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Exegetical Lectures on the Bible

(Continued from p. 266.)

By Rabbi Isidore Kalisch, of Cleveland

No. II.

These views were based neither on tradition nor on grounds of reason, but upon very vaguely assumed deductions. It was considered, that, as we find in the Bible שמים ושמי שמים “heavens, and heaven of heavens,” which after all conveys only an idea of the “height and the greatest height,” or because seven terms are employed to convey the idea of “heaven,” that we must assume two or even seven heavens as thus conveyed and actually existing. That such a view is quite wrong is easily discernible from the fact that we often find different names applied to the same thing in the Bible. For instance, the soul is called by five terms נפש רוח נשמה יחידה חיה, and we know that man has not five souls, but one, which, independently of psychological is clearly proved from Genesis 17, where we read ויפח באפיו נשמת חיים “And he breathed in his nostrils a living soul.”

However paradoxical such views of the term “heaven” may appear to us at the present day, they were nevertheless far otherwise at the times they were propounded, when the system of Aristotle was reverentially received and universally confided in. “Space is the utmost quiescent limit of heaven which touches the moving body. Heaven is the most perfect, divine body, indestructible, and of a more noble nature than sublunary bodies.” This Aristotelian system found, however, no sympathy with the greatest numbers of Rabbis; as we read in Midrash Bereshith Rabbah אמר רשב״י אין אנו יודעין אם הכוכבים קבועים בגלגל או באויר “Rabbi Simeon, son of Yochai, said: We know not for certain whether the stars are fixed on a wheel (a solid ethereal sub­stance), or whether they float in space.” The same is found in Talmud Pesachim fol. 5: “The wise man of the Gentiles say, that the heaven moves, and the planets are fixed therein; but the wise men of the Israelites teach that the heaven is immovable space, but that the planets revolve.” The system of the Jewish teachers, according to Maimonides in Moreh nebochim, is a tradition which is said to be derived from the prophets. At the present day we know from incontestable proof that this most ancient Jewish cosmological system, which is simply, that the heavens are nothing but space, in which innumerable suns and planets, which appear to us as stars, and to which our earth also be­longs, is true and correct. For, since astronomers have observed by the telescope many stars, calculated their distances from each other, and discovered among other things, that notwithstanding a ray of light travels 70,000 leagues in a second, it would nevertheless take a thousand years before the light of many stars, which are visible through the telescope, could reach the earth, on account of their immense distance, it becomes evident that the apparent vault of heaven is but an optical illusion.

And though the space which we call heaven, is blue, it is not owing to the actual existence of such a blue matter; but it arises from the fact that every ray of light consists of seven, or more correctly speak­ing, of three original colours, to wit, red, yellow and blue; and as the light is refracted by the atmosphere, if the sky is free from vapour, the red and yellow colours are absorbed, and the blue is thus reflected back. If this were not the case, everything except the sun itself would appear perfectly dark on even a clear day. Are, however, watery vapours present in the atmosphere, all the original colours are reflected, and hence arises the whitish appearance of the sky. By the expression a “heaven,” is therefore nothing else represented to us, in point of fact, <<311>> except the more happy and perfect condition in another purer world, in which the souls of the righteous shall obtain their reward. Whence also the very correct expression employed by our assistant teachers עולם הבא (Olam habba) the future world, to designate the beatitude of the departed, or paradise.

By the expression, “God dwells in heaven,” we mean to convey nothing else, than God fills the universal space to the utmost infinite extent,* and that he alone is the Governor and Sustainer of the entire universal existence. This is strikingly expressed in Psalm lxviii. 5: “Sing to God, praise his name ; glorify him who passeth along through the plains of ether, the Lord is his name; and rejoice before him.” The expression ערבות is happily employed here by the holy poet, not to indicate, as some erroneously suppose to indicate, pleasantness, elysium, or a heavenly dwelling, from ערב “to be pleasant,” but the immense expanse, the vast extent; from ערבה “the desert,” and it will then say, that God is the vivifying medium of innumerable worlds, existing in the immeasurable extent of the universe, and governs all things in their various courses, as the rider manages his horse. Hence לרכב ערבות literally “to Him who rides on the deserts.”

* Infinite extent, is almost a contradiction in itself, as extent means something defined by limits; but language cannot always express what we feel and think.

In order now to explain the verses with which we started I will cite some few more deductions from physical sciences.

