8

Many ancient cultures believed that eclipses are caused by things other than syzygy. The Egyptians had Apophis. The Hindus had Rahu. (The interested reader can see more here.)

In light (ha) of the fact that so many cultures believed in such creatures, I felt compelled to ask: Do Chazal discuss what causes eclipses? Obviously they wouldn’t say there’s a god in charge of eating the sun, but did they know that it was caused by the moon getting in the way of the sun, or the earth getting in the way of the moon?

I am specifically looking for sources in the Gemara or earlier.

  • 1
    I don't think you'll find anything in the Gemara or earlier. Remember Greeks knew it was syzygy so it's pretty reasonable that Chazal did too – Double AA Aug 17 '17 at 23:34
  • 1
    @DoubleAA I figured that by the times of the late Rishonim/early Acharonim who discuss syzygy, that was a well-enough-known phenomenon that it doesn’t prove anything. That’s why I was asking for much earlier sources. – DonielF Aug 17 '17 at 23:35
  • related: judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/84291/… – Menachem Aug 18 '17 at 1:33
  • If the chachamim didn't believe in syzygy, what did they think caused the molad? – DanF Aug 18 '17 at 16:51
  • @DanF Obviously they knew about syzygy. Did they know that a solar eclipse is a special case of a molad? – DonielF Aug 18 '17 at 17:31
7

I found discussion of eclipses in the g'mara, but not of the science of them. On Sukkah 29a the g'mara first discusses eclipses as omens (all bad). It then turns to causes:

The Sages taught that on account of four matters the sun is eclipsed: On account of a president of the court who dies and is not eulogized appropriately, and the eclipse is a type of eulogy by Heaven; on account of a betrothed young woman who screamed in the city that she was being raped and there was no one to rescue her; on account of homosexuality; and on account of two brothers whose blood was spilled as one.

And on account of four matters the heavenly lights are eclipsed: On account of forgers of a fraudulent document [pelaster] that is intended to discredit others; on account of testifiers of false testimony; on account of raisers of small domesticated animals in Eretz Yisrael in a settled area; and on account of choppers of good, fruit-producing trees.

According to Chazal, eclipses -- which are bad -- are punishment for certain transgressions. In other words, according to this g'mara they're divinely directed. That doesn't mean they didn't understand that this is accomplished by something moving in front of something else, but it suggests that they didn't know they could be predicted through science.

  • 1
    Similar comments appear in Gen. Rab. 10:4, Tos. Suk. 2:6 and Mekh. RY 12:2:4. – Argon Aug 18 '17 at 3:26
  • 1
    Regarding your last point see further judaism.stackexchange.com/q/16891 - just because it’s a “bad omen” doesn’t mean they didn’t know it was predictable. Saying it’s a time of judgement, as the Aruch LaNer seems to suggest, just means that these are times during which HaShem judges the world for these sins and metes out judgement accordingly - hunger or war, as discussed earlier in that sugya. Or according to the Yearos Devash, it’s not talking about eclipses at all, and therefore it’s no proof. (Personally I find the former more compelling, but who am I to argue on our gedolim?) – DonielF Aug 18 '17 at 4:16
  • @Argon Regarding Bereishis Rabbah, are you referring to אין לשון ויכלו אלא לשון מכה? All that Midrash means is that nature used to work a lot faster back in the day. Regarding Tosefta and Mechilta, I believe those are the very Braisos the Gemara is quoting - very good tracking down the originals. – DonielF Aug 18 '17 at 4:27
  • @DonielF You are right that Gen. Rab. doesn't discuss eclipses. I only included it because it shows some rabbinical knowledge of orbits. – Argon Aug 18 '17 at 21:19
-1

What I heard based on a lecture by Rabbi Yaakov Trump is that he quotes the Aruch LeNer who says that Chazal here is explaining the why behind eclipses, not the how, since science already explains the how.

The lecture can be found on YU Torah here.

  • Avi Kupchik, consider editing in sources and clarify exactly what Rabbi Yaakov Trump said. – ezra Aug 18 '17 at 17:43
  • 2
    He didn't say if Chazal knew the how or not, just in Sukkah they were discussing the why. – robev Aug 20 '17 at 14:44
  • I thought this was a troll post because of the Rabbi's name but it is a real link. – Clint Eastwood Aug 28 '18 at 2:14
-3

First, to your question, as our sources don't explain the phenomena, the Sages knew about eclipses right after the other astronomers published their theories. BTW, the Sages didn't have weird ideas of various creatures as the Ptolemean school was widely accepted long ago (some 200 years before the Gm.).


Some Background:

Let me reveal the hoax of the most of #science tagged question about Judaism - "the Gemmorah represents the [pure] Jewish Oral tradition."

No, the Gm represents the opinions of the Chachamim that were full of external knowledge without properly admitting it. (I'm too tired to bring examples, but if you insist please comment). Therefore you can NEVER attribute any "scientific" saying found in the Gm to the Oral tradition.

Rambam says it in Hilchot Kidush Hachodesh, that all the divine knowledge the tribe of Issachar had as ומבני יששכר יודעי בינה לעתים (DhY A 12:33) was lost and all the astronomical knowledge the Sages had in the times of the Second Temple was external only. I didn't see anybody arguing that assertion.

Therefore whether the Sages discuss it or not, the discussion was not about the tradition, just like the dispute of R' Yehuda about Sun's trajectory at night (which the Sages unfortunately lost).


BTW, this is a funny claim "we had it but we lost it". What was the idea of giving the knowledge to lose it after 1000 years? And why didn't they take measures to keep it?

  • 1
    This doesn’t answer the question. I asked a simple yes or no question. Your answer says “it doesn’t matter.” I didn’t say anything about attributing anything in the Gemara to oral tradition, nor do I believe that is necessarily the case when it comes to science. Many times the Gemara itself goes to run experiments. But none of that matters here - I just asked if the Gemara talks about what causes eclipses, and this does not answer that. – DonielF Aug 27 '18 at 23:21
  • Oh, sorry, i'll add it right now, does it answer now? – Al Berko Aug 27 '18 at 23:22
  • 1
    You could have just said “no” without saying the rest of this which is still completely irrelevant. I just asked if there’s any evidence that they knew - it doesn’t matter where they got that evidence from, be it tradition or contemporaries. – DonielF Aug 27 '18 at 23:35
  • You're right, I now put the answer first, and the philisohy later. – Al Berko Aug 27 '18 at 23:37
  • 1
    Does this answer contradict your view expressed here? – Alex Aug 28 '18 at 2:58

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .