(R. David Yehuda Silberstein; 1820-1884; Hungary-Israel), to Orach Chaim 445:1: R. Silberstein states attributes various erroneous beliefs in cosmology and geography to various tannaim, including: that the sun ascends above the firmament at night, rather than travelling around to the other side of the earth; that there is no land mass in the southern hemisphere; ignorance of the fact that the sun shines for half a year at the North Pole.
שבילי דוד, אורח חיים תנה, א; ז"ל
Hebrew text available at http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=8322&st=&pgnum=238&hilite=.
Rashi’s view regarding water that has sat [the night] is that during the rainy season the springs are hot, per Pesachim 94b, which says that the sun travels at the bottom of the firmament, which Rashi explains to mean [that the sun travels] close to the earth, at the bottom of the [heavenly] dome covering [the earth]. The way he puts it implies that he believed that the firmament and earth touch each other, as he explained at Taanit 25b, s.v. “Bein tehoma ila’a letata’a:” “Between the firmament and the ocean, where the firmament and earth touch.” Rashi therefore explained that during the rainy season the sun travels close to the earth, where the ocean is.
This is plausible according to the initial belief of the sages of Israel – that the sun travels above, in the firmament, at night. However, according to Rabbi [Yehuda Hanasi]’s concession to the gentile sages that the sun travels below the earth at night – which is the truth, for the sphere of the earth is in the centre of space and the sun orbits it; the sun never comes close to the earth; the distance from the [heavenly] sphere to the earth is constant. The only variation is on the [heavenly] sphere itself: sometimes [the sun] is high on the sphere, and sometimes low on it, as we will explain in the laws of Rosh Chodesh. But the [heavenly] sphere is equidistant from the earth at all points, since the sphere [of the earth] sits precisely in the middle of space. Accordingly, there is no reason for [the water] to be more heated [by the sun] during the rainy season. Only, the sun is centred around that part of the [heavenly] sphere opposite the southern part of the world during the rainy season, opposite the ocean, and it therefore heats the water more, which is why the springs that come from [the ocean] are hot.
This secret was already revealed in the holy Zohar, Parashat Vayikra, p. 10a, regarding the verse, “If his sacrifice is a peace-offering,” and in the Sifra of Rav Hamnuna Saba it is further elaborated upon: “The inhabited world is in a spherical shape like a ball, some up and some down, and the people look different because of the difference in climate in every place, and they stand like all other men. Therefore, there is a place such that when it is light for some people, it is dark for others; when it is day for some, it is night for others; and there is a place where it is always day, with only a very short night.” This refers to the northernmost edge of settlement during the summer, not the North Pole, where the summer is one long day, but it is uninhabited.
Rabbi Eliezer of Metz explained the reason [for the requirement] of water that has sat overnight as being that at night the springs are hot, per Pesachim [94b], where the gentile and Jewish sages argue, and Rabbi [Yehuda Hanasi] says that their view appears correct since the springs are cool by day and hot by night. Rashi explains that the sun is high during the day.
The dispute of the Jewish and gentile sages and the decision of Rabbi [Yehuda Hanasi] clearly shows that they did not know about the existence of settlement on the other side of the earth, where the sun shines at night; for this knowledge makes it obvious that the sun travels below the globe of the earth at night. Thus, notwithstanding Rabbi [Yehuda Hanasi]’s decision based on the springs, the existence of land and settlement on the other side of the ocean, on the other side of the globe, was still unknown. They thought, on the basis of this decision, that the ocean covers the entire underside of the earth, and, accordingly, that the sun shines more on the ocean at night than during the day. But once it is known that there is land on the underside of the globe as there is above, and that the ocean surrounds the world from side to side, between the upper and lower hemispheres of the globe, there is no reason to think that the sun would heat the ocean more at night than during the day. Consequently, based on our current knowledge, [Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi’s argument] is no proof at all.
I will present here [more of] the Gemara in Pesachim [94b]: “The rabbis taught: The sages of Israel say that the sphere is stationary and the constellations rotate, and the sages of the nations say that the sphere rotates and the constellations are stationary. Rabbi [Yehuda Hanasi] said: A response to their words is that we have never seen Scorpio in the north or Taurus in the south.”
Rashi explains that there is a [heavenly] sphere like a wheel that the constellations are placed in. “The sphere is stationary” – it does not rotate, but is rather like a carriage wheel sitting on the ground; the constellations travel on it to an extent, but they do not traverse the entire sphere: each one serves the sun, moving from its place to escort [the sun] to the next constellation, then returning to its place. Therefore Taurus is never seen in the south, nor Scorpio in the north, for they do not move that much.
Further in the Gemara: “Rabbi Eliezer [sic] ben Yaakov objected: Perhaps it is like the axle of a millstone, or the hinges of a door socket.”
On the previous page, it says: “Rava said: ‘The world measures six thousand parsas, and the thickness of the firmament is one thousand parsas.’ He shares the view of Rabba bar bar Chana; one-sixth of a day’s [travel] is the thickness of the firmament.” Several attempts at refutation are presented in the Gemara, and finally the Gemara challenges [Rava] from the baraita saying that from the earth to the firmament is five hundred years, and [the firmament’s] thickness is five hundred years; Rashi explains (94b; s.v. “Vechein”) that the length of the world is equal to its height.
In my humble opinion the question is clear. Rava said that the arc of the space around and above the world, as the sun travels – meaning the arc of the circle of the sky – is six thousand parsas ... and thus the question is rightly posed that its height is five hundred years, and surely, then, its arc is much more than that.
This entire discussion takes place before the baraita becomes known in which Rabbi [Yehuda Hanasi establishes] that the sun travels beneath the earth at night. Once this is established, the sun’s traversal of the firmament has no bearing on its daily travels, for the sun does not go up into the firmament at night, but rather down beneath the ground. Then Rava’s tradition that the world measures six thousand parsas may refer to the upper continent, from its eastern ocean coast to its western ocean coast; and the width of the space surrounding the globe of the earth on all sides is five hundred years, for the earth is in the middle of empty space – thus the baraita can be true too [and reconciled with Rava’s statement].
Be not confounded as to how it could have been thought that the sun travels above the [sky-]covering, when we can see with our own eyes that at the North Pole there is half a year of day. For the children of Israel’s proper dwelling-place is the holy land, and the sages of Israel therefore did not investigate what was in faraway lands. All the more so given what I write in Hilchot Megillah 688:2, that at that time there was little settlement above fifty degrees. [Their] need to understand how to calculate seasons and star movements could be satisfied through this approach [that the sun travels above the firmament at night] too, so they did not make a point of finding out what was in far-flung parts of the earth. For the children of Israel’s settlement is properly in the land of Israel; only, compulsion disperses them, until it becomes the Creator’s will to gather them to the holy land, speedily in our days. And in Mishnaic times they decreed impurity upon the lands of the [other] nations.
The truth is that someone who wants to know the wonders of the Creator, someone who has studied Kabbalah will view the entire lower world as a mere mustard seed. Why should one waste time in this sort of investigation? – Is there some deficiency in a man for his not having seen how an ant behaves in its hole? May God illuminate our eyes with the lofty wisdom of the true Torah.
[Translation by DES.]
(Reference from Dr. Marc Shapiro via anonymous.)