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8 Av 5759 - July 21 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
"Of the Heavens"

The following are excerpts from a pamphlet published by Rabbi Alex Schutz entitled "Of the Heavens" (Di Shemaya -- in Hebrew and English) in parallel with the current masechta of the daf yomi: Rosh Hashanah. The first part is from the Introduction, and the second is taken from a comment on the masechta itself.

Science and Torah

Rambam directs us to look and marvel at the creations of Hashem (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 2,5). One may suggest that this is one of the intentions of the Ribono Shel Olom in commanding us mitzvos that incorporate the necessity to know and understand the intricate aspects of creation. Time and time again the gemora indicates that Chazal, indeed, were proficient in all areas of science (see Bechoros 8b).

Of all the sciences intertwined with the Torah, astronomy clearly stands at the forefront. A basic knowledge of astronomy is useful in understanding many facets of the Torah. The following are examples from the Chumash where such knowledge adds a deeper insight into the events described and an appreciation for the creation of the world which should lead us to greater ahavas Hashem.

Example One: Balance in Beri'as Ho'olom

We see Hashem was meticulous to maintain a balance in the creation of both the physical and spiritual worlds. We find that when Hashem created the world He used the words "ki tov" upon the completion of each day. On the second day of creation, the words "ki tov" are not mentioned at all; however, on the third day of creation, we find the words "ki tov" stated twice.

Rashi (Bereishis 1,7) asks, "And for what [reason were the words] ki tov not stated on the second day?" He answers that the creation of the waters was not completed until the third day, and even though it was started on the second [day], something that is not finished is incomplete in its goodness. On the third day, when the creation of the waters was completed and the next task was started and completed, the words "ki tov" are stated twice: once for the completion of the task started on the second day and once for the completion of the task of that day.

One may ask why Hashem chose to complete the creation of the waters on the third day rather than finish the entire task on the second day? This can be explained based on the following Rashi (Bereishis 2,7) which discusses the creation of man: "He made him from the upper [world] and the lower [world]. The body was from the lower, and the soul from the upper. [This is] because on the first day, the heavens and earth were created, and on the second day the roki'a, the firmament, which belongs to the upper [was created]. On the third, the land appeared in the lower. On the fourth, the luminaries in the upper, and on the fifth the waters swarmed in the lower. Therefore, the sixth day required creation from both the upper and the lower worlds, for if not, there would be jealousy in the creation because one [world] would have one day more than the other."

Likewise, Hashem did not want to finish the creation of the water on the second day (which was designated for the upper world) because the completion of that task was on the land. In order to prevent jealousy in the creation, He delayed the completion of that task until the third day.

We find additional evidence in maseches Keilim (17,14) that there was balance in creation. The mishna states: "There is in the creation of the first day tumah, on the second day there is no tumah, on the third day there is tumah, on the fourth and fifth days there is no tumah and all of the creations of the sixth day have tumah." Thus, we find that on three of the days, there were things created that had the capacity to receive tumah, and there were three days in which the creations did not have the capacity to receive tumah. If the completion of the creation of the waters had taken place on the second day ("Let the dry land appear"), then the creation of the second day would also have had in it the capacity to receive tumah, thereby disturbing the balance in the creation.

The revolution of the earth around the sun takes 365 days and the gemora (Makkos 23b) states that this revolution corresponds to the 365 negative commandments. In keeping with the concept that there should be no jealousy in the creation, it would be appropriate to find some celestial phenomenon corresponding to the 248 positive commandments; but such a phenomenon is not immediately apparent.

However, upon more careful reflection we can detect a lunar pattern of 248. The yearly course of the sun through the stars (as viewed from the earth) is called the ecliptic. This course traveled by the sun through the stars in one year (sidereal year), takes the moon only 27.321661 days (one average sidereal month). The moon orbits the earth in the path of the ecliptic with a 5 degree inclination to the plane defined by the ecliptic. Because the moon's course is inclined to the ecliptic, it crosses the ecliptic twice a month, once heading north forming an ascending node and once heading south forming a descending node. The nodes of the moon are the points where the moon crosses the ecliptic.

The plane of the moon's orbit slowly shifts backwards (opposite to the direction of the moon's orbit) relative to the stars. The average time interval from ascending node to ascending node is 27.21222 days or one draconic month. The average sidereal month is 27.331661 days. Since a draconic month is shorter than a sidereal month, the nodes of the moon of one month precede the positions of the nodes of the previous month on the ecliptic by approximately 1.5 degrees. It takes 18.6 years to complete one full revolution of regression (backward movement) of the nodes along the ecliptic. During this time, the moon completes 248 orbits of the earth against the backdrop of the stars (248 sidereal months).

Based on the interpretation of the words shono and chodesh by the Ibn Ezra (Shemos 12,1) we may be able to explain why the negative commandments are hinted at by the sun's orbit and positive commandments by the moon's orbit. The word for "year" in Hebrew -- shono -- means repetition because the sun repeats its course, almost exactly, year after year. The word month -- chodesh -- means new, because the moon has a slightly different (new) course each month (in addition to going through its various phases).

