Science – Ancient Inventions

Chazal tell us that the Kosel will never be destroyed and for two millennia its stones have fulfi lled this promise, standing firm through earthquakes and wars. Despite this, there are enemies of the Kosel that are particularly subtle. Puny plant roots constantly probe between the joins of its stones, prying them apart, and acidic bird droppings slowly etch its rough surface. To their horror, inspectors recently discovered that some stones in the top rows of the Kosel, the rows Sir Moshe Montefiore added about one hundred and fifty years ago, are beginning to crumble and must be repaired before the winter rains in order to prevent rock fragments from disintegrating and collapsing onto worshippers below.

However, the original stones Herod laid down two thousand years ago are still holding firm. It would take a colossal disturbance to dislodge them as many weigh five tons apiece, and there are cornerstones that tip the scales at dozens of tons, firmly anchoring the walls together.

Nevertheless, the vast dimensions of these stones are nothing compared to a gigantic stone discovered inside the Kosel Tunnels that Israel’s Ministry of Religious Affairs excavated after the Six-Day War. The Kosel Tunnels are actually comprised of two tunnels. One of these is a 500-meter long tunnel, dug in order to expose the entire northern length of the Western Wall. Unlike the weathered stones of the Kosel plaza, these underground stones are almost as smooth as the day they were eased in place by Herod’s workmen.

At the end of the Kosel, this tunnel meets a second tunnel, an ancient aqueduct dug by the Chashmonaim that was rediscovered in 5747/1987. This aqueduct pushes onward for another 80 meters and ends in an ancient pool.

Spiritually, the most significant area of the Kosel tunnels is “The Cave Shul,” fifty feet into the tunnel. One reason Jews have always davened at the western wall of the Har Habayis and not at its southern or north walls, is because the western wall faces the location of the Holy of Holies positioned in the west. Since the Cave Shul is situated exactly opposite the estimated location of the Holy of Holies, it is considered the optimal place to daven along the Kosel’s length.

Architecturally, however, the most impressive artifact of the Tunnels is the Kosel’s most gigantic stone, a 41-foot length leviathan equal in length to two buses standing end to end. Its estimated weight of about 400 tons is so massive that many people are convinced it must be the largest building block in the world. They are wrong.

Colossal as the Kosel stone is, it does not come close to three record-breaking building blocks, laid down by the Romans, centuries after Herod’s time. These blocks are part of a supporting platform in the Baalbeck ruins, a few hours’ drive from Beirut. In olden times, Baalbeck was known as Heliopolis, the City of the Sun; to modern tourists, it is recognized as one of the most interesting archaeological sites of the Middle East while Israelis remember it as the site of an unsuccessful commando strike during the Second Lebanon War. Arabs claim that bomb vibrations from the raid have damaged the historic site.

One of the most impressive features of the Baalbeck ruins is the “Trilithon,” comprised of three massive stones, each one weighing over 800 tons, about double the weight of the Kosel stone! Even larger is the “Stone of the South” lying unfinished in a nearby quarry. This stone weighs about 1,000 tons, not much less than the weight of three Boeing 747s. The Stone of the South’s only rival is the gigantic Aswan Obelisk of Egypt, which would have weighed over 1,000 tons had it ever been completed. However, the gargantuan stone needle developed a crack during quarrying and was abandoned still attached to its rocky bed.

The first question people pose upon seeing huge blocks such as these is why the ancients bothered to cut such gigantic megaliths when a number of smaller stones could have served the same purpose. Why did Herod quarry a block the size of two buses when most blocks of the Kosel are a fraction of the size? The simplest answer to this question is that people of those times quarried and transported these huge blocks because they had the necessary know-how and did not consider it a big deal.

As to how the ancient civilizations quarried these giant stones and then moved and lifted them into position, no one knows! Last April, Israel’s largest crane was needed to lift the 370-ton middle segment of Yerushalayim’s railway bridge into place. It is mind-boggling to think that the far heavier Kosel stone was wrested into place solely through the muscle power of man and beast. Local Moslems at Baalbeck concocted a number of legends to explain how the huge Trilithon stones ended up in their present location.

