Monday, July 4, 2011

The Nature of “The” Rakia, Part Five—The Rakia and The BiasSphere


No, “BiasSphere” is not a misspelling;[1] just a new coinage. In this post, I will analyze the Malbim’s comments on the passage “יהי רקיע,” in which he cites the Abarbanel’s comments on the same, and then Rabbi Slifkin’s representation of the Malbim. This will in turn provide some interesting insight to the sphere of “bias,” specifically regarding statements made about the celestial spheres.

The Malbim on this passage ("יהי רקיע") is a marvelous read, in which he brings strong evidence from Scriptures and Chazal that the rakia is the upper part of the atmosphere where clouds form.[2]

His method of presentation is to cite the Abarbanel’s comments, offer his criticism, and then offer his own interpretation with proofs. Let us first see what the Abarbanel says.


Abarbanel cites five interpretations by bible commentators[3] on the identity of the rakia, critiques them, rejects them, and then offers a sixth, his own. (He initially attempts to find a single definition that fits every reference to rakia in Scriptures and Chazal, but he concludes that Chazal differed with one another.)

1. Interestingly, he first cites the interpretation of “some of the ancient non-Jews,” that the rakia is “the uppermost sphere that surrounds all” the universe.

2. He then describes a second opinion, which he says Rashi, Ramban, Rabbeynu Nissim and Ralbag “apparently lean toward,” that the rakia formed on Day Two is the general sphere really consisting of all the celestial bodies. It is the same thing as the shamayim created on Day One, but more solidified.

3. Next is the opinion promoted in a work called, “Y’sod HaOlam” by a Rabbi Yitzchak Yisraeli. This posits that the rakia is “the sphere of earthly substance[s] that exist between the earth and the moon.”

4. The fourth opinion is that the rakia is the אויר, the air, or atmosphere, consisting of the biosphere, the cloud region, and the thinner air above it. This, he notes, was the opinion of the Rambam (he later includes the Ibn Ezra) “followed by Ibn Tibbon, Ibn Caspi, Ibn Letov, Narboni, Al Balag and others.” [4]

5. The fifth opinion is that of Rav Saadia Gaon and some non-Jewish scholars, that the rakia is an imperceptible but strong sphere “made on the Second Day within the element of water, placed between the space of the world, waters placed above it and other waters beneath it.” The Abarbanel notes that the Ibn Ezra wrote that “the Gaon said things about the rakia that are not so,” and he sees no value in such a vague and unverifiable definition.

6. Abarbanel finally offers his own opinion, backed by Scripture and Chazal . It is basically the same as the second opinion above—which he attributed to Rashi, Ramban, Rabbeynu Nissim and Ralbag—that the Day Two rakia consists of the celestial spheres and bodies. The difference is as follows: Abarbanel maintains that the Day Two entities were first broken off from part of the originally thicker great shamayim Sphere created on Day One. What remained of the original Sphere is what is referred to as the “Waters” above the rakia. Rashi, etc., held otherwise: that all the entities had already existed, albeit in a more ethereal state, on Day One; on Day Two, they merely “solidified.”

Abarbanel then matches each of those opinions with one of the various opinions of Chazal as to the meaning of “יהי רקיע—Let there be a rakia.” There is but one exception which, he maintains, has no basis in Chazal: the fourth one—held by Rambam, Ibn Ezra, the other “Ibn’s,” etc.—that the rakia is the atmosphere.


Malbim,[5] in turn, rejects all the opinions cited by Abarbanel, and rejects the claim that they represent any of Chazal’s opinions. But one must pay close attention to his presentation. He says, “במהות הרקיע הזה נבוכו בו המפרשים, והרי"א הביא חמש שטות”—The commentators are in confusion over the nature of the rakia, and R. Yitzchak Abarbanel cites five opinions,” and then he lists five opinions, including Abarbanel’s.

