Relativity – the Jewish angle

During the Annus Mirabulus (extraordinary or miracle year) of 1905, Albert Einstein published four scientific papers that revolutionized man’s understanding of space, time, and matter. Three of the four discussed the Photoelectric Effect (light is not a continuous stream but consists of packets or quanta of energy), Brownian Motion (that helped prove the existence of atoms), and Matter and Energy Equivalence (E = mc2, which enables a tiny amount of nuclear material to unleash a nuclear blast).

The Twin Paradox
The fourth theory he cooked up that year was the Theory of Special Relativity, which claims that the speed of light is fixed and thus not relative to the movement of the observer. ¬†Extrapolations of this idea turned the world into a bizarre place where a person’s passage through time depends on the speed of his motion. The faster you move, the slower time moves for you. This leads to the Twin Paradox of Special Relativity, whereby, if one identical twin flies off in a rocket traveling close to the speed of light and returns after a few days, he may find that his brother has, in the mean time, grown a long gray beard. (This is a paradox because who is to decide which twin is moving and which twin is standing still? Why say that the rocket is moving from Earth when you can just as easily claim that Earth is moving from the rocket?)

Einstein’s surprising surmise was experimentally demonstrated in October 1971 when four cesium atomic beam clocks were flown around the world on commercial flights. Compared to reference clocks at the US Naval Observatory, it was found that the clocks had lost about 59 nanoseconds on an eastward trip and gained 273 nanoseconds flying west. Because the earth rotates eastwards, the clocks flying east moved faster than clocks on earth and lost time, while flying west meant that the airborne clocks were moving slower than their counterparts on the earth’s surface, causing them to gain time.

Einstein’s idea of relativity is regarded as an epiphany, an amazing realization of the kind that inspired Archimedes to leap out of a bath and shout Eureka! (I have found it) when he realized that one can estimate the volume of an object by submerging it in water.

Yet, surprisingly, Einstein’s key concept that time can run on different planes was conceived centuries earlier by the Maharal and possibly by the Rambam.

Our scientific adventure begins with Sefer Yehoshua (chapter 10), which relates how a number of Canaanite cities attacked the Givonim who had made a peace treaty with the Jewish people. Yehoshua came to help and as the enemy fled before his warriors he took drastic action to ensure that no enemy should escape: He said before the eyes of the sons of Yisroel, Sun, stand still upon Givon, and the moon in the Ayalon valley. And the sun stood still and the moon stayed until the nation had avenged against its enemies (10:11-12).

According to some opinions, this miracle entailed far more than meets the eye. In the course of describing how exactly Moshe was greater than all other prophets (Moreh Nevuchim 2:35), the Rambam writes that unlike Moshe who made miracles in front of the whole Jewish nation, other prophets only worked miracles before some of the people. To this he adds the observation, “Do not be deceived by the fact that Yehoshua stopped the sun during those hours… because it does not say [before] all Yisroel as it does regarding Moshe, but only before the eyes of Yisroel.” Rav Chasdai Crescas explains the Rambam literally, saying that according to the Rambam the miracle of the sun and moon freezing in place was visible only to the Jewish warriors while to their brothers and sisters at home the day passed normally like every other day since the world’s creation. But obviously, this seems self-contradictory. If the sun and moon stood still for the Jewish warriors how could the whole world not be witness to the stupendous event happening before their eyes?

The Ultimate Squeeze
To answer this question, let us first explore a concept often mentioned by Chazal and the Rishonim, that on occasion, mu’at hamachazik es hameruba, a small place can hold a large amount. The medrash (Bereishis Raba 5) cites many examples of this miraculous phenomenon:

Citing the verse, Gather all the congregation at the entrance of the Ohel Mo’ed (Vayikra 8:3), the medrash explains that a miracle was required to squeeze them all into that tiny place. Similarly, when Hashem said, Let all the waters under the heavens gather to one place (Bereishis 1:9), the waters covering the whole world could not have been held by the smaller area of the oceans except through “a small place holding a large quantity.” In a similar vein, we find Hashem telling Moshe and Aharon, Take to you handfuls of soot of the furnace (Shemos 9:8), which the medrash calculates as constituting eight handfuls, yet later we see Moshe throwing this amount of soot into the sky with one hand.

The medrash continues with more examples such as the whole of Klal Yisroel fitting into the courtyard of the Mishkan, which was only a hundred amos by fifty amos, Moshe and Aharon gathering the people in the small space before the rock that miraculously produced water (Bamidbar 20:10), Yehoshua gathering the people between the staves of the Aron (Yehoshua 3:9), and the phenomenon of people standing crowded in the Bais Hamikdosh yet bowing down with room to spare.

