Terefot and Tish’a B’Av

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Terefot and Tish’a B’Av: How Fixed Is Nature?

Guest post by R. Gidon Rothstein

Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein is the author of We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It, Educating a People: An Haftarot Companion as a Source for a Theology of Judaism, and two works of Jewishly-themed fiction, Murderer in the Mikdash and Cassandra Misreads the Book of Samuel.

In the Introduction to Chelek, a chapter of Mishnah that deals with the World to Come, Rambam delineates three reactions to fantastic statements made by Chazal. One group assumes Chazal meant those statements literally, and we are therefore required to accept those claims; these, Rambam says, are simpletons. Another group agrees that Chazal believed those statements literally, because they were—pardon the language—more primitive than we are. People in this group, Rambam notes, lack the requisite respect of and belief in the Sages.

The third group, if there are enough such people to be called a group (Rambam expresses his uncertainty about that), understood and understand that Chazal meant something important with their statements, but not the direct, literal import of the words. Knowing how to find the real intent of these declarations is, to Rambam, the key to proper understanding of aggadah.

We face a similar challenge regarding statements of scientific fact in Jewish tradition—mostly biological, but not always. Too often for comfort, Chazal describe the natural world in a way that does not match our current understanding. Instead of three, there seem to be two main responses. One group says Chazal weren’t, after all, scientists, and reflected the best understanding a reasonably educated person of their time would have had.

The second group claims that the facts have changed, in at least some cases; this can be because conditions have changed, like climate, or because the laws of nature have themselves changed over time. This is a view assumed by Tosafot, adopted by Chazon Ish, and ratified by Tzitz Eliezer, as we will see.

I raise the issue for three reasons. First, in my experience, many Jews today assume that second position reflects an unsophisticated approach to the world, failing to notice that they are making that assumption about great Torah scholars. It may be true, but we should be aware of what’s riding on our assessment.

Second, I think some new evidence makes Chazon Ish’s position more scientifically reasonable than it had been. Third, the knee-jerk rejection to that second view carries over into areas of how we do or don’t see the natural world as responsive to our good deeds and our sins, an area where the science is less well-established but short-circuits many Jews’ acceptance of a basic Jewish idea, that nature itself is impacted by our religious activity.

Terefot, Chazon Ish, and Changing Nature Over Time

The first question is how we react to scientific statements that seem to be wrong; Chazon Ish raised the issue regarding terefot. Halachah confers the status of terefah on animals—which cannot thereafter become kosher meat–or people who have suffered mortal wounds. These wounds will kill within twelve months, as far as the Talmud understands it.

Already in the twelfth century, Rambam noted problems in the Talmudic list of mortal wounds.[1. Hilchot Shechitah 10:12-13.] Doctors in his time knew how to treat some of them, and Rambam knew of necessarily mortal wounds not included in the Talmud’s list. What to do?

One possible answer would have been to have the list of terefot be era-specific, a function of the medical knowledge of that generation. The traditional approach, as Rambam articulates it, is that even if contemporary medical standards declare something untreatable, the Talmud’s list tells us those wounds might yet heal. Conversely, wounds we know how to heal are nonetheless terefah, because the Torah commands us to follow the Sages’ rulings.

Rambam does not explain further, so we cannot know what he meant. It seems odd to think he saw the Sages as knowing animals better than we ever will, since veterinarians don’t simply claim to be able to heal certain wounds, they do so, over and over. And, in reverse, to assume that wounds we see as mortal have to be thought of as healable, simply because the Talmud didn’t mention them, would seem to obligate us to believe that the Talmud not only knew which wounds were mortal in their time, but which wounds the entire history of medicine would never find a way to heal.

Another possibility is that Rambam formalized the issue. While in the Talmud’s time the question was which wounds do or don’t kill, their definitions become fixed for all time. However we deal with the practical question, this is one example of Chazal’s representation of nature not matching our own. Chazon Ish notes others.

Immediate vs. Certain Death

Chazon Ish was led to the conversation by the differing indications in the Talmud as to whether a meguyad or tzaluv, a person who has been wounded multiple times or been crucified, can live. For example, Rava in Yevamot 120b assumes that an ordinary meguyad will definitely die in the near future (such that one can give testimony that his wife is a widow without seeing the man’s actual passing), but that if a hot knife was used, the witnesses would have to see him die before they could testify.

Some of the Talmud’s statements about human wounds clearly do not work. For example, the Talmud defines cuts to certain internal organs as being mortal, when surgeons today daily make such cuts (and then stitch them up). Chazon Ish suggests that the Talmud might have been defining the result of an untreated human wound, but the person might survive if treated in the right way (such as, for example, by the surgeons’ properly washing their hands, and then being careful to stop the wound from becoming infected).

Chazon Ish captures that idea by saying that climate can affect recovery. He may have meant climate only literally, but if we expand that to include all environmental factors, such as hand-washing and disinfecting, that becomes one avenue to explain differences in Chazal’s assessment of the world from ours. Today, we accept that a wide variety of factors affect health and medical outcomes. Diet, exercise, lifestyle, psychological state, and surrounding environment are all more recognized as contributors to health or illness than previously.

We can argue about whether that extends to the cases to which Chazon Ish applied it—such as bloodletting, which he assumed worked back then–but what once might have seemed outlandish turns out to be plausible and relevant to some cases.

This doesn’t go as far as we need, however. Some Talmudic claims go beyond climate or environment in portraying a different world than others, forcing us to consider whether there might have been more significant changes in the workings of the body (and Nature generally) than just environmental ones.

Talmudic Errors Hard to Pin on a Lack of Knowledge

As Chazon Ish notes, Tosafot[2. Avodah Zarah 24b s.v. Parah] puzzled over the Talmud’s assumption that cows and donkeys only give birth once they reach three years of age, whereas by the twelfth century, it was clear that two year olds gave birth. Here, the “scientifically backward” argument is more difficult—we would have to assume that the people of the time of the Talmud couldn’t keep track of their calves’ ages.

Perhaps environmental factors led to the earlier maturity of animals in the Tosafists’ time, like the factors that lead to early puberty among girls and women today, in which case this would be another example of climate change, as Chazon Ish phrased it. But that same Tosafot notes that Chullin 47b says that only certain animals have an additional small lobe in their lungs, whereas that lobe was common among many species of animals in Tosafot’s time. Are we to believe the rabbis of the Talmud didn’t know those other animals also had this in their lungs?

If you want to say yes, try this: the Talmud debates whether women give birth only after full months from conception, or can give birth in the middle of the month, whereas nowadays—Chazon Ish says—women obviously give birth in the middle of a month. So, too, Niddah 31a assumes that boys are born face down, girls face up. Do we really think the rabbis of the Talmud made such a blanket claim, without even checking with a midwife? Or that midwives got it so wrong that they propagated this myth?

Some will say yes, although the more glaring the error, the less convincing I find that. There is a gap between saying that Chazal could not have known that handwashing was the key to avoiding infection after surgery and saying they couldn’t realize there is no connection between gender and birth position or whether women give birth after eight and a half rather than nine months.

For those who find it difficult to accept that Chazal made such basic errors—which is different than saying they weren’t laboratory scientists—I think Chazon Ish’s alternate approach is interesting, because it reminds us of a perspective of the world that is not always given its due.

Changes of Nature

In addition to the change of climate argument, Chazon Ish accepts Tosafot’s implication, that times change and so do facts of Nature. Like Tosafot, he assumes that in the time of the Talmud, animals really didn’t give birth until they were three, whereas now they do. Babies back then did divide by gender in how they were born, now they don’t, etc.

