Post: There is a famous Yerushalmi which has been interpreted in different ways. This Yerushalmi is a source for Chazal knowing that the earth is a sphere.
The Yerushalmi (Avodah Zarah 18b) reads:
וחכמים אומרים אינו אסור אלא כל שיש בידו מקל או ציפור או כדור. מקל שהיה רודה בו את העולם. ציפור ותמצא בקן ידי לחיל העמים. כדור שהעולם עשוי ככדור. א"ר יונה אלכסנדרוס מוקדון כד בעא מיסק לעיל והוה סלק וסלק סלק עד שראה את העולם ככדור ואת הים כקערה בגין כן ציירין לה בכדורא בידה. ויצורינה קערה בידה
This, modifying the Mishna on the previous amud that:
דף יח, א פרק ג הלכה א משנה כל הצלמים אסורין מפני שהן נעבדין פעם אחת בשנה דברי רבי מאיר וחכמים אומרים אין אסור אלא כל שיש בידו מקל או צפור או כדור רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר כל שיש בידו כל דבר:
Thus, this is being used to illustrate the idea that the World is round like a ball, and thus if you see a statue with a ball in hand, it is a sign of dominion of the World. Alexander the Macedonian, when he ascended on high, saw the World like a ball and the Sea like a plate.
Already, Pnei Moshe (the Vilna Gaon's teacher) recognizes that there is an explicit parallel in Greek books of history or legend, and so he expands the Yerushalmi to add that Alexander ascended via griffin
I've been trying to trace down this Greek legend in the original in order to see what sorts of insights it might lend in terms of understanding the Yerushalmi. In the previous post, I found it in "The Wars of Alexander, An Alliterative Romance", written in Middle English and translated from Historia Alexandi Magni.
But that was a late version of it. Better would be to see it in the earliest known version, in the Greek Alexander Romance, by Pseudo-Callisthenes. I found a copy of this on Amazon, in translation by Richard Stoneman. And indeed, this work may well give us some great insights into the Yerushalmi.
Here is the relevant passage, from a first-person perspective by Alexander the Great:
Thus, he uses this mechanism of harnessing birds to lift himself high into the air. An angel tells him that he has not yet secured the whole earth, such that he should explore the heavens. Alexander, at the angel's direction, looks down and sees the World -- meaning Middle Earth, meaning the land where people live -- as a tiny circle like a threshing floor. (This was what in the later accounting, in Middle English, in The Wars of Alexander, An Alliterative Romance, became a mill-stone.) Around that land was the Sea, entirely surrounding it. Thus, the Sea looked like a snake coiled around the land.
Furthermore, Alexander is commanded to point his spear at the land in the center. This clearly, and explicitly, represents Alexander's dominion of the world.
Comparing to the Yerushalmi, we don't really need to say that "the world is round like a ball" necessarily means that it is a sphere. Both a ball and a plate (or discus) are round. Imagine you have a ball sitting on a plate, and you look at it from above. It will look like a smaller circle inscribed inside a slightly bigger circle.
Maybe the blue, representing the Sea, would be much thinner, but this is the general gist, if we really want to make the two stories accord with one another. And we should want to make them accord, given all the parallels. (Though I will suggest another reading at the end.)
Note also that Chazal did not make up this idea of this representing dominion, and aren't just randomly bringing in a Greek legend for support. This idea of dominion is stated in the Yerushalmi to explain the position of the Chachamim but, as I noted above, the idea of dominion over the entire earth is explicit within the original Greek legend.
Now, aside from this, we might be tempted to view a statue holding a ball (or a plate-discus) as showing sport, as a plaything rather than as anything representing dominion. However, it is Pseudo-Callisthenes to the rescue once again!
There is an exchange, by letter, between King Daryavesh (Darius) and Alexander. Darius sends Alexander a whip, a ball, and a chest of gold, in order to mock him. The whip and ball, in order to show that he should still be at play and that he can play with his contemporaries, and the chest of gold to feed his fellow bandits so that they can all return to their own countries:
Alexander takes offense, but reinterprets each of these these as positive omens for himself:
He will flay the barbarians with the whip. The ball represents that he will be ruler of the world, for the world is spherical like a ball, and the chest of gold is a sign that Darius will pay him tribute.
