Evidence that the ancient Jewish sages held the Earth to be flat
Seder Rabbah of Bereshith page 17:
The length of the Earth is a journey of 500 years, the width of the Earth is 500 years and its thickness is 500 years. But some say it is round.
Shemoth Rabbah page 15 (also found in chapter six of Pirqe R. Eli’ezer):
The Holy One blessed be He created 365 windows in the heavens, 183 in the East and 183 (sic) in the West, some He created for the Sun and some He created for the Moon.
Baraitha of Mazaloth chapter 8 (also found in chapter six of Pirqe R. Eli’ezer):
How so was this? Sometimes she (the Sun) takes a Northerly route – which is the longer one – and sometimes she takes the Southerly route – which is the shorter one.
In other words the Sun, in any event, is embedded in its own “heaven”. This “heaven” is like a dome that covers the Earth. If so, at the ends of the Earth, the “heaven” is much lower. Therefore, when the Sun circles close to the ends (which is only in the South for they knew nothing of the Southern hemisphere, where it appears in the North) it has a shorter distance to go. The closer it gets to the center of its “heaven”, the higher it gets.
Wayiqra Rabba chapter 31, paragraph 9:
Said R. Levi, every day, the Holy One blessed be He sits in judgment over the sphere of the Sun and the Moon, for they do not wish to go out to illuminate the Earth.
We should ask from where do they need to “go out”? Does not the Sun continuously shine upon the Earth without interruption? But this makes sense to those who believe the Earth is flat.
Pirqe R. Eli’ezer chapter three:
The lower rods of the heavens are anchored to the waters of the ocean, for the waters of the ocean are between the ends of the Earth and the ends of the ocean, and the ends of the heavens are spread over the waters of the ocean… the insides of the heavens rise upward, their sphere is like a spread tent, its ends downward and its insides upward. All humans dwell underneath it. This is what the heavens are like, their ends downward and their insides upward like a tent.
Pirqe R. Eli’ezer chapter 51:
When the Sun is about to set in the West and it washes in the waters of the ocean… so do the waters of the ocean extinguish the flames of the Sun and it has no luster and no flames all night until it comes to the East and it bathes in a river of fire.
Midrash Shemuel chapter 31:
The rabbis say “from when the Sun rises until the entire sphere is full of it.”
From here it is implied that there is a sphere only on one side of the Earth for if not so, the sphere would never be full of the light of the Sun – because there would always be a dark side.
Babba Bathra page 25:b:
R. Eli’ezer says, “the Earth is similar to an achsadrah. The North side is not enclosed and when the Sun reaches the Northwest corner, it is forced (?) and rises above the heavens”. R. Yehoshua’ says, “the Earth is similar to ‘quba’ (completely enclosed) and the North side is enclosed. When the Sun reaches the Northwest corner, it circles around behind the dome…”
Baraitha of Shemuel haQatan (at the beginning):
The heavens are made like a dome, wide like a tent, its length… from the North it is not enclosed, and it is square like an achsadrah… and from the South it is round like an oven… East and West like a building on the Earth.
The wise men of Israel say, “during the day the Sun is beneath the heavens and at night it is above the heavens.”
In other words the heavens are opaque and therefore, when the Sun is above them, we are in the dark. When it is beneath them, we have light. But according to this there would never be light on the other side of the Earth, as you can see from the diagram above.
…and the wise men of the nations of the world say, “during the day the Sun advances beneath the heavens while at night (it advances) beneath the Earth.” Said Ribbi, “their opinion makes more sense than ours, for during the day the spring waters are cold and during the night they are hot.“
Let us consider well the words of Ribbi. He believes that since spring water is hotter during the night, this is a sign that the path of the Sun passes underground and heats those waters – which is not the case during the day, when its path takes it above the heavens so that it is far from the spring waters. Therefore, during the day, those waters are cold. It is not difficult to understand the point I’m making here. We need only compare the globe of the Earth with the globe of the planet Mercury:
1) Earth is about 150,000 Km from the Sun. Mercury is only about 58,000 Km from the Sun.
2) The diameter of Earth, at the equator, is about 12,755 Km. Mercury’s diameter is only about 4,880 Km.
3) Earth constantly revolves so that no side receives direct heat from the Sun more than one day at a time. Mercury revolves so slowly that each side receives direct sunlight for about three years at a time.
In spite of all this, the night side of Mercury endures temperatures as low as –150 degrees Celsius while the day side is hot enough to melt lead – over 400 degrees Celsius.
It is not difficult to understand from this that in order for there to be a situation that allowed the heat of the Sun to influence spring water to any measurable degree, the Earth would have to be extremely thin and near enough to the Sun that even rocks, on the day side, would melt. This kind of thinness is only possible to consider in an Earth that is flat.
If so, how could Ribbi perceive such temperature fluctuations in spring water? We must remember that in his days they did not have thermometers and that when the air is cold outside, those waters might feel warmer in comparison. When the air is hot outside, those waters might feel cooler in comparison. In fact, a contemporary of ours has already done this experiment and checked the temperature of spring water both by day and by night and found no difference.
…R. Nathan says, “during the summer, the Sun travels through the higher part of the heavens and this is why the entire world is hot and the springs are cold. During the winter, the Sun travels through the lower part of the heavens and this is why the entire world is cold and the springs are hot.”
We can understand this through the diagram above that relates to the Baraitha of Mazaloth.
Bereshith Rabbah 6:8:
How do the wheels of the Sun and the Moon set? R. Yehudah ben R. La’ai and the (other) sages (dispute this). R. Yehudah says behind the dome and above it. The sages say behind the dome and beneath it. Says R. Yohanan, “the words of R. Yehudah ben La’ai make more sense for he said behind the dome and above it during the summer when the whole world is hot and the springs are cold. Rather than the sages who say behind the dome and beneath it during the winter when the whole world is cold and the springs are warm. Said R. Shim’on ben Yohai, “we don’t know…”
The opinion of R. Yehudah is the same as that of R. Eli’ezer and R. Yehoshua’ above. The opinion of the sages is the same as that of Ribbi.
I wanted to share this with you mainly because I think it is interesting to explore how the ancients viewed their world. Also I wanted to show how difficult it would be for any rational person to claim that the words of the sages must always be true. Later rabbis knew the limitations on their scientific knowledge though they did not mention them much.