Let me add that these don’t have to be categorical: it could be that Chazal would say that animals didn’t give birth until three even if eighty percent of animals didn’t give birth until three, and that as long as eighty percent of boys were born face-down, etc., they would have made that claim. Claiming that the nature of these issues has changed doesn’t have to mean that it has changed completely, or so radically that it should have received more notice than it has.

I am also less interested in each individual claim than in the overall recognition that nature might function differently than we assume, and that it might surprise us not only by what we have not yet discovered about it, but also by the fact that it can literally change.

Tzitz Eliezer 10:25:19, by the way, accepts Chazon Ish’s view in some cases. I mention Tzitz Eliezer because he was the halachic authority for Sha’arei Tzedek hospital for many years, meaning that he was not a person prone to rejecting science or its accomplishments, and yet he, too, assumed that nature itself changes. Not only does the air quality or diet, etc., affect human biology, but biology itself—and perhaps other areas of science– has changed.

Scientists Who’ve Assessed Nature Similarly

Piling up traditional sources for this idea becomes futile at some point, since those who are convinced that Nature has laws will rationalize or otherwise explain those sources away. What might be more productive is to point out that the idea of fixed laws of Nature is not as scientific as we think.

I base myself here mostly on Lee Smolin, a well-recognized theoretical physicist whose work has taken a decidedly unconventional turn. In an earlier book, The Life of the Cosmos, Smolin “proposed a mechanism for laws to evolve which I modeled on biological evolution… the laws of physics [in this theory] played the roles of genes in biology…Like the genes, the laws could mutate randomly from generation to generation.”[3. Lee Smolin, Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe, (Houghton-Mifflin: Boston, 2013), p. xxvi.]

Smolin might be dismissed as a radical, except that he quotes other well-regarded physicists who made similar claims. In a 1939 speech, Paul Dirac, “speculated: ‘At the beginning of time, the laws of Nature were probably very different from what they are now. Thus, we should consider the laws of Nature as continually changing with the epoch, instead of as holding uniformly throughout spacetime.”[4. Ibid., xxv.] John Archibald Wheeler and Richard Feynman were also comfortable with the idea of change in the laws of Nature themselves, in a shorter time period than we might expect.

When Dirac spoke of Nature changing with the epoch, he likely meant more than several hundred years, so he was not taking the same position as Chazon Ish, but the gap isn’t as large as we would think. Biologists give examples of evolution that can take only decades— such as guppies in Trinidad— not the centuries that Chazon Ish was discussing.

As a first step, then, I think it behooves traditional Jews, especially those open to the lessons of science, to realize that Tosafot and Chazon Ish’s seemingly outlandish idea is less unscientific than it might seem. It may be true that other texts didn’t notice the changes in nature which Tosafot and Chazon Ish are contemplating, or that some of the talmudic statements contradict the scientific texts of their own time.

My point isn’t whether the Talmud got everything right about science in its own time, it’s about whether we are open to the possibility that some of what they said has changed between then and now. I am arguing that what was the same and what was different about biology and nature in the time of the Talmud is an open question, not to be tossed off lightly as evidence of their lack of sophistication or level of knowledge of the world around them.

That still allows for fixed laws—again, barring miracles—within a particular era, and yet this, too, seems to me exaggerated, both because of traditional sources as well as scientific realizations whose import hasn’t, in my experience, been fully digested.

Rambam—Flexibility and Spirituality as Natural Facts

To stay relatively brief as I try to show that traditional sources imply that Nature is more flexible than it seems, I will use examples only from Rambam, since he is usually pointed to as the pillar of rationalism in Judaism, the traditional authority most accepting of a Nature that follows its course without interference from God.

Yet even Rambam seems to have recognized other factors that impact how Nature works. The first example comes from his commentary on Avot, 5:5, often cited as saying that even miracles are really natural. The Mishnah refers to items created at the end of the sixth day of Creation. Rambam reads the Mishnah to mean that there was no new act of Creation following the first week, and these items symbolize the inclusion within Nature of what look like breaks in Creation. Once the week of Creation was finished, many processes happen regularly, and we call those Nature, and some happen rarely or extraordinarily, such as a rock providing enough water to feed an entire nation.

Many scientifically-minded Jews point to this as asserting the primacy of Nature, with a few exceptions here or there. Perhaps, but it also leaves open the possibility of truly radical exceptions.

Communities’ Experience of Nature

Rambam’s openness to significant changes in Nature, without stepping into the miraculous, is clearer in the Mishneh Torah.[5. Laws of Fasts 1:1-3.] Codifying the Biblical commandment to respond to times of communal trouble—pestilence, drought, war, etc.– Rambam says the mitzvah requirement, to blow trumpets, and the Rabbinic addition, to fast, were ways of stimulating reflection and repentance, out of a recognition that such troubles come because of our sins.

He adds that those who instead dismiss the troubles as the way of the world, as happenstance, are acting insensitively, causing themselves to continue in their path of sin, and bringing further troubles upon themselves. He writes that this is the meaning of Vayikra 26:27-28; the verse says that if we go with Hashem be-keri (which Rambam is reading as mikreh, chance), Hashem will go with us in a fury of keri. In Rambam’s reading, if Hashem brings trouble to inspire repentance, and we ignore it as chance, Hashem will add to those troubles.

At the very least, Rambam is including spirituality as an environmental factor that affects Nature. Even if we read him as taking Hashem out of the picture almost entirely—since he resisted making statements about Hashem, especially those that implied change—he is saying that the Nature Hashem created reacts to our actions; war, pestilence, famine, drought, are all, possibly, the results of sin.

Truth is, I would think this would be obvious, since we say it explicitly in the second paragraph of Shema every day—if we sin in certain ways, Hashem will bring drought and exile to the Jews. Sadly, it’s not, and some Jews resist this idea, about the Torah itself and about Rambam, even when they say it explicitly.

Individual Providence

That might force us to concede only that Nature reacts to communities’ spiritual state, but not individuals’. In Guide III:17, Rambam denies Providence over animals—meaning, seemingly, that the nonhuman world operates strictly according to Nature– but accepts Providence over humans, with those closer to God earning more Providence. (This works almost mechanistically; Rambam thinks that Divine influence comes through the Active Intellect, so the more connected one is to the Active Intellect, the more Providence one achieves).

Technicalities aside, Rambam is saying that the events of a person’s life will depend on his or her spiritual state. In the example he gives, if a ship sinks, with loss of property and life, the event itself might be happenstance—since, as Rambam said, Providence doesn’t extend to animals, let alone ships. But who did or didn’t get on the boat has some providential element to it, since people are affected by Providence.

Rambam does not explain how this works. If a truly righteous person, destined for life, decided to get on a ship (or airplane) that Nature will sink, how would Providence stop that?

Rambam notes that we cannot know, but there are limited options. One is that the more Providence we have, the less free will we have, since Providence will be nudging us (without our realizing it) to and away from those natural events we should or shouldn’t be a part of. Of course, that contradicts another principle of Rambam’s, that our free will is nearly absolute, unless we are punished as was Paroh in Egypt. Another possibility is that Providence does manipulate those animals and inanimate objects necessary for human Providence to work out—it would still be true that animals don’t have Providence, but human Providence might lead to Providential interference in Nature.

I don’t want to speculate here about what Rambam meant, only to note that we have, at least, two sources in Rambam that make Nature less fixed and law-driven than it appears, with one in the Guide that requires further discussion to fully elucidate.

