Friday, July 29, 2011

Natan Slifkin surprised by the disfavored hyrax


Natan Slifkin (NS) after acknowledging his surprise by the publication of the new letters supporting the identification of the biblical shafan as the rabbit and not the hyrax, he presents a few points.

You can see more details on this on a previous post: Hyrax out of favor

Let’s try B”H to analyze briefly some of his points.

An extensive elaboration appears in the book “The enigma of the Biblical shafan”.

1. NS acknowledges that many Spanish Rishonim identify the Biblical shafan as the rabbit.

2. NS claims that when Rav Saadiah Gaon translated shafan as the “wbr”, he intended the hyrax; but as written in the book, after our extensive research we can say that there is no conclusive evidence that this was Rab Saadia’s necessary opinion, because of the 4 points explained there.

3. NS wrote: “rabbits do not live anywhere near Eretz Yisrael…”

The relevance of his statement is questionable, but nevertheless it would be convenient if the facts are checked again.

4. NS wrote: “The only rabbits which hide under rocks are the African rock hares, which only live in Southern Africa, and are in any case so similar in appearance to the hares of Israel (the arneves) that it is hard to imagine that they would be rated as a separate min”.

Again, facts should be checked.

Regarding the “separate min” we explained it in the book with many Torah sources and many science sources why they are considered to different minim.

5. NS wrote: “…if one is going to consider the hyrax as a sheretz, then kal v’chomer that the rabbit, which is much smaller…”

In which page in NS’s book (first or second edition) did he write what is his definition of “sheretz” and the sources on what he based his definition?

6. NS: wrote: “…In fact, the hyrax appears to be more of a maaleh gerah than the hare.”

In which page in NS’s book (first or second edition) did he write what is his definition of “maaleh gerah” and the sources on what he based his definition?

As far as you do not define a category, you cannot include or exclude any animal.

Meanwhile, if you have not read the original letters, you can find them in the following links.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Nature of "The" Rakia, Part Eight--A Superior Understanding of Pesachim 94b?

As promised, I shall deal with the passage in Pesachim 94b that describes the sun as travelling behind the rakia at night.

Now, it is of course true that the unidentified “Chachmei Yisroel” of Gemora Pesachim 94b (taken literally) posit that at night, when we do not see the sun, the sun travels “behind the rakia.” And one would reasonably intuit that this indicates they thought the reason we do not see the sun at night is that the rakia (or rather, the back layer of the rakia) is opaque..

But the following question arises: Must we say that this passage shows that Chazal thought of the celestial-rakia as opaque, rendering it at odds with

(a) the Midrash we cited about Avraham Avinu viewing the stars from the back of the rakia, and

(b) the fact likely recognized by Chazal, and certainly by rishonim, that the sun lights the moon?

My answer: Not at all! I will propose, with support from the text, another explanation for how the Gemora Pesachim understands why, at night, when the sun is above the rakia, it cannot be seen.

We note the following:

(a) The Pesachim 94b passage about the path of the sun behind the rakia does not actually say that our inability to see the sun at night is due to any intrinsic opacity[1] or solidity of the celestial rakia

(b) Indeed, no talmudic passage, including this one, actually says that the celestial rakia is either solid or intrinsically opaque.

(c) The expression “עובי הרקיע,” usually translated “thickness of the rakia,” does not in itself inform on the rakia’s texture or transparency. Both the Rambam[2] and the Ralbag[3] also speak of the “עובי” or “עבי” of the spheres, yet they describe the spheres as being ethereal, weightless and colorless. The term “עובי הרקיע” simply refers to the depth—the distance—the rakia spans, whatever texture or substance it may have.[4]

(d) Thus the only feature the Gemora Pesachim 94b does ascribe to the rakia is vast depth.

(e) The preceding Gemara passage describes each of the thousands of the stars we see as specks in the sky to actually be many times the size of earth.

I humbly suggest on this basis that Pesachim 94b is working with the observable fact that distance diminishes the apparent size of objects, to the extent of their ultimate disappearance from sight. This is why those stars, each thousands of times the size of earth, appear to us as mere specks. Now, if the sun travels above the entire vast area of stars, even beyond those stars so far away they can barely be seen, this would account for, and indeed necessitate, that the sun at night must be so far away that it should be impossible to see it at all. We cannot see the sun at night, when it’s behind the rakia, because it is so distant, not because of any opaqueness. The transparent character of the entire celestial rakia, as described by the rishonim, remains intact.

