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R’ Eliezer Knew More Science than R’ Yehoshua

Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

This is an interesting interpretation by the Torah Temimah where he uses scientific knowledge to explain a dispute in the Talmud.

The verse in Parshas Breishis states “There went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground.” The Torah Temimah quotes the Babylonian Talmud in Mesechta Taanis 9B that records a dispute between R’ Eliezer and R’ Yehoshua regarding the source of rain.

[Copied from Soncino] “R. Eliezer said: The whole world draws its water supply from the waters of the ocean, as it is said, but there went up a mist from the earth and watered the whole of the ground. Thereupon R. Joshua said to him: But are not the waters of the ocean salty? He replied: They are sweetened by the clouds. R. Joshua said: The whole world drinks from the upper waters, as it is said, And drinketh water as the rain of heaven cometh down. If so, what is the force of the verse, ‘But there went up a mist from the earth’? This teaches that the clouds grow in strength as they rise towards the firmament and then open their mouth as a flask and catch the rain water, as it is said, Which distill rain from His vapor, they are perforated like a sieve and they slowly distill waters on the ground.”

The Torah Temimah explains what R’ Eliezer means using (then) modern science. R’ Yehoshua is correct. The waters of the oceans are salty and unfit for drinking. Therefore R’ Yeshoshua concludes that rain water cannot come from the oceans. R’ Eliezer understood that the reason the waters of the ocean must rise to the clouds and then return to the earth is to desalinize the ocean water. Only the water evaporates while the impurities like salt are left behind.

This can be demonstrated by boiling dirty water says the Torah Temimah. The droplets that form on the lip of the boiling pot are pure water no matter what the water in the pot looks like. Similarly, the salt and minerals in water on earth are removed when the water evaporates and are returned to earth via the clouds in the sky. That’s why R’ Eliezer says the whole world draws water from the oceans. R’ Yehoshua is confused because the ocean waters are salty. To which R’ Eliezer replies that the waters are sweetened during the evaporation and cloud process just like the droplets on the lid of the pot boiling dirty water.

I read this and thought this was a pretty good explanation of R’ Eliezer’s position. Unfortunately it leaves R’ Yehoshua in a very vulnerable position. What are we to think happened after R’ Eliezer explained evaporation to R’ Yehoshua? Perhaps when presented with the scientific explanation he acquiesced to R’ Eliezer. The Talmud assumes he did not because the subsequent discussion deals with R’ Yehoshua’s position as equally viable to R’ Eliezer’s.

More importantly, could R’ Eliezer have known this scientific information? According to my brief Internet research, it seems that the basic principles of natural desalination were known to the Greeks. It’s possible that R’ Eliezer adopted something he heard from them. Although I am unsure if they understood that evaporated seawater turned into clouds in the manner the Torah Temimah understands it. Of course, it is possible that R’ Eliezer received this scientific information from God or some Divine Tradition. Personally, I do not subscribe to this view, but many others do.

Perhaps this is the correct explanation R’ Eliezer’s position. It is elegant in its explanation and pretty clever but it leaves us with other unanswered questions. Either way, kudos to the Torah Temimah for using his secular knowledge in his commentary on the Torah.

Read the Torah Temimah here: PDF

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