The Individuality of Cancer and Weather

How we choose to read Rambam might be impacted by our assessment of how Nature works. If we’re certain that Nature follows laws, we’ll be happy to see in Rambam an authentic Jewish voice that accepted that view. I propose that an open-minded consideration of scientific knowledge today shows room to question this idea.

Let me take two examples, cancer and the weather. For a long time, doctors and the lay public treated cancer as a disease, which affected each individual in the same way. As our knowledge of cancer has progressed, we’ve come to realize that while many cancers share features, many also have mutations that make them specific to the individual stricken. That would mean that while some drugs will kill some cancers in almost all those suffering from it, some cancers require more individualized approaches.

How do these mutations occur? Science’s answer is that they are random, but that’s really a way of saying they don’t know, and cannot see any pattern in those occurrences. It seems to me to open room to realize that the advent of cancer might sometimes be more individual than usually realized, which raises the possibility that its causes aren’t always or only random, nor only physical. (Meaning: it might be random, or it might be how the physical body works, but it might sometimes be Providence as well).

So, too, with the weather. Improvements in scientists’ understanding of weather systems have helped them increase the accuracy of their forecasts. One of the reasons is that they have started speaking probabilistically, meaning that, at least until very close to the event, they don’t say what will happen, they say what experience indicates is the most likely sequence of events.

Alongside this switch, others have shown that weather is a good example of a chaotic system, a system where a small change in initial inputs can, down the road, produce a very large change in the system (by now, it’s proverbial: a butterfly flaps its wings in China, producing a hurricane halfway across the world). Our awareness of that sensitivity to inputs opens the possibility that the spiritual state of the recipients of certain weather might be one of those inputs—how would the same atmospheric conditions produce weather for people who were either really good or really bad? The same or different?

Tish’a B’Av and Insensitivity

As I said at the outset, some of what motivates this piece is my discomfort with Jews who take an approach to Nature that the science itself doesn’t warrant, especially not when Jewish tradition so clearly adds an element that science does not yet recognize.

Second, and more directly, these ideas seem particularly relevant to this time of year, when we again remember that our actions brought about the destruction of our Temple—with all that came with that, including the tradition’s claim that even today, Nature does not offer the bounty it could[6. See Mishnah Sotah 9:12.]– and that the redemption lies in our hands, not only by the physical, political, and military means that have produced such remarkable effects in Israel, but also by more directly spiritual means, if we can only summon the will and drive to do so. I hope we can; I hope we will.


[1] Hilchot Shechitah 10:12-13.
[2] Avodah Zarah 24b s.v. Parah
[3] Lee Smolin, Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe, (Houghton-Mifflin: Boston, 2013), p. xxvi.
[4] Ibid., xxv.
[5] Laws of Fasts 1:1-3.
[6] See Mishnah Sotah 9:12.

About Gidon Rothstein

41 comments

  1. While many theoretical physicists, like Dirac and Smolin, have speculated that the laws of physics change with time, either slowly (i.e on cosmic time scales) or almost instantaneously in some modern theories in which the vacuum can undergo a phase change, there have also been many experimental efforts to find evidence of such changes. So far, none has been found, and some experiments set tight bounds.

    And certain of the things Chazal said would not be possible under any of the changes people have speculated about. I cannot imagine the scientist who could argue that the Sun once went from west to east above the sky at night, or that lice used to spontaneously generate but now reproduce. Nor that there were mammals that are half living flesh, half dirt.

    It is indeed possible that some of the observations of Chazal were the product of environmental factors. One also wonders whether some of the scientific statements of Chazal were intended as mnemonics. Perhaps the list of treifot was a tradition from Sinai while the statement about animals with those woulds not living more than a year was a mnemonic that was in reasonable, if not perfect, accord with observations of the time.

  2. 1. Wrt treifos I always assumed that it meant if it were untreated. A broken bone (at least a major one) is considered a treifah, and I think it is correct that even today if left untreated such would likely be mortal. The fact that we can heal such things today doesn’t detract from what Chazal say, unless you posit that it means that it is unhealable. Does anyone hold that?

    2. An example of a change in nature (or at least human biology, which is much more variable than the laws of physics or chemistry) is vestos. The Shulchan Aruch states that most women have a veses kavuah. Hard to believe he did not know the reality in his time. Today ask any poseik and he will tell you that a veses kavuah is very uncommon.

  3. Tosafos’ account of nishtaneh hateva regarding animals giving birth at an earlier age is very reasonable in light of the types of changes caused by domestication and selective breeding. But this has little bearing on other conflicts between Chazal and science, such as those relating to cosmology, spontaneous generation, the gestation period of various animals, etc. (Of course, not everyone is equipped to evaluate which sorts of nishtaneh hateva are reasonable to posit and which are not.)

    It should also be noted that the fact of something being easy to check does not necessarily mean that Chazal would have checked it. In antiquity, people placed less value on empirical investigation. Artistotle, for example, wrote that men and women have a different number of teeth; and many, many rabbinic sources have claimed that Jews and non-Jews have a different number of teeth. This is something that is easy to check, and yet they didn’t do so (or they attributed the ones that they checked to being aberrations).

  4. The “talmudic era” constitutes a very long time (if we count from the first sages mentioned in the mishna to the codification of the gemara). Are you willing to talk about nature changing within this period? How do we know Abaye, or Rav Ashi was dealing with the same nature as Hillel and Shamai? Do you think the sages were cognizant that nature could/did change?
    If they thought nature could change why did they codify laws based on things that would change?

  5. Rambam’s openness to significant changes in Nature, without stepping into the miraculous, is clearer in the Mishneh Torah… a recognition that such troubles come because of our sins.

    The Rambam says even more directly that Hashem makes Nature react to human behavior both positively and negatively, near the end of Maamar Techias HaMeisim:

    וכבר זכר בתורה שהוא מופת מתמיד, ר”ל תיקון העניינים עם העבודה, והפסדם עם המרי. אמר “והיו בך לאות ולמופת ובזרעך עד עולם.” ומפני זה אמרו “אין מזל לישראל”, רצו לומר שתיקונם והפסדם אינם לסבה טבעית ולא על מנהג המציאות, אלא נתלה בעבודה ובמרי. וזה אות יותר גדול מכל אות. וכבר בארנו שזה בדין צבור ובדין יחיד, כמו שיראה מן המעשה ההוא והוא נאות לאומרו “ובזרעך עד עולם. ”

    And note that he holds that this actually is ”stepping into the [realm of the] miraculous”: וזה אות יותר גדול מכל אות.

  6. On the example of physics, this from Freeman Dyson:

    Over most of the territory of physics, theorists and experimenters are engaged in a common enterprise, and theories are tested rigorously by experiment. The theorists listen to the voice of nature speaking through experimental tools. This was true for the great theorists of the early twentieth century, Einstein and Heisenberg and Schrödinger, whose revolutionary theories of relativity and quantum mechanics were tested by precise experiments and found to fit the facts of nature. […]

    The fringe of physics is not a sharp boundary with truth on one side and fantasy on the other. All of science is uncertain and subject to revision. The glory of science is to imagine more than we can prove. The fringe is the unexplored territory where truth and fantasy are not yet disentangled.

