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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, 2014 at 11:02
  • @Jewels I don't think he brings any sources from Chazal about it.
    – mevaqesh
    Jul 28, 2016 at 8:59
  • the vast number of animals in the world - How about the number of animals in the Tanakh ? is it really that vast ?
    – user18041
    Apr 14, 2019 at 18:08

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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, 2014 at 2:28
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    The OP asked for sources in Chazal. You did not provide any.
    – mevaqesh
    Jul 28, 2016 at 8:59
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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, 2014 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, 2014 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, 2014 at 18:22
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Even though it is not from Chazal, in keeping with what was mentioned above about what the Ramban said — that even when God bends the laws of nature, he doesn't go all out1; he does the minimum required (and then asks for man's input) — there has been some interesting non-Jewish bible scholars research about the minimum amounts of animals that would fit into the ark that would include all species' ancestry from which all current variants could have come from. This research includes the interesting point that the animals that came to the ark might have been babies or juveniles. As an example, a baby elephant only weighs 120 lb and is three feet tall.


Footnotes:

  1. A good example of this would be Kriyas Yam Suf. There's a commentary (I forget which) that explains this idea and includes the wind that blew then as proof.
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This is a great question!

I saw two answers:

  1. The Ramban in Parashat Noach 6:19 (who was quoted by @sabbahillel), and also Rabbeinu Bachaye 7:15, who both say it was a miracle where מועט החזיק את המרובה mentioned many places in Chazal (Vayikra Rabah 10:9, etc). And the Ramban explained that Hashem didn't want to make the Teivah small so that people would talk about it and do teshuva (like Rashi explained on 6:14) and because למעט בנס כי ,כן הדרך בכל הניסים שבתורה או בנביאים לעשות מה שביד אדם לעשות והשאר יהיה בידי שמים meaning to diminish the miracle because the way of miracles mentioned in Chumash and Nevim is that people do hishtadlut according to what they can and Hashem does the rest.

  2. The Netziv in Parashat Noach 6:20, and Rav David Luria propose an interesting idea: The Gemera in Chullin 63b says, תניא איסי בן יהודה אומר מאה עופות טמאין יש במזרח וכולן מין איה הן תני אבימי בריה דר' אבהו ז' מאות מיני דגים הן וח' מאות מיני חגבים ולעופות אין מספר עופות כ"ד הוו אלא ולעופות טהורים אין מספר, “It is taught in a baraita that Isi ben Yehuda says: There are one hundred non-kosher birds in the East, and they are all species of ayya. Avimi, son of Rabbi Abbahu, taught: There are seven hundred types of non-kosher fish, and eight hundred types of non-kosher grasshopper, and there are countless birds. The Gemara protests: Are there countless non-kosher birds? But there are only twenty-four non-kosher birds mentioned in the Torah. Rather, Avimi must have meant: And there are countless kosher birds.” Meaning that there is something called שורשי המינים, the primary type of animal, and that animal changed into different types of that animal after it left the teivah into many places of the world (a micro-evolution type thing). In Pirkei DeRebbi Eliezer Chapter 23 he quotes the same idea, הרבה מינים שאנו רואים לפנינו נפרדים ומשונים למיניהם, מעיקרן נבראו ונכנסו במין אחד.” (And a similar related discssion is also in Bava Kamma 55a as well).

Hope this is a satisfying answer

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The Gemara has an opinion that Israel was not affected by the flood. That means the approach of "everything in the world", as described by the flood, is not literal is ... in the Gemara, and thus squarely within the bounds of our theology.

Once we've gone there, many 20th Century rabbis have suggested that "the world", as used in this narrative, instead meant "the main [Mesopotamian] civilization, as known at the time of this story."

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    Assuming you are reffering to Zvochim 118, that same peice explains that despit the flood WATERS not entering the holy land, the flood's heat killed off everything (xcept Og and the Re'EM) which were in EY.
    – terryg
    Oct 16, 2023 at 11:29

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