If so, we see that the Greeks themselves regarded the ball as having this dual significance -- one, as a plaything, and two, as a sign of dominion, as representing the world. The Chachamim, then, in seeing this as a sign of dominion and representing the world, have their fingers on the pulse of the beliefs of the Greeks, and perhaps of the idolaters in general.
But also see that even in Pseudo-Callisthenes, they state that the world is spherical like a ball, and that a ball is a sign of dominion. We could then return to the Yerushalmi and consider it in another way -- that Rabbi Yona is rewriting the Greek legend (or maybe relying on a different, earlier version?) in which the ball, rather than a mill-stone or round-threshing floor, is chosen deliberately. This because of the spherical nature of the world, which the Greeks clearly knew, combined with the view of the Chachomim that a statue holding a ball is problematic.
If so, the World like a Ball does not necessarily mean that it is round like circle, as above, but that it is round like a sphere. This messes up the imagery we find in the Greek legend, for there is now no snake coiled around it. What is the plate supposed to represent? How do we superimpose the ball on the plate, or the plate on the ball? Where is the sea within this world?
On a previous post, Hillel suggested the following:
R' Waxman,It is an interesting idea, and has more merit than I thought initially. It would explain how this plate and ball work together. And in terms of me'al larakia, we can point out that in the original, by Pseudo-Callisthenes, he actually did ascend there, such that he met an angel! Yet, I don't like the use of Yam to mean both Sea and Land within the Sea. And there is no indication that this was past the firmament, which would presumably be solid and impenetrable. I would rather revert entirely to the meaning as in the Greek legend, and consider it circle (plate) and inscribed smaller circle (ball). Or, that the legend as related by Rabbi Yona meant that (inscribed smaller circle), while the application of that legend by the gemara took the ball to mean sphere.
Are you certain the Yerushalmi says Alexander saw the world as a ball, rather than the universe (or, technically, the firmament)? I don't really understand how one could visualize the world as a ball floating in the sea. However, the firmament idea would work well the the "solid dome" idea of Babylonian cosmology that R' Slifkin writes about. That is, the seas are a flat plate (which Hashem covers in part with land) in the center of a solid sphere (or hemisphere) containing the heavens, sun moon, stars, etc.
But if this is the case (and that's a big if), the Yerushalmi would appear to be suggesting that Alexander raised himself "me'al laraki'a" - a position traditionally reserved only for Hashem and ministering angels! So perhaps the Yerushalmi is not just saying Alexander had magic pets, but rather that he had special skills and/or favor from Hashem.
There are other possibilities I haven't even dreamed of yet. For example, Rabbi Slifkin (in private correspondence) suggested something akin to Hillel's suggestion, namely that it is an image of a hemisphere on top of a larger flat ocean. To expand upon this, this would account for the third dimension of the ball, the sphere in the middle of the plate.
I would also caution against taking this gemara as absolute confirmation that Chazal were Round-Earthers. Firstly, this Yerushalmi might well be simply speaking of the Greek conception of the world, which would have an impact on the sort of statues the Greeks and others would make. Meanwhile, Chazal's conception of the Universe might be something else entirely (as Rabbi Slifkin has pointed out).
Furthermore, I think it is a mistake to simply assume that Chazal were monolithic in their views. On a number of other occasions, I have seen that this is simply not the case. In this particular instance, there is the gemara in Chagiga which seems pretty clearly to indicate a Flat-Earth model. I understand the temptation to point to this particular gemara -- with one particular interpretation -- to "vindicate" Chazal, and demonstrate that they were right. And then, to preserve Chazal's state of vindication, declare any contrary gemara, such as the one in Chagiga, allegorical. But in pursuit of the truth, I would take a more conservative approach and say that at most, it indicates what the Amoraim of Eretz Yisrael, with their own particular intellectual and cultural inputs, believed about the Universe. Then, take other gemaras on their own terms, and consider that they very well might represent a contrary position.
Update: See this image of the World as Conceived by the Babylonians, and compare to the ball on the plate idea.