    Ref: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/apr/05/science-rampage-natural-philosophy/

  7. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the Mishnah Torah places the laws of Kiddush haChodesh just prior to those of Ta’anit that were referenced. The Rambam describes in very great detail the science of determining where and when the moon will be seen. Does Rabbi Rothstein think that the Rambam is willing to contemplate that nature is going to change and that his entire discussion will be moot? Furthermore, pointing to cancer mutations and the weather as possible places where God’s actions could be manifested is a ‘God in the gaps’ argument. If we become better at predicting mutations or the weather, does that mean that God no longer acts via these methods, or that He never did?
    The belief in an all-powerful God should imply that we do not have to be able to understand how He works. That does not imply disbelief that He is indeed active in the world, nor does it have to imply that our understanding of how nature functions is not dependable due to His constant interference in that function. If we demand that theology and science align perfectly, we essentially are demanding that our knowledge equal that of the Divine, and we are bound to be disappointed.
    Multiple authors have pointed out that the science of the Talmud very closely aligns with what was contemporary for the day. Trying to make it Divine is not in keeping with what the authors of the Talmud in fact were trying to achieve. It is no shame to admit that they did the best they could with the information they had at hand

  8. R’NS&R’GR,
    IMHO one of the challenges of accepting r’NS approach (which I do) is that it creates a dialectic (or perhaps highlights it) between a monotonically increasing function (or almost since we did have the dark ages) of scientific knowledge and understanding, and the increasing distance (and concomitant lack of clarity) since revelation at sinai. In the practical realm the fish/meat prohibition is an example where this issue might make a real difference.

    She-nir’eh et nehamat Yerushalayim u-binyanah bi-mherah ve-yamenu,

  9. In terms of Aristotle, observation and teeth, perhaps the following quote is of interest (source: http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2004/2004-09-19.html)

    “What about that most infamous claim, that women have fewer teeth than men? At first glance, one wonders (as does M.) how such a claim could serve an ideological purpose. How are the interests of men advanced at the cost of women by the belief that they have more bicuspids and molars? But more importantly, M. points out that there is some evidence to suggest that Aristotle’s claim about teeth is actually a testament to his careful observation rather than evidence of apriorism in his science. Although the evidence is speculative, there is some proof that the diets of ancient Mediterranean women were deficient in vitamin C and D, deficiencies which resulted in diseases such as scurvy, osteomalacia, and osteoporosis, especially in pregnant and lactating women. No one knows exactly what Aristotle saw when he looked into the mouths of Mrs. Aristotle and her friends, but if he consistently saw fewer teeth that would hardly have been implausible given what we know about diet, calcium deficiency, and tooth loss.”

    Could something be similar about the differences between Jews and Gentitles in the time of the Gemarah? Or, perhaps, could the Gemara be referring to the Supernumerary Teeth:

    * http://supernumeraryteeth.com/
    * http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperdontia

    It need not necessarily be referring, also, to each and every Jew and each and every Gentile. Perhaps it was a common difference (due to some of the reasons mentioned above), if not a absolute difference (I’d have to see the sources inside to know if this reading is plausible).

    In short, perhaps there were differences in life style and/or heredity that led at times to differences in the number of teeth between Jews and Gentiles in the time of the Gemara. Just like Tay-Sachs disease is more common among Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews.

  10. R’ Moshe,
    Is it possible that each example could be explained away? Sure-without the ability to time travel one couldn’t reject alternative explanations with 100% certainty. OTOH the cumulative probability that all examples have alternative explanations as the “real” reason is pretty low (but still non zero – so a true believer can still take solace in that general approach- and may in fact be correct)
    She-nir’eh et nehamat Yerushalayim u-binyanah bi-mherah ve-yamenu,

  11. R. Joel, IMVHO, takkanot and fences for the Halacha that are based on well disproven science or disproven factd need to be examined closely. Certainly those like Metziza that are dangerous need to be eliminated. I heard Rav Sperber speak on minhag ta’ut(by the way, the entire minhag of not eating meat or drinking wine during the nine days is based on a series of errors and misunderstandings piled up on another). His point is that those that serve a useful religious purpose should be retained although one should understand the source. In this example, refraining from meat and wine reminds us that it is the nine days and what we should be thinking and learning about.

  12. Gidon Rothstein

    Zvi Lampel,

    Thank you for the reference. I will note that letters can be a somewhat more arguable source than Rambam’s compositions– my teacher, R. Dr. Haym Soloveitchik argued years ago, for example, that there was a homiletical element to Iggeret haShmad, that Rambam was trying to encourage an oppressed Jewish community, and shaped his arguments that way. Maamar Techiyat haMetim was written to counter claims that he didn’t believe in resurrection, so, theoretically, Rambam might have overstated his “frumkeit.” I don’t believe that, but it’s a reason to be careful in citing that as a source for what Rambam believed.

    I didn’t mean to imply that Chazal were right about all of science, only that some of what they note may be less a matter of errors on their part than of situations where nature changed. I think it’s true that Chazal didn’t think nature changed, but I’m not sure that the kinds of changes that happened within the Middle East over 400 years would necessarily be as significant as what might happen over the next 600 years, along with a change from Israel/Iraq to France/Germany, and then again over the next thousand years in the Western world.

    Thanks for the example of the teeth and what might have been going on!

    Noam, I was offering exactly a God in the gaps argument, and people always worry about what will happen when we fill in all the gaps, without noticing that as we explain more, we find more– and sometimes bigger– gaps. Genetics used to be simple, now there’s junk DNA and epigenetics, etc., etc. The gaps are growing, not shrinking.

  13. None of the scientists you’ve quoted would accept the possibility of ‘nishtaneh hateva’ in all but the most limited of circumstances. As R. Slifkin notes, it’s not useful for dealing with the majority of conflicts between the reality posited by Chazal and that which we are now aware of anyway. Just to give one example, it is utterly implausible to posit that the Gemara’s description of male anatomy in Bechoros (44b) was any more accurate when it was written than it is now. The Gemara simply reflects a misconception that was prevalent at the time, which was later rectified by Vesalius.

  14. R. Rothstein, I understand your point but respectfully disagree. An all powerful God doesn’t need gaps. The need for gaps implies some sort of limitation on God’s options by nature which as I recall you argued vehemently against in a previous post. I am not worried about my belief in God no matter how large or small the gaps are. However, if you are restricting God to acting in the gaps you have a potential problem, no matter how felicitous the scientific future appears from the present vantage point. The problem is similar to claims that God’s existence is something that can be proven based on scientific facts. It implies that under the proper conditions His existence can also be disproven.

  15. r’ns,
    Is it necessary to say that we are limiting God’s options in that manner? I was taught that when God chooses to intervene he prefers to do so in ways that are not obviously contrary to the “rules of nature” but, of course, all options are on the table for him. Perhaps it’s my actuarial disposition but in theory you could have someone sitting behind the slot machine deciding which 1% gets the payout.

    She-nir’eh et nehamat Yerushalayim u-binyanah bi-mherah ve-yamenu,

  16. One other point. While we may have more gaps(not totally sure but will assume) they have less obvious ramifications. For example, Newton’s laws of gravity are very accurate for the vast majority of practical applications. Einstein’s laws are more accurate over a wider range of possibilities, but those are mostly theoretical. And, knowing Einstein’s laws doesn’t make Newton less accurate in predicting that an airplane won’t fall or how to get a rocket to the moon. Known science can explain a lot, and finding more gaps doesn’t mean that known science is going to explain less
    A practical example: a type of brain tumor sometimes responded to chemotherapy and sometimes didn’t. According to you God could have been manipulating who did or didn’t respond. We now know that a certain gene sensitized the tumor, and the presence or absence of that gene explained the response. Now after we test for the gene, God no longer can act via this mechanism. It is true that we have much more to learn about this gene and how it works(which would be considered a ‘gap’) but no matter what we find it is unlikely to affect the known relationship between the tumor response and the presence of the gene. So having a ‘gap’ doesn’t necessarily provide more ‘room’ for God to act.

