Did Chazal Know Science? (Rhetorical Question)

Did Chazal Know Science? (Rhetorical Question)

Friday, July 8th, '11

Received via email: What does Rav Breil mean when he says that the reason Chazal’s statement about lice – that they come from dust and not eggs – contradict the scientists is because the scientists only see “observable science?” If Chazal got their understanding of things from the Torah, then why wouldn’t it match “observable science?”

Clearly, Chazal made statements and built Halachos around physical realities that they knew full well contradicted what the physical sciences say – such as Besulim chozrim in the Yerushalmi Kesuvos – and were not concerned to contradict them. The reason for this is that when Chazal make a statement about reality, they are talking about a completely different level of reality than the scientists.

As we discussed, the world is an expression of the Will of Hashem. “Forever, Hashem, Your word stands in the heavens.” When Hashem said “Yehi,” His word actually became the world. The scientists can look deeper and deeper into the world and find molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles, but they can only go so far. If they had a machine that could peer into matter and determine what it is ultimately made up of – past molecules, past atoms, past subatomic particles, past everything – the machine would return the message: “Matter is made of the Ratzon Hashem!”

And the way the Ratzon Hashem manifests itself as physical matter is quite complex. There is a parallel universe to ours – an ethereal universe whose activity serves as the cause of all physical expression in our corporeal universe. When something happens in the “upstairs” world, an ensuing action takes place down here. Like a scene on a computer screen, everything that happens in this world is merely a consequence of activity taking place “behind the scenes.” A button may look like a button on the screen, but it is really not a button at all, but the graphic representation of a various combinations of electronic representations of zeros and ones inside the computer.

So too, our entire universe is just, so to speak, a graphical user interface, a perspicuous representation of activity taking place in the “internal,” otherworldly planes of existence. When the “upper” sun sets in the “upper” universe, it causes a physical reflection of that sunset in our GUI-universe, and the sun sets here. And the mechanism that the sun setting “upstairs” triggers that causes the GUI sun to set, is itself a complex spiritual procedure. “No blade of grass grows on earth unless an angel commands it: ‘Grow!’”

Everything that exists here, everything that happens here, is only a pale reflection of the activity and existence of the intangible dimensions above us[i].

Unfortunately, because scientists can only see the physical world, they can only see the reflection of reality and not reality itself. Their trying to figure out the mysteries of the world is like someone trying to figure out how a tree works by merely observing its shadow in the sun. You can get some vague idea of what a tree is, but unless you see the tree itself, you have no clue.

Or, as the Brisker Rav put it, scientists discovering the physical world are like men groping in the darkness to get an idea of what their surroundings look like. They can feel walls, furniture and things lying around but they can only get an extremely vague and limited notion of what their surroundings really look like. And even then, the only way they can get that limited idea is through long and difficult process of groping, falling, banging into things, and stumbling around.

If only someone would open the lights for them – in a second they’d get the picture!

“The advantage of wisdom over foolishness is like the benefit of light over darkness “(Koheles 2:13). The Brisker Rav explained: Just as someone groping around in the darkness cannot get the picture of his surroundings except after long and arduous efforts – and even then his picture is so pathetically incomplete – so are those scientists who try to discover the world through nature. They can get some limited and incomplete picture – after long and arduous labor and stumbling. Chazal, on the other hand, understood nature through Torah, which does not need the long period of error and experimentation. Chazal saw the world with the lights on – and understand it in a way much more complete and accurate than the scientists can ever dream of.

When Chazal made a statement about reality, they were referring to the real reality – not the shadow reality of observable science. When they said besulim chozrim they were unconcerned with what the local doctor sees with his eyes made of meat. Those observations are shadows of reality. Chazal were talking about what really happens – in the part of the universe that you can only see with the lights on.

