Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Was the Vilna Gaon a Flat Earther? It would seem so.

A while ago, Rabbi Slifkin, who now runs the Rationalist Judaism blog, sent me an interesting Gilyonei HaShas that claimed that the Gra did not believe the earth was spherical. See the text marked in red, below. This is surprising. As a commenter on his blog wrote:
In the DivreiChaim blog comments, you commented that the GR"A held the world to be flat. Could you elaborate? It seems quite incredible, since he was born well after the circumnavigation of the earth (he was alive during the American Revolution)and despite having a mystical orientation, was known to be well-versed in scientific matters.
The gemara in Shabbos 75a reads (and see here at HebrewBooks.org):
א"ר שמואל בר נחמני א"ר יוחנן מנין שמצוה על האדם לחשב תקופות ומזלות שנאמר (דברים ד) ושמרתם ועשיתם כי היא חכמתכם ובינתכם לעיני העמים איזו חכמה ובינה שהיא לעיני העמים הוי אומר זה חישוב תקופות ומזלות:
In Gilyonei HaShas, we see the following eye-opening perush:

There, "from where do we know that it is a precept...": It appears to me, see the Shu"t Radach, Beit 15, who writes to one of the sages of the generation, and this is his language:
"And that which you wrote to me that your honor believes that I have not seen the gemara, and that if I saw it, I forgot it, since I have ascended in the heights of Euclid {Aklidas}; in this I respond to his honor, if only Hashem would let me merit to learn the science of seeing the moon on the basis of the calculation upon which it was stated כי היא חכמתכם ובינתכם, etc., as the Rambam za"l wrote in the laws of Kiddush Hachodesh. And it is as well in the realm of והיגת. And even though Shmuel Yarchinaah did not engage in it except in the privy [a midrash brought down in Tosafot, Taanit 7a, d"h af], this is regarding the other stars, but in the seeing of the moon, that there is found many languages from the Talmud built upon it, it is obvious that it is of the wisdom of our holy Torah." End quote.
And see Shu"t Shevut Yaakov, chelek 3, siman 20, that he writes that the Kiddush Hachodesh of the Rambam is built upon the science of the gentile nations, as he himself writes. And this is not the wisdom referred to in the gemara here, for behold, it is stated "for it is your wisdom," etc. Thus, the idolators do not know it. And perforce, there is no precept at all in learning Kiddush Hachodesh to the Rambam. And see there as well another reason, that the primary science of the nations in this is built upon the foundation that the world is like a ball {sphere}, and this is against the implications of Shas in Chagiga, see there, that he brings from many sefarim about this.

And so I have seen in the sefer Aliyat Eliyahu in the name of the Gra of Vilna za"l that his thought was that the world was not a sphere, from that which it is written {Iyov 38:13}
יג לֶאֱחֹז, בְּכַנְפוֹת הָאָרֶץ; וְיִנָּעֲרוּ רְשָׁעִים מִמֶּנָּה. 13 That it might take hold of the ends of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it?
And as it is explained Sifrei upon the verse, "על ארבע כנפות כסוסך" is to exclude the rounded corner, for it does not have kanfot. Thus behold that in a rounded shape the language of kanfot is not apt.

And yet, I recall from the Rambam in Moreh {Nevuchim} chelek 1, he believes as a certain matter that the world is a sphere, as a primary concept. And so it is implied in the gemara Avodah Zarah 41a, see there in Tosafot, d"h kekadur, and so is it explicit in Midrash Rabba on Naso, on the verse mizrak echad kesef, see there. And so it is as well in Zohar. And also, this is not just an opinion of the gentile scholars alone, but it rather elucidated as a wonder. And they have already gone on at length in this, in the explanation of the aforementioned Shas Chagiga.
It would thus seem that the Gra was a flat-earther, paying heed more to derivations from pesukim than to the scientific knowledge of his time. Of course, there is a distinction to be made between derivations on the basis of observations and calculations, even though it was common knowledge, and actual direct observation -- we have pictures. Nowadays we have pictures of the round earth. So while he was somehow willing to against all sorts of evidence. But still! The Vilna Gaon was born in 1720, and Magellan had circumnavigated the globe in 1519 - 1522! What was he thinking?!