  17. R. Joel,
    R Rothstein was making the gaps argument. I was just extending it to the logical conclusion.

  18. I’d like to offer a different analogy to the Rambam in introduction to Chelek which even had a practical impact.

    We’ll take the belief of Chazal that food left open was dangerous because snakes left venom in the food and must not be eaten:

    Group 1: (“Overly” respectful) Chazal was accurate and saw through their Ruach Hakodesh that the snakes were causing problems, but nature/circumstances have changed and we don’t have such snakes, (and according to some, thus this halacha no longer applies.)

    Group 2: (Disrespectful) Chazal were imagining mysterious snakes that don’t exist because they were superstitious. (Again an example of something not to say).

    Group 3: (Truly respectful) Chazal were “mistaken”* about the *cause* of food poisoning because micro-organisms had not yet been discovered. However, they were correct to point out the “syndrome” of food poisoning and made (or repeated) some keen observations about the phenomena: covering the food helps; dried out foods are less susceptible; cooking the food can help; drinking water from another town may be dangerous. Furthermore, this is an important public health issue worthy of raising and enforcing. IMO, #3 is the most respectful and gives Chazal the proper credit.

    [*”mistaken” is in quotes because it may have been perfectly rational and not actually “mistaken” to believe such a thing in that time, even though the belief is false.]

    Practical impact: According to #1 (which I think is a Shita of one of the Tosafos), you don’t have to worry about covering food because we don’t have such snakes. Of course we do cover our food (in line with #3) precisely for the reason that Chazal say (although the poisoning is not caused by snakes).

    I think that this breakdown fits in better with another oft-quoted Rambam, but where the quote often leaves out an important part: when they’re right, they’re right.

    “I frequently hear from those who know something about astronomy, that our Sages exaggerated the distances [of the heavenly bodies] when they said that the thickness of each sphere is five hundred years’ journey […] Those who hear such statements consider them [at first thought] as exaggeration, and believe that the distance is not so great. But you may ascertain from the data proved in scientific treatises on the distances, that the centre of the earth is distant from the inner surface of the seventh sphere, that of Saturn, nearly seven thousand and twenty-four years’ journey […] 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.”

  19. However, if you are restricting God to acting in the gaps you have a potential problem, no matter how felicitous the scientific future appears from the present vantage point.

    Dr. Stadlan: I have similar reaction to such arguments; however there are certain places where the “gaps” will remain (unless serious blunders have been made in current math and science). One class of example consists of chaotic systems http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaos_theory that R. Rothstein mentioned: the prediction is that no matter how good your measurements of initial conditions are, the remaining error in measurement is enough to cause a different result. Thus, the system is both deterministic *and* unpredictable and additional knowledge cannot help.

    Another example is Bell’s Theorem which shows that there are certain phenomena that are truly random and there cannot be any “undiscovered gears” to explain the randomness.

    This doesn’t represent an endorsement of God in the gaps arguments, but it does say that there will always be some gaps, so that can’t be the universal counter-argument.

  20. Smolin might be dismissed as a radical, except that he quotes other well-regarded physicists who made similar claims. In a 1939 speech, Paul Dirac, “speculated: ‘At the beginning of time, the laws of Nature were probably very different from what they are now. Thus, we should consider the laws of Nature as continually changing with the epoch, instead of as holding uniformly throughout spacetime.”4 John Archibald Wheeler and Richard Feynman were also comfortable with the idea of change in the laws of Nature themselves, in a shorter time period than we might expect.

    When Dirac spoke of Nature changing with the epoch, he likely meant more than several hundred years, so he was not taking the same position as Chazon Ish, but the gap isn’t as large as we would think. Biologists give examples of evolution that can take only decades— such as guppies in Trinidad– not the centuries that Chazon Ish was discussing.

    I think that there is a subtlety being missed here. What is true is that there is no fundamental assumption in science that the “laws” don’t changes. What is fundamental is that you figure out the answer based on experimentations and not via long-winded plausibility arguments or wishful thinking or even common sense. If we believe that the speed of light in a vacuum is a constant over space and time, it is because we have experimented and determined it, not because it was assumed (and it was in fact a counter-intuitive and unexpected result).

    So they are not arguing for willy-nilly assumptions of possible change, but that such assumptions of change or non-change for any phenomena need to be tested.

    There is a common argument out there that either the Flood or Creation changed the laws of nature so the assumptions of scientists are not valid beyond those points in time. The problem is that this “constancy” not an assumption: it is actually a result of experimentation. If either of those events had changed the fundamental laws that are now believed to be constant (or within some range) then that would have impacts inconsistent with the “constancy” assumptions, but we don’t see those impacts.

    That said, some things do change and that change may explain some ancient beliefs. I just don’t think that has anything to do with the quotes from the physicists that you mention.

  21. David – re: your analysis of the dangers of food being left open overnight. Group 1 and 2 seem right enough, but I don’t understand your explanation of Group 3, which is only a more sophisticated understanding of a physical reality. If I understand the Rambam, he seems to be saying that Hazal offer teachings that are not directly applicable to a physical reality, but rather point to readings that are metaphorical and interpretive (sod and hida). I admit to feeling a bit baffled by Harav Rothstein’s article for not including this approach in how we might understand teachings of Hazal about physics and nature that are difficult to reconcile with our current physical reality.

  22. As it happens, over Shabbat I found a review of Smolin’s book, Time Reborn in a recent NYRB I had stacked because of the quantity of articles I wanted to read in that issue. I have not read the book, but the following seems inconsistent with the portrayal of Smolin in this post.

    In an empty universe, would time exist?

    No, it would not. Time is the measure of change; if nothing changes, time has no meaning.

    Would space exist, in the absence of any matter or energy? Newton would have said yes: space would be empty.

    For Smolin, the key to salvaging time turns out to be eliminating space. Whereas time is a fundamental property of nature, space, he believes, is an emergent property. It is like temperature: apparent, measurable, but actually a consequence of something deeper and invisible—in the case of temperature, the microscopic motion of ensembles of molecules. Temperature is an average of their energy. It is always an approximation, and therefore, in a way, an illusion. So it is with space for Smolin: “Space, at the quantum-mechanical level, is not fundamental at all but emergent from a deeper order”—an order, as we will see, of connections, relationships. He also believes that quantum mechanics itself, with all its puzzles and paradoxes (“cats that are both alive and dead, an infinitude of simultaneously existing universes”), will turn out to be an approximation of a deeper theory.

    […]

    By declaring space to be secondary, he makes a mathematical trade that avoids contradicting general relativity: relative size for relative time. If size and location are relative, then time doesn’t need to be.

    Fortunately, this review is not paywalled, so all can read it: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/jun/06/time-regained/?pagination=false

  23. What always bothered me about the nishtaneh hatevah argument was that it is completely result oriented. The only reason we use it is to defend something chazal said. There were many other people writing in chazal’s day and there are many scientists who study the past. But without any other evidence from any of these sources from which we would expect to see something if there erally were changes in nature, then we say nishtaneh hatevah. It’s not that such change is impossible, but shouldn’t we try to look for some other piece of evidence to support the argument that there really was a change. Of course, most things they said were accurate. If sometimes they were wrong, either because of the scientific knowledge of their time or because they didn’t have adequate empirical data, then sobeit. We needn’t have to twist ourselves into knots thinking we have to defend them.

