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Chazal's View of the World

-The sages of the Talmud believed the world is flat.
-The halachic international dateline is based on incorrect assumptions.

The Sun and the Earth

It is frequently difficult to determine whether an ancient writer believed that the sun revolves around the earth - the geocentric view - or the earth revolves around the sun - the heliocentric view. The reason for this is that people naturally describe events as they see it. Whether it is the earth revolving on its axis or the sun orbitting the earth, we still call it "sunset" because from our perspective it seems like the sun is moving down the horizon. Similarly, when we see ancient writers describing the phenomena they witnessed, we do not know whether they are telling us what they saw or how they believed the universe worked. Regardless, it was not until decades after Copernicus that scientists accepted the heliocentric view - that the earth revolves around the sun. Before that, the clear scientific consensus was the opposite - the geocentric view. Any rabbi who disagreed with the geocentric view would have been considered foolish and ignorant. It is therefore not surprising that many rabbis did not disagree with the scientific experts. However, this might provide us with some insight ion how we relate to scientists. Sometimes even "experts" can be wrong and a little skepticism is usually healthy.

Regarding the shape of the earth, the early Greek scientist Pythagorus (sixth century BCE) knew that the earth was round. However, this view did not become accepted among scientists until Ptolemy championed it in the early second century. When discussing this topic, it is important to differentiate between the various views. Historically, there were four approaches (this and much of this article was taken from an article by R. Menachem Kasher).

1) The earth is flat and is resting on some sort of foundation.

2) The earth is flat but is floating in the air or nothingness.

3) The earth is round but its "bottom" half is immersed in water.

4) The earth is round and both sides are inhabitable.

The First View

No rabbi could ever hold the first view, that the earth is flat and is supported by something. After all, the Bible says in Job 26:7 "He suspends the earth upon nothingness." Some bring proof that the talmudic sages contradicted this verse and followed the first view from the following Gemara in Chagiga 12b but as we will see it was meant metaphorically and not literally.

R' Yossi said: Woe to those who see but do not know what they see and stand but do not know on what they stand. On what does the land stand? On pillars, as it says (Job 9:6) "Who shakes the earth in its place and its pillars tremble." The pillars [stand] on water... the water on the mountains... the mountains on wind... the wind on storm... Storm is supended in the arm of G-d...

The sages said: [The land stands] on 12 pillars... Some say: On 7 pillars... R' Elazar ben Shamua said: On one pillar and its name is tzaddik, as it says (Proverbs 10:25) "A righteous one (tzaddik) is the foundation of the world."

At first glance it would seem that there is a debate between the first two views of the shape of the earth. The sages and R' Elazar ben Shamua follow the first view that the earth is flat and resting on something, in this case pillars. R' Yossi follows the second view that the earth is flat but ultimately rests on nothing - on G-d's arm. However, why does R' Elazar ben Shamua give the pillar the name tzaddik - a righteous person? This is a clear sign for those who did not already detect it that this passage is an Aggadata. The passage is a metaphor meant to teach an ethical lesson which the commentators explain. The Maharsha suugests that the earth rest on free will and that this is the real message of the passage. See there for more details. However, as fascinating as this passage is, there is no information here for us about the talmudic sages' view of the shape of the earth.

The Second, Third and Fourth Views

What was the sages' view on this topic? Rav Saadia Gaon is quoted by the Ri of Barcelona in his commentary on Sefer Yetzirah (p. 254a) as saying that a minority (miktzat) of sages believed that the earth is flat. We can see this best in Pesachim 94b.

The sages of Israel say, "During the day the sun travels below the sky and at night it travels above the sky." The wise men of the nations say, "During the day the sun travels below the sky and at night it travels below the earth." Rabbi [Yehuda HaNassi] said, "Their words seem [more correct] than ours because the underground streams are cold during the day and warm at night."

