Science in the Torah

Is the World Round or Flat? Depends Who You Ask

As is well known, many ancient peoples believed the Earth to be a broad, flat surface supported by immense, mythical creatures – such as four giant elephants standing on the back of an immense turtle, itself swimming in an infinitely large ocean.

Regardless of which animals were doing the work, ancient peoples believed that earthquakes occurred when one of these ungainly creatures moved. The idea that the world was round was considered not only highly unlikely but ridiculously illogical.

It was only in a much later period that some Greek philosophers began to claim that the world was round. Even so, for many hundreds of years, the majority of humankind believed that the Earth was flat, or at best, dome-shaped.

After Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492, while traveling west in search of a shortcut to India, many individuals became motivated to set out on similar voyages of discovery. More and more of these travelers came to the conclusion that the Earth was indeed round, in opposition the firmly held opinion of the masses.

Slowly but surely, though, increasing numbers of people began to understand that the Earth is indeed round. Today, every schoolboy knows the truth, and has seen photographs from space of the spherical globe upon which we all live. Nowadays, the flat Earth theory, complete with supporting whales or elephants, evokes in us only a smile. But we must remember that the only relevant evidence available to the ancient civilizations was what they saw in their immediate surroundings – the fields, the valleys, the endless ocean stretching out before them. They had no good reason to take the leap of the imagination required to think that the Earth was round.

In addition, before Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) discovered the laws of gravity, there was no logical reason to suggest that the world populated by humans, animals and myriad objects was round. How could creatures standing on the opposite side of the world, head down, not fall off the planet?!

Once again, the Zohar,(1) written over 2,000 years ago has something to tell us on this subject. In this instance, it quotes a book written even earlier, by Rabbi Hamnuna Saba in Second Temple times:

“The entire world and those upon it, spin round in a circle like a ball,(2) both those at the bottom of the ball and those at the top. All God’s creatures, wherever they live on the different parts of the ball, look different (in color, in their features) because the air is different in each place, but they stand erect as all other human beings.

Therefore there are places in the world where, when some have light, others have darkness; when some have day, others have night.

There is a place in the world where the day is long and night is but a short time.

It is written: 'I acknowledge You, for I am awesomely, wondrously fashioned, wondrous are Your works and my soul knows it well' (Psalms 139:14).

And this secret has been passed on to men of wisdom – the wisdom of the Torah.”

This short, incisive segment in the Zohar contains some very important pieces of information. Its author knew that:

A. The world is shaped like a ball, and is not flat, as was then understood by humankind.

B. The Earth is not fixed permanently in one place, but spins and turns on its own axis.

C. Human beings live on both sides of the planet, top and bottom.

D. Humans live on one side of the globe, with their feet on the ground, in exactly the same way as they do on the other side. This points to an understanding of the force of gravity (even though gravity was discovered by Newton a mere 300 years ago).

E. When it is daytime in one half of the earth, it is night in the other and vice versa.

F. There is a place where it is almost constantly light, and nighttime is very short (such as the artic regions, due to the angle of the Earth to the Sun).

Torah sages realized that the information at their disposal was not known to the scientists of their times and would seem strange to them, if not bizarre. Thus, the Zohar concludes that this information is a secret. It also tells us that this information was not gathered through research, but had been handed down to Torah sages over the generations, who declare: “And this secret has been passed on to men of wisdom – the wisdom of the Torah.”

The source of this knowledge is not natural, it is in the Torah.

As mentioned earlier, in the past people believed that the world was a flat surface supported by immense creatures, floating on an endless sea. They imaged that the sky was the roof over the world and the stars were hanging in the space above the Earth like lamps in a vast hall. The floor of that hall was the world in which we live. But what supports that roof? The conclusion they reached was that there were four columns supporting it, one at each corner of the great “hall.”

This theory might seem strange to us today, but was perfectly logical from the viewpoint of those ancient civilizations. So far as they were concerned, the roof of such a vast hall had to be supported by something and one column at each corner was an excellent solution.

What did the Torah say at the time?

In Jewish tradition, the following verse is considered to have been made with prophetic inspiration (as is true for all the other verses in the Bible): 

“He suspends the Earth on nothingness.” (Job 26:7)

This means exactly what it says – there were no supports. Rabbis David and Yechiel Altshuler, father and son authors of the 18th century Scriptural commentary, Metzudat Zion, explain that the Hebrew word for nothingness – blimah – is comprised of two syllables – bli and mah, which in this form mean, “without anything.”

Rashi similarly writes: “Blimah means without any foundation, because they stand in the air” (refering in this context to empty space).

How must the words of the Torah have sounded to people thousands of years ago, and how do they sound to us today?


Notes and Sources

(1) Zohar 3:10a.

(2) See more about the shape of the Earth in Zohar 1:15: “Rabbi Yossi said: We have already learned from the Heads of our Academies that the world is round like a ball.” Clear statements about the world’s round shape also appear in Bamidbar Rabbah 13, BT Avodah Zara 41a (in the explanation given in the Tosefta), and JT Avodah Zara 18b.


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