    Note: I use the word “defend” although I don’t think chazal need any defense. I am confident that they said what they said for what they thought were perfectly good reasons in their time. Even if it turns out that in a few instances they were wrong it shouldn’t detract in the slightest from the respect that we should show them and their teachings.

  24. David – re: your analysis of the dangers of food being left open overnight. Group 1 and 2 seem right enough, but I don’t understand your explanation of Group 3, which is only a more sophisticated understanding of a physical reality. If I understand the Rambam, he seems to be saying that Hazal offer teachings that are not directly applicable to a physical reality, but rather point to readings that are metaphorical and interpretive (sod and hida). I admit to feeling a bit baffled by Harav Rothstein’s article for not including this approach in how we might understand teachings of Hazal about physics and nature that are difficult to reconcile with our current physical reality.

    My opinion is that the 3 categories that the Rambam talked about were not directly referring to their statements about nature which they actually intended as “P’Shat”. He was referring to other kinds of statements that that, interpreted literally, would be very “strange” and lead the hearer, if he interpreted them literally, to the impression that the the statements were foolish. In the particular case he speaks of, his object seems to be to enable him to give an alternative interpretation the Gemara in Chelek that seem imply that “Olam Habah” is something that happens in the physical world on the earth. (The Rambam interprets it differently, as you know). In any case, they are statements that are eventually of a philosophical or religious nature, not scientific. Since a mistake in science is not foolish, but actually quite expected no matter who or when the statement is made, his 3 categories don’t directly apply. That is not to say that some specific statement that we interpret literally would never be treated by the Rambam as an allegory, and we simply missed the boat, but I don’t think that this is his general approach.

    My own comment was merely an attempt at analogy and extension. Just as the Rambam’s 3rd category are the ones that give Chazal their proper respect, and the 1st category, which is overly obsequious, ends up actually being unintentionally “insulting” and make the whole enterprise look foolish, so too, those who try to make every scientific statement in Chazal work out to be correct, similarly make the enterprise look foolish. They also are missing out on the fact that, leaving out the predictable errors of all times and places, there is a lot of keen insight to be sifted out of their statements, but you have to look.

    So my answer is that in many places there is Sod and Hida, but where there isn’t (and the Rambam says so explicitly about scientific statements), there is still a lot to appreciate. If you instead fall into the “nature changed” or especially the “it was all Ruach Hakodesh” trap, then you can easily fail to appreciate the hard intellectual/investigative work that is reflected in their statements.

  25. There is a fascinating site השתנות הטבעים which has a long list of things where what Chazal say doesn’t fit the scientific facts of today and the answer of nishtaneh hateva was given by someone. If you look at the list (which is only partial) you will see that it is quite large. To believe that in all of these things נשתנה הטבע is quite a stretch for anyone. Here are just some of the changes related to the human body. You would have to believe that the human body changed drastically as
    a. none of the remedies of chazal work
    b. the things that Chazal say are dangerous are not (e.g. eating or cooking fish and meat together), and things that Chazal say are good for you (rotting fish) are dangerous
    c. various halachos related to mila such as washing the baby on the third day, metzitza bpeh (which was considered to be necessary to ensure the safety of the baby).
    d. much of the astronomical (the Earth is not covered by a firmament and the sun doesn’t go out a window every night)
    e. What the man contributes to a child and what the women contributes (which is why dome Gedolim opposed paternity tests based on blood tests because the Gemara says that the baby’s blood comes from the mother)

  26. Many of those who hold that Chazal never made mistakes in science, rather their science is part of Torah shebaal peh and was received at Har Sinai, explain seeming conflicts between torah and science by saying נשתנה הטבע, nature changed. IMHO, this is an untenable position for the following reasons.

    1. They hold that all of Chazal’s science is part of Torah. This means that when Chazal said that remedy x cures sickness y, that was part of Torah, it was received at Har Sinai. Why doesn’t it work today? The world changed. This makes no sense. Torah preceded the world by 2000 years (Gemara Shabbos). Hashem created the world by looking into the Torah. How can you say that things in the Torah are no longer true? For over 4000 years remedy X cured Y, suddenly after the era of Torah Shebaal Peh ended the world changed so this stopped working and the torah became untrue, why would Hashem do such a thing? It makes Torah into a joke. Why would Hashem change the world so that Torah no longer reflects the world if the world was created based on Torah.

    Even more then that, this seems to contradict the Rambam’s principle of the immutability of Torah. Torah has now changed. It used to be that the Torah provided a rememdy for sickness Y, now it no longer does. It used to be that the Torah explained various natural phenomena, now it doesn’t. In other words the Torah changed because it no longer reflects the physical world.

    2. If Chazal had a kabbala (tradition) about science you would think that they would have had a kabbala that the world is going to change and that the science would no longer be true. נשתנה הטבע should also be part of Torah. After all, if you are going to claim that all of science is in Torah then this very important fact should be there as well. Yet, Chazal never even hint that the scientific pronouncements that they are making are only temporary. They didn’t say that remedy X will only work for a limited time. they made a blanket statement that remedy X cures Y. It is clear that Chazal had no idea that נשתנה הטבע was going to happen, why not? If Torah included science it should have included נשתנה הטבע as well.

    For more see Is נשתנה הטבע a viable answer for conflicts between Torah and science?

  27. To Joel Rich,

    It’s hard to discuss ‘each example’ at one time. I find it more constructive to discuss one particular example at one time and see what comes from that. We can then discuss other examples at other times if need be and time allows.

    With that, let’s return to Rabbi Slifkin’s comment about empirical observations in the ancient world…

    Rabbi Slifkin argued that ‘in antiquity, people placed less value on empirical investigation’ and used as an example what Aristotle wrote about teeth and the ‘many, many rabbinic sources [that] have claimed that Jews and non-Jews have a different number of teeth.’

    The conclusion, argues Rabbi Slifkin, is that just because something is easy to check ‘does not necessarily mean that Chazal would have checked it’. After all, ‘this is something that is easy to check, and yet they didn’t do so’.

    Well, from my limited research and knowledge this argument doesn’t seem to hold up. For starters, Aristotle was known to have spent quite a bit of time making biological and empirical observations. See, for instance, here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aristotle#Biology_and_medicine

    In particular, note the following quotes:

    “[Aristotle’s] description of the hectocotyl arm [of Cephalopods] was about two thousand years ahead of its time, and widely disbelieved until its rediscovery in the 19th century.”

    “Another good example of [Aristotle’s] methods comes from the Generation of Animals in which Aristotle describes breaking open fertilized chicken eggs at intervals to observe when visible organs were generated.”

    “In some respects, [Aristotle’s incomplete classification of invertebrates] is better than that of Linnaeus, who crowded the invertebrata together into two groups, Insecta and Vermes (worms).”

    “[Aristotle] gave accurate descriptions of ruminants’ four-chambered fore-stomachs, and of the ovoviviparous embryological development of the hound shark Mustelus mustelus.”

