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Questions about the reconciliation of the Torah and the science are very frequent and popular, but they are nothing new. The sages were asked similar questions by the philosophers of Ancient Greece and Rome.

Pesochim 94a is a good example of such dispute, where R' Yehuda easily admits that the scientific approach sounds better than our Sages' (an extensive explanation here, thnx DoubleAA):

"תנו רבנן שנו חכמים: חכמי ישראל אומרים: גלגל קבוע ומזלות חוזרים וחכמי אומות העולם אומרים: גלגל חוזר ומזלות קבועין. וכו' אמר רבי: נראים דבריהם מדברינו שביום מעיינות צוננים ובלילה מעיינות רותחים"

The Jewish Sages say that during the day the sun travels beneath the firmament and is therefore visible, and at night it travels above the firmament. And the sages of the nations of the world say that during the day the sun travels beneath the firmament, and at night it travels beneath the earth and around to the other side of the world. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi said: And the statement of the sages of the nations of the world appears to be more accurate than our statement. A proof to this is that during the day, springs that originate deep in the ground are cold, and during the night they are hot compared to the air temperature, which supports the theory that these springs are warmed by the sun as it travels beneath the earth.

If I'm not mistaken, the Sages' position is based on the Oral tradition, otherwise, there would be no point in such a dispute. And nevertheless, Rabbi discarded the tradition in favor of the empirical science.

There are numerous other, "pseudo-scientific" statements by our Sages, for example, snake gestation period of 7 years (Bechoros 8a), regrowing hymen before age of 3 (Niddah 45a) and more. Some of them (the former) are purely theoretical, but some (the later) are bases for various Halachic decisions.

What does R' Yehudah's statement mean in general terms (not concerning this specific claim)? How can he discard the Sages' oral tradition in favor of scientific theories?

And does his example let us do the same - in case of a discrepancy between our Sages' claims and the current science - to accept current scientific theories over our tradition?

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    R Slifkin has an extensive article about traditional interpretations of that Gemara rationalistjudaism.com/2010/11/key-to-everything.html – Double AA Aug 17 '18 at 15:36
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    How do you know the Sages had an oral tradition regarding this? – robev Aug 17 '18 at 15:39
  • @robev This is THE $1M question. I admit it is an assumption, that the Sages' view stems from our Oral tradition, otherwise, what's the dispute - between the Babylonian astronomers and the Greecs? WHat's for us? – Al Berko Aug 18 '18 at 18:06
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    You should edit your question to explicitly state that you only want answers which assume the Sages statement is an oral tradition, and therefore you want to know how Rebbe could imply it was rejected. – robev Aug 19 '18 at 14:48
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Rambam addresses this in Guide for the Perplexed 2:8.

You must not find it strange that Aristotle differs here from the opinion of our Sages. The theory of the music of the spheres is connected with the theory of the motion of the stars in a fixed sphere, and our Sages have, in this astronomical question, abandoned their own theory in favour of the theory of others. Thus, it is distinctly stated, "The wise men of other nations have defeated the wise men of Israel." It is quite right that our Sages have abandoned their own theory: for speculative matters every one treats according to the results of his own study, and every one accepts that which appears to him established by proof. (Friedlander translation, my emphasis)

In Guide for the Perplexed 3:14, Rambam further explains that in astronomical matters the Sages were not quoting traditions, but were using their own analysis or relying on contemporary science:

You must, however, not expect that everything our Sages say respecting astronomical matters should agree with observation, for mathematics were not fully developed in those days: and their statements were not based on the authority of the Prophets, but on the knowledge which they either themselves possessed or derived from contemporary men of science. But I will not on that account denounce what they say correctly in accordance with real fact, as untrue or accidentally true. On the contrary, whenever the words of a person can be interpreted in such a manner that they agree with fully established facts, it is the duty of every educated and honest man to do so. (Friedlander translation, my emphasis)

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As Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin writes in his essay, The Sun’s Path at Night, the belief was not just Oral tradition, but also Babylonian (secular, scientific) cosmology.

As we shall later demonstrate from both general history as well as the interpretations of the Geonim and Rishonim, the view of the Sages of Israel was that of ancient Babylonian cosmology.1

That is, this is Babylonian vs. Ptolmaic cosmology.

Scientific understandings of the world can have effect on halacha, and it makes sense that an earlier cosmology was a matter to enter the Oral tradition, to be passed down to subsequent generations. And Chazal then operated within that framework, and considered it part of the Oral tradition of the way the world worked. That does not mean that, if they were to encounter a new theory in a new culture, they would not consider its possible validity.

  • I edited the question to reflect the problematics of your claim - if that was the dispute between the Babylonian and the Greeks, the Talmud would not address it to our Sages to put them to shame, the Talmud would say "חכמיהם אמרים" on the Babylonians also. I did read the article but it does not explain Rabbi's conclusion on the Sages. – Al Berko Aug 19 '18 at 8:26
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    When I discuss gravity, I don't cite it in the name of Newton. If I have adopted a scientific reality, there's no need to cite the scholars who proposed that reality. Why do you feel the Sages must cite Babylonian scholars, if (according to this answer) the Sages adopted their scientific reality? – robev Aug 19 '18 at 13:19
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    @AlBerko it is not "shame" to record the truth, which the brayta and Talmud are interested in, more than flattery. not to mention, who says, in their view, that Rabbi was right in siding with the Ptolmaic view? they would attribute it to Chazal because, in previous generations, they indeed adopted it, such that it is part of the "Oral tradition". – josh waxman Aug 19 '18 at 15:49
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Abarbanel in his commentary to Bereshit seems to say that this was simply the tradition of the times (and thus we shouldn't read too much into the fact that Chazal got it wrong).

שלא תחשוב שלחסרון חכמת חכמינו נפלו באותו דעת, ראיתי להודיעך פה מה שראיתי בדרוש זה כפי קדומי פלוסופיהם. והוא שפליניא"ו פילוסוף קדום בספר טבעי הנמצאים שהוא ספר יקר מאוד אצל חכמי האומות כתב דברים זה סגנונם

בין השמים והארץ ילכו שבעה כוכבי הנבוכה באמצע האויר, וביניהם רחק מה. ובאמצעותם ילך השמש הגדול והיכול המושל לא בלבד בזמנים ובארץ. אבל גם בכוכבי הנבוכה בשמים, כי הוא המכסה אותם והנותן להם אור. ומי שיציירהו ראוי שישפוט שהוא נפש כל העולם ונשמתו, והמנהיג האלהי אשר לטבע הוא השליט הגדול מיד האל, רואה ושומע כל הדברים כפי מה שיראה שר האותיות

עד כאן. ושנה ושלש הדעת הזה בספרו פעמים. ומסכים לזה כתב פילוט"ינו תלמידו מתלמידי ארסטו וגדול מגדוליהם שחבר ספרים בכל הפלוסופיא. כי הוא כתב בביאור שלא היו המאורות חלקי הגלגלים, ולא קבועים בהם, אבל היו הכוכבים הנבוכים מהלכים באויר בין השמים והארץ. והגלגלים הם נחים לא מהלכים. עד כאן.

ומזה תדע שהיה הדעת הזה מקובל בימים ההם, ולפחות היה הדבר בספק אצל קצתם.

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