From planet Earth, the naked eye can discern some 4,000 stars in the nighttime sky. Ancient peoples mistakenly believed that this was approximately the total number of stars in the universe, spread out across the sky like night-lights fixed in the celestial dome of the world.
No one thought it possible that the small, flickering light was in fact a distant galaxy comprising a huge number of stars.
Today, however, we know that beyond the number of stars that we see from our world, the universe contains many stars and star clusters invisible to the naked eye. Some of the stars that we can see are not individual stars, but entire galaxies containing a myriad of stars. Amazingly, even in ancient times, the Jewish sages knew from the Torah that the real number of stars is drastically larger than the number of those we can see from Earth. They also knew that the stars are not distributed randomly across the sky, but form an orderly system, which altogether constitutes a remarkably impressive structure.
This is how the sages described
the phenomenon of stars in the
Talmud (Berachot 32b), using Roman military terminology:
[Gd said to the People of Israel:]
I created 12 constellations [groupings of stars] in the firmament, and for each constellation I created 30 hosts [clusters of stars], and for each host I created 30 legions, and for each legion I created 30 divisions, and for each division I created 30 battalions, and for each battalion I created
30 camps, and for each camp I have attached 365,000 tens of thousands of stars, corresponding to the days of the solar year, and all of them I have created only for your sake.
The Talmud teaches that each “camp” consists of “365,000 tens of thousands” of stars, or 3,650,000,000 stars. It also informs us that there are 30 “camps” for each “battalion,” 30 “battalions” for each “division,” 30 “divisions” for each “legion,” 30 “legions” for each “host,” and 30 “hosts” for each of the 12 constellations. There are thus 291,600,000 camps
(30 x 30 x 30 x 30 x 30 x 12). The total number of stars, then, is the product of 291,600,000 x 3,650,000,000, or 1,064,340,000,000,000,000.
It must be emphasized that this number refers to the cosmic objects which the sages call “stars,” but not to the various solar bodies situated throughout space that are not called by this term.
It is incredible to discover that thousands of years ago, when most of the surrounding civilizations counted only some 4,000 stars, the sages talked about vastly greater numbers.
Even more incredibly, though there remains significant debate among astronomers as to the actual number of stars in the universe, modern calculations are now approaching the numbers given by the sages. In 1997, NASA scientists estimated the number to be around 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (1021) stars. In 2003, the Australian National University published its research scientists’ rough estimate of the number of stars in the universe, based upon (in the university’s own words) a non-conclusive sample from a tiny area of the cosmos. The total number of stars they arrived at was 7 x 1022stars.
Based on their understanding of the Torah, the sages concluded that the accurate figure is 1018 plus another 64,340,000,000,000,000 stars.
Even given the most advanced astronomical equipment available to the ancient world, there is no way that human beings could have estimated such a large number of stars, were it not a received tradition from a source that transcends human perception.
It is also remarkable to consider the implications of the Talmud’s concluding remark in the aforementioned passage: “and all of them I have created only for your sake.” The sages taught us that the entire universe was somehow created for the sake of our world – a bold statement to make in light of the sheer vastness of the universe.
On the one hand, we might interpret this statement to mean that the vast universe, with its endless space, is necessary to grant human beings some concept of infinity. The unfathomable size of the universe engenders within us a sense of humility, particularly when we stand before the Creator, thus enabling us to reach spiritual completeness. If the whole of creation consisted only of planet Earth with a limited solar system around it to provide heat and light, our conception of the greatness of Gd would have been greatly restricted. But once we realize that the creation, with all its immense size and myriad component parts, is almost too vast to imagine, and that our existence is a mere speck of dust in comparison, we are amazed and humbled by the greatness of Gd, and are inspired to declare, “When I behold your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have set in place, what is frail man that You should remember him and the son of mortal man that You should be mindful of him?” (Tehillim 8:4-5). The more knowledge and control human beings gain over the world with each passing generation, the more amazing and wondrous the universe becomes, whether through discoveries made in space or on the microscopic level. As a result, we can never become blinded by our own power, and must always stand in awe of Gd’s creation.
Additionally, however, the sages’ comments suggest that the universe in its entirety is necessary for the existence of our physical world. The cosmos may be viewed as a colossal factory constantly churning out various materials all for the sake and protection of the universe’s most important element – humankind.
While science has yet to discover every link between the universe and the existence of our world, it is fascinating how prominent scientists are making statements indicating a growing recognition of the importance of the entire universe for our existence. Professor Nathan Aviezer, a noted physicist and author, has said, “Recent advances in astronomy have revealed a remarkable link between life on Earth and the distant stars. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that without the stars, life on Earth would have been impossible.” Astrophysicists have likewise recognized that it is only due to the vast distances within the universe that we are protected from the lethal effects of cosmic radiation. The immense distances traveled by cosmic rays have the effect of draining their deadly strength so they can no longer harm us. This point was noted by Professor Freeman Dyson from Princeton University, who remarked, “The vastness of the interstellar spaces has diluted the cosmic rays enough to save us from being fried or at least sterilized by them. If sheer distance had not effectively isolated the quiet regions of the universe from the noisy ones, no type of biological system would have been possible.”
Adding to this puzzle, some scientists suggest that the laws of interstellar gravity are so highly complex that without the stars’ existence, our world could not exist or move through space with the precise position and orbit that are so essential for the creation and sustenance of the ecosphere.
We might compare the universe to a vast system of cogs, wheels, and springs in a giant clock that exist only in order to turn the clock’s small hands – our world being the “hands” which are moved as a result of the systems in the universe. Though the gears of this “clock” are infinitely vast and complex, they are all necessary for us to run our lives properly.
As mentioned, despite all that we already know, we have not yet discovered all the links between the universe and existence on Earth. There is far more information that still remains hidden than that which we already know.
Zamir Cohen is the founder of the Hidabroot organization and has written several books on topics of Jewish thought and law including his national bestseller,
‘The Coming Revolution’.