Now, as we’ve seen, the Abarbanel actually listed a total of six, not five opinions. The Malbim omitted mention of one opinion—the opinion that differs in kind from all the others, and is backed by the Rambam, Ibn Ezra, and several other commentators. Why he omitted that one (and was only saying, in effect, “the following are five of the opinions listed by Abarbanel, but not all of them”) becomes apparent from the first words of his rejection of the others:

וכל אלה הדעות נבנו על קורי עכביש שערגו הראשונים שיש גלגלים במציאות אבל בימינו התברר היטב שכל צבאות השמים שטים באויר ספירי ודק מאד הנקרא איתר ואין גלגך במציאות.

And all these opinions are built upon cobwebs the ancients wove, that there are actual celestial spheres in existence. But in our days it has been well clarified that all the heavenly hosts glide in the transparent and extremely thin air called “ether,” and no celestial sphere exists.[6]

The reason the Malbim omitted that opinion is that, in saying the rakia is the atmosphere, it is not subject to his criticism that it is built upon the belief on celestial spheres. On the contrary, it is relatively close to his own conclusion. Namely, that while the rakia of Day Two is not the entire atmosphere excluding the clouds, it is nevertheless a part of that atmosphere. It is the cloud region. The Malbim nevertheless emphasizes the difference between his explanation and that of the Rambam et al.[7]

It should also be noted who the Malbim meant by the “rishonim” who took “rakia” to mean the celestial spheres. He was not talking about the Rishonim such as Rashi and the Rambam. He was referring to the “ancients,” the philosophers who, to explain the heavenly bodies’ perceived movements, contrived the existence of spheres that carry the stars.

Furthermore, we note that the rishonim who identified the “rakia” as the atmosphere rather than any alleged celestial sphere, nevertheless did go along with the science of the day that considered the existence of celestial spheres undeniable. Their identifying the rakia with the atmosphere was a result of objective analysis of Scripture and Chazal, not a result of disbelief in the existence of the spheres.

Rabbi Slifkin, lehavdil

Bearing all this in mind, one can clearly see that Rabbi Slifkin misunderstands the Malbim’s comments. He gives the impression that all the Rishonim believed the rakia to be a solid firmament, that the Malbim was the first to interpret rakia differently, and that the real reason he did so was not because of an objective study of Scriptures and Chazal (of which the unbiased Rabbi Slifkin is capable), but because, despite what Chazal taught, modern science forced him to do. Here is what he writes [with my comments in bold inserted]:

The important point to recognize for now is that Chazal (and most of the Rishonim) universally interpreted various words in the Torah [by “various words,” I suppose Rabbi Slifkin means rakia and shamayim] to be describing the heavens as a solid firmament above us. [This “solidity” claim, denoting a harder-than-atmosphere texture, has been repeatedly refuted elsewhere.] And yet, nobody today believes that such a structure exists.

Malbim was sensitive to this problem. In his commentary to Bereishis 1:6, Malbim rejects the view that the rakia is a solid firmament. [No, Malbim does not mention or imply “solidity.” However, following the academia of his day, Malbim dismissed the idea that celestial spheres carry the stars, in favor of the idea that the stars move independently within the “ether.”] He argues that it refers to the atmosphere [but so did the Rambam and Ibn Ezra, as the Malbim himself notes, and many other commentators long before the Malbim!] - an argument that we shall analyze in a later post. Malbim acknowledges that all the Rishonim believed it to be a solid firmament, [Again, no. In fact, he explicitly refers to the Rambam, Ibn Ezra, et al who identified the rakia with the atmosphere; and by the word “rishonim,” the Malbim is referring to the ancient philosophers] and declares them mistaken. However, he claims that the Sages were also of the view that there is no solid firmament, citing R. Shimon bar Yochai as saying that the stars move through the air. But this is deeply problematic. First of all, Malbim does not adequately deal with all the passages in the Talmud which speak of a solid firmament [There are none—ZL] (his novel explanation of Pesachim 94b [Where?] is not shared by anyone else at all). [And the “Rationalist’s” assault on the mesorah is shared by others? On the contrary, it is condemned by all classical authorities.]

