Thursday, June 01, 2006
A Star is Born
Today is the start of Hurricane Season and tonight is the festival of Shavuot/Shavuos.
Sure, you know, the holiday where we.... ??????????????????
Why do Jews celebrate some holidays and not others? Why, for instance, is Passover such a draw while Shavuot has fallen by the wayside? It’s as if to say, we can celebrate being Jewish but we have no appreciation for the Torah that makes us Jewish?
Those of us who do celebrate Shavuot have a secret: there is something highly uncommon about the Torah and rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated. Nor is it 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.”
One reason for the under-appreciation of the Torah is the misperception that Torah means the Five Books of Moses only, and that Torah means “law”. In fact, “Torah” is short for “Torat Chaim” – instructions for living – and includes both written and oral traditions. To examine the written without the oral would be like trying to drive a car with the chassis but no engine. That includes the Talmud, Midrash and Kabbalah — they are all Torah.
Another reason for the Torah’s under-appreciation is the view that Torah is inconsistent with the conclusions of Science. Yet one of the most astonishing points of agreement between Torah and Science is precisely where one least expects to find it: the number and distribution of stars in the universe.
In order to appreciate the Talmud’s estimate, bear in mind that the telescope was invented in the 16th Century C.E. and the number of stars visible to the naked eye is approximately 9,000. In ancient times, when the skies were more visible, it is easy to imagine a common familiarity with those 9,000 stars (really fewer than that, because most people did not travel far enough to see all 9,000). 9,000 is not an ungraspable number. It is perfectly within the reach of the ancients and within the vocabulary of classical Hebrew.
It is therefore altogether remarkable that the Talmud’s estimate is far greater than 9,000 stars. Bear in mind that the Talmud never claims to be a scientific document. It does include certain statements and anecdotes that we might label “scientific”, such as R Simeon's investigation of ants (Talmud Chullin 57b). Nevertheless, the vast bulk of Talmudic wisdom is putatively received tradition, from Moses to Joshua, to the prophets, to the Elders, to the Great Assembly and then to a chain of individual scholars until the completion of the Talmud ca. 500 CE.
What did these Sixth Century scholars say about the number of stars? Page 32b of the Talmud Berachot records a tradition, in the name of Rabbi Yehosuha ben Lakish, that there are roughly 10^18 stars in the universe. This number is remarkably big and much closer to the current scientific estimate of 10^22 than it should be.
Now, although it is interesting for an ancient people to have such a large estimate of the number of stars, this one coincidence could be merely an extremely lucky guess (never mind that no other ancient people had an estimate anywhere near this order of magnitude, nor was there even a simple way to write such a number.)
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, they are clustered in to 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, is far beyond the imagination and even 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 thirty. What do the astronomers say? Our own “local cluster” – by consensus – contains 30 galaxies!
In fact, the Talmud adds that the superclusters consist of about thirty clusters each, and that superclusters are themselves grouped into a bigger pattern of about thirty (megasuperclusters?) of which the universe has a total of about 360. Thus, the Talmud appears consistent with the prevalent theories that the universe’s overall structure is shaped by the rules of fractal mathematics.
Could it be that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Lakish was taking an extremely lucky guess? That might be possible if he used a number that had symbolic significance in Judaism, such as seven, ten, eighteen, or forty. What is the significance of the number 30? To my knowledge, there is no spiritual/religious reason for choosing that number and so it comes across as a conscientious oral transmission of a received tradition, rather than simply one person's guesstimate.
Moreover, Rabbi Yehoshua had a reputation for impeccable honesty; it is highly unlikely that he would have made up these numbers or guessed without telling us so. The clear intent of the passage is to convey an oral tradition.
This Talmudic passage is a mere five lines in the Talmud, about as significant as a puff of star dust in the Milky Way. Imagine the treasures available to those who make the effort to seek them. Shavuot is a great time to begin.
How to celebrate with your family or on your own? Take a little time tonight or tomorrow – maybe five minutes, and study a little Torah, just a little more than you ordinarily would on a Thursday night.