’s comet – “a star that shoots across the sky once every 70 years” (Horayot 10a) – fifteen centuries before Edmond Halley (1656-1742) was a gleam in his mother’s eye.” It could be that the ancients knew of the conductivity of electricity, the possibility of flight for objects heavier than gravity or Halley’s comet; if so, it certainly detracts from Franklin and Halley. And I don’t know of any evidence of an ancient telescope similar to Rabban Gamliel.
    Likewise, please do not ascribe to me statements that I have not made but you are imputing from others. My point is, again, thatChazal’s knowledge of science was equal to their peers, and in some cases superior. If you choose to darshan away what the Gemara is stating, that is your choice.

  9. I really don’t intend to post here much anymore, but Franklin did not discover that lightning was drawn to tall metal things, he discovered that lightning was electric.

  10. Indeed.
    Good luck !

    • So you agree that knowing that if you stick a piece of metal somewhere high, that piece of metal is more likely to get hit by lightning than other things (what the Tosefta says) is not the same as knowing that if you stick a key in a leiden jar, that key will become electrified if it’s struck by lightning (what Franklin proved)? Because your post suggests that those two things are somehow similar. They’re not.

  11. *sigh* and we now have an impasse. The four sources you cite are far from unambiguous, but if I were to critique them, you will naturally assume that I am doing so out of a desire to reduce the glory and honor of chazal. All I can ask is that reasonable people look at the sources you cite (with the traditional commentary, of course) and the relevant scientific history, and see if it is reasonable to claim that chazal had superior scientific knowledge on the basis of those sources. To my (limited, but not non-existant) understanding of both, it is not.

  12. Ex Exteaneck and Efrex

    Can you please stop posting these people’s comments?
    “Efrex” and “ExTeaneck” are seemingly bitter people with a lot of animosity built up towards God, Chazal, and probably you. It seems that no one has ever cared what they have had to say, so they use your blog as a venue to voice their foolish views.
    End the madness!

  13. The term science also refers to the organized body of humans have gained by such ..Most feel that scientific investigation must adhere to the a process for evaluating under the working assumption of which explains events in by natural causes without assuming the existence or non-existence of the . Particular specialized studies that make use of empirical methods are often referred to as sciences as well. .There are many different conceptions of the word science ..According to scientific theories are objective empirically testable and predictive they predict empirical results that can be checked and ..In contrast defines science in terms of science attempts to identify phenomena and entities in the environment their causal powers the mechanisms through which they exercise those powers and the sources of those powers in terms of the things structure or internal nature..Even in the empiricist tradition we must be careful to understand that prediction refers to the outcome of an experiment or study rather than to literally predicting the future.