Science in the Torah

The Water Above the Heavens

The Torah’s story of Creation tells us that there is water above the heavens:

And God made the firmament (the layer of air that envelops the Earth), and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so” (Genesis 1:7).

In other words, there is water in space!

Rabbi Abraham Ibn-Ezra (1092-1167) writes on Genesis 1:6: “that firmament was the air….” In other words, the Torah calls the atmosphere “firmament” because due to it we can see the blue skies above – commonly called the “heavens.” The sky appears blue during the day, because the sun’s rays are refracted in the atmosphere. When astronauts leave our atmosphere, however, they discover that space is black by night and day.

For many years, scientists involved in space research refused to accept this statement because they had no idea where they might find water in space.

Furthermore, as if this statement was not challenging enough, the Midrash(1) – part of the Oral Law and written down about 1500 years ago – provides us with even more information. Not only is there water in space, its quantity is even greater than that of Earth. Thus, the Midrash comments on the verse from Genesis:

“The upper waters are more abundant than the lower waters.”

Considering the vast volumes of water available on our planet – in oceans, seas, lakes, rivers and underground reservoirs – this is an amazing statement. In what form is this water in space? Is it resting upon something? According to the Midrash, a close reading of the verses reveals that the water is suspended in space and not spread out on something in a layer. The Midrash puts it this way:(2)

“Had the Torah said: ‘Let there be a division between the waters on the firmament,’ we would have understood that the waters are located on top of the firmament. But the Torah actually says ‘the waters which are above the firmament.’ This means that the upper waters are dependent upon [God’s] spoken word (i.e. floating free in space, as commanded by the Creator).”

The Midrash further tells us that the water in space is frozen.(3)

Interestingly, as space research progressed and made use of ever more powerful telescopes, research satellites and spacecraft, scientists were amazed to discovered new facts on this subject. The following is a short précis of recent discoveries as it appears in a recent, authoritative encyclopedia of space research – the Cambridge Atlas of Astronomy:(4)

In the morning of June 30 1908, a fantastic explosion occurred in central Siberia in the valley of the river Podkamennaya Tunguska… Witnesses described an enormous meteoric bolide or fireball which was visible in the sky for a few seconds. Other witnesses at a distance of 60 kilometers (36 miles) from the point of impact were knocked over by the resounding shock wave… Seismic shocks were registered over the whole world. Scientific experts suspected that a giant meteorite had fallen… [The accepted opinion] was that the event was due to the collision of a comet with the Earth. Later it was calculated that it must have been a block of ice 40 meters in diameter weighing 30,000 tons, which exploded at an altitude of some kilometers and released energy equivalent to that of a thermonuclear bomb of 12 megatons.(5) (A 12-megaton nuclear explosion is the equivalent to the explosion of 12,000,000 tons of TNT. This is almost 1000 times greater than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, which was about 15 kilotons.)

If this lump of ice had fallen on London or New York and not in an uninhabited area of Siberia, the result would have been catastrophic.

Astronomers at the time were completely baffled. Where had this enormous lump of ice come from? Are there any more giant ice blocks in space?

Science is now answering this question affirmatively. 

Professor Fred Whipple from Harvard University is the Director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. He has successfully proven that comets are made up of ice mixed with particles of dust and rock. The data now available provides an amazing picture. A small comet contains approximately one billion tons of ice, and a large comet can be a thousand times bigger – 1,000,000,000,000 tons of ice.

The nucleus of each comet is a giant ball of ice. As a comet approaches the sun, the ice heats up and evaporates, forming a glowing vapor and gas halo around the comet’s nucleus. The halo can have a diameter of hundreds of thousands of kilometers. When gases emitted by the sun (called the “solar wind” by the astronomers) strike the halo around the nucleus, it is pushed backwards and creates what we know as the comet’s tail.

At the edge of our solar system, there is a region called the “Oort Cloud,” named after its discoverer, the Dutch astronomer, Jan Hendrik Oort (1900-1992). In this region alone, there are approximately a thousand billion comets! If all these comets were to melt, the resulting water would be able to fill all the oceans of more than 1,000 planet Earths.

Thorough research revealed that the 30,000-ton lump of ice that landed in Siberia was nothing more than a shard from the nucleus of the comet Encke.

In addition, Spacecraft launched in recent years have discovered that there are enormous quantities of ice on the planets of the solar system: The gigantic planets Saturn, Jupiter and their moons, and the planets Neptune and Uranus all have ice layers thousands of kilometers thick; Saturn’s rings contain vast amounts of ice and on Mars, there are immense deposits of ice and dry ice.

Today, we know that all the water on Earth is just a single drop in the ocean, when compared with the incredibly large quantities of water that can be found in space.

Not only is there water in space, the upper water is indeed far more abundant than the lower water; it is in the form of ice, and is suspended there upon God’s word. 

That is exactly what the People of Israel has always known from the Torah, without receiving proof from modern spacecraft or sophisticated telescopes.(6) This is another example in the long list of scientific facts stated in the Torah, whose detractors eventually came to affirm it, and those who questioned it were eventually amazed by it.

It must be emphasized that all the citations in this chapter are based upon a literal reading of Torah’s words. As the Sages have said: (BT Yevamot 24b) “A biblical passage never loses its plain meaning.” However, we must also appreciate that, as is true for the entire Torah, each verse in the creation narrative contains deeper, wondrous layers of meaning that are revealed through various hermeneutical methods, such as remez (allusion), derash (homiletic) and sod (esoteric), as is well known to those who study Torah properly.


Notes and Sources

(1) Midrash Rabbah, Bereshit 4:5.

(2) Ibid 4:3. Basic information about the Oral Law can be found in Chapter Five of R. Zamir Cohen’s booklet: Nine Answers and a Question (Hebrew) (Jerusalem: Hidabroot, 2000).

(3) Midrash Rabbah, Bereshit 4:2.

(4) The Cambridge Atlas of Astronomy, Jean Falque ed., 2nd edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 156-225. Further information is available in Nathan Aviezer, In The Beginning, p. 32.

(5) Ibid, p. 221.

(6) In the same context, we can learn from here how to properly relate to the Sages’ writings as they have been passed down from one generation to the next, all the way back to Moses, who received this knowledge from God. This fact should be recalled, even when a superficial examination of these matters seems to contradict our logic and current scientific knowledge. Ever since the composition of the Midrash and up to nearly the present day, this information was dismissed out of hand by scientists, so that the Sages' comments on the topic were regarded as figments of the imagination. However, this has neither troubled nor influenced the Jewish people, who proudly stood their ground. Indeed, it has always been clear to them that if the Torah states that there is frozen water hanging in space, that must certainly be a fact. 

Even with all the great discoveries made by science over the past centuries, its logic and understanding cannot be compared with the spoken word of the Creator as revealed in the Torah.


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