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According to the Chabad translation, Rashi on Deut. 1:10 implies that there are more than 600,000 stars:

The Lord, your God, has multiplied you, and behold, you are today as the stars of the heavens in abundance. (Deut 1:10)

And, behold, you are today as the stars of the heavens: But were they [the Israelites] on that day as [many as] the stars of the heavens? Were they not only six hundred thousand?

(Rashi's question is resolved by saying that they are as eternal as the stars, but it still raises the question.)

Of course today we know this to be true (in fact, current estimates are on the order of hundreds of sextillions of stars in the observable universe), but Rashi said this before the advent of the telescope, during a time when there were perhaps a couple thousand stars cataloged.

Are there any indications elsewhere of how many stars Rashi thought there were, or perhaps if other Torah sources said something similar to Rashi? (Is it even a proper understanding of the Rashi? I'm going off an English translation.) Perhaps there were philosophers or astronomers at the time who said there must be many more stars than could be individually counted, I don't know.

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The problem with the question is that there are no "halachic" countings of stars. So if you don't want Aggadic counts (which may not be literal), you aren't left with much. –  Shmuel Brin Jul 11 '13 at 0:13
@ShmuelBrin That doesn't rule out the possibility that there are other verses or references or commentaries that might shine some light (if you will) on the issue. –  A L Jul 15 '13 at 21:06

4 Answers 4

Around 1.06434e+18.

The Gemara in Brachos says

י"ב מזלות בראתי ברקיע ועל כל מזל ומזל בראתי לו שלשים חיל ועל כל חיל וחיל בראתי לו שלשים לגיון ועל כל לגיון ולגיון בראתי לו שלשים רהטון ועל כל רהטון ורהטון בראתי לו שלשים קרטון ועל כל קרטון וקרטון בראתי לו שלשים גסטרא ועל כל גסטרא וגסטרא תליתי בו שלש מאות וששים וחמשה אלפי רבוא כוכבים

Hashem created 12 constellations.

To each constellation He assigned 30 Chail.

For each Chail, He created 30 legions.

For each legion, He created 30 rehatons.

For each rehatons, He created 30 kartons.

For each karton, He created 30 Gistera.

For each gistera, He created 365*1000*10000 stars.

The result comes up to 12*30*30*30*30*30*365*1000*10000

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I believe it was common for fantastic statements in the Gemara to be meant on a metaphorical level. (I could give you examples of people seeing impossibly large animals or impossibly large waves and such.) Can you demonstrate from the various commentaries whether there was any understanding one way or the other that this was understood to be literal? For the record, just because Aish or Rabbi Mizrachi makes a claim, I have learned to dig deeper and not not accept them at face value. –  A L Jul 10 '13 at 5:28
Were there also actually 5 bazillion stores in Rome (megillah 6b)? Did 3 kablillion Jews leave yerushalyim in the churban (eicha rabba to Rabbati Am)? 360001800000 people lived in Yannai haHelech's cities (gittin 57a)? This is a standard aggadic technique. –  Double AA Jul 10 '13 at 5:32
@ShmuelBrin You also have to make sure then that there aren't other statements in the Gemara that contradict this (Pesachim 94a might say that there are thousands of stars, but not understanding the Hebrew I can't verify that for sure). More importantly, if you are saying that this was accepted as the literal exact number of stars, you have to answer to the fact that 1e+18 is about 5 orders of magnitude smaller than the actual estimates based on recent observation improvements and that the number of stars is constantly changing. –  A L Jul 10 '13 at 5:32
@Shmuel when it's reasonable and doesn't follow a common aggadic pattern of derivation. –  Double AA Jul 10 '13 at 5:37
Note the Rambam in calling out people for making a mockery of Chazal by taking Aggadata literally, specifically uses the example of those who expound literally the drashos in maseches brachos to the masses. daat.ac.il/daat/mahshevt/rambam/hakdamat-2.htm#3 –  Double AA Jul 10 '13 at 11:31

I might venture a couple sheer guesses of what it might possibly mean. If anyone might know of any merit to the guesses, please let me know and I can improve this answer.

  1. Rashi may have recognized that the milky light of the Milky Way is made up of many stars. Although only a one or two thousand could be individually identified, he figured the glow was from an uncountably high number of other stars.

