Happy Pi Day 2016, and Happy Birthday Albert Einstein


Today, March 14, is celebrated by many in the US as Pi Day.  Why? Well, in most of the world, the date is written as day/month/year. So in Israel, all of Europe, Australia, South America and China, today's date, March 14th, would be written as 14/3. 

But not here in the US. Here, we write the date as month/day/year; it's a uniquely American way of doing things. (Like apple pie. And guns.) So today's date is 3/14. Which just happen to be the first few digits of pi, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter.

And that's why each year, some (particularly geeky) Americans celebrate Pi Day on March 14 (3/14).  Last year, we noted, was Pi'ish than all others, since the entire date (when written the way we do in the US, 3/14/15) reflects five digits of pi, and not just the first three: 31415. Actually we got even more geeky: This day last year, at 9:26 and 53 seconds in the morning, the date and time, when written out, represented the first ten digits of Pi: 3141592653.

So that's why Pi Day is celebrated here in the US -  and probably not anywhere else. (It has even be recognized as such by a US Congressional Resolution. Really. I'm not making this up. And who says Congress doesn't get anything done?) 



In the ּBook of Kings (מלאכים א׳ 7:23) we read the following description of  a circular pool that was built by King Solomon. Read it carefully, then answer this question: What is the value of pi that the verse describes?

מלכים א פרק ז פסוק כג 

ויעש את הים מוצק עשר באמה משפתו עד שפתו עגל סביב וחמש באמה קומתו וקוה שלשים באמה יסב אתו סביב 

And he made a molten sea, ten amot from one brim to the other: it was round, and its height was five amot, and a circumference of thirty amot circled it.

Answer: The circumference was 30 amot and the diameter was 10 amot. Since pi is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, pi in the Book of Kings is 30/10=3. Three - no more and no less.

There are lots of papers on the value of pi in the the Bible. Many of them mention an observation that seems to have been incorrectly attributed to the Vilna Gaon.  The verse we cited from מלאכים א׳ spells the word for line as קוה, but it is pronounced as though it were written קו.  (In דברי הימים ב׳ (II Chronicles 4:2) the identical verse spells the word for line as קו.)  The ratio of the numerical value (gematria) of the written word (כתיב) to the pronounced word (קרי) is 111/106.  Let's have the French mathematician Shlomo Belga pick up the story - in his paper (first published in the 1991 Proceedings of the 17th Canadian Congress of History and Philosophy of Mathematics, and recently updated), he gets rather excited about the whole gematria thing:

A mathematician called Andrew Simoson also addresses this large tub that is described in מלאכים א׳ and is often called Solomon's Sea. He doesn't buy the gematria, and wrote about it in The College Mathematics Journal.

A natural question with respect to this method is, why add, divide, and multiply the letters of the words? Perhaps an even more basic question is, why all the mystery in the first place? Furthermore, H. W. Guggenheimer, in his Mathematical Reviews...seriously doubts that the use of letters as numerals predates Alexandrian times; or if such is the case, the chronicler did not know the key. Moreover, even if this remarkable approximation to pi is more than coincidence, this explanation does not resolve the obvious measurement discrepancy - the 30-cubit circumference and the 10-cubit diameter. Finally, Deakin points out that if the deity truly is at work in this phenomenon of scripture revealing an accurate approximation ofpi... God would most surely have selected 355/113...as representative of pi...

Still, what stuck Simoson was that "...the chroniclers somehow decided that the diameter and girth measurements of Solomon's Sea were sufficiently striking to include in their narrative." (If you'd like another paper to read on this subject, try this one, published in B'Or Ha'Torah - the journal of "Science, Art & Modern Life in the Light of the Torah." You're welcome.)


The Talmud echoes the biblical value of pi in many places. For example:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת עירובין דף יד עמוד א 

כל שיש בהיקפו שלשה טפחים יש בו רחב טפח. מנא הני מילי? - אמר רבי יוחנן, אמר קרא : ויעש את הים מוצק עשר באמה משפתו עד שפתו עגל סביב וחמש באמה קומתו וקו שלשים באמה יסב אתו סביב 

"Whatever circle has a circumference of three tefachim must have a diameter of one tefach."  The problem is that as we've already noted, this value of pi=3 is not accurate. It deviates from the true value of pi (3.1415...) by about 5%. Tosafot is bothered by this too.

תוספות, עירובין יד א

והאיכא משהו. משמע שהחשבון מצומצם וכן בפ"ק דב"ב (ד' יד:) גבי שני טפחים שנשתיירו בארון ששם ספר תורה מונח שהיא בהיקפה ששה טפחים ופריך כיון דלאמצעיתו נגלל נפיש ליה משני טפחים וכן בתר הכי דמשני בספר דעזרה לתחלתו נגלל ופריך אכתי תרי בתרי היכי יתיב משמע דמצומצם לגמרי וקשיא דאין החשבון מדוקדק לפי חכמי המדות

Tosafos can't find a good answer, and concludes "this is difficult, because the result [that pi=3] is not precise, as demonstrated by those who understand geometry." 


In his commentary on the Mishnah (Eruvin 1:5) Maimonides makes the following observation:

פירוש המשנה לרמב"ם מסכת עירובין פרק א משנה ה 

צריך אתה לדעת שיחס קוטר העיגול להקפו בלתי ידוע, ואי אפשר לדבר עליו לעולם בדיוק, ואין זה חסרון ידיעה מצדנו כמו שחושבים הסכלים, אלא שדבר זה מצד טבעו בלתי נודע ואין במציאותו שיודע. אבל אפשר לשערו בקירוב, וכבר עשו מומחי המהנדסים בזה חבורים, כלומר לידיעת יחס הקוטר להקיפו בקירוב ואופני ההוכחה עליו. והקירוב שמשתמשים בו אנשי המדע הוא יחס אחד לשלשה ושביעית, שכל עיגול שקוטרו אמה אחת הרי יש בהקיפו שלש אמות ושביעית אמה בקירוב. וכיון שזה לא יושג לגמרי אלא בקירוב תפשו הם בחשבון גדול ואמרו כל שיש בהקיפו שלשה טפחים יש בו רוחב טפח, והסתפקו בזה בכל המדידות שהוצרכו להן בכל התורה.

...The ratio of the diameter to the circumference of a circle is not known and will never be known precisely.  This is not due to a lack on our part (as some fools think), but this number [pi] cannot be known because of its nature, and it is not in our ability to ever know it precisely.  But it may be approximated ...to three and one-seventh.  So any circle with a diameter of one has a circumference of approximately three and one-seventh.  But because this ratio is not precise and is only an approximation, they [the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud] used a more general value and said that any circle with a circumference of three  has a diameter of one, and they used this value in all their Torah calculations.

So what are we to make of all this? Did the rabbis of the Talmud get pi wrong, or were they just approximating pi for ease of use?  After considering evidence from elsewhere in the Mishnah (Ohalot 12:6 - I'll spare you the details), Judah Landa, in his book Torah and Science, has this to say:

We can only conclude that the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud, who lived about 2,000 years ago, believed that the value of pi was truly three. They did not use three merely for simplicity’s sake, nor did they think of three as an approximation for pi. On the other hand, rabbis who lived much later, such as the Rambam and Tosafot (who lived about 900 years ago), seem to be acutely aware of the gross innacuracies that results from using three for pi. Mathematicians have known