This would fully explain how Chazal could have visualized Avraham seeing the stars from behind the most distant celestial sphere, whereas we cannot see the sun that is behind the dome at night. This would assume there are more stars we cannot see that are further from the earth, as the Gemara implies. (Absence of a filtering atmosphere in space would also contribute to better visibility, but this is not spoken of in the Talmud.)

And this would also explain how the sun’s rays, coming from one side of the rakia, could be seen as illuminating the otherwise dark moon, at an angle at which it would be lit in phases by the sun’s rays. (I am speculating that the moon at night does not join the sun behind the dome.[5]

I venture to call this a superior explanation of the passage in Pesachim, because this explanation uses only the very components and features that Gemora passage (together with its contextual surroundings) itself explicitly mentions, without introducing extraneous and speculative factors and components (such as solidity and opaqueness) that, as we have shown, contradict other talmudic and midrashic sources[6] (—although it still remains at odds with the shita that the sun at night travels beneath the earth).

And this would eliminate a machlokess between Chazal, with them all agreeing that the substance within which the stars are located does not have an opaque back.

All the above is following the basic understanding that the Gemora Pesachim 94b is indeed speaking about the daily path of the sun’s body. This is indeed how Rabbeynu Chananel, referencing a “Braissa D’Rabbeynu Shmuel,”[7] takes it.[8] I am also working on another altogether different possibility. ב”נ I will post it in the future if it turns out to be good enough for presentation.

[1] I say “intrinsically,” because the sky, one of the suggested definitions of rakia, turns opaque colors—blue, gray, orange and red due to the action of the sun’s rays upon it. This, despite the fact that the atmosphere itself is intrinsically transparent. When Chazal say the sky is the color of the sea, it is no more indicative of intrinsic opaqueness than it is indicative of opaqueness when we say the sky is blue.

[2] Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim 3:14 speaks of עבי הגלגל, and treats it synonymously with the word for “distance”:

וגם כן היותי שומע תמיד מכל מי שידע דבר מחכמת התבונה, שהוא חושב לגוזמא מה שזכרוהו החכמים ז"ל מן הרחקים, שהם אמרו שעובי כל גלגל מהלך ת"ק שנה , ובין כל גלגל וגלגל מהלך ת״ק שנה
--and indeed, in Moreh Nevuchim 1:57, he describes the spheres as consisting of non-earthly, indescribable material: “[N]otwithstanding all the efforts of the mind, we can obtain no knowledge of the essence of the heavens—a revolving substance which has been measured by us in spans and cubits, and examined even as regards the proportions of the several spheres to each other and respecting most of their motions—although we know that they must consist of matter and form; but since the matter is unlike sublunary matter, we can only describe the heavens in terms expressing negative properties, but not in terms denoting positive qualities. Thus we say that the heavens are not light, not heavy, not passive and therefore not subject to impressions, and that they do not possess the sensations of taste and smell: or we use similar negative attributes. All this we do, because we do not know their substance.”

Likewise, in Mishneh Torah Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 3:3 he describes the galgalim as weightless, tasteless, and lacking any aroma, since such properties only exist in the sublunar world.

[3] Ralbag in his Breishis commentary refers to the rakia’s thickness as a fact in the name of Chazal yet simultaneously describes the rakia as weightless and transparent.

[4] Also relevant:

מדרש רבה דברים פרשה ב
... ד"ה ב לג: “ויתפלל אליו [מנשה] ויעתר לו ויחתר לו." מלמד שהיו מלאכי השרת מסתמין את חלונות של רקיע שלא תעלה תפלתו לשמים. מה עשה הקב"ה? חתר את הרקיע מתחת כסא הכבוד וקיבל את תפלתו וישיבהו ירושלים למלכותו..
Chazal here speak of the “windows” of the rakia, and the “piercing of the heavens,” in an obviously poetical, non-physical way.)

[5] This speculation must also be made in the approach that the reason the sun cannot be seen at night is that the rakia’s back layer is opaque—which does not solve the problem pointed out, that this would prevent the moon from being lit by the sun.

[7] The Sefer Hashavas Aveida identifies this braissa with Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer.

[8] Rabbeynu Chananel on Pesachim 94a

ופירש רבינו שמואל בברייתא שלו כי הרקיע עשוי ככובא, הגלגל קבוע והמזלוח חוזרין, ותניא כדבעינן למימר קמן, כי החמה מהלכת בלילה למעלה מן הרקיע מן המערב למזרח, וכשמגעת לחלון שזורחת ממנו, לאלתר עולה עמוד השחר, והחמה מהלכת בעוביו של רקיע, וכשתגיע לסוף עביו של רקיע לצד הנראה לבני אדם, מיד מנצח על הארץ ומהלכת ביום כולו ממזרח למערב. וכן בשקיעות, מהלכת בעביו של רקיע, וכשתצא מעובי הרקיע כולו--מיד הכוכבים נראין.