Second, the words of R. Shimon bar Yochai cited by Malbim do not exist in our version of Bereishit Rabbah 6:8, which reads quite differently; apparently Malbim had a corrupted text. [No, the Malbim is clearly pointing out that one of the possibilities Rashbi offered was that the movement of the stars was not related to any galgalim. All the Malbim says is, “ורשב"י במדרש אמר שהכוכבים שטים באויר".”—“Rashbi said [as one of his possibilities] the stars fly in the air.” Our version of the Midrash indeed reads: אמר רבי שמעון בן יוחאי אין אנו יודעין אם פורחין הן באויר ואם שפין ברקיע ואם מהלכין הן כדרכן הדבר קשה מאד ואי אפשר לבריות לעמוד עליו. The Malbim paraphrased “פורחין הן באויר” as “שטים באויר.” Both phrases mean the stars fly in the air, independent of something carrying them. The claim of “a corrupted text” to dismiss the Malbim’s well-taken point is a red herring.]

Third, even if R. Shimon bar Yochai did speak of stars moving through the air, [“if”? Is Rabbi Slifkin insinuating that there is another version in which R. Shimon bar Yochai does not say so?!] this in no way denies the existence of a solid firmament [Yes it does, because the whole imagery of ethereal spheres, especially if taken literally, was a speculation concocted by the ancients in order to explain what makes the stars move; no scriptural verse attempts to explain the means by which Hashem makes the stars or planets appear to move as they do; R. Shimon bar Yochai says “we cannot know” how to explain the motions of the stars, and they may move through the rakia (“air” or space) on their own, independent of any spheres, and the entire matter is one of speculation, not mesorah. The burden of extraordinary proof lies on Rabbi Slifkin who—in order to build his extraordinary case that contrary to all Torah scholarship since its inception, it is legitimate to reject any of the mesorah—maintains that Chazal, including R. Shimon bar Yochai, universally held there was a mesorah that saw the rakia as a solid, opaque entity.]

Back To The BiasSphere

Now the question arises: When the Malbim wrote, “וכל אלה הדעות נבנו על קורי עכביש שערגו הראשונים,” why did Rabbi Slifkin miss what the Malbim meant by “rishonim”? Why didn’t he notice the Malbim explicitly referring to rishonim who, long before him, understood the rakia to be the atmosphere? Why did these words become invisible to him? Answer to all three questions: bias.

Why can’t Rabbi Slifkin see the baselessness to depict the definition of rakia as a mesorah? Why does he habitually revert to thinking that despite no such statement, and despite statements from rishonim to the contrary, Chazal considered the rakia to be harder than the atmosphere, and that this was a mesorah? Again, one word: bias.

The Malbim cited the Abarbanel as offering five opinions about the rakia’s identity, omitting any opinion of the rakia meaning the atmosphere. Why did Rabbi Slifkin run with that, and declare that “Malbim acknowledges that all the Rishonim believed it to be a solid firmament”? Why did he not go on to check the Abarbanel, where he would have seen that he actually quotes six opinions, spending three columns discussing the opinion that it refers not to celestial spheres, but to the atmosphere? Why did he not at least see that farther on, the Malbim himself mentions that opinion?

And why did I?

Answer: When Rabbi Slifkin came across a statement by the Malbim “וכל אלה הדעות נבנו על קורי עכביש שערגו הראשונים שיש גלגלים במציאות” that at first sight may appear to be saying that all the Rishonim believed the rakia to be a solid firmament, he perceived a validation of his rejecting (part of) the mesorah, and he ceased further investigation.