According to the Jewish sages, the sun at night goes above the sky. In other words, the earth is flat and the sun must therefore travel back and forth above and below the sky. According to the Gentile wise men, the sun at night goes below the earth. In other words, the earth is round and, at least from our perspective, the sun travels around the earth. It would seem at this point that the majority of Jewish sages believed that the earth is flat. However, Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi - Rebbe - said that the Gentile wise men had a better proof and, presumably, were correct. Most commentators, with the notable exception of Rabbeinu Tam, understand Rebbe as agreeing with the Gentile wise men. As Rashi, Rosh, Rambam, his son, and many others read this passage, Rebbe was convinced by a scientific proof that the Jewish sages were incorrect and therefore changed his view and sided with the Gentile wise men. Rabbeinu Tam, as quoted in Shita Mekubetzet in Ketuvot, claims that Rebbe only conceded that the Gentile wise men had a better proof, not that they were correct.

Rebbe's proof is that underground streams are warmed at night. This could mean that Rebbe followed the third view - that the world is round and the bottom half is immersed in water. Therefore, when the sun rounds the earth at night, the water is warmed and the warmth quickly travels throughout the attached water bodies.

This very argument between the Jewish sages and the Gentile wise men was raised again in Bereshit Rabbah 6:8, only this time between R. Yehuda bar Ilai and the sages. One side argued that the sun sets going up, implying that the sun at night goes above the sky. The other side argued that the sun sets going down, implying that the sun at night goes around the earth. (Who said what depends on the edition. Compare the Venice and Vilna editions.) R' Yochanan then said that there is a proof to either side and R' Shimon bar Yochai is quoted as saying that we cannot determine which side is correct. In other words, R' Yochanan and R' Shimon bar Yochai were not sure whether the earth is round or flat.

We find the following in the Talmud Yerushalmi, Avoda Zara 3:1:

R' Yonah said: When Alexander the Macedonian wanted to go back, he flew [on the back of an eagle] higher and higher until he saw the earth as a ball and the sea as a plate.

R' Yonah quotes a Greek legend and accepted the fact that the earth is round. The seas, however, are flat according to R' Yonah, similar to the water in a bowl that flattens out on top despite the roundness of the bowl. This would be the fourth view we mentioned above. Alternatively, he may have believed that the ball of the earth is enclosed in a bowl of water like the third view. This Yerushalmi is quoted approvingly by Tosafot, Avoda Zara 41a sv kakadur. That is why, Tosafot explain, there were some pagans who worshipped balls. The ball represented the earth, and we know that the earth was a common theme in ancient paganism. Bamidbar Rabbah 13:17 says that the world is like a ball. Ramban on Numbers 7:12 quotes this midrash and seems to add that the world is surrounded by water, like the third view above.

In Bereshit Rabbah 63:14 we find the following anonymous statement. "'Then Yaakov gave to Esav bread and lentil stew.' Just like a lentil is made like a wheel, so the world is made like a wheel." While the term "wheel" could mean that the earth is flat but round like a wheel, the comparison to a lentil tells us that the implication is that the world is spherical. Similarly, in Esther Rabbah 1:7 R' Pinchas tells us, "The world is made like a crown."

Chagiga 12a:

R' Elazar said: Adam was [so tall that he stood] from the earth to the sky, as it says (Deuteronomy 4:32) "From the day that G-d created Adam on the earth [and to the end of the heaven]." Once he sinned, G-d put His hands on him and made him small, as it says (Psalms 139:5) "You have hedged me behind and before." Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: Adam was [so tall that when he lay down he was] from one end of the world to the other end, as it says (Deuteronomy 4:32) "From the day that G-d created Adam on the earth"...

Rav said that when Adam lay down, he was so tall that he reached from one end of the world to the next. This is said by some to imply that the world is flat. After all, a round world has no end. However, this is most likely a midrashic exaggeration similar to R' Eliezer's view that Adam reached up to the sky. As the Yad Ramah on Sanhedrin 38a explains, R' Eliezer was just trying to aggadically say that Adam was very tall. Similarly, Rav was trying to say that Adam was very tall and his use of the terms "end of the world" could easily have referred to the horizon, i.e. the end of the visible world, to the inhabited world, or to some indefinable far away place.

