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Center of the Universe

Rabbi Eliezer Eizikovitz

The geocentric theory of the universe, which placed the earth at the center of the universe and all other bodies orbiting around it, was the basis of astronomical inquiry for 1,400 years. In the seventeenth century, a controversy erupted in the city of Prague regarding the revolutionary heliocentric theory — that the earth orbits the sun, rather than being the center of the universe. Is there a connection between the “new astronomy” and something mentioned the Torah? And can a Jew believe in heliocentrism?

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Benatek Castle, a six-hour ride southwest of Prague, 1600 CE.

The imposing towers of Benatek Castle were shrouded in darkness. The ornate crystal chandeliers in the parlor had been extinguished, and the servants had been issued strict instructions not to light even the smallest candle. Groping their way through the darkened corridors, they silently mocked their eccentric master for his insistence on eliminating all artificial sources of light.

On the roof, wrapped in fur coats to protect themselves from the frigid European winter night, sat three men for whom the entire castle had been plunged into darkness. They gazed intensely into the night sky and examined the constellations, a difficult task in the days preceding the invention of the telescope.

The first of the three was a potbellied fellow whose most distinguishing feature was the artificial silver nose that dominated his wide face. His original nose had been lost in a duel many years earlier. His name was Tycho Brahe, and he was the imperial astronomer of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. At Brahe’s side sat Johannes Kepler, a frail man with eyes sunk deep in his face. Relatively unknown at the time, within a short few years he would become the most renowned astronomer in the world.

The third member of the group was an unusual guest — a bearded Jewish rabbi, with peyos and tzitzis fluttering in the nocturnal wind. This scholar was Rabbi Dovid Ganz, a talmid of the Maharal and a meshamesh of the Rema. He had just arrived at Benatek Castle from his hometown of Prague, and the servants had immediately led him to the roof, where the others had been awaiting him.

The three men had convened that night for a particularly dramatic purpose: to discuss revising the placement of the planet Earth on the map of the universe.

Suddenly, the men’s attention focused on a small red dot that was slowly rising on the eastern horizon.

“Mars,” Brahe grumbled in frustration. “That confounded planet!”

He had already invested years of effort in an attempt to understand the perplexing orbit of the red planet, and he was still no closer to solving the riddle than he had been when he started.

“Mars is the irrefutable proof that Ptolemy’s astronomical model is incorrect,” Kepler declared decisively. “According to his model, there is no way to explain the orbit of Mars around the Earth.”

“The Jewish sage Rabbi Levi ben Gershon [the Ralbag], arrived at that conclusion in Provence 400 years ago,” Rabbi Dovid Ganz added.

“Reb Dovid,” Brahe said, turning to his guest, “do you recall telling me about the dispute between the Jewish sages and the wise men of Alexandria, regarding whether the planets are permanently attached to celestial spheres, or whether they move about freely in space?”

“Indeed, that discussion appears in Maseches Pesachim, page 94b,” Rav Ganz confirmed, and he proceeded to quote the words of the Gemara: “The chachmei Yisrael maintain that there is a fixed sphere and the constellations move, and the gentile scholars maintain that the sphere moves and the constellations remain fixed ...”

“Correct,” said Brahe, “and I have recently come to the conclusion that your sages should not have conceded to the gentile scholars. Experiments I have conducted with advanced instruments show that the Jewish sages were correct.”[1]

***

This unusual meeting on the roof of Benatek Castle took place against the backdrop of one of the stormiest controversies ever to rock the scientific world. At that time, a clash was coming to a head between two diametrically opposed worldviews: the 1,400-year-old, highly respected Ptolemaic model, which placed the Earth at the center of the universe; and a much newer, more revolutionary school of thought that claimed that the sun was the central celestial body.

These were the deciding moments of this scientific battle. When the controversy ultimately drew to a close, the world was no longer the same.

The residents of Prague, sleeping peacefully in their beds while the three men conversed on that rooftop, had not the faintest inkling that their entire world was about to be overturned.

 

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