In the words of the Maharal (Ber Hagolah 6):

Some people say that Chazal were not experts in the sciences. They say this because they see things stated by Chazal regarding causes of natural phenomena that seem unlikely to be true. But the truth is not as these people claim, because when Chazal spoke about natural causes they did not mean superficial, physically scientific causes – that is fitting for scientists or doctors, not for our sages. Our sages, on the other hand, when they spoke about the causes of nature, were referring not to causes that are natural but to what causes nature to act the way it does.

And anyone who disagrees with this disagrees with our Emunah and our Torah … This is why:

When the Torah mentions a natural reason for something, that is the real reason, for every natural phenomenon there is a scientific cause, but for that scientific cause there is a spiritual cause – i.e. the cause of that cause – and that is what Chazal were referring to … When they discussed scientific matters, they did not mean to describe the surface-level cause, but rather the reason of the cause….There are people who misunderstand the words of Chazal, who criticize them, saying that they did not know things that the non-Jewish scientists knew, but the truth is the very claim they make against [Chazal] applies to them, for they are far from the true science … I will tell you a rule about the words of the sages: All their words are rational, and represent the true understanding of nature .. and even though some people will find this idea farfetched or doubtful as an explanation of what Chazal [really] meant, you should know that there is no doubt in any manner whatsoever that this is what Chazal meant … for their words are correct and reliable, and only someone who does not understand them will have doubts … I have already explained that Chazal were not discussing the physical aspects of things but rather their essence … The words of Chazal are with wisdom and logic and are not external [physical] descriptions, but rather the words of our sages refer to the essence, and have no relation to the outer, material matter.

Lice and Spontaneous Generation

A particularly simple example of principle is the specific case regarding which Rav Breil mentioned it – lice and spontaneous generation.

When Chazal discuss life, or what constitutes animal mineral or vegetable, they are using the Torah’s definitions, not the scientists’. And the Torah’s definitions of all of the above depend not on physical characteristics but spiritual ones. An inanimate object has a Nefesh Hadomem – the “spirit” (which is a better translation than “soul”) of an inanimate object; plant life has a Nefesh HaTzomeches; animal life, a Nefesh HaBehamis, and a human being, a Neshomah.

The definition of life that is used throughout Torah is spiritual, not physical. The Halachic cut-off date for an embryo being considered not yet life regarding certain Halachos is 39 days. On day 40, that changes. Biologically, there is no way to identify the exact moment “life” begins. This is a spiritual, Nefesh-based, assessment, because the definition of life depends on spiritual, Nefesh-based criteria, not scientific ones.

If I were to create an android – a robot made out of human tissue – that is “programmed” to have human characteristics – to cry when hurt; to laugh when told a joke; to smile and display all chemical and physical signs of happiness upon experiencing a desirable event (i.e., events that are programmed to be “desirable”) to eat and drink and burn the food as fuel; to portray in every scientifically possible way all possible human characteristics – such a Golem, no matter what biological signs or functions it displays, would not be a human being because it has no Neshamah; it would not even be considered “alive”. Perhaps a clone is in that category, a non-living humanoid constructed through biological matter and those biological factors that enable human functionality, copied from a real human being the way one copies a computer program, but without the spiritual components of a live creature, the Nefesh and Neshama. I don’t know whether, when you clone something, the spiritual components get cloned as well, but if they don’t, then I imagine a human clone would be considered not a human being but rather an organic robot, a humanoid, with no “life” of its own. Even if the scientists cannot tell the difference.

Should a human not have a Neshama or a Nefesh, he is not a human, but an organic construct; should someone create an organic machine that mimics plant life in every biological way possible, it may still be considered a Domem, if it lacks the spiritual Nefesh HaTzomeches.