The Zohar on Vayikra p. 10a says something relevant. While one can never be sure whether the Zohar is speaking of the physical world or the spiritual world, we will quote it anyway with the reader forewarned. The Zohar says, "In the book of Rav Hamnuna Sava it is explained that all the world rolls in a circle like a ball... There are places in the world that when it is light for those on one side of the sphere it is dark for those on the other."

What we have seen is that there were different opinions among the sages about the shape of the earth. While, as Rav Saadia Gaon said, only some (miktzat) believed that the world is flat, there were attempts to prove the shape from observation of heating patterns. Others disputed these proofs and remained uncertain.

The International Date Line

A corollary to the roundness of the earth is something mentioned in the Zohar. There is always light someplace in the world and darkness someplace else. It is always day somewhere. This concept assumes the roundness of the world because according to those who believe that the world is flat, the sun travels back to the east above the sky when it is night for the whole world (because the sun is hidden above the sky). The Gemara in Nazir 7a also seems to say that day and night occur at the same time, which implies that the earth is round. See the glosses of Maharatz Chayes on that passage.

Around this issue of constant day and night revolves another issue, that of the international date line. Because the sun is in a different position relative to every place on the earth, these places are at a different time. If it is late Friday morning in New York, then it is early Friday morning in California. Going west, it gets earlier and earlier. Friday morning turns into Thursday night which, going further west, turns into Thursday evening, and then Thursday afternoon. All this is at exactly the same point in time. Going west, Thursday afternoon turns into Thursday morning. Yet, we are back in New York where the sun is in the morning position. But is it Friday morning or Thursday morning? To avoid this paradox, it is necessary to have an international date line that separates one day from another. Crossing this date line to the west would take you from Thursday morning to Friday morning.

The main source for the establishment of this halachic date line is the Baal Hamaor at the end of the first chapter of Rosh Hashana. The Baal Hamaor, R' Zerachiah HaLevy, explains that the world is a sphere that can be divided into four quarters. Since a day is 24 hours long, each quarter is six hours long (in modern terms, we would say that each quarter is 90 degrees long). The Gemara in Rosh Hashana 20b says that a court in Israel can not declare a day to be Rosh Chodesh unless the new moon appeared before noon on that day. The Baal Hamaor explains that noon is 18 hours after nightfall on the previous day. The Gemara is saying that at noon in Israel the last place in the world has reached nightfall of the previous day. In other words, 18 hours of the world, three quarters, are behind Israel in time. Six hours, one quarter, are ahead. Before noon on any day, the place 18 hours behind Israel has not yet started that day and if a court declares it to be Rosh Chodesh, the place 18 hours behind Israel will observe Rosh Chodesh for a full 24 hours. If the court were to declare the day Rosh Chodesh after noon, the place 18 hours behind Israel would have already started the day and would therefore not observe a full 24 hours of Rosh Chodesh. Therefore, the court must declare it before noon so that some place in the world will observe a full Rosh Chodesh.

Since 18 hours behind Israel is the place farthest behind Israel, it must be the place of the halachic international date line. 18 hours (270 degrees) before Israel, and therefore 6 hours (90 degrees) ahead, is where a day is cut off and Thursday morning turns into Friday morning. Whether the Baal Hamaor's knowledge of land masses so far away from his native Provence is exactly correct is irrelevant. He explained how the Gemara understood the roundness of the world and applied it to halacha.

In summary, there was no single view of the shape of the world among the sages of the Talmud. Some believed the world is flat and other were unsure. Most, however, believed that the world is round which has now been proven correct.

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Contributor(s): Gil Student
Last revised: 11/19/01
© Aishdas 2001