In the days of the Tanach, Shas and Medrash, people generally lived in low-tech style, relying on human and animal power to get things done. Their machines were simple affairs, such as the Archimedes Screw, used to draw up water. However, there were exceptions. Back in 5661/1901, sponge divers located an ancient wreck near the island of Antikythera from which Greek archeologists retrieved a complex, geared mechanism that had lain underwater for 2,100 years. After a century of research, scientists now conclude that this ancient contraption was an astronomical analog computer, unequaled in sophistication by anything produced before the eighteenth century.
By adjusting the date on the mechanism’s dials, this computer indicated the position of the sun, moon and various planets, as well as the rising and setting times of various stars. Other dials helped calculate the 235-month (19 year) Metonic cycle (used by the Jewish calendar to calculate leap years), the 76- year Callippic cycle, the 223-month Saros cycle, and the 54-year Triple Saros cycle.
Although Greek writings mention similar devices, the far more sophisticated Antikythera mechanism proves that ancient wisdom was far greater advanced than scientists ever dreamed. Jewish sources, too, discuss mechanical wonders of ancient times.
RAV YONOSON’S ROCKET
Rav Yonoson Eibshitz suggests that the people who constructed Migdal Bavel not only knew the latest physics of the time but also utilized it in an attempt to send man to outer space. In a novel interpretation of the migdal, he claims that it was not a tower at all but a sort of rocket.
Drawing on the new ideas of his contemporary, Sir Isaac Newton, Rav Yonoson explains how an object shot with enough force from Earth’s surface could free itself of gravity’s constraints and zoom into outer space. Shoot up a hollow object with people inside, and you will have a Tower of Bavel, thousands of miles high, without the trouble of building a huge edifice. Rav Yonoson does not specify what powered this ambitious project; one modern author dares suggest that the ancients knew the secrets of nuclear fission!
The Ralbag discusses yet another sophisticated mechanical device in his interpretation of the strange menace, known as “hapischim v’ha’ivrim,” “the lame and the blind” (Shmuel II 5:6,8). The verses relate that King Dovid could not conquer Yerushalayim before getting rid of these enigmatic items:
“Dovid and his men went to Yerushalayim, to the Yevusi who dwelled in the land, and someone said to Dovid saying, ‘You will not come here unless you remove the ivrim and the pischim’… And Dovid said on that day, ‘Whoever strikes the Yevusi and damages the water pipe (tzinor) and the pischim and ivrim [will be made a leader]…”
What were the pischim and ivrim, and what was their relation to a water pipe? Of all the explanations found in Chazal and commentaries, the Ralbag’s is perhaps the most striking:
“Possibly… it is the name of a place where no one could go unless they passed before these statues (the ivrim and pischim), which had heavy rods that swung so violently that no one could pass without being struck. We have heard that such statues were constructed in certain places, and such an invention is not difficult for someone who understands the science of weights and the dynamics of water, wind and mercury…
“They made the statues in the form of pischim and ivrim (the lame and the blind), because the lame and the blind generally have rods (sticks) to lean on. Apparently, the water pipe was next to these statues and the water emerged from their mouths. Enough water entered them to make the rods move… By damaging the water pipe so that water ceased to pour into the statues, it was easier to destroy them.”
A wonderful machine constructed some time later was Shlomo’s throne, which not only included a number of mechanical animals but, according to the Zohar (Yisro 78a), also served as a truth detector or polygraph. Discussing the ability of Moshe Rabbeinu and the Moshiach to judge through ruach hakodesh, the Zohar mentions that although Shlomo had this ability, he instead relied on his wondrous throne to deduce the truth:
“Similarly, Shlomo [judged using] his throne, even though ruach hakodesh rested on him (and he did not actually need the throne). Since fear and awe fell onto anyone who came near it, through this he passed judgment without witnesses. Because there were images (of animals) on the throne, if anyone drew near with falsehood, the image would knock and Shlomo would know that someone was coming with falsehood. Due to this, the fear of the throne fell on everyone, and they were all righteous (truthful) before him.”
Contrary to this Zohar, which intimates that Shlomo could have judged with ruach hakodesh, the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 21b) insists that Shlomo was prevented from doing this: “Koheles (Shlomo) wanted to judge judgments that are in the heart without witnesses and without prior warning. A heavenly voice came out and said to him… ‘According to the testimony of two witnesses… a matter shall stand.’” (Devorim 17:6).
Of course, Shlomo’s throne is only a small example of his great wisdom, which, the Ramban (Introduction to the Torah) writes, was derived from the limitless wisdom of the Torah.