Hyrax out of favor


Recently Natan Slifkin announced the publication of the 2nd edition of his book on the hyrax = the biblical shafan.

In that new book, as well as in the previous one, I could not find any biological reason that justifies calling the hyrax “maaleh gerah”.

If the hyrax is a “non-ruminant, non-cecotroph, non-merycist species” how could the Torah call the hyrax “maaleh gera”?

So the obvious alternative is to say that the hyrax is not the biblical shafan.

Indeed, Natan Slifkin already made a partial concession in his blogspot on 18 Jul 11 when he wrote:

The hyrax is not as perfect a candidate for the shafan as many would like…”

An interesting coincidence, the timing of Natan Slifkin’s publication of his new book with the moment I received B”H 3 significant letters:

1. An approbation letter to the new book "The enigma of the Biblical shafan" from HaRav Amitai Ben David shlit"a, author of the famous book "Sichat Chulin" on Masechet Chulin, where he acknowledges that the biblical shafan is not the hyrax.

2. An approbation letter from HaRav Yisrael Meir Levinger Shlit"a, author of the famous book "Maor LeMasechet Chulin", where he acknowledges that the biblical shafan is not the hyrax.

3. An approbation letter from HaRav HaGaon Rav Yisroel Belsky Shlit"a, Rosh Yeshivat Torah Vadaat and one of the chief experts for the Orthodox Union, where he acknowledges that the biblical shafan is not the hyrax.

Please remember that Natan Slifkin stated in his first edition, page102 that

“…the shafan is the hyrax. This is also the preferred conclusion of the contemporary Torah scholars who have published works specializing in animals of the Torah, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Levinger and Rabbi Amitai Ben-David…”.

The same statement appears in the second edition pages 90-91.

But now, after these two “contemporary Torah scholars who have published works specializing in animals of the Torah” have read and studied the arguments why the hyrax cannot be the biblical shafan, they acknowledged.

As HaRav HaGaon Rav Belsky שליט"א wrote in his approbation letter, I also hope B”H that many more will reevaluate this issue and arrive at the same conclusion.

P. S. You can find a copy of the above mentioned letters in the following links.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Nature of “The” Rakia, Part Seven--Chazal Did Not [at] All Think the Celestial Rakia is Opaque


Rabbi Slifkin’s final mistake pertains to what he claims Chazal held about the opacity, or lack thereof, of the celestial-rakia. He points to the Gemora in Pesachim 94a as proof that Chazal universally held that the celestial rakia has an opaque surface (in addition to being a solid dome), such that would block the sight of anything behind it, specifically the sun in its imagined travels.[1] That this is erroneous—i.e., that not all Chazal held this, and perhaps none held this—can be plainly seen from a Midrash about Avraham Avinu with which Rashi has made us all familiar:

מדרש רבה בראשית פרשה מד

אמר רבי יהודה בשם ר' יוחנן העלה אותו למעלה מכיפת הרקיע הוא דאמר ליה הבט נא השמימה אין הבטה אלא מלמעלה למטה

Said Rebbi Yehudah in the name of Rebbi Yochonon:[2] [When Hashem wanted to impress Avraham with how numerous his descendents will be, he had him look at the stars—but not up at the stars.] He raised him above the כיפת הרקיע, the rakia’s sphere [or “dome,” and Avraham gazed down from there and saw the stars]. This is why it says “הבט נא השמימה”, “Gaze [down] at the heavens—for the term “הבט” connotes gazing from a higher vantage point towards something at a lower level.

Chazal (or at least those individuals among Chazal who promulgated this teaching) did not visualize the part of the rakia behind the stars as opaque, such that it would block our sight of anything on the other side of it (such as the stars, or the sight of the sun in its imagined course). In describing Avraham’s prophetic vision,[3] when Hashem wanted him to see the uncountable number of stars, Chazal visualized Avraham as being positioned above the dome of the rakiathe same place that the Gemora Pesachim places the sun at night—and looking downwards to see the stars. Now, to look down from the back of the rakia and see the stars—and certainly to see more stars than what are visible from earth—requires visualizing the rakia as being transparent, not opaque. Indeed, if the back of the rakia were opaque, it would be the worst place from which to see the stars!

