Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Problem with Rabbi Eliezer Breil's Response to the Pachad Yitzchak

In the (now-)famous entry entitled "Tzeidah" in Rabbi Yitzchak Lampronti's Pachad Yitzchak, Rabbi Lampronti (1679-1756) suggests that since modern science has disproven the Talmudic belief that lice are spontaneously generated, the halacha should now proscribe killing lice on Shabbat, since the Talmudic statement that killing them is permitted was based on the ancient - and incorrect - view on how they are produced. He quotes a letter written to him by Rabbi Eliezer Breil, who strongly objects to his proposal. One of Rabbi Breil's principal arguments is that we must trust the Talmudic sages' understanding of science. In support of his assertion that Chazal's science is reliable, he writes (among other points) the following:

ועוד עדות נאמנה אצלי מ"ש בגמ' דפסחים על ענין אם הגלגל קבוע ומזל חוזר שחזרו חכמי ישראל באותו הזמן והודו לחכמי א"ה, וסוף דבר אחרי מאות רבות משנים כל התוכנים מא"ה בחקירתם עפ"י הנסיון והמופת שבו לדברי חכמינו וקבלתנו הקדמונית.

"Another sound testimony [to my view] is what is written in the Gemara in Pesachim (94b) about whether the sphere is fixed and the constellations move [or the opposite], regarding which question the sages of Israel recanted at that time and conceded to the gentile sages; yet finally, after many centuries, all of the gentile astronomers, as a result of their investigations and experiments, have returned to [accept] the words of our sages and our earlier received tradition."

This argument is invalid for several reasons. One is especially glaring, however, to anyone who has examined the passage in question on Pesachim 94b. The sages of Israel did not concede that the gentile sages were right regarding the movement of the sphere versus the movement of the constellations. Their concession was that at night, the sun travels beneath the earth, not above the sky. It goes without saying that all astronomers from Rabbi Breil and Rabbi Lampronti's time to the present have agreed that at night, the sun's path takes it beneath the earth, as per the gentile sages, not above the sky, as Chazal had first claimed. Thus Rabbi Breil's proof - that despite their recantation, the Jewish sages' original, tradition-based view was ultimately vindicated - is entirely fallacious.

I have noticed that in writing about the Jewish-gentile disputes on Pesachim 94b, numerous rabbis commit the same error of confusing the two issues of (1) whether it is the sphere or the constellations that move, and (2) whether the sun travels above the sky or below the earth at night. They write that the Jewish sages conceded in the former dispute, whereas in truth, the concession is recorded regarding the latter. Sometimes this inaccuracy is inconsequential. Other times, as in the case of Rabbi Breil's letter, it is enormously important. In yet other instances, it is not clear to me whether it makes a difference.

I just wanted to raise awareness of this issue.