Rashi (Yechezkel 28:1) mentions another marvelous machine of Shlomo’s time, the tower built by Chiram, king of Tzur. In the course of rebuking a number of evil nations, Yechezkel relays Hashem’s message to Tzur:
“Son of man! Say to the ruler of Tzur, so said Hashem G-d: Because your heart is haughty and you say, ‘I am a god, I have sat on the seat of G-d in the heart of the seas.’ Yet you are a man and not a god, and you have thought that your heart is like the heart of G-d.”
Rashi comments: “In the air, next to the sea, he made himself an apparatus like the seven heavens and sat atop the uppermost one.”
Why did Chiram build this fantasy contraption? Chazal say that after he helped Shlomo build the Bais Hamikdash, Hashem rewarded him by allowing him to visit Gan Eden during his lifetime; as it says, “You were in Eden, the garden of G-d” (Yechezkel 28:13). This invested Chiram with insane pride, and he attempted to make himself a godly figure by building a model universe.
The Yalkut Shimoni (Yechezkel 367) describes his grandiose structure in detail:
“Chiram, king of Tzur, was extremely haughty. What did he do? He entered the sea and made four square pillars of iron… and made seven heavens and a throne, and chayos, and thunder and shooting stars and lightning. The first heaven was of glass, 500 amos by 500 amos, with a sun, moon, and stars. He made the second heaven of iron, a thousand amos by a thousand amos, and a pipe of water separated between the fi rst and the second… The seventh one was of gold, 3,500 amos by 3,500 amos, and he set jewels and pearls in it…”
This top heavy structure that mushroomed from 500 square amos at the bottom to 3,500 square amos at the top, must have been in imminent danger of toppling over any second.
The Medrash says that Chiram’s pride was punished measure for measure:
“To what can Chiram be compared? To a servant who made a garment for his master. So long as the garment was on his master, the servant saw and boasted, ‘I made this garment for my master.’ The master said, ‘I will tear the garment and the servant will no longer boast against me.’ So Chiram was boasting because he had sent cedars to the Bais Hamikdash.
“The Holy One said, ‘I will destroy My house so that Chiram cannot boast against Me,’ as it says (Zechariah 11), ‘Open your gates, O Levanon (the Bais Hamikdash) so that fire should consume your gates.’”
“What happened to that palace?” the Medrash concludes. “The Holy One split the earth and stored it away for the righteous in the future to come.”
Did Chazal invent the telescope? Rashi seems to intimate that they did in his discussion of Rabban Gamliel’s shefoferes, with which he measured the 2,000-amah travel limit (techum) of Shabbos, both on land and by sea (Eiruvin 43b).
Rashi explains: “Shefoferes – a hollow tube: When it is long, one cannot see far through it and when it is short, one sees more. The tube of Rabban Gamliel was made of a length that one could see 2,000 amos by land or by sea.”
What kind of tube enables one to see far away when it is short and only nearby when it is long?
There are those who understand that Rashi is talking about a telescope since one lengthens a telescope to focus at distant points, and shortens it to focus nearby. Rabban Gamliel’s telescope was set to focus on objects exactly 2,000 amos away, no more and no less. According to this, the telescope was not invented at the beginning of the seventeenth century, as is commonly assumed, but was in use well over a thousand years earlier.
However, there are those who compare Rashi to the Yerushalmi (Eiruvin 4:2) that states (according to the Pnei Moshe): “Rabban Gamliel’s eyes estimated with objects [the size of which] he had calculated on a straight plane.” In other words, Rabban Gamliel calculated 2,000 amos by judging the size of distant items, such as people or boats.
How did he judge their size? By looking through a tube long enough to provide a scale of comparison. The tube had to be just the right length, since a short tube’s field of view is too wide and a short tube’s field too narrow. Rabban Gamliel’s tube was just long enough for distant objects to fit comfortably into its field of view.
We leave it to the reader to judge whether Rashi is actually saying this or not!
According to the Meiri, the tube worked on the simple principle that if a person looks straight downwards, all he can see are his toes, if he looks a bit higher he can see over the road, and if he looks straight ahead he can see a hundred miles! Rabban Gamliel set his tube at an angle that enabled him to see exactly 2,000 amos!
According to the Rambam in his commentary to the Mishnah, Rabban Gamliel’s instrument worked on a similar principle to the Meiri, but was the more sophisticated astrolabe, a nautical instrument used to measure the angles of stars. Since the Greeks were manufacturing rudimentary astrolabes a couple of centuries before Rabban Gamliel’s time, this is less revolutionary than saying that Rabban Gamliel used a telescope.
That is, until marine archeologists stumble on a sunken cargo of ancient Greek telescopes!