Friday, May 18, 2007

Summer Blockbuster

This Table Talk is dedicated to you.

Thank you for inspiring these weekly rambles. I don’t know how much they are being read, but if there is even one person on the list who enjoys each missive, it’s worth it. If there isn’t even one person, it’s still worth it because the effort gets my gears going every Friday morning.

Today I’m sending you an article that I wrote in today’s Baltimore Jewish Times. It’s a little long to read at your table, but the main points are easy to summarize. Hope you enjoy.

New Blockbuster: The Torah

Rabbi Alexander Seinfeld
Special to the Jewish Times

MAY 18, 2007

Walk into an average Shavuot Torah marathon next week, and you might be surprised to see many people learning Talmud. What does the Talmud have to do with the giving of the Torah?

Everything, actually.

"Torah" neither means "law" nor does it consist of the Five Books of Moses. It’s short for Torat Chaim - instructions for living - and includes both written and oral texts. To study the Written without the Oral is like driving a car with a chassis but no engine. Kids do that, but not adults who want to get somewhere.

This Oral tradition includes the Talmud, Midrash and kabbalah - it’s all Torah.

Therefore, if you read "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" and think it’s barbaric, you forgot to learn the Oral explanation that this common ancient phrase means monetary compensation.

But the Oral Torah is much more than a biblical commentary. It contains wisdom that would astonish experts in any field, including law, ethics, psychology, economics and so on. For example, consider the talmudic estimate of the number and distribution of stars in the universe.

To appreciate this passage, bear in mind: the telescope was invented in the 16th century C.E.; and the number of stars visible to the naked eye is approximately 9,000. That’s not an outrageous number and perfectly within the vocabulary of classical Hebrew.

Also keep in mind that the Talmud never claims to be scientific. It does include certain statements and anecdotes that we might label "scientific, such as Rav Ilai’s investigation of ants. But the vast bulk of talmudic wisdom is allegedly received 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 most of the Talmud circa 600 C.E.

What did these ancient rabbis say about the number of stars? Page 32b of the Tractate Berachot records a tradition, in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Lakish, that there are roughly 10^18 stars in the universe. This number is remarkably big and much closer than it should be to the current scientific estimate of 10^20-10^22.

Although interesting for an ancient people to have such a large estimate, this single coincidence could be an extremely lucky guess. (Never mind that no other ancient people had an estimate anywhere near this or a conventional 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 cluster in groups of billions of stars (galaxies), which themselves cluster into groups (galactic clusters), which in turn are in mega-groups (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. Astronomers say that our own local cluster contains 30 galaxies!

In fact, 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 (mega-superclusters?) of which the universe has a total of about 360. Thus, the Talmud appears consistent with the theory that the universe’s overall structure is shaped by the rules of fractal mathematics. I’ve shown this data to numerous astronomers and the consensus is pure astonishment.

Did Rabbi Yehoshua ben Lakish make an extremely lucky guess? It’s possible if he had used a number of symbolic significance in Judaism, such as seven, 10, 18 or 40. Why 30? To my knowledge, there is no spiritual/religious reason for choosing that number; so it comes across as a conscientious oral transmission of a received tradition, rather than one person’s guesstimate.

Moreover, Rabbi Yehoshua had a reputation for impeccable honesty. It is highly unlikely that he would make up these numbers or guess without telling us. The clear intent is to convey an Oral tradition.

You are now in on the secret to celebrate Shavuot: There is something special about the Torah and rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated. It is 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 in the galaxy. Imagine the universe available for exploration. Shavuot is a great time to begin.


PS – the actual Jewish Times article has a serious typo – they printed the number of stars as 1,018 and 1,022 instead of 10^18 (that's 1,000,000,000,000,000,000) and 10^22 (10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000). So if you share this, please send the corrected version. Azoy gait es!

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Shavuot/Shavuos (next Tuesday night).

Upcoming speaking schedule:

May 20 – New York: “Ghosts, Demons and Necromancy” (Hineni Center,
June 12 – Mill Valley: “Why Do Bad Things Really Happen?” (Private home)
June 13 – San Francisco: “Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism: Hidden Connections” (Adath Israel)
June 15-16 – San Francisco: Shabbat Scholar-in-Residence (Adath Israel)
June 24-26 – Philadelphia (Etz Chaim)

(For details, send an email)

Yiddish of the week:
Azoy gait es! — That’s how it goes!

Yiddish review - how many do you know?
anee — poor person
koptsen — panhandler
ballaboss — homeowner; layman
nu — various meanings (see archives)
mishpocha — family
mameh — mother
tateh — father
mazal – (MAH-z’l) luck or fortune, as in, “It was good mazal that....”
beshert – (b’shairt) - meant to be, as in “It was beshert that...”
mine eltern – my parents
mine lair-er – my teacher
hamantashen – Haman-pockets
zeigezunt – all the best (said upon parting)
kesher - connection
Ikh volt veln a kave, zayt azoy gut. - I'd like a coffee, please.
...kave mit shmant. – ...a coffee with cream.
...kave mit milkh. – ...a coffee with milk.
...kave mit tsuker. - ...a coffee with sugar.
Di Fir Kashes - The Four Questions
Oy vey! - Good grief!
mensch — a decent person
rachmanos — mercy
neshoma (neh-SHOH-ma) — soul
minig — custom, as in, "Why do you do that?" "It's my minig!"
Gavaltig — wonderful
Oy gavalt — how wonderful (sarcastic)

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