    Or, how about this quote: “…there is little doubt that [Aristotle] at least made the effort to observe and record the peculiarities of animal species in an objective and unprejudiced manner…’ [R. J. Hankinson, Professor of Philosophy at University of Texas at Austin, in his article ‘Science’ in ‘The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle’]

    It is difficult to conclude that someone who clearly spent a good deal of time seriously and methodically observing the biological world simply didn’t check the number of teeth and just made a basic mistake. When dealing with as seminal a thinker as Aristotle one wants a better explanation. Now, Professor Hankinson does note that at times Aristotle seems to accept “traveller’s tales” (although his examples aren’t always convincing), but such an explanation doesn’t work when one looks at what Aristotle actually wrote (or, rather, the English translations of what he wrote):

    “Males have more teeth than females in the case of men, sheep, goats, and swine; in the case of other animals observations have not yet been made…”

    [Source: http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/history_anim.2.ii.html%5D

    Here is another translation of the same section:

    “The male has more teeth than the female in mankind, and sheep, and goats, and swine. This has not been observed in other animals.”

    [Source: http://www.archive.org/stream/aristotleshistor00arisiala – Book 2, Chapter III, Paragraph 13]

    From the above two translations it seems that Aristotle’s statement that there is a difference in the number of teeth between males and females IS BASED ON HIS OBSERVATIONS OF MALES AND FEMALES in men, sheep, goats and swine.

    As such, you have a case where DESPITE ARISTOTLE’S OBSERVATIONS his statements seem to contradict our observations; as opposed to the conclusion that Rabbi Slifkin (and others, like Bernard Russel) offered – that the mistake happened because of a lack of observation.

    As so we are left with a puzzle. Aristotle was known to make careful observations and states that his conclusion about the difference in teeth between males and females is the result of such observations. Whatever the solution to this puzzle is, it needs to be one that is appropriate to the person we are talking about. Remember, Aristotle was quite a serious thinker and an astute study of nature. It’s unreasonable to assume that he simply jumped to quick conclusions and used sloppy logic – such as the notion that when checking male and female mouths he observed the same number of teeth in both but chalked it up to an aberration (as Rabbi Slifkin’s proposed when considering the possibility that they did check).

    I’m sorry, but that is not a serious argument as it doesn’t take Aristotle and what we know about him seriously. For instance, let’s ask a simple question – why? Why in the world would Aristotle discount what he saw and attribute it to an aberration? What reason or motivation would he have? From what I understand, Aristotle’s goal was to carefully observe nature and describe what he saw (and come to appropriate biological and philosophical conclusions). Now, he may not always have been successful, but why would he discount what he saw and attribute it to an aberration? Without a reasonable answer to that question backed up by credible evidence one must assume that is not what happened.

    And, as such, we are still left with our puzzling question – how does a brilliant, astute observer of nature claim that his observations showed him males and females have different numbers of teeth when our observations lead us to the exact opposite conclusion. Now, we may not be equipped to answer that question (and, indeed, may never be)? As such, we may never know the answer to that question. Or, alternatively, at some point a satisfactory answer will present itself. Either way, for now the question stands.

    What we do know, though, is that Rabbi Slifkin’s statement that ‘this is something that is easy to check and yet they didn’t do so’ does not see, to be true nor does it seem like a good or reasonable explanation to the puzzle in front of us. And this shows us that it’s not such a simple matter to derive reasonable conclusions about the nature of or causes of (seeming) contradictions between our current knowledge and statements that we find in the works of Aristotle.

    And I would add, by extension, that we should be just as careful when analyzing the statements made by Chazal, with the added point that the intended meaning and scope of Chazal’s statements are not always clear (particularly for those statements which have less investigative traditions behind them). And this fact gives us yet an added reason to be cautious when attempting to deal with questions such as these.

    Be well,

    Moshe

  28. One wonders if the people writing about Aristotle and teeth are also aware that he made other mistakes that could easily have been checked through empirical means.

    Or, perhaps, they also think heavier objects did fall faster than lighter objects in Aristotle’s time, but not by the time of John Philoponus?

    But this [view of Aristotle] is completely erroneous, and our view may be completely corroborated by actual observation more effectively than by any sort of verbal argument. For if you let fall from the same height two weights, one many times heavier than the other you will see that the ratio of the times required for the motion does not depend [solely] on the weights, but that the difference in time is very small. … —John Philoponus’ refutation of the Aristotelian claim that the elapsed time for a falling body is inversely proportional to its weight.

  29. And, as such, we are still left with our puzzling question – how does a brilliant, astute observer of nature claim that his observations showed him males and females have different numbers of teeth when our observations lead us to the exact opposite conclusion. Now, we may not be equipped to answer that question (and, indeed, may never be)? As such, we may never know the answer to that question. Or, alternatively, at some point a satisfactory answer will present itself. Either way, for now the question stands.

    This is all true, and I agree that simply dismissing Aristotle with “he didn’t think to check” is oversimplifying, but it doesn’t negate the fact that Aristotle somehow made a error. The number teeth in animals has not changed since Aristotle’s time and if he knew what we know, he would have updated his writing (in fact, maybe he did and the update did not survive).

    It is also true that the ancients and Aristotle in particular, asserts lots of “truths” for which they did not have sufficient evidence, nor the experimental techniques to investigate that later turned out to be false. There are not different laws for the sublunary world and for the heavens; the heavens are not unchanging; there are not four (or five) elements; and there are atoms, etc. This doesn’t detract from Aristotle as a great thinker and should not detract from Chazal either.

  30. To IH,

    I know that Aristotle’s claims elsewhere don’t hold and that theoretically he could have checked them by the same empirical means that others later used.

    But I don’t see how this is relevant to the example at hand. Here we know something of Aristotle’s methods and observations – and they are impressive. And we know something of how he claims to reach his conclusion – he claims that it was based on observation. One cannot, therefore, conclude that he made his mistake because he didn’t check.

    In this case, the problem is not merely Aristotle’s statements, but the conclusions we draw from them. And that is the point I think bears thinking about. Our ability to understand WHY Aristotle made a mistake or even if he did make a mistake is not as clear, easy or obvious as may first appear.

    I would argue that the same is true about the statements of Chazal.

    To Dovid Ohsie,

    I think it depends on what you mean by ‘made an error’. Aristotle’s observations definitely seem to contradict ours. The question is why. Is it an ‘error’, or did his circumstances lead him to see something different (on average) than we see – such as I quoted in my first comment:

    “Although the evidence is speculative, there is some proof that the diets of ancient Mediterranean women were deficient in vitamin C and D, deficiencies which resulted in diseases such as scurvy, osteomalacia, and osteoporosis, especially in pregnant and lactating women. No one knows exactly what Aristotle saw when he looked into the mouths of Mrs. Aristotle and her friends, but if he consistently saw fewer teeth that would hardly have been implausible given what we know about diet, calcium deficiency, and tooth loss.”

    Now, this answer is insufficient at best, but still helpful. Let’s remember, we are talking about a time before dentists, dental floss, tooth brushes, mouthwash or understanding of dental hygiene. I imagine that mouths looked quite different back then – with a lot more tooth decay, tooth loss, gum disease, etc. I also will add what my childhood Orthodontist told me – that not long ago tooth decay and the like was a leading cause of death.

    So while it is hard to imagine that the number of teeth of a healthy adult has change, it is not at all difficult to imagine that the number of teeth observed on average in an adult has changed. Of course, this doesn’t help much with sheep and goats, but it’s a start.

    In terms of other statements of Aristotle and truths that he asserted. Agreed. I would add the general Greek (perhaps started by Aristotle, don’t remember) notion that the circle/sphere is the perfect shape and therefore the planets had to move in circular or spherical orbits (thus leading to Ptolemy’s system).

    My point, though, is that we need to be careful. We need to honestly and thoroughly look at statements, make sure we understand what is being said, why it is being said, and how the conclusion was reached before we even begin to try and reach conclusions of our own. If we did that, we would a) realize that not everything that looks like a contradiction is a contradiction and b) often times reach radically different conclusions than we do.