When Zvi Lampel came across that statement, he remembered learning that the Rambam, among others, took the rakia to be the atmosphere, and was perplexed over how the Malbim could say otherwise about the Rishonim. He was also motivated by his sharing—together with all the rishonim and acharonim and all the Torah literature that exists—the bias to uphold the mesorah and to be skeptical of academic claims of its being compromised. Therefore, Zvi Lampel investigated further, checked the Abarbanel, re-read the Malbim and continued reading his commentary further, and came to the realization that Malbim’s use of the word “rishonim” was the less usual one, referring to the ancient philosophers, and that it was to make his point, that the Malbim tentatively omitted the widely held opinion that the rakia is the atmosphere, although he was aware of it.

Hashem’s Torah and mesorah are our guideposts to the truth. As B’nei Yisrael, we are privileged to have experienced Mattan Torah and to have received a mesorah from the prophets that, among other things, Creation was a meta-natural process. Am I biased? You bet I am! And that bias is the guiding yoke that has aided the Jewish People’s ma’aminim and b’nei ma’aminim to see the truth. It has repeatedly saved me from slipping into circular reasoning, uncritically accepting and adopting mistranslations and misconstruals, and from the episodes of cognitive dissonance I’ve seen others experience, all of which obstruct the recognition of the truth. That, with, of course, an objective study of what the mesorah is, leaves us in good stead.

The opposite bias is what leads the others to the opposite.

“Now We Know…”

I’ve always found it ironic that after he dismisses the speculations about celestial spheres, the Malbim states in effect that now we know that the stars are really encompassed by … the “ether.” Now, the Malbim is not to be faulted for thinking that the scientists really had valid proofs for what they said, and basing his explanations of the pesukim upon them. We do this as well, as long as it does not contradict the mesorah,[8] and as long as we realize what is mesorah and what is speculation. Why not? And concerning practical issue, as long as the pragmatic results seem to be helpful, why not utilize them? But I cannot help but wonder if—after our long historical experiences of going through what was “known” and “undeniable” by paganism, Aristotelianism, and then science’s confidence in the existence of “ether”—we might have matured enough to feel justified in exercising a healthy skepticism—a wait-and-see attitude—before wholeheartedly accepting (on the level of convinced belief) whatever the science of the day claims is undeniable fact, even if it does not contradict the Torah.

In any case, it must be pointed out that whatever “facts” or interpretations of the Torah all our commentators adopted, they considered legitimate only those views supportable by Chazal; and they consistently strove to show how the specific statements of Chazal endorsed, or better, impelled, their conclusions.

The Malbim—as all our Torah giants—was a staunch follower of Chazal, and did not and would not attribute to Chazal a faulty mesorah.

[1] The biosphere (spelled with an “o” after the “i”) is the sphere consisting of the substance within which earth’s inhabitants exist.

[2] Scientists currently classify five parts to the atmosphere, the lowest of which is the part we live in, called the troposphere. Fog is of course formed in the lower part of this troposphere, and rain-producing clouds form in its upper section.

[3] Abarbanel on “Rakia”


הדעת הא' שהוא גלגל העליון המקיף בכל, ולזה צטו קצת מקדמוני האומות.....

הדעת הב' הוא שהרקיע הזה נאמר על כללות הגרמים השמימיים כגי הם כלם יקראו כדור אחד ורקיע אחד ולזה יראה שנטה רש"י באומרו הם השמים שנבראו ביום הראשון אלא לחים היו ונקרשו בשני. ולכן פירש יהי רקיע יחזק הרקיע מדברי ב"ר....ולזה גם כן נטה הרמב"ן ורבינו נסים...וגם הרלב"ג מזה הדעת ברקיע הזה.

