Jump to content


Chazal's Scientific Knowledge

  • Please log in to reply
3 replies to this topic

#1 AlHal



  • Members
  • 19 posts

Posted 30 April 2012 - 03:33 AM

Please can you let me know if we have to believe Chazal's scientific knowledge is accurate.
It seems Rambam says no in Moreh Nevuchim 3:14.
Additionally in Pesachim 94 the jewish rabbis defer to the non jewish scholars. If the rabbis were looking at a spiritual world then what's the relevance of their observations to us living in the physical world.
Was Rabbeinu Tam's explanation about a spiritual world included in the Tosphos on that page (afraid my Aramaic isn't that good)?

There are also numerous examples in later years where we say "nature has changed" since Chazal's time including details of antaomy. Is it credible to believe in these changes?
When did these changes occur and for what reason?

Thanks very much for offering this service.

#2 Rabbi Shapiro

Rabbi Shapiro


  • Administrators
  • 1,423 posts

Posted 06 May 2012 - 03:33 PM

Please can you let me know if we have to believe Chazal's scientific knowledge is accurate.

In general, yes. Chazal in general got their scientific knowledge from the Torah, and so it has the same status as anything Chazal derive from the Torah.

It seems Rambam says no in Moreh Nevuchim 3:14.

The Rambam says no such thing. One the contrary - he does not say Chazal's knowledge of science was faulty, he singled out their knowledge of astronomy and said it specifically was faulty. The reason is, as the Rambam himself explains (Hilchos Kiddush Hachodesh 17:24), we used to know astronomy from our Mesorah. We had wirtings on the topic from the tribe of Yissachar which were written during the days of the prophets. But, the Rambam says, our astronomy writings were unfortunately lost, and so we have no choice but to rely on what the secular scientists say. But, he adds, we would only rely on the scientists when we can independently verify that their opinions are correct. We would not trust them without such verification.

But that was only regarding astronomy. It is the exception, not the rule, because we lost our ancient Jewish astronomy texts.

You also see that the Jews had a Mesorah independent of that of the secular scientists' that we would have followed in favor of the opinions of the scientists. It is only because (a) we lost it, and (b.) we can independently verify the scientists' opinions, that it matters to us what the scientists say.

Plus, of course, the Rambam's opinion is not unanimously accepted. You mentioned, for example, Rabbeinu Tam. He does not mean the rabbis were looking into a "spiritual world," but I suppose it depends how you define the term. The world Rabbeinu Tam is referring to is the one we live in, He is merely saying that there are elements of this world that are not observable by scientific methods.

It's as if someone were to tell you that the chair you are sitting on may seem to you like a solid mass, but it is actually an energy soup, comprised of energy particles flying in all sorts of directions, and if someone could release the energy in that chair, they could blow up New York.

That would have been considered crazy, until the scientists realized it was true.

What you call the "spiritual world" is as much a part part of our world as the parts that the scientists can observe.

This is why Rambam says that Maaseh Bereishis needs to be hidden, and can only be taught to a select few. The Rambam's opinion is the Maaseh Bereishis is scientific knowledge. Why would scientific knowledge need to be hidden?

The Ran answers that when the Rambam refers to scientific knowledge in this context, he means scientific knowledge that can only be accessed through Ruach HaKodesh. Not through scientific observation.

In other words, there is much that the scientists have not discovered about our world, and even more that they will never discover. Our world contains "infinite wisdom" (Rambam Yesodei HaTorah 2:2), and the abilities of the scientists are finite. There is wisdom in our world that is so deep the scientists cannot and will not ever find it, but Ruach HaKodesh can.

And that's the level of science Chazal knew.

This science is as relevant to our world as atoms. And just as the fact that you cannot see atoms with the naked eye does not make them less "relevant," so too the fact that you cannot see Rabbienu Tam's rakiah with telescopes does not make it any less relevant.

Please see here, here and here. And please listen to these Shiurim - they deal with this topic at length. Chazal clearly made scientific statements knowing full well that the "secular scientists" would have no idea what they are talking about. Besulim chozrim was my example. Chazal knew that scientists would deny such a statement about the physical world, but they said it anyway. If the scientists can't see regenerated besulim, that's fine - they can't see atoms either, unless they use the right tools. The right tool for seeing this particular physical reality is the Torah.

Was Rabbeinu Tam's explanation about a spiritual world included in the Tosphos on that page (afraid my Aramaic isn't that good)?

He said that the reality is different than what you see in the observable world. Anybody who looks up in the sky will see the sun setting differently than Rabbeinu Tam - and the Gemora which is Rabbeinu Tam's source - says it does. And Rabbienu Tam knew this. Clearly, then, Rabbeinu Tam was referring to a different process than the one you observe in the sky.

But even without that, Rabbeinu Tam himself says that we Jews won the argument against the non-Jewish scholars. If you can come up with a different reason we were right, it would still not diminish the fact that the non-Jewish scholars were wrong.