The medrash concludes by saying that there will be a similar miracle at the time of the final redemption because the pasuk says (Yirmiyohu 3:17), At that time they will call Yerushalayim the throne of Hashem and all the nations will gather there. R. Yochanan asks R. Chanina how it could hold them all and he answers, “Because the verse says, Widen the place of your tents. For you will burst forth right and left (Yeshaya 24:2, 3).”

In line with other commentators, Rav Nachman of Breslov explains that these miracles occurred due to the unique interface between the physical and the spiritual. The more spiritual something is, the less space it takes up in this world: “The root of Torah is the tree of life… which is beyond space and thus Chazal say that the place of the Aron and the keruvim took up no space, because the Torah is adjacent to them… Whatever is closer to the Aron and the Luchos has more of the aspect of a small place holding a large amount and thus Chazal say that the whole of Yisroel stood between the staves of the ark…

Similarly, in the Bais Hamikdosh they stood crowded and bowed down with space to spare… and in Yerushalayim no person ever said to his friend, .The place is small for me. …In the same vein, the whole of Eretz Yisroel is called “the land of the deer,” for just as the deer’s skin cannot contain its body [after it is skinned] so Eretz Yisroel [can contain more people than nature would allow for]… Wherever the sanctity is greater, there too the aspect of a small space holding a large amount is greater… and thus, the place of the Aron did not have any measure at all and was totally above space (Megillah 10b), for the place of the aron where the Torah is found is included in the tree of life which is above space. (Likutei Halachos Y.D. hilchos Sefer Torah 3:6).

From this we see that spiritually infused matter can defy the laws of physics and squeeze into a space that is smaller than its physical dimension.

Timeless Time
Similar to the concept we have discussed of space that takes up no space, the Maharal (second introduction to Gevuros Hashem) explains that there is a concept of time that takes up no time. Because the Torah is pure light, he says, it protects a person from sin even at times when he is not studying at all, unlike other mitzvos that only protect a person when he is actually performing them.

For this reason, too, he explains, the sun and moon at Givon and Ayalon stood still for some people while for other people these heavenly bodies continued in their normal course. “We can explain that for Yehoshua and Yisroel in that place the sun stood still, while for the whole world it did not,. he writes. ….You might ask how it is possible for the sun to contradictorily move and stand at the same time… This is because the sun can move according to its natural course and [simultaneously] stand still through a miracle.

“One object can have two contradictory qualities if they are of two different aspects, nature by itself and the supernatural by itself…”

In other words, the world’s dual physical/ spiritual reality allows the existence of seemingly contradictory phenomena. Rav Eliyahu Dessler has a long discussion of this concept, which is printed in the third volume of Michtov Me.Eliyohu (page 308):
“There are things that can be seen but not felt by certain people… The Jews ate the man… while non-Jews could sense it visually but when they wanted to stretch out their hand to take it, there was nothing in their hand (Yalkut Shimoni Haazinu 543)… Sometimes, an object can be visible to some people and not to others. The verse says, Sit you here with the donkey (Bereishis 22:5), and Chazal (Tanchuma) explain that [Avrohom] saw a cloud attached to a mountain while they [Yishmoel and Eliezer] did not see it. Thus, they were ‘a nation similar to a donkey,’ ¬†for when materialism is absolute it prevents one seeing spiritual existence….

Rav Dessler goes on to discuss the riddle of the sun standing still, explaining that this too worked according to the world’s dual reality: “We find regarding the sun standing still in Givon that according to Chazal this event lasted for many hours. They also say that the sun set earlier when Yaakov came to Har Hamoriah, delayed setting for Nakdimon ben Gurion, and mention many similar instances.

Yet, when it comes to calculating the years and new months these changes do not come into consideration at all… Thus we must say that even though the sun stood still for many hours, this was solely for Yisroel and it made no difference to the cycles of the sun and moon. On the following days their locations in heaven remained faithful to calculation as if they had not moved at all….

We see, in conclusion, that the Rambam, Maharal, and Rav Dessler seem to discuss an issue that appears remarkably similar to Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, although there are obviously vast differences between the two. While Einstein’s theory requires massive speeds to produce a noticeable difference between two time frames, spiritual relativity requires no movement at all. Even when Yehoshua’s warriors paused to rest, the sun remained locked in place, while for the rest of the world time and space rolled on unchallenged.

The Ohr Hachaim Hakodosh (B’reishis 36:31) explains that in the tie of the future redemption, Hashem will lengthen the days. In other words, a day will be longer than it is now. This would seem to be the same as Einstein’s theory of the relativity of time.

(The concept of this article is discussed in an article published in the Torah journal Eis Lachshov, 5752.)

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