So when Chazal say that lice do not reproduce but rather spring from sweat and dirt, they mean that lice do not impart into their eggs the same life-force that animals do, that their eggs have a Nefesh HaDomem, or perhaps partially a Nefesh HaDomem, and Halachicly their status is not that of eggs. The fact that scientists will tell you lice eggs are the same, biologically, as any other eggs, means nothing here. They see a mother louse, a fathr louse, and a baby louse, but that’s just the way this construct was programmed to function. Plants also “reproduce” – the pollination process involves moving a seed (the pollen) to another “organ” (the stigma) which causes reproduction – so we have a Daddy plant, a Mommy plant, and a baby plant — but plants aren’t animals. And plant “eggs” aren’t eggs. And Chazal had a tradition that neither are lice eggs, Halachicly, because the way lice are reproduced — with a Mommy louse and a Daddy louse — does not result in the creation of an egg that enables an animal Nefesh the way other eggs do.

The Gemora, no matter what explanation you are going to have of it, says that dirt can produce lice. The scientists point out that it is an egg that produces lice. That’s not a big deal, because I am saying that those eggs are Halachicly not eggs, but dirt. And the difference between an “egg” and a biologically identical Domem is something only Chazal could know, based on their knowledge of the Nefesh.

So Chazal never said spontaneous generation happens. Lice come from eggs, but whether those eggs are considered like plain animal eggs or dirt depends on their spiritual components, not their biological ones. A human without Nefesh-Neshama is not alive, even if he could walk and talk, and mimic totally all biological symptoms of humanity, and so too eggs without a Nefesh are only unliving robots, albeit organic ones, programmed to sprout forth lice.

The same way Chazal say a fertilized human egg, i.e. an embryo, is unliving water regarding certain Halachos up until the 40th day of development – and that is because of its lack of Neshama, not its lack of any biological factors – so too they said lice eggs are unliving dust because of their lack of a Nefesh.

Life is defined by the status of the soul, not the body. It’s the Nefesh and Neshama that make something “living”. If Chazal had a Kabalah that lice eggs are not living, that statement is meant to be consistent with the Halachic definition of life all over. It is a statement about the Nefesh of the eggs, not the biology.

There are any number of explanations for what Chazal said about the lice, but this one is simple and consistent with the classic responses to the science/lice issue – those of Rav Breil and the Maharal – who say that when there is a contradiction between Chazal and the current scientific belief, Chazal are correct because whereas the scientists only know what they know through external, observable factors, Chazal knew what they knew through the essence of the item, which is discernable through Torah/Ruach HaKodesh, which is not limited to “observable” phenomena. This is an easy and perfect example the scientists’ being limited to observable phenomena, as opposed to Chazal’s understanding of the essence of a thing. We all understand that an organic Golem without a Neshama or Nefesh would not be considered truly living, even if the scientists could not discern any difference between it and a live person. So too if Chazal said that they knew that lice eggs are not living, then the fact that the scientists cannot see that is not a problem. It is due to the limited scope of scientific observation, which does not extend to the determining factor here, namely, the Nefesh.

But the Maharal tells us that it is not only “life” that is defined in spiritual terms, but all physical reality as well. After all, the substance out of which of which the entire world is made is nothing but Ratzon Hashem; its form, a reflection of the Torah. The small part of the part of the world that the scientists can decipher with their equipment and equations is but a façade, a shadow, of the real world, where the laws of nature reside. To see that part of the world, you need to look into the Torah.

The Path of the Sun

Another example: the Satmar Rebbe (Divrei Yoel Tazria) explains this principle as possibly being the underlying reasoning behind the statement of Rebbeinu Tam (quoted in Shita Mekubetzes, Kesuvos 13b), regarding the dispute between the Torah sages and the secular scholars in the Gemora Pesachim (94b) over the path of the sun. The Torah sages held that the sun travels below the rakia (firmament) during the day and above the rakia at night; the secular scholars held that in the day the sun travels below the rakia and at night it travels below the ground.

The Gemora concludes with a statement of Rebbi:

ונראין דבריהם מדברינו

“Their argument seems better than ours.”

However, Rabbeinu Tam (Shabbos 35b) rules Halachicly like the Torah sages in this dispute, and the Maharam Alashkar (Teshuvos 96) disagrees, because the Gemora itself concluded that the arguments of the secular scholars defeated ours.