(Furthermore, we note that Avraham is not depicted—neither literally nor even poetically—as shattering anything on his way up through the rakia, and nor is Hashem depicted as “opening the heavenly spheres” for him to pass through them. This again indicates that Chazal visualized the rakia as a non-solid substance—meaning no more solid than, say, the atmosphere; and probably, as the rishonim took it, as even less solid.)

clip_image004Secondly, Chazal understood that the moon’s light is only due to the sun’s.[4] If at night the sun is behind an opaque surface that prevents us from seeing it, how can one account for the moon’s lit surface? And of course, there is the admission made by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai that we simply do not know if the movement of the stars are indeed related to any celestial spheres. [5]

These questions would all be answered by accepting that at least some of Chazal, if not all of Chazal, did not think of the rakia as intrinsically opaque or solid. And indeed, we have seen that there are statements from Chazal indicating that at least some of them, if not all of them, thought of the rakia as non-solid and transparent. These facts certainly belie Rabbi Slifkin’s claim that Chazal had a universal mesorah that the earth is covered by a solid, opaque dome.

In the next posts, I will suggest that even according to the Gemora Pesachim that deals with the sun’s path at night, we need not say the reason the sun is unseen at night is due to any opacity of the rakia.

[1] Even if they would have held that the celestial sphere is opaque, they may have envisioned it as a some substance such as a thick cloud (dark or otherwise) that blocks out the sun—not at all necessarily a solid, impenetrable material. Regardless, all this investigation would be irrelevant if not for the assertion (unwarranted, not only in my opinion, but obviously in that of the rishonim) that since the rakia is something mentioned in the Torah, whatever Chazal said about it must have been their mesorah of what the word meant. The fact is, Rambam and many others deny that the sayings of Chazal that touch upon the celestial region’s makeup were matters of mesorah (facts transmitted by the prophets), which would render them incontrovertible.

[2] This teaching was also reported by Rebbi Yehuda bar Rebbi Seemone in the name of Rebbi Chanin (Sh’mos Rabbah 38), Rebbi Shmuel Bar R. Yitzchak (Bamidbar Rabbah 2) and Rebbi Levi (Yalku Shimoni, Breishis 18: § 76.

[3] We are consistently following the Rambam’s “rationalist” perspective, which includes the view that all this episode was a prophetic vision, and not a physical occurrence.

[4]                                                                                                                                    מדרש אגדה בראשית פרק א ד"ה [טז] ויעש אלהים

וגזר עליה שלא תהא מאירה אלא מכח השמש.ס

Midrash Aggada Breishis on Breishis 1:16

Hashem decreed that the moon could only shine through the power of the sun

זהר במדבר קפא

דהא לא אנהיר סיהרא אלא מנהורא דשמשא.ס

Zohar on B’Midbar 181

For behold, the moon only shines through the shining of the sun

Also, see Philo: (91) … it is on the fifteenth day that the moon is rendered full of light, borrowing its light from the sun at the approach of evening, and restoring it to him again in the morning [if meant literally, not quite our take—ZL] so that during the night of the full moon the darkness is scarcely visible, but it is all light.

[5]                                                                                                                                                                                  בראשית רבה ו:ח

"ויתן אותם אלהים ברקיע השמים." כיצד גלגל חמה ולבנה שוקעים ברקיע? ר' יהודה בר אלעאי ורבנן. רבנן אמרין מאחורי הכיפה ולמטה. ור' יהודה בר אלעאי אמר מאחורי הכיפה ולמעלה. א"ר יוחנן נראין דברי ר"י בר אלעאי--דהוא אמר מאחורי הכיפה ולמעלה--בימות החמה, שכל העולם כולו רותח ומעיינות צוננין. ומילהון דרבנן--דאמרינן מאחורי הכיפה ולמטה--בימות הגשמים, שכל העולם כולו צונן ומעיינות פושרין. 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

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said, We do not know if they fly in the air, if they glide in the rakia,, or if they go on their own way; the matter is exceedingly difficult and it is impossible for humans to determine.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Nature of “The” Rakia, Part Six—Mistranslation…Again—“חזק” Means “Strong,” Not “Hard”

clip_image002“Chazal (and most of the Rishonim) universally interpreted various words in the Torah to be describing the heavens as a solid firmament above us. This was the universal, uncontested, view of Chazal, based on Pesukim such as that in Iyov 37:18: ‘Can you spread out the heavens with Him, hard as a mirror of cast metal?" as well as various other usages in Tenach of the root רקע.’ ”