    Be well,

    Moshe

  31. Moshe — as the reviewer in the paper you linked states and you have quoted (emphasis mine):

    Although the evidence is speculative, there is some proof that the diets of ancient Mediterranean women were deficient in vitamin C and D, deficiencies which resulted in diseases such as scurvy, osteomalacia, and osteoporosis, especially in pregnant and lactating women. No one knows exactly what Aristotle saw when he looked into the mouths of Mrs. Aristotle and her friends, but if he consistently saw fewer teeth that would hardly have been implausible given what we know about diet, calcium deficiency, and tooth loss.

    To me, this feels like grasping at straws (particularly in the broader context of the subject of the book under review). By the way, even if the diet theory were true, it would still not resolve the issue since the women would still have had the same number of teeth locations in the mouth unless all of Aristotle’s female acquaintances went to the same orthodontist.

  32. By the way, archaeologists have unearthed skeletons with all teeth intact, e.g. http://archive.archaeology.org/9703/newsbriefs/ashkelon.html

  33. David, thanks for your thoughtful reply. I don’t mean to be flip, but how are we indeed so certain which statements of Hazal are meant to be scientific, and which as symbolic? For instance, that a baby receives his blood from his mother – how certain can one be that this was meant as a scientific fact rather than a symbolically powerful metaphor?

  34. Does anyone today hold that Chazal were correct regarding פּוְּרסָא דְּדמָא of B. Shabbat 129a-129b? What about בֶּן שִׁבְעָה…בֶּן שְׁמוֹנָה וכו׳ of B. Shabbat 135a?

  35. To IH,

    The discovery of the skeleton is interesting, but I would like to know what you think it demonstrates? These are all cases of newborn infants whose teeth are unerupted. I’m not sure what this has to do with Aristotle checking the mouth of adult men and women with visible teeth.

    In terms of the article I quoted, I have said that at best the article’s theory is insufficient, at worst it is wrong. But the approach of that article is a more honest approach than just saying, ‘well, Aristotle got it wrong’ or ‘he didn’t check’ or ‘he considered it an aberration’.

    In terms of teeth location – I have no idea what Aristotle would say. Perhaps he would hold that men and women have the same number of places for teeth, but not the same number of teeth.

    Either way, none of this changes the fact that he seemed to have checked, in general his biological observations seem to have been rather sophisticated and yet here his observations contradict ours. A sophisticated explanation is in order. The speculative answer above has the one advantage that it’s an attempt at a sophisticated answer worthy of the question at hand.

    One other point worth noting, all the other examples noted about Aristotle’s mistakes relate to the realm of physics or chemistry:

    * The motion of objects
    * The laws of the sublunary world in comparison to the heavens
    * The nature and state of the heavens
    * The number and type of elements
    * The existence of atoms
    * The orbits of the planets

    All of these areas relate to elements of reality that were either closed to Aristotle’s observations and/or for which his assumptions were off. But that’s not the case with teeth and biological organisms (that is, until we get down to the cellular level).

    Be well,

    Moshe

  36. Moshe — we can continue the discussion at the Barber-Surgeon on Wednesday (we missed today). By the by, for those curious, Aristotle’s observations on teeth can be read at http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/history_anim.2.ii.html

  37. The knowledge of human anatomy was not well known in antiquity because they were not doing autopsies or anatomical dissections of human bodies. As I recall Eddie Reichman takes note of this in his paper on the chambers of the uterus

  38. vernue on July 14, 2013 at 2:16 pm
    David, thanks for your thoughtful reply. I don’t mean to be flip, but how are we indeed so certain which statements of Hazal are meant to be scientific, and which as symbolic? For instance, that a baby receives his blood from his mother – how certain can one be that this was meant as a scientific fact rather than a symbolically powerful metaphor?

    I believe that that you are right and that there are probably places where we cannot be sure. However I’ll say the following:

    1) Even in places where there is metaphorical intent, they are likely basing the metaphor on something that they believed to be true in the not-metaphorical sense, although not always, since there are obvious exaggerations not intended to be taken literally which was the point of the Rambam.

    2) We often see that the beliefs are aligned with ancient beliefs known from other sources. There is then some evidence that they shared the belief. R. Slifkin had a really interesting one where the specific arguments in Pesachim 94 about whether the spheres rotate are paralleled in a non-Jewish text.

    3) Sometimes it is clear that they are taking a practical implication. The belief that lice spontaneously generate was used to explain why it was permitted to kill them on Shabbos. It seems likely that this what not simply a metaphor.

    I’m sorry that I can’t say more about your particular example. I’m pretty sure I’ve read more about that example, but don’t have time to research now; others on the list thread may have better understanding of that example.

  39. One other point worth noting, all the other examples noted about Aristotle’s mistakes relate to the realm of physics or chemistry:

    * The motion of objects
    * The laws of the sublunary world in comparison to the heavens
    * The nature and state of the heavens
    * The number and type of elements
    * The existence of atoms
    * The orbits of the planets

    All of these areas relate to elements of reality that were either closed to Aristotle’s observations and/or for which his assumptions were off. But that’s not the case with teeth and biological organisms (that is, until we get down to the cellular level).

    I am not a scholar of Aristotle, but I believe that your are correct, that Biology is where his best “empirical” work is. In physics and astronomy there a few good points (e.g. novel, compelling and correct proofs that the earth was spherical) mixed in with lots of bad ones that had to be thrown out over the course of time. Biology books give Aristotle much better grades on his acute observations.

    That said, he wrote so much that was new so many topics that it is not a mystery that he made some blunders. He could not possibly have checked everything.

    I thought myself that perhaps he was fooled by some wisdom teeth that did not erupt, but I see from IH’s reference that he know that women and men both had them:

    “The last teeth to come in man are molars called ‘wisdom-teeth’, which come at the age of twenty years, in the case of both sexes. Cases have been known in women upwards. of eighty years old where at the very close of life the wisdom-teeth have come up, causing great pain in their coming; and cases have been known of the like phenomenon in men too. This happens, when it does happen, in the case of people where the wisdom-teeth have not come up in early years. “

  40. To Dovid Ohsie,

    I think it depends on what you mean by ‘made an error’. Aristotle’s observations definitely seem to contradict ours. The question is why. Is it an ‘error’, or did his circumstances lead him to see something different (on average) than we see – such as I quoted in my first comment:

    “Although the evidence is speculative, there is some proof that the diets of ancient Mediterranean women were deficient in vitamin C and D, deficiencies which resulted in diseases such as scurvy, osteomalacia, and osteoporosis, especially in pregnant and lactating women. No one knows exactly what Aristotle saw when he looked into the mouths of Mrs. Aristotle and her friends, but if he consistently saw fewer teeth that would hardly have been implausible given what we know about diet, calcium deficiency, and tooth loss.”

    I agreed with you (and agree with you) that this doesn’t prove that Aristotle was not a careful observer, and poking fun at him for not looking in Mrs. Aristotle’s mouth was funny when I read it, but probably misplaced. But in this case, even if that was his observation, he was led by it to error, as men and women have the same number of teeth regardless of what he was able to observe. That said, I’m not sure we’re disagreeing on much.

  41. To Dovid,

    I agree – we don’t seem to be disagreeing that much. It’s nice when one of these conversations can actually end in some sort of agreement :).

    Be well and have an easy and meaningful fast,

    Moshe

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