ג) שהוא שטח הקערורי מגלגול הלבנה...הדעת הר' יצחק ישראלי בספר יסוד עולם

ד) הוא שלא נאמר רקיע אלא על האויר שהוא נחלק לג' חלקים...העליון...ולא יתילגו בו...עננים ומטר...האמצעי...יתילדו בו העננים והמטר...התחתון מהאויר הקרוב אלינו…ס

ה) הוא שהרקיע הנזכר כאן הוא גוף כדורי חזק נעשה ביום ב' בתוך יסוד המים. והוא ממוצע בחלל העולם. ומים קבועים עליו ומים אחרים תחתיו. אלא שבני אדם לא ירגישו בו. וזה היה דעת רב סעדיה גאון וגם מחכמי האומות אמרו כן…ס

אומר אני שהשמים שנבראו ביום הא' היה גלגל אחד בלבד, עב וגדול מאד...ואמנם אותו הרקיע שנעשה ביום השני הם כלל הגלגלים...והם נעשו מאותו כדור גדול שנברא ביום הא'ס'

[4] The others besides the Rambam and Ibn Ezra are not considered “Rishonim,” but merely philosophers and Bible commentators who happened to live in the era of the Rishonim. I am not citing them for their authority, but to demonstrate that identifying the rakia as the atmosphere was a widely-held opinion, both among Rishonim and non-Rishonim of the era, long before the Malbim, and not dependent upon the disbelief in celestial spheres.

[5] Malbim on “Rakia”:

ויאמר אלקים יהי רקיע בתוך המים. במהות הרקיע הזה נבוכו בו המפרשים, והרי"א הביא חמש שטות

א) שהוא גלגל העליון המקיף בכל.

ב) הוא כללות הגרמיים השמימיים.

ג) שהוא שטח הקערורי מגלגול הלבנה.

ד) שהוא גוף כדורי חזק שנעשה בתוך יסוד המים והוא קבוע ממוצע בחלל העולם.

ה) דעתו שהוא אשר מצא חן בעיניו שגלגל גדול עב וכבד נעשה ביום הראשון. וממנו נעשו ביום השני שאר גלגלים המקיפים.

וכל אלה הדעות נבנו על קורי עכביש שערגו הראשונים שיש גלגלים במציאותת אבל בימינו התברר היטב שכל צבאות השמים שטים באויר ספירי ודק מאד הנקרא איתר ואין גלגך במציאות.

[6] I will for now put aside the irony of his dismissing as baseless the ancient belief in spheres in favor of the existence of the “ether” that the 19th century science of his day confidently considered “well clarified”—unaware that 20th century science would soon declare that belief wrong as well (and insist that it’s conclusions are the ones to be confident about).


יהי רקיע בתוך המים. שיטתנו רחוקה מאד משיטת הרמב"ם. שדעתו שהרקיע הוא יסוד האויר, ושההבדלה בין מים למים--היינו בין מי הימים והנהרות, למים שהם בעבים ועננים...אבל לדעתי, שם רקיע הונח על מקום העבים והסגריר...

Our opinion is very far from the Rambam’s. To his mind, the rakia is the element of air, and that the “separation between waters and waters” is [the intrinsic distinction in nature, not a localized separation—ZL] between the sea and river waters and the waters of the thick and thin clouds….But to my mind, the noun rakia refers to the cloud and rain region of the sky.....

[8] From: Voice From The Wilderness: Critiques of Reshimu Part IV: Rabbi Sedley's Mischaracterization of Rationalist Rishonim and Chareidi Hashkafa

As Rav Saadia Gaon formulates it, the conclusions of human reason are valid insofar as they confirm the true knowledge received by tradition. When human investigation veers from the tradition of the Prophets and Sages, it is a signal that an error is being made:

But we, the Congregation of the Believers in the Unity of God, accept the truth of all the three sources of knowledge, and we add a fourth source, which we derive from the three preceding ones, and which has become a Root of Knowledge for us, namely, the truth of reliable TraditionOur answer is this: it cannot be thought that the Sages should have wished to prohibit us from rational inquiry, seeing that our Creator has commanded us to engage in such inquiry in addition to accepting the reliable Tradition.

He also informed us that by speculation and inquiry we shall attain to certainty on every point in accordance with the Truth revealed through the words of His Messenger. In this way we speculate and search in order that we may make our own what our Lord has taught us by way of instruction.

Rav Saadia Gaon, Sefer Emunos V’Dei’os

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