--Rationalist Judaism Blog, “How the Firmament was understood by our Sages,” Monday, November 22, 2010

Rabbi Slifkin’s resorting to mistranslation to support his thesis makes the weakness of his case all the more transparent.[1] In the above passage, to make a case for his more-solid-than-air-dome-thesis, he translates the word “חזק”, a reference to the rakia’s strength, as “hard:”

Now, even had the text used a Hebrew word that specifically refers to hardness, it would not necessarily imply that Chazal thought that the sky is literally a hard and impenetrable substance. All the less does it imply this, in view of the fact that the actual word used—חזק—refers only to the characteristic of strength. We have seen previously that this “strength” is taken to mean characteristics other than “hardness.”


In the previous parts of this series, we have seen the explicit statements by the rishonim who—sometimes citing the Iyov verses and the “congealing” Midrashim in their own names and/or in the name of Chazal—do not consider “the” rakia to be something hard. How then can one excuse Rabbi Slifkin’s repeated assertions (The Big Picture of the Firmament) that:

… the unequivocal mesorah that there is … a dome above the earth, made of some sort of substance (i.e. not air or space), …. This was the universal, uncontested, view of Chazal, based on Pesukim such as that in Iyov 37:18: "Can you spread out the heavens with Him, hard as a mirror of cast metal?" as well as various other usages in Tenach of the root רקע. …

And again:

The words of Chazal in the Bavli, Yerushalmi, and Midrash about the nature of the rakia, in terms of it being a firm substance with a particular thickness, in turn based on pesukim such as that in Iyov and others which use the root רקע in other contexts, and the words of Chazal concerning the sun's passage on both sides of the rakia, are explicit. Nowhere in Chazal or the Rishonim is there anything to indicate that any of Chazal held differently. January 18, 2011 12:40 AM

Yes, indeed, “explicit” are the words of Chazal about the nature of the rakia based on pesukim such as that in Iyov [mistranslated by Rabbi Slifkin as saying that the rakia is “hard”] and others which use the root רקע in other contexts.” But the claim that “Nowhere in Chazal or the Rishonim is there anything to indicate that any of Chazal held differently” “in terms of it being a firm substance with a particular thickness” in the sense of being hard, is absolutely false.

In a telling dialogue, called on this fact by Dr. Jonathan Ostroff, the “Rationalist”[2] reacted explosively:

Do not trust Ostroff's citation of the Rishonim[3]….Ostroff has been extremely selective in his citation from Rambam…this blog is not a worthy forum for such a discussion”),[4]

—and immediately made still another wild assertion that is false:

RambaN is likewise clear that there is a solid firmament - just read his commentary to the Chumash.[5]

—as if oblivious to the Ramban’s concept of the substance of the galgalim and the stars therein as being an unearthly, ethereal one—and then shifted gears again, reverting to the Gemora Pesachim to prove that Chazal as a body considered the rakia to be a solid.

When Rabbi Slifkin does finally concede (temporarily, of course) that despite his original claim, the rishonim did not understand Chazal to hold that the rakia is a hard solid, he is not at all fazed. When caught denying that the rishonim say what they say, he simply goes on to assert that the rishonim, by attributing ethereality to the rakia, were actually arguing against or “ignoring” Chazal’s “unanimous” opinion that the rakia is a hard solid:

Now, much later, during the time of the Rishonim, Ptolemaic cosmology had already become widely accepted, and some of the Rishonim reinterpreted Tenach to suit it. It is possible that some of them did not believe the rakia to be a substantive firmament (the best general discussion that I have found on this topic is Edward Grant's paper "Celestial Orbs in the Latin Middle Ages"). But all this would mean is that the Rishonim were ignoring Chazal… and reinterpreting Torah in light of science. ("The Big Picture of The Firmament," Jan., 2011)

The “Rationalist” holds that the rishonim disingenuously claimed to be explaining Chazal. But they were actually ignoring them. In contrast to the disingenuous rishonim, only The “Rationalist” is honest, unbiased and sincere enough to know and teach what Chazal “really” meant in these texts. Only he, in contrast to the rishonim, is really faithful to Chazal’s intent.

This is disturbingly reminiscent of the accusations made by the Karaites and Saducees. They accused Chazal of claiming to be loyal to the Torah but actually knowingly perverting what the Torah “really” means. I realize this is a damning comparison. But how less damning can one be with someone who attempts to promulgate the illegitimate ideas that (parts of) the mesorah can be rejected, and that the rishonim were disingenuous in claiming to be interested in accurately conveying the intents of Chazal when they said they were?

