Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 32b:
Resh Lakish said: The community of Israel said before the Holy One, blessed be He: Sovereign of the Universe, when a man takes a second wife after his first, he still remembers the deeds of the first. Thou hast both forsaken me and forgotten me! The Holy One, blessed be He, answered her: My daughter, twelve constellations have I created in the firmament, and for each constellation I have created thirty hosts, and for each host I have created thirty legions, and for each legion I have created thirty cohorts, and for each cohort I have created thirty divisions, and for each division I have created thirty camps, and to each camp I have attached three hundred and sixty-five thousands of myriads of stars, corresponding to the days of the solar year, and all of them I have created only for thy sake, and thou sayest, Thou hast forgotten me and forsaken me! Can a woman forsake her sucking child?I find this piece of aggadah especially fascinating because of what some claim is an amazing correspondence between it and astrophysical reality. I first came across this idea in the Proceedings of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists (unfortunately I no longer have the article) in which S. Aranoff explains that if one multiplies to the point of "30 camps" one arrives at 2.9 x 108 galaxies in the universe. Multiply to "myriads" and one gets 3.65 x 109 stars per galaxy. Multiplying these numbers gives a value of about 1 x 1018 for the number of stars in the observable universe.
Let's now compare the Talmud numbers with current (2010) scientific estimates:
Galaxies in the known universe:
Talmud: 2.9 x 108Stars per galaxy:
Science: minimum 8 x 10
Difference: 2 orders of magnitudes
Talmud: 3.65 x 109Stars in the known universe:
Science: 4.5 x 1011
Difference: 2 orders of magnitudes
Talmud: 1 x 1018This is astounding! Resh Lakish is from the 3rd century CE, and he is passing on a tradition that is within a few orders of magnitudes from what science has estimated for the number of stars in the known universe. The fact that there was even a conception of such large numbers is absolutely amazing! This passage is used by many kiruv workers to prove that Chazal must have had a God-given mesorah. It is easy to find references on the 'net suggesting this. (When in doubt, check Aish. They claim that Chazal even knew about galactic clusters, estimating it at 30 galaxies per cluster (the Milky Way cluster contains more than 40 galaxies.) They also speculate what other groupings might mean, and suggest that another "30 grouping" might be "megasuperclusters".)
Science: 3-7 x 1022
Difference: 4 orders of magnitudes
Once again, it is time to be a party-pooper. So let us now deconstruct this amazing "coincidence".
1) There is in this proof an assumption that the Talmudic passage has embedded within it a statement about physical reality. But there is no reason to suspect that this was the intention of Chazal; it is likely that they are just using hyperbole to emphasize how beloved Israel is to God, which - of course - is a major theme in the written and oral law. (As an aside, note that the actual terms used refer to Roman army units.)
2) The ancient Hebrews basically believed in the astronomy (and astrology) as developed by the surrounding cultures in which they lived, such as Assyria and Babylonia and - later - Greece. So perhaps - assuming a very old mesorah - we should give the Assyrians the credit for their understanding of the vastness of the universe??
3) Even if we were to grant the raw numbers (I don't), it works both ways: many more sources show an incorrect knowledge of astronomy. For example, regardless of the feeble attempts of "scientific" OrthoFundies to reconcile the creation story of Genesis with modern science, the much more compelling argument is that those who passed down and eventually wrote down the story believed, like other ancient peoples, that the sky was a solid dome with the Moon, Sun, and stars all embedded in it. And need we mention the myriad of old rabbinic sources (and, embarrassingly, even modern ones such as statements by the last Lubavitcher Rebbe) that insist on a geocentric universe (usually accompanied by some claptrap about relativity proving that geocentricity is "as valid" as heliocentricity.) Other examples in astronomy (and other knowledge disciplines) abound.
4) The twelve constellations are an arbitrary convenience for astronomical observations. The stars in a constellation have no relationship to one another besides an apparent proximity. 30 hosts per constellation is an implied relationship in the proof (but not necessarily the Talmud itself) and is actually a meaningless mathematical relationship. And what is the basis for "multiplying up to camps" to get the number of galaxies? What do hosts, legions, cohorts, and divisions represent, anyway? Some deep, mystical secret that our puny minds are not privy to?
5) Why is God off by even 1 order of magnitude?
6) I've saved the best for last.
From ancient India comes the Lalitavistara Sutra, a Buddhist text that recounts the miraculous deeds of Gautama Buddha. French scholar Georges Ifrah describes in an interview with Robert Krulwich how the Buddha was in a counting contest with a mathematician named Arjuna. One contest consisted of counting the "atoms" (that is, the smallest unit of matter) in a yojana (about 10 km). See the article for the specific formula which - according to mathematician Alex Bellos - shows that the Buddha determined quite accurately the size of a carbon atom! One notable difference from the Talmudic story is that the intention of the Buddhist text is to represent a very large number. (By the way, Indian culture - unlike that of Judaism and the ancient Near East - had actual words for VERY large numbers. They didn't just give up at "10,000"!)
Of course, a true fundie would probably claim that the Indian religions (and its later Buddhist offshoots) were ultimately derived from Judaism anyway and will point to the story of the children of Abraham being sent away to the East (see Rashi to Genesis 25:6). So don't expect that arming yourself with facts will win any arguments with