# R' Yehoshua and the Athenian Elders: Where is the center of the world?

This is part of a series of questions on the Gemara in Bechoros 8b-9a. Below is a summary of the relevant parts of the Gemara. After being challenged by Caesar, R' Yehoshua went to Athens to defeat the Athenian Elders in a battle of wits.

The Elders asked R' Yehoshua during their debate where the center of the world was. R' Yehoshua stuck a finger out (we can only hope it wasn't his middle one) and said, "It's right here."

"Prove it," the Elders demanded.

"Bring a rope, and we can measure it," R' Yehoshua replied.

Now, the Greeks knew that that the world was round; they thus didn't believe that the center of the Earth was anywhere on the surface. It's unclear what Chazal in general held - each Tanna seemed to hold something different. Nevertheless, whatever you think R' Yehoshua held, there's an issue. If R' Yehoshua held the world was round, the center couldn't be on the surface. If he held the world was flat, how could he tell with such precision that he just so happened to be in the middle of the world, and that it's not a few inches to the side?

• If you understand center to mean center of the surface, then his response is perfectly consistent with a round earth. Any point will be the center of a rope going around the circumference, so any arbitrary point is equally the center. That being said, the response is probably more about the un-provability of any assertion he would make than a statement of exact location. Since you can't get ropes to measure, any answer he would give would be un-provable, and he was making that point. Aug 17, 2016 at 22:11
• To be fair, the Earth isn't perfectly round, but that doesn't necessarily make a difference. Nevertheless, he did ask for ropes to measure to prove his assertion. Aug 17, 2016 at 22:15
• He asked for something he knew they couldn't provide (rope long enough to measure). Aug 17, 2016 at 22:52
• So, you're saying this question follows this one? Aug 17, 2016 at 22:54
• R"Y's answer seems WAAAY off our tradition - why didn't they reply with Jerusalem being the center and the Stone of Shtiya the exact point and prove it from Psukim? I don't really know where to file this Sugya - either in Hashkafa or science. I tend to science and we lost that battle. Apr 1, 2019 at 18:34

As you say, the debate was a battle of wits. It is important to keep this in mind when analyzing it. We should not expect the account to necessarily yield many substantive insights -- that is not its point. We should instead expect to find structural brilliance: good argumentation, solid comebacks and sharp turnarounds. That is exactly is what we find here.

The Athenians asked him a question seemingly impossible to answer: where is the center of the earth? Whether they thought the earth was round or flat, they certainly did not think there was any chance he could identify the exact location of its center. They thought they had him beat.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah countered brilliantly. He pointed to a random spot and said "here." This was brilliant because no matter what they believed (assuming even that they had a belief) he knew they would not be able to refute him. When they asked "who says?" he countered "bring rope and measure!" They obviously did not have enough rope, so he won the round.

The Athenians were asking the Jew... "Where is the "center" of your spirituality, now that the Temple is destroyed?"

A Greek understood that a certain holy site was a focal point of the religion in question. If one Greek city held possession of the "Temple of the Oracle" for instance, then the oracle was the place where all holiness for that city supplied the city (blessing, protection, etc.). Also, all land outside the holy place was nothing of spiritual value. If an enemy state attacked and conquered the holy site, it would demoralize the Greeks since they "lost" their center of spirituality and could not replace it. (The gods have abandoned us etc.).

The Greeks wanted to know how the Jews could still claim connection to Torah life if the "Temple Center" was destroyed.

R' Yehoshuah answered that the center of the Torah world and manifestation of G-d's true presence is anywhere. You don't need a Temple Center to connect. They asked for proof. He responded that one must do the spiritual work (prayer, chesed, Torah midos etc.) and then you will know you are connected. That seems to be the mashal.

• Great answer but I also like the comment by Yishai in the main question. Nice explanation!
– ezra
Oct 21, 2016 at 3:35
• What about the rope? How does it fit? Apr 1, 2019 at 18:28