In the next and final posts in this series, I will bli nedder and b’ezras Hashem deal with the issue of the alleged opacity of the celestial-rakia, and treat the passage in Gemora Pesachim 94b that deals with the path of the sun at night.

[1] Mistranslation of sources is a repeated feature of the “Rationalist’s” “evidence.” For another example, in his Monograph, “The Sun’s Path at Night, he translates Midrash Bereishit Rabbah (6:8):

“R. Shimon b. Yochai said: We do not know if they fly up in the air and scrape the firmament, or if they travel as usual; the matter is exceedingly difficult and it is impossible for humans to determine”

—whereas it actually reads:

We do not know if they are flying in the air or if they are sliding in/along the rakia…

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:

Similarly, he uncritically accepted a published mistranslation of a passage from the Guide For The Perplexed to support his view. My bias about the Rambam’s likely stance alerted me to scrutinize Friedlander’s faulty translation, whereas Rabbi Slifkin’s bias caused him to accept it uncritically.


[3] Reminiscent of, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

[4] A Freudian slip? I think Rabbi Slifkin meant to assert that such a discussion is not worthy of his blog’s forum.

[5] Well, if you do read the Ramban’s commentary on the Chumash, you will see that he says that the celestial region’s substance is more ethereal than the earth’s:

רמב"ן בראשית פרק א פסוק א

ודע, כי השמים וכל אשר בהם חומר אחד, והארץ וכל אשר בה חומר אחד. והקב"ה ברא אלו שניהם מאין, ושניהם לבדם נבראים, והכל נעשים מהם. והחומר הזה, שקראו היולי, נקרא בלשון הקדש "תוהו", ... והצורה הנלבשת לחומר הזה נקראת בלשון הקדש "בהו"...ואם כן יהיה פשט הכתובים על נכון, משמעותו: בתחלה, ברא אלהים את השמים, כי הוציא חומר שלהם מאין, ואת הארץ, שהוציא החומר שלה מאין. ו"הארץ" תכלול ארבע היסודות כלם, כמו ויכלו השמים והארץ וכל צבאם (להלן ב א), שתכלול כל הכדור התחתון...והנה בבריאה הזאת, שהיא כנקודה קטנה דקה ואין בה ממש, נבראו כל הנבראים בשמים ובארץ... וכן אמרו רבותינו (ב"ר א יד) את השמים לרבות חמה ולבנה כוכבים ומזלות, ואת הארץ, לרבות האילנות ודשאים וגן עדן. ואלו כלל כל הנבראים בעל הגוף:

רמב"ן בראשית פרק א פסוק ח

ויקרא אלהים לרקיע שמים... בעבור שירצו החכמים עוד להעלות החומר הראשון עד תכלית ולעשותו דק מן הדקים, לא יראו שהשמים--שהם גוף מתנועע בעל חומר וצורה--הם הנבראים מן האי. אבל אור הלבוש הוא הנברא הראשון, וממנו יצא חומר הממש בשמים. ונתן לארץ חומר אחר ואיננו כדקות הראשון, והוא "שלג שתחת כסא הכבוד", כי כסא הכבוד נברא, וממנו היה "השלג שתחתיו," וממנו נעשה חומר הארץ, והנה הוא שלישי בבריאה.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Natan Slifkin again attacks… but did not respond.


Recently NS published Religion, Blinded where he wrote:

I was once challenged by some such people to have a debate on the merits of evolution.

I responded by asking what kind of evidence, hypothetically speaking, would make them accept it.

They dodged and hedged and would not answer the question. This was because no evidence would make them accept it - for them, evolution is a religious issue.

So I sent to his blogspot the following:

If one of "them" would answer clearly your question, are you going to accept the challenge?

Dr. Yitzchak Betech.

Natan Slifkin did not publish my comment, nor answered me by any other way.

I retried 24 hours latter and obtained the same results.

Ten days ago, when he posted on the republishing of his book about the shafan=hyrax issue, I sent to his blogspot the following:


Dear Natan:

Now that you are announcing the publication of your new book on the Shafan = Hyrax, I am wondering if you would like to answer the 6 reasons I wrote on why the Hyrax can not be the Biblical Shafan.


Natan Slifkin did not publish my comment, nor answered me by any other way.

I retried 24 hours latter and obtained the same results.

I am wondering if this is what is expected from a “Rationalist Jew”?

Unresponsiveness to his intellectual challengers!

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