Vapour consists, as is well known, of small globules of water, which have in themselves the capacity of rising to a given height, not that the atmosphere produces this vaporisation, but according to a law of nature ordained by the Creator; for, since vaporisation proceeds much more rapidly in a vacuum, that is, a space exhausted of atmospheric air, it is proved that the atmosphere contributes nothing to this phenomenon.

Rain, therefore, is produced when the vapours or water-globules separate again from the atmosphere, which has taken them up, touch  each other, and flow together, whence they fall down in drops, owing to their being specifically heavier than the air. The atmosphere which flows around our earth like an ocean, is the theatre of many changes, is the chief laboratory of nature, and is a compound fluid in which the elements of water, electricity, and magnetism, are present. This atmosphere is evidently meant by the word  heaven, as the Talmud, Treatise Chagigah ch. ii. indicates במשניתא תנא שמים אש ומים מלמד שהביאם הקב״ה וטרפן זה בזה “It was <<312>>taught in the Mishnah, that heaven is called Shamayim, because it consists of Esh, fire, and Mayim, water; which God in the creation mingled together.”     

The height of heaven, or region of vapours, cannot be determined; for although ten geographical miles (German?) is the greatest elevation for our earth where the heat of the atmosphere ceases, and the sun is unable to produce any more warmth: we cannot for all that fix the limits of the vapoury region of the earth.        

The astronomers maintain and prove that each planet has an atmosphere like our earth. They maintain farther, that the planets belonging to our solar system consist of continents and seas. This is especially the case with Mars, which, when viewed through a telescope, presents an appearance corresponding with this theory, as the parts which are probably continents have a reddish, the others, or seas, a greenish appearance. It has also been incontestably proved in the latest times that the tides of the ocean are owing to the attraction exerted by the moon. Water, therefore, has the greatest tendency to rise upward when it lies under the zone of the moon’s course.

The limit of the various atmospheres of the planets to which they extend without the one encroaching on the other, is called רקיע השמים Rekia hashamayim, “the expansion of heaven.”

By the term מים מעל לרקיע “the waters above the expansion,” the upper waters, is here meant the atmosphere of the other planets, and by the “lower waters,” the atmosphere of our own earth.

That God divided between the upper and lower waters will then con­vey, that God ordained a law of nature, that the various atmospheres might indeed touch one another, still without ever commingling to­gether, and that there is, so to say, an expansion or wall of separation which keeps them asunder. This will also explain why on the second day we find not the expression כי טוב, “And God saw that it was good,” or “that it answered the purpose of its formation,” as on the other days; since this was not intended alone for our earth, the origin of which is here especially narrated, but applies also to the whole universe, to which it is equally necessary as for us. There is likewise no contradiction between the history of creation of the second and first period, of which it is said: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” (v. 1); because there under the word שמים “heavens” is understood, as I have said already, the whole space of the universe, with its inmunerable suns and planets; and שמים in the second period signifies “the heaven” in a more limited sense, which is the relation of the earth to our planetary system.

The Rabbins express unquestionably this idea in Chagigah, ch. ii. מעשה ברבי יהושע בן חנניה שהיה עמד על גבי מעלה בהר הבית וראהו בן זומא ולא עמד מפניו אמר לו מאין לאין בן זומא אמר ליה צופה הייתי בין מים העליונים למים התחתונים ואין בין זה לזה אלא שלש אצדעות בלבד, “It is told of Rabbi Joshua, son of Chananiah, that he once stood on the top of the temple mount at Jerusalem, and that Ben Soma saw him without rising up from his seat to honour him as usual. Rabbi Joshua then said to him, What means this Ben Soma? what art thou busy about? to which the other answered: I was engaged in investigating the distance between the upper and lower waters, and I found that they are only three fingers breadth apart.” רב אחי בר יעקב אומר כמלא נימא “Rab Achi, son of Jacob, said, Only the breadth of a thread.” But the Rabbins in general maintained, there is no distance at all between them, but the one begins where the other terminates.

In these words, as it appears to me, the Rabbins meant to convey the incontrovertible truth, as I have already stated, that the atmospheres border on each other without commingling.

This will also explain the expression which occurs in the history of the flood. “And the windows or sluices of heaven were opened;” which may mean, that the other atmospheres were permitted to let water be sent to our atmosphere, a communication between them being for that once established, whence also it became possible for the whole earth to be covered with water. This hypothesis I believe is the key to the biblical history of the flood; but I shall speak more fully on the subject in its proper place.

(To be continued.)