ב׳ באלול ה׳תשע״ז (August 24, 2017)

Sanhedrin 39a-b: Questions of a Roman Emperor

What relationships existed between and their non-Jewish contemporaries?

One example of a close relationship can be learned from the stories told of Rabban Gamliel of Yavne, who was head of the Jewish community following the destruction of the Second Temple, and the Roman emperor – most likely one of the Caesars that followed Vespasian’s dynasty (perhaps Traianus) – whose interests included science, literature and the religious beliefs of other cultures.

The Gemara on today’s daf lists questions posed by the Caesar to Rabban Gamliel about issues of religion and science. For example, one challenge that was posed accused God of being a thief, since the Torah describes that he put Adam to sleep in order to steal the rib from which Eve was created (see Bereshit 2:21). Before Rabban Gamliel could respond, the Caesar’s daughter asked if she could share her thoughts on the matter. She asked her father to bring a military guard to investigate a robbery that had taken place in her home. When asked for details she told him that a thief had come in the night and taken a silver pitcher, leaving a golden one in its place. The Caesar’s response was that such thieves should visit more often. When she clarified that this is what God had done to Adam – exchanging a rib for Eve – her father suggested that in that case it could have been done openly. This time she responded by calling for a piece of raw meat and preparing it before him. Having seen it in its raw state, the Caesar found it unappetizing. Yet again his daughter pointed out that God did not want Adam to find Eve repulsive.

Another question posed by the Caesar to Rabban Gamliel related to a passage in Tehillim (147:4) that describes how God counts the stars. The Caesar found this claim unimpressive, arguing that he, too, could count the stars. Rabban Gamliel took a number of quinces and put them in a sieve that he set spinning. When the Caesar could not keep track of them, Rabban Gamliel argued that the heavens work in a similar fashion.

Already in ancient times, astronomers attempted to map the heavens and count the visible stars. According to their count, less than 2,000 stars were visible in the northern hemisphere. The traditional view of the Rabbinic Sages was that there were many more stars, and that their number could not be counted. With modern telescopes we now know that there are many millions of stars in the heavens and that it is impossible to establish how many there are.

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