In addition, he states that the observable reality contradicts Rabbeinu Tam, since there are places in the world where the sun doesn’t set for upwards of 24 hours, which, according to Rabbeinu Tam, would not be possible.

But Rabbienu Tam has a different interpretation of the Gemora. Quoted in the Shita Mekubetzes in Kesuvos (13b), he explains that all the Gemora means is that the secular sages won the argument – but the Torah sages were correct regardless.

The Divrei Yoel asks why the Torah scholars, if they were right, couldn’t explain their reasoning to the secular scholars. And also, how does Rabbeinu Tam explain the observable reality which, as the Maharam Alashkar correctly points out, seems to contradict his position?

He explains: When Chazal made their statement about the path of the sun, they were not talking about the observable sun that secular scholars can see in the sky. He points to a Zohar (Vayikra 9b) that states when Hashem created the world He created not one, but seven firmaments, each one complete with stars and constellations etc.

“Everything in the world has its roots up above, and so too the sun and the moon follow their own paths down here, as a result of the paths of the sun and the moon in the higher firmaments.”

And so the Torah sages, when they were discussing the path of the sun, were referring to the “upper” sun – the “root cause” sun – not the lower sun down here, whose path is just a product of the higher sun.

This is why the Torah sages could not explain their reasoning to the secular scholars – there is no physical proof that the Torah sages could provide that the secular scholars would accept. Chazal knew about the upper firmament from a generation-to-generation tradition going all the way up to Moshe Rabbeinu. But physical evidence could not be provided, and the secular scholars would not believe our private tradition from Moshe.

So as far as the debate is concerned, the secular scholars had the final word; but reality was on the side of Chazal[1].

And so, it is not a problem at all that observable reality contradicts Rabbeinu Tam (i.e. the Maharam Alashkar’s second question). Because the reality that Rabbeinu Tam was talking about is not in the realm of the observable.

This is what the Maharal and Rav Breil mean when they says that the secular scientists get their information from observable science, which is inferior to Chazal’s sources of information. Observable science is limited to the façade of reality that they can see and feel, whereas Chazal’s source of scientific knowledge is the Torah, which describes reality precisely.[ii]

If you ask an average person what a spoon is made if, he will say “metal.” And if that average person does not know enough about the world, he will look incredulously at the scientist who tells him that that spoon is made up of energy particles flying around in different directions. To the layman, the “observable phenomena” principle tells him that the utensil is solid, and not made of energy. That’s because he can only observe with his eyes, and feel with his hands. The scientist, who has the assistance of his instruments, sees an entirely different world. In the future, when more and more tools will be created that assist in the observation process, we may find more and more levels of reality, that make our current observations seem as primitive as the observations of the naked eye seem to the scientists. Our Chazal were able to observe the world not just through their eyes, and not just through electron microscopes, but through the lens of the Torah, and what they saw was the ultimate, deepest layer of reality. It’s not that they didn’t know science – they were light years ahead of where any scientist could ever dream to be. But whereas the scientist gropes in the dark with his caveman equipment to find a bit of insight beyond what his naked eye can see, Chazal had the lights on, and the information lying right in front of them, and were able to see what the world is really like.

And so, just as if you ask a scientist why the wall is red, he will say because its coating absorbs all of the colors in the light spectrum except red, which is reflected back into the vision of the viewer, whereas a layman who does not know that may simply say, “Because it has red paint!”, it is not because the scientist is unaware of the color of the paint, but rather he knows that saying “red paint” doesn’t really answer the question, so too our sages were fully aware of the observable sciences – they learned them from the Torah! – but when they explained natural phenomena, they did so in terms of the root causes, which are grounded in the spirituality of each thing, whereas the scientist only sees “red paint”, and explains things in terms of observable science.

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[1] He adds that it may have been prohibited to tell the secular scholars about the seven firmaments altogether because of the prohibitions of (a) revealing the sod ha’ibur to non-Jews (Kesuvos 111a), as well as (b) revealing sisrei Torah to non-Jews.


