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Today, a very learned friend of mine and I were discussing the difficulty of the literal interpretation of Noah's ark. That is, we could not fathom how multiple samples of every animal on earth could have fit on a boat.

We got very creative in our interpretation, but we still were forced to admit that it would have to have been an open miracle for it to work.

We were also surprised to realize that neither of us could remember having ever heard of anything from חז״ל seeking to explain the phenomenon. We assume that they must have been aware of the vast number of animals in the world, even if they did not know to the extent we know today just how vast that number actually is, and they must have also known that such a large number would be impossible under normal circumstances to fit under one roof, however large, not even accounting for food and waste.

Are there any sources in חז״ל that attempt to address this difficulty?

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Rabbi Meiselman deals with this question extensively in his Torah Chazal and Science –  Jewels May 11 '14 at 11:02

2 Answers 2

The Ramban deals with this and points out that it must be a miracle. A WHOLE NEW WORLD and Ramban on the Torah: The Ark’s Size both show the explanation of this.

God’s Instructions to Noah outline the ark’s dimensions: three hundred amot long, fifty amot wide and thirty amot high (Bereishit 6:15). Ramban (commentary on 6:19) notes that such a structure can not possibly hold the various items Noah brought aboard the ark. The animal kingdom includes a vast array of different species, some of considerable size. A pair from every species takes up an immense amount of space. Add a year’s supply of food for all those creatures and the ark as described will simply not do. Ramban explains that a miracle enabled the vessel to contain all things needed.

If the ark’s mission depended upon a miracle, why did God make Noah dedicate considerable effort to building such a larger structure? Expand the miracle a bit and Noah need not work nearly as hard. Ramban explains that God wanted Noah’s contemporaries to notice his efforts, ask Noah about them, and learn about the impending deluge. Perhaps they will repent. This idea has particular resonance in light of Chazal’s portrayal of Noah as someone who did not try to save others from calamity, in sharp contrast to Avraham who prays for Sodom. According to Rambam, God set up such a role for Noah but Noah was unable to achieve this goal.

Ramban also suggests a different answer. The Torah prefers to minimize the miraculous and demand mankind’s maximum input. Even when God must bend the laws of nature to ensure the world’s survival, He still asks that man give his utmost towards that goal.

This point has significant implications. Many think of Ramban as a rabbinic authority who emphasizes the miraculous component within Judaism. Ramban’s analysis of the ark clarifies that he rejects a notion of divine involvement which lessens the need for human effort and initiative. God did not create world in which He miraculously provides for all our needs. Rather, He created a world in which human striving, sometimes enhanced by divine aid, can achieve amazing results.

Rambam teaches a dual message about righteousness. The most profoundly righteous are not content with saving themselves; they also want to help others. Secondly, authentic righteousness does not simply rely on Hashem; it calls for the utmost in human effort.

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Funny. My friend actually commented, "There must be a Ramban on this." –  Seth J May 11 '14 at 2:28

I'd like to argue that your assumption is not quite correct, namely, that Chazal were not aware of the vast number of animals in the world.

Start by observing that animals whose habitat is outside of the near east were not known to Chazal as is evidenced by the known statements regarding the uniqueness of the non-kosher animals:

שליט בעולמו יודע שאין לך דבר מעלה גרה וטמא אלא גמל

In trying to estimate the number of animals known in the near east at the time, one could use Aristotle's classification of animals, which contained less than 600 species, of which quite a number were fish and other marine animals.

If this is indeed representative, it would mean that only a few hundred animals (in Chazal's view) had to fit on the ark, a plausible number given the size of the ark described in Genesis.

Edit: As late as the 1771 edition of Britannica, the entry on Noah's Ark contained the following:

"...the number of species of animals will be found much less than is generally imagined not amounting to a hundred species of quadrupeds nor to two hundred of birds... Zoologists usually reckon but an hundred and seventy species in all"

Adding credence to the the idea that the number of species known by Chazal was indeed around 4 orders of magnitude less than what we are aware of today.

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Not only plausible. The discussion of the time would rather be: "Why did he build the ark so big. A fraction of the size would be enough." ;) With over 100000 square feet, leave one entire floor unused and account for 1200 specimens they would still have an average of over 2x2 meter pr. animal ... –  user13500 May 11 '14 at 11:06
@user 1200 specimens isn't very many when you're talking about two or seven of each type. –  Seth J May 11 '14 at 17:17
@SethJ: I meant in context of the answer: "… which contained less than 600 species, of which quite a number were fish and other marine animals. […] If this is indeed representative, it would mean that only a few hundred animals …" And it is only a very loose estimate on my part. –  user13500 May 11 '14 at 18:22

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