Based on this explanation, it is fitting to have the orbit of the sun hint at the negative commandments because prohibitions are constant as is the sun's orbit. The hint to the positive commandments comes from the moon because performance of mitzvos asei can be done with renewed vigor and with new and deeper understanding each time they are performed -- like the rejuvenation of the moon.

Example Two: Destruction of Sdom

Rashi states that Hashem overturned Sdom shortly after sunrise, when both the sun and the moon ruled the sky. The explanation of this Rashi is clearly based upon the monthly cycle of the moon. Rashi states that the mal'ochim came to Lot on Pesach (he fed them matzos see Bereishis 19,3). The mal'ochim visited Avrohom on the first day of Pesach, which occurs on the 15th of Nisan. They then went to Sdom and the next morning, presumably the 16th of Nisan, Sdom was destroyed.

Beginning from the time of the molad (when the moon passes between the earth and the sun), the moon distances itself from the sun (as seen from Earth) by slightly more than 12 degrees per day. Thus, on the 16th of the month, the distance between the sun and the moon will be almost 200 degrees. The spin of the earth on its axis causes the rising and setting of the sun and the moon. On the 16th of the month, the moon will not yet have risen when the sun sets, since our view of the sky overhead is an arc of only 180 degrees and the moon is, as we said, almost 200 degrees away from the sun. The moon will thus rise about an hour after sunset and will appear as an almost full moon in the sky for the remainder of the night. The moon will set in the west more than one hour after sunrise. Thus, in the early morning of the 16th both the sun and the moon "rule" in the sky. The sun rules in the east as it rises, and the moon in the west as it has not yet set.

Example Three: Makkas Bechoros at Midnight

The Torah refers to the plague of the slaying of the first- born Egyptians as an act of "passing over" by Hashem. He skipped over the homes of the Hebrews and killed only the Egyptians. HaRav Shlomo Miller of Toronto asks: How could this plague have occurred in a sequential pattern if the firstborn all died at the very instant of midnight? He answers that indeed they all did die at exactly midnight, but exact midnight is relative to one's position on the earth. The line of midnight is in opposition to the sun. As the earth spins in its daily rotation, the lines of longitude move through midnight in succession. Therefore, the plague started in eastern Egypt where midnight comes first. Then, as the line of midnight moved from east to west, Hashem jumped over the houses of the Hebrews and killed the Egyptians, each one exactly at midnight in his location.

The following comment applies to the daf yomi of last Thursday, 2 Av.

Rosh Hashanah 11a: Tosafos (Elo dekoi) brings a Medrash Tanchuma which states that when the angel informed Avrohom about the future birth of Yitzchok, the angel said, "I will return," and drew a line on the wall. The angel then said, "When the sun reaches this spot [Soroh] will be remembered [with a child]," implying that one year from that Pesach (the following Pesach) Yitzchok would be born. The sign given for one year was when the sun casts its shadow again in the same spot.

The Rivo asks as follows: If the predicted date of the birth of Yitzchok was based on the sun's position (as indicated by the shadow cast), how could Yitzchok have been born on the following Pesach? Is there not an eleven day discrepancy between the solar and lunar year? (Jewish holidays are based on the lunar year.)

One answer to this question is that the angel who informed Avrohom that he would return in a year was Refoel, who came on the third day after the mila of Avrohom, to heal him. He also visited the baby Yitzchok on the third day after his mila, in order to heal him. Since Yitzchok was eight days old at the time of his mila and the angel came three days later, it follows that the angel came one solar year later. Even though Yitzchok was born on Pesach one lunar year later (354 days), the angel came eleven days (one solar year) later. I heard this answer in the name of HaRav Tzvi Yehuda Friedman. (Note: This is not in accordance with the Medrash which states that it was the angel Gavriel who informed Avrohom, and not Refoel.)

According to the gemora which states that the angels came in Tishrei, the scratch on the wall can be explained as follows. The earth is tilted at 23.44 degrees to its orbit around the sun. As the earth circles the sun, this tilt causes the changing seasons. In spring (Tekufas Nisan), the sun shines directly above the equator. As the earth revolves around the sun, the sun shines each day at a spot further north than the previous day until it reaches 23.44 degrees north of the equator (on the first day of summer, Tekufas Tammuz). After that, the daily position of the sun shifts further south until it reaches the equator on the first day of fall (Tekufas Tishrei). It continues heading south until the winter (Tekufas Teves), when it reaches 23.44 degrees south of the equator. After that, the path northward is resumed.

Because of this cycle, each spot between 23.44 degrees north and 23.44 degrees south will have the sun directly overhead twice a year, exactly six months apart: once as the sun heads north and once as it heads south. When the mal'ochim came to Avrohom in Tishrei, the sun shone directly over the equator. In Nisan too, the sun shines directly over the equator. Therefore, the sun cast its shadow again in Nisan on that same spot on the wall that the mal'ach etched the previous Tishrei.

Rabbi Schutz lives in Kiryat Sefer, Israel.

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