And, by the way, the Shulchan Aruch paskens l'Halachah like Rabbeinu Tam.

There are also numerous examples in later years where we say "nature has changed" since Chazal's time including details of antaomy. Is it credible to believe in these changes?
When did these changes occur and for what reason?

I'm not sure what you mean by "we" say. It depends who says it and why.

Regarding when and why things change, that also depends on the individual change we are talking about. We know for example that in ancient times, people lived for hundreds of years. Even according to those who say that the personalities who we know lives that long were exceptions, still, it used to be that such exceptions were possible. That doesn't happen anymore.

Why people don't live that long anymore? I can only guess. Maybe it has to do with the impact people's sins has on the world; maybe it has to do with something scientific - who knows? There are so many possibilities, but I cannot tell you which one or ones is or are correct.

And when did this change? This, too, depends on the specific change you are talking about. And whether it happened fast or slow also needs to be determined.

#3 tryme139



  • Members
  • 9 posts

Posted 26 October 2012 - 06:18 AM

Hi Rabbi Shapiro

You say here: http://www.baismedra...rical-question/ and also talk about it here: http://www.jewswithq...the-suns-orbit/ that effectivly Chazal, when describing many "scientific" facts are describing the real reality rather than thereality that scientists are able to observe.

I have two questions:

1. Did Chazal know all of these facts through their higher ability to percieve reality, or through mesorah. Your article seems to suggest both, or at least some combination of both. If it was through ability to pecieve reality, when was this ability lost, or has it been? For example, with regards to Rabeinu Taam's sunset, it would appear that the Amoraim (according to Rabeinu Taam at least) were clear about this fact, however you mention that the Maharam Alashkar disagrees. If it is a matter of being able to see the world correctly, whay could Maharam Alashkar not percieve this fact? Was the ability to percieve lost through the intervening generations? If it was through Mesorah, however, I could understand that the Maharam Alashkar simply never received this mesorah and therefore relied on observable facts.

2. The question of the article linked above is "Did Chazal Know Science?" While ou explain how Chazal's statements are not at odds with reality, I think the question still remains, did Chazal know the science of the "observable" or "natural" universe? Dis Chazal know that, for example, matter is made up of molecules, which are made up of atoms, which are made up of sub-atomic particles etc. Did Chazal know about the laws of motion and gravity (the scientists of the Tanaim and Amoraim's times, notably Aristotle seem to have been very mistaken about the laws of motion for example)? If so, how did they know this?

#4 Rabbi Shapiro

Rabbi Shapiro


  • Administrators
  • 1,423 posts

Posted 08 November 2012 - 07:53 AM

1. They got it from their understanding of the Torah. In the Torah is contained the blueprint of all creation. That sometimes includes from Mesorah as well, and always includes what you refer to as their "higher understanding", which is what makes them great sages and us, chopped liver. In other words, the same reasons they were able to derive a correct Halachah from the Torah - their superior understanding and knowledge of it, their Mesorah, their Yiras-Shamayim induced Siyata Dishmaya, and more - they were able to derive natural facts from it as well.

Long ago, before Chazal, Avraham Avinu was able to derive the Torah from natural facts - the Torah wasn't even given then. Chazal, though of course not on the same level as Avrohom, used the same process in reverse to derive natural facts.

And yes, of course we cannot do this nowadays, because we are not on the Torah level of Chazal. Remember: Chazal understanding a scientific fact was a result of their understanding the Torah, because scientific facts are contained in the Torah. When the נתקטנו הדורות happens in Torah knowledge,so too is our ability to derive natural facts from it.

The Maharam Alashkar's disagreement with Rabbeinu Tam was not due to his inability to see the real Rakia. He knew of its existence the same way we do (even though we can't see it), and likely he was aware of it even more than we are. He certainly knew that these kind of non-observable facts exist. He never denied any of that. All he was saying is that he does not believe that this could be the pshat in the Gemora. He did not believe that this was the topic of the disagreement between the Chachmei Yisroel and Chachmei HaUmos. He did not disagree on any facts, but he held that's not pshat in the Gemora.

2. The question of "Did Chazal know observable science" does not "remain," since it was not addressed in the post you cite. The question there was do Chazal's statements about the natural world contradict scientific observations? The answer to that is no (assuming the scientific observations are accurate). As to your question regarding whether they knew observable natural phenomena, the answer is yes they did. There is no reason they would not. They knew nature from the Torah.

Asking if there were specific natural facts they did not know is the same as asking whether there were any specific Halachic facts they did not know. Of course, the Gemora has unanswered תיקו quesitons in Halachah, and so too it is possible that they could have had unanswered questions regarding nature. Knowing nature and knowing a Pshat in a Posuk was the same skill to them.

But just as when they did say they knew a Halacha, we cannot use the fact that sometimes they say תיקו to extrapolate and say they "may not" be correct even when they say they are, so too even if Chazal had "תיקו' questions in nature, when they say they did know, they knew it with the same authority and qualifications that they knew Torah.