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Galactic Torah

Galactic Torah

Talmudic wisdom is no "puff of start dust."


Imagine a project at Harvard to convene the greatest scholars in every field over a period of several hundred years in order to create an encyclopedia of their collective knowledge. Who wouldn't want to see the final product?

This is the Talmud: a unique collection of wisdom that would surprise experts in any discipline, including law, ethics, psychology and economics. In the realm of cosmology, too, the Talmud makes assertions -- sometimes literal, sometimes metaphoric, and sometimes both.

To give one example, consider the Talmudic estimate of the number and distribution of stars in the universe.

The vast bulk of Talmudic wisdom is transmitted from Moses.

In order to appreciate this passage, bear in mind two things. First, the vast bulk of Talmudic wisdom is claimed to be a transmitted tradition, from Moses to Joshua, to the prophets, to the Elders, to the Great Assembly, and then to a chain of scholars until the completion of the Talmud 1,500 years ago. Hence it is called the Oral Law.

Second, we need to appreciate the limitations of science 1,500 years ago: the telescope was invented in the 16th century, and the number of stars visible to the naked eye is approximately 9,000.

So what did these ancient rabbis say about the number of stars? In Tractate Brachot, page 32b, the Talmud records a tradition, in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, that there are roughly 1018 stars in the universe. This number is remarkably big and much closer to the current scientific consensus of 1022 than common sense would allow.

Now, although it is interesting for an ancient people to have such a large estimate, this single coincidence could perhaps be explained as an extremely lucky guess. Never mind that no other ancient people had an estimate anywhere near this order of magnitude, nor did they have a conventional way to write such a number. (I have queried dozens of astronomers and none could identify a single other ancient culture with remotely similar numbers.)

Multiple Patterns

However, the Talmud relates more than a raw number. The passage explains that the distribution of stars throughout the cosmos is neither even nor random. Rather, it states that they are clustered in groups of billions of stars (what we call galaxies), which themselves are clustered into groups (what astronomers call galactic clusters), which in turn are in mega-groups (what we call superclusters).

To describe the stars as clustered together, both locally and in clusters of clusters, was far beyond the imagination and the telescopes of scientists until Edwin Hubble's famous photographs of Andromeda in the 1920s. Galactic clusters and superclusters have been described only in the past decade or so. Moreover, the Talmud states categorically that the number of galaxies in a cluster is about 30. And wouldn't you know it, astronomers today set the number of galaxies in our own local cluster at 30!

The consensus of astronomers is pure astonishment.

Further, the Talmud adds that the superclusters consist of about 30 clusters each, and that superclusters are themselves grouped into a bigger pattern of about 30 (megasuperclusters?) of which the universe has a total of about 360. Thus, the Talmud appears consistent with one major theory that the overall structure of the universe is shaped by the rules of fractal mathematics. I've shown this data to numerous astronomers around the world and the consensus are pure astonishment.

Could it be that Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish made an extremely lucky guess? That might be plausible if he had used a number that had symbolic significance in Judaism, such as seven, 10, 18 or 40. What is the significance of the number 30? To my knowledge, there is no spiritual or religious reason for choosing that number. It therefore seems to be exactly what it claims to be: a conscientious oral transmission of a received tradition, rather than simply one person's guesstimate.

Moreover, Rabbi Shimon had a reputation for impeccable honesty; it is unthinkable that he would have invented these numbers or guessed without telling us so. The clear intent of the passage is to convey an oral tradition.

You are now in on the secret of Shavuot: There is something special about the Torah (and rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated!). The Torah is much, much more than a mere "cultural expression" of one tiny group of ancient people, so numerically small that we reminded Mark Twain of a "nebulous dim puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way."

This passage about the stars is a mere five Talmudic lines, itself about as significant as a puff of star dust. But it also hints to the treasures available to those who seek them. Shavuot is a great time to begin.

May 31, 2008

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Visitor Comments: 18

(14) Chaim Roberts, October 10, 2010 12:13 PM

Reply to Hal

To say that Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish is wrong because his numbers do not exactly coincide with current Science numbers is nonsense. Current science numbers are mathematical approximations and they will change as our observational apparati and computational abilities improve. A hundred years ago science thought the entire universe was the Milky Way. Your point that Archimedes was capable of expressing even larger numbers was a correction to the article, and I thank you for it. I have ordered a copy of "The Sand Reckoner". But even the great Archimedes had no idea there were billions of stars in billions of galaxies. That bit of knowledge, which was passed down via the oral tradition nearly 3000 years ago, was only discovered by Western Science less than 100 years ago. I find that fact quite remarkable.

(13) Hal M. Switkay, Ph.D., October 10, 2010 12:12 PM

Reply to Robert

Robert''s subject line is baffling. "Archimedes Merely Observes Space and Time!" Doctors Merely Observe Patients'' Conditions! Engineers Merely Observe Correct Construction Techniques! There is a lot to be said for correct observation, especially when it conflicts with dogmatic pronouncements, such as... "Talmud Reveals It By Authority!" Yet anyone who reads R. Seinfeld''s article will note that even he admits that R. Lakish''s estimate was INCorRECT. In the REAL world, we don''t build bridges and spaceships based on incorrect dogmatic pronouncements, but on the observations of "Ph.D.''s and astronomers". The rabbis of the Talmud wrote that the Torah is written in the language of man. In their wisdom, they understood that the Torah is not a scientific textbook, and neither is the Talmud.

Anonymous, June 30, 2011 2:04 AM


"In their wisdom, they understood that the Torah is not a scientific textbook, and neither is the Talmud." I guess that the necessary conclusion from this statement is that findings in scientific journal's are written in the language of the divine? Try again. Oh and BTW, we don't build bridges based on the numbers of stars in the universe, your statements are irrelevant to the discussion, we aren't trying to deny the observational sciences, we are just tired of the secular world worshiping scientific methodology over ontology.

Nickick, November 5, 2016 5:35 AM

Sorry Mr. Switkay , i have to agree with Mr. Roberts. Nasa did recently re - calculated their number of stars. Meaning it is due to change as time goes on.. The Calculation Nasa uses are due to error that is due to observation of guessing not of ACTUAL count.. So again The Jewish Bibles are still standing firm as science seems to change.. here's an idea, How do we know Science of chemistry exist ? Through the results we see not that we see the subatomic itself but the results of it.. Hence with God it is the the world around us we observe there is something beyond logic..

(12) Robert, October 10, 2010 12:12 PM

Archimedes Merely Observes Space and Time! Talmud Reveals It By Authority!

PH.D''s and astronomers provide but a glimpse of the observable. The Talmud reveals both what we observe in a physical world and the universe within.

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