  2. Rashi may simply be indicating that they weren't at their maximum of multiplicity.

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The question behind the question is whether statements from religious tradition should be taken seriously by scientists. These are statements made at a time when there were no human beings were aware of concepts such as galaxies. There are about 9,000 stars visible on a clear, moonless night, yet 2,000+ years ago the Talmud quotes a tradition that there are 10^18 stars.

Science is proud of its accuracy, yet when counting stars there is a great deal of guess work. Stars are counted in a small area and then extrapolated to be evenly distributed. Science estimates about 10^11 or 10^12. The key here is defining what is counted as a star. Next, galaxies are counted in a small area and extrapolated to be evenly distributed. Right now, that is also estimated to be about 10^11 to 10^12. The resulting estimate for the total number of stars is therefore 10^22 to 10^24. (Just as an aside, if religious tradition made the claim that the average number of stars in a galaxy is almost exactly the number of galaxies in the universe I think science would have a problem with the coincidence.)

My feeling is that statements from religious tradition are like the answers in the back of a text book. If you work a problem and come up with a different answer then the first response should be to make sure that the problem was understood correctly, not that the answer given was a mistake. It is possible that the question is not the same. Here, perhaps the definition of a star is different or the definition of the size of the universe is different.

For the question of the size of the universe, the size of the "observable universe" changes as science progresses. Does that mean that the number from tradition is only valid for a specific level of scientific ability? Perhaps the number of stars will continue to increase and the traditional value will become progressively more wrong. That would not seem to be the universal result expected from religion. As a possible response, the "future visibility limit" may mean that the largest the number of observable stars can only ever be 2.36 times the current number of observable stars, which locks us in to about the current order of magnitude. The number of grains of sand is often compared to the number of stars in the sky. I find one estimate of 10^18 and another of 10^24 (Sorry, but I am limited to 2 links, so you have to do the search yourself if you are interested). The 10^18 is based on grains of sand on the beach. This is not unreasonable, just a matter of definition. Perhaps the equivalent number for stars is based on a similar restrictive definition. In any case, religious traditional values do not seem to be out of line.

In the US (in 2009) there were 193 million "light duty vehicles, short wheel base," 40 million "light duty vehicles, long wheel base," 10 million trucks, and 9 million motorcycles. Using 10 million as the unit of measure, if asked the number of cars, either 19 (defined as cars) or 25 (defined as vehicles) would both be reasonable answers.

So, 2,000+ years ago nobody ever saw more than 10^4 stars, but the Talmud says that tradition puts the count as about 10^18. With all of our advances in science, without a clear definition of what is being counted, say that the number is more like 10^22 to 20^24.

This is supposed to discredit Rabbinic Torah?

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What tradition are you talking about? Who is trying to discredit Torah? –  Double AA Jul 17 '13 at 21:01
Many of my discussions seem to come down to others bringing examples where they consider Torah and science to conflict or disagree. Since they accept science as being correct, by definition, the result is that they feel they have discredited the Torah. Perhaps on this site I am being unnecessarily defensive. –  Steven Schulman Jul 17 '13 at 21:54
@StevenSchulman Thanks but I'm a little confused by your answer. My question is very direct: How many stars did Rashi, as a person, think there were? Yes, it would be applicable to how I might understand the Talmud's statement about 1e18 stars as well as the particular verse in question, but that's not what this question is about, and I'm not asking about how "traditional" science should be understood. –  A L Jul 17 '13 at 23:07
@StevenSchulman Secondly, the "tradition" of 1e18 might not, for all I know, have been meant to be literal. If science today proved there were only 8,000 stars in the universe, I doubt you would even look at that source as anything other than aggadah. The fact that it's a very big number doesn't mean you should take it literally except if you have some other source in Rabinnic literature that says so (other than a source from the last 50 years). –  A L Jul 17 '13 at 23:11
@StevenSchulman Thirdly, I'm not really sure either if you're trying to say that there are 10k more stars now than there were before. We had no idea that there were so many galaxies in the universe until we looked in a better telescope and saw them! If scientists have no reason to think there are extra galaxies, they won't estimate for them, but as we see more, the estimated number will only go up. Likewise I'm confused about why you might think that only one in 10,000 celestial dots we consider to be stars would count as "Torah stars". –  A L Jul 17 '13 at 23:15

There are 600.000 stars as a foundation of all astronomical bodies. The rest circulate between forms of gas.

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Can you source this? More importantly, can you source that Rashi thought this? –  Double AA May 11 '14 at 1:28

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