We should also find the appropriate page in the sefer Aliyat Eliyahu, and make certain that this is being cited accurately.

Update: See this post for a followup, with a translation of the text from Aliyat Eliyahu.

15 comments:

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>despite having a mystical orientation, was known to be well-versed in scientific matters.

This is true, but misunderstood. The Gra's knowledge of science was essentially knowledge of medieval science, not (the burgeoning) modern science. He could not, after all, read texts written in European languages. At the time he lived there were few Hebrew translations of contemporary science works. the Gra, thus, was not very familiar with them.

Furthermore, in view of all this, he could not have had a modern outlook on science, and could well have viewed an issue like the nature of the earth as one to be determined by tradition and authority and not by getting into a boat and sailing into the horizon.

מֹשאל רפאל said...

I am sure the GR"A knew that the Earth is a sphere. Note the degree to which degree this is hearsay. I imagine the GR'A once gave a Shiur about Iyov and what he said ended up in Aliyat Eliyahu, and from there in Gilyon HaShas. I have never seen this Aliyat Eliyahu, but I would nevertheless propose that the GR"A in the Shiur that I imagine is the source of all this, could well have meant to refer to the form of the continents in the midst of the great seas.

joshwaxman said...

but his contemporary, the shevus yaakov, also maintained this, and pretty clearly so. (see my upcoming post on this, or see what was cited above.) as i noted, i linked to the sefer Aliyat Eliyahu from Hebrew Books. if you have the time to find it, it would indeed be most helpful.

kt,
josh

גילוי said...

Josh, where's the link to Aliyat Eliyahu?

joshwaxman said...

Oops, because it was in red, it was not noticeable as a hyperlink. here is the link, but i'll change to colors above as well.

http://www.hebrewbooks.org/14220

kt,
josh

Baruch said...

If you get a chance, Christine Garwood's treatment of the 19th - 21st century flat-earthers is fascinating.

Awhile back, Dan Rabinowitz had a post about the flat-earth concept. For any interested parties: here's a list of sources I have in my archives that he and R' Brodt mentioned in regards to the Gra's belief --
R. Y. Engel, Gilyoni HaShas, Shabbat, 74a; aliyos eliyahu pg 62 in the ftnt; Eliach's gra vol 2 pg 578 ftnt 38; the toldos adam pg 68 and onwards; R' Korman in his Movo Ltorah page 286 ftnt 27; and the sharei zohar pg 302, sefer habris pg 41 and 95 as well as the magen avos of tashbatz pg 15 in the Zayni version

Anonymous said...

Take a look at (the contemporaneous) Metzudas Dovid on posuk {Iyov 38:6}.

Velvel said...

I am sure the GR"A knew that the Earth is a sphere.

Why?

מֹשאל רפאל said...

It is on page 26, commentary 82.

מֹשאל רפאל said...

It is on page 26, commentary 82.

joshwaxman said...

wow! thanks. i think now I might need to track down the gra's commentary on tikkunim...

kt,
josh

גילוי said...

Josh,

It's out of print, and expensive to get a reprint. I got one, and it cost me a few hundred shekels.

joshwaxman said...

thanks.
it turns out (I don't know if this will make you happy or disappointed) that JNUL now has this online.
http://aleph500.huji.ac.il/nnl/dig/books/bk001758840.html
if you know offhand where in the text to find it, that would be wonderful. but otherwise, it would probably take forever.

kt,
josh

גילוי said...

Not to fret, this makes me only regret the $5 I spent on Otzar haChochmah before I bought the reprint.

What are we looking for, I can try when I get home, as of course I can't install that plugin on my work computer.

Nosson Gestetner said...

I always imagined arba kanfos to be N,E,S,W, the 4 points of the compass.

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