Sunday, July 30, 2006

Pi in the sky

Remember pi, that Greek letter that represents the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter? It's one of those "irrational numbers," a nonrepeating and nonterminating decimal. It can be computed to as many decimal places as our superfast computers will allow, but in geometry class we used 3.14, or perhaps 3.141.
Well, guess what? Cut to Melakhim Aleph (I Kings) 7:23. The pasuk describes a cylindrical column in the palace of Shlomo ha-melekh, "ten cubits across from brim to brim, completely round, . . . and it measured 30 cubits in circumference" [New JPS translation, 1985]! There it is, pi an even three! Certainly a man as wise as Shlomo ha-melekh would have been able to put a string around the circumference of the column, measure it and find that the ratio was three-plus-something, if it was. Tanakh cannot be mistaken. The Greeks mathematicians just didn't know what they were talking about. Quick! Have Artscroll write a kosher math text with pi an even three. In the meantime, tear out every reference in every math book to the decimal value of pi lest our precious kinderlach be exposed to apikorsus.
Cut to reality. Imagine standing under a dome or traveling on a bridge built by an engineer who used 3.00 as the value of pi. As my teacher at Yeshivah of Flatbush, Rav Amnon Haramati (who prepared students for the international Hidon ha-tanakh in Israel) told us long ago in Hebrew: מספרים בתנ''ך אינם מדוייקים. Tanakh is not concerned with mathematical accuracy. It is not an engineering manual. For its purposes, recounting the glories of our past whose loss we commemmorate this week, rounding off to the nearest integer is fine.
Just as Tanakh is not an engineering manual, it is not a textbook of geology, biology or anthropology. המבין יבין.


Blogger BrooklynWolf said...

Actually, this has been dealt with by various commentators. Or, alternatively, you can simply state that the pasuk was rounding.

I agree with your premise that Tanach should not function as a math (or sciene, or history, etc.) text, but there are probably better examples to use.

The Wolf

Mon Jul 31, 10:09:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Zev Stern said...

I first saw this in Inherit the Wind. Then when I was in college and did a research paper on the Scopes Trial in 1925, I found that a bill had actually been introduced in Tennessee to redefine pi as an even three!

Mon Jul 31, 02:28:00 PM EDT  
Blogger BrooklynWolf said...

Yeah, I knew about that. I admit that some people can be downright dumb. :)

Mon Jul 31, 04:22:00 PM EDT  
Blogger DYM said...

See here:

Mon Jul 31, 06:48:00 PM EDT  
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