The star cluster called Pleiades is some five hundred light years away from earth. Under normal conditions, the human eye can make out six stars in this cluster. A particularly sharp eye will be able to see the seventh and eighth stars, and for many generations, astronomers believed that Pleiades was a cluster of eight stars.
After the invention of the telescope in the 1500's, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) used it very successfully to look at the stars. Over time, the telescope was refined and improved until it reached the level of modern refracting, reflecting and radio telescopes. It was soon discovered that beyond the eight known stars in Pleiades, the cluster contains over one hundred other stars invisible to the naked eye. (1)
In the Talmud we find the following:
“What is meant by Kimah [Pleiades]? Samuel said: ‘About a hundred (k’me’ah) stars. Some say they are close together; others say that they are scattered.”(2)
The famous biblical and Talmudic commentator, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (known as “Rashi,” 1040-1105) explains that the Talmud’s question: “What is meant by Kimah?” refers to its central stars, which suggests that there are even more than one hundred stars in Pleiades. Rather, it is only the most important ones that number one hundred, while there are many more less important stars in the cluster.
The Talmud was written over 1,500 years ago, far before the invention of the telescope. The visible appearance of Pleiades was in firm contradiction to the opinion of the Jewish Talmudic Sages, which appeared to be a gross exaggeration.
For that reason, non-Jewish astronomers, during the Middle Ages, refused to accept the Talmud’s statements on this subject, despite the fact that they usually treated the Sages’ statements with great respect, particularly when they referred to astronomical phenomena.
The Sages proudly and bravely stood their ground on these issues, because they knew that the source of their knowledge was the Torah, given by the Creator. God certainly knows His handiwork, both the visible and the invisible.
Each generation of Sages passed on their knowledge as an Oral tradition. This process continued for many centuries until the Oral Law was finally written down and codified. However, as it was passed on through the generations, one piece of information was lost, so that an argument arose among them: are the large numbers of stars in the Pleiades cluster all grouped together, or are they spread out over a large area?(3)
It is incredible to think that they were arguing over this point 1,500 years ago!
Notes and Sources
(1). More detail on this subject is available in the book N. Vidal, Heavenly Hosts, vol. 2, p. 134ff. Further information can also to be found in the Encyclopaedia Hebraica (Hebrew) (Jerusalem, Tel Aviv: Encyclopaedia Publishing Company, 1968), s.v. “Kochavim,” pp. 674.
(2). BT Berachot 58b.
(3). From this very argument we can deduce that the source of their information was not some research instrument or primitive telescope. Not only were no such instruments available at that time (even today, it is possible to photograph all the stars in Pleiades only from a satellite telescope), had they actually seen them, there would have been no argument as to whether they are close together or far apart. Rather, the information was transmitted orally for generations, with a question eventually arising in one specific detail.