Thursday, October 6, 2011

Rambam and Greek Astronomy

In our previous post, we wrote as follows:

Furthermore, he [Rambam] makes countless scientific type statements (i.e. statements which relate to various laws of nature such as ein bishul achar bishul etc.) that are based entirely on Chazal with nary a twitter of dissent. This alone should be an obvious indication of the Rambam’s opinion regarding not only the halachos of Chazal but also their science.

Although, as I mentioned, when it came to almost all disciplines the Rambam was machniya himself to the view of our sages, when it came to astronomy it seems that he leaned towards the wisdom of the Greek astronomers and their writings. This is most apparent in the Rambam’s writings on Kiddush haChodesh and seems puzzling in view of the Rambam’s normal modus operandi. In fact, this aberration is so uncharacteristic of the Rambam that he himself senses it and states as follows: (my translation)

and it should not be strange in your eyes that the view of Aristotle (which the Rambam accepts) is opposed to the view of our sages of blessed memory in this matter, for this view, that is, if they [the heavenly bodies] make noise is associated with the view of a fixed sphere and moving stars and you already know that the wisdom of the gentiles was decisive, in the matter of astronomy, over the wisdom of our sages as the sages themselves openly state ‘and the sages of the gentiles have triumphed’… (Moreh 2:8 Kapach ed. pg. 180)

Now before we go on it is important to note that in order to dismiss the view of the sages the Rambam first appealed to a direct quotation from Chazal. Thus, he supported his approach to astronomy by illustrating that Chazal themselves admitted defeat in this matter.

However, notwithstanding the Rambam’s hisnatzlus in this matter, Chazal’s seeming lack of knowledge in the field of astronomy when compared to that of the Greek's seems incongruous with the Rambam’s characterization of our sage’s wisdom. After all, wasn’t it the Rambam himself who stated in Pirush Mishnayos that:

All of the lofty concepts and profound verities that the greatest of wise men concealed in their teachings, all of the conclusions that the philosophers toiled over throughout the generations, all can be revealed in their [Chazal’s] words…

The implication is that our ba’alei mesorah were somehow aware of the greatest truths that all of the naturalists, all of the philosophers, all of the sages of the nations were able to reveal. If so, how could the wisdom of astronomy have escaped them?

But the mystery is cleared up once one reads the Rambam in the Yad Hilchos Kiddush haChodesh. The truth is our nation did have a tradition regarding astronomical calculations which originated with the biney Yisaschar and was passed down during the times of the neveim. Unfortunately, this discipline was lost during the Babylonian exile and thus our sages had no choice but to rely on the calculations of the Greek astronomers. (Rambam Hilchos Kiddush haChodesh 17:24)

Do not think it was strange that Chazal relied on the Greeks for astronomy. The Greeks were incredibly accurate with their calculations. For example, W.M. Feldman in his 1931 text (page 131) reports that Hipparchus, an ancient Greek astronomer, recorded the time between an eclipse measured by the Babylonians and one measured by himself less than 400 years later. He found that there were 4,267 lunations and that the exact duration was 126,007 days and 1 hour. Thus, the average lunation in terms of days would be 3,024,169 hours divided by 24 divided by 4,267 lunations equaling 29.53059 days. This is astounding as it is only one half second off from present day calculations for the average Sinodic month!

(To the reader: I do not have a copy of Feldman’s book. If memory serves, I was informed of this calculation by one of my colleagues. I double checked the math and it works but if someone has access to Feldman’s book (Rabbinical Mathematics and Astronomy) I would appreciate verification of the above.)

In conclusion, the fact that the Rambam accepted one or two statements of the Greek astronomers over those of Chazal is an aberration. It is an extremely rare exception and can in no way be used as an indication of how the Rambam felt regarding the status of Chazal’s scientific knowledge. Unfortunately, the academic world loves to tout this instance as an example (of supposedly many more examples) of the Rambam’s general attitude to Chazal. What is even more unfortunate is that they’ve managed to infiltrate our ranks. They’ve managed to generate a whole deal of obfuscation and even managed to influence one of our more talented Chareidi (former) brethren to adopt their views and make it the clarion call of his Rationalist Blog. Chaval al di’avdin… 

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