One legend claims that Nimrod employed giants to construct it after the flood. According to another legend, the place was constructed by demons. An over-imaginative Israeli cosmologist, Zecharia Sitchin, imagined that the Baalbeck ruins were built by extraterrestrials as a launching pad for their spacecraft.

Despite years of research and experimentation, archaeologists and engineers have reached no consensus on how the ancients accomplished this task. No one is certain how the Egyptians assembled the pyramids, even though most of their stones weighed only a puny two tons. In fact, for thousands of years the secret of moving gigantic stones was common knowledge worldwide. These mysterious techniques enabled the people to build the Stonehenge of England, the massive Sacsyhuaman ruins of Peru, and dozens of similar buildings. At many of these sites, the huge stones fit together so accurately that it is impossible to slip a knife between the joints.

These examples demonstrate that despite being deprived of washing machines and microwaves, the ancients were no less brainy than savants of modern times. Koheles says that there is a time for everything under the heavens, and Rav Eliyahu Dessler adds that there is a time to invent and a time not to invent. Innovation is guided by Hashem’s hand. No one thinks of an idea until Hashem pops the idea into his head, and no one develops it further unless Hashem gives permission to proceed. In those early days, the time was not yet ripe for the benefits of cars, computers, atom bombs and atomic energy.

Rav Dessler’s concept helps explain a surprising phenomenon. Repeatedly, the ancients hit on the kernels of earthshaking ideas but failed to develop them. An earlier article already discussed how divers discovered the sophisticated “Antikythera Mechanism,” a forerunner of the modern computer. Also, five centuries before the second Churban, Greek philosophers were already arguing that matter is made of indivisible atoma, Greek for “indivisible objects.” This atomic theory was abandoned in its infancy due to the opposition of Aristotle and, later, of the Catholic Church, depriving us of atom bombs for two thousand years.

The modern steam engine was invented by an Englishman, Thomas Savery, in 5458/1698, heralding the start of the Industrial Revolution, when coal run machinery began pumping tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Surprisingly, however, the first person to invent a steam engine was actually the Greek engineer, Heron, who lived in Alexandria at the time of the second Churban. His “aeolipile” (wind ball) worked on the principle of jet propulsion. It consisted of a hollow metal ball with two curved tubes jutting out each side. Steam piped into the ball from a boiling pot shot out of the curved tubes like a jet, spinning the ball like a dreidel. Fortunately, the Greeks regarded the gadget as little more than a curious toy or global warming might have had a 2,000-year head start.

It is even theorized that the ancients hit on the idea of electric batteries long before Alessandro Volta invented his electrochemical cell in 5560/1800. In 5696/1936, some unusual earthenware jars were discovered near Baghdad. In the mouth of each jar was an asphalt plug pierced by an iron rod; inside the jars, the iron rods were surrounded by a copper cylinder. Pouring vinegar into modern replicas of these jars generates an electric current of 1.1 volt, instigating many researchers to claim that the jars were rudimentary batteries. What was the purpose of batteries in olden times when no electric motors existed? It is speculated that the Persians used them to electroplate thin layers of gold onto silver utensils.

As this article implies throughout, it is no tragedy that great ideas shriveled on the vine for thousands of years since implementing them earlier may have expedited the world’s destruction. This idea is brilliantly expressed in the anthology of Rav Dessler’s writings, Search for Truth:

“If people become ‘givers,’ the world will be a wonderful place to live in, irrespective of technology. So long as they remain ‘takers,’ their efforts inevitably will be directed toward selfishness, violence, and war. Every advance in technology will be used for destruction and ruin. For instance, the vast improvement in transport which we have witnessed in our time, the ability to reach any place on the globe within hours or days rather than weeks or months, what a benefit to those who are bent on doing mitzvos! But on the other hand, what a danger it poses to humanity! Previously wars were localized, but now any war is likely to become a world conflict.”

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