[i] The following is an excerpt from an article by John D. Barrow and John K. Webb, called “Constant Constants,” in Scientific American, Vol. 16 #1, ’06:

Some things never change. Physicists call them the constants of nature. Such quantities as the velocity of light, c, Newton’s constant of gravitation, G, and the mass of the electron, me, are assumed to be the same at all places and times in the universe. They form the scaffolding around which the theories of physics are erected, and they define the fabric of our universe. Physics has progressed by making ever more accurate measurements of their values.

And yet, remarkably, no one has ever successfully predicted or explained any of the constants. Physicists have no idea why they take the special numerical values that they do. In SI units, c is 299,792,458; G is 6.673 X 10-11; and me is 9.10938188 X 10-31–numbers that follow no discernible pattern. The only thread running through the values is that if many of them were even slightly different, complex atomic structures such as living beings would not be possible. The desire to explain the constants has been one of the driving forces behind efforts to develop a complete unified description of nature, or “theory of everything.” Physicists have hoped that such a theory would show that each of the constants of nature could have only one logically possible value. It would reveal an underlying order to the seeming arbitrariness of nature.

In recent years, however, the status of the constants has grown more muddled, not less. Researchers have found that the best candidate for a theory of everything, the variant of string theory called M-theory, is self-consistent only if the universe has more than four dimensions of space and time–as many as seven more. One implication is that the constants we observe may not, in fact, be the truly fundamental ones. Those live in the full higher-dimensional space, and we see only their three-dimensional “shadows.”

Close, but no cigar. Scientists can keep seeing deeper and deeper and higher and higher and discover more and more dimensions that are the cause of things that happen in our observable universe. However, they will never realize just how much of a “shadow world” our universe really is because they do not see the world through the lens of the principle L’Olam Hashem deveorecha nitzav bashamayim. Ultimately, that is the cause of all the natural activities in the universe.

[ii] The Divrei Yoel adds that this principle can explain a difficult story in the Gemora (Taanis 19b). The Gemroa relates that there was once a shortage of water for the travelers that came to Yerushalayim for Aliyah L’Regel. Nakdimon ben Gurion made a deal with a certain non-Jewish baron: The baron will lend Nakdimon ben Gurion 12 well-fulls of water, which Nakdimon will return by the end of a certain day. If the payment would not be made by the designated time, Nakdimon would have to pay 12 kikars of silver.

The sun set on the last day and Nakdimon did not have the water. He prayed ot Hashem and rain miraculously fell, filling up the baron’s wells. But the baron still demanded his money, as the sun had already set, and thedeadline past without payment made. Nakdimon then prayed again, and the sun broke through the clouds, and Nakdimon did not have to pay.

But it would seem that according to the terms of the agreement, Nakdimon would still have to pay, since the sun did set, and the day did end, and Nakdimon did not come up with the payment. If the sun comes out of the clouds and lights up the night, that doesn’t change the fact that the sun had already set. Granted that the fact that Hashem made this miracle seems ot indicate somehow, that Nakdimon was correct – otherwise why would Hashem perform the miracle? – but it is hard to understand why he was correct,

But according to Rabbeinu Tam, the Gemora is understood well. When Nakdimon made an agreement that he would return the water by the end of a certina day, he meant by the end of the day according to the Torah sages, which is the authentic end of the day. But the non-Jewish baron only knew observable science and believed the end of the day to be when the observable sun sets. But Rabbeinu Tam rules Halachicly, based on the opinion of the Torah sages that the “real” sunset, the one that hails the end of the day, takes place almost an hour after the setting of the observable sun. And so, Nakdimon was really entitled to keep hi silver, because even though the observable sun set, the day hadn’t yet ended. And just as the Torah sages could not explain that to the secular scholars, so too could Nakdimon not explain it to the non-Jewish barn. So Hashem made a miracle that showed the correctness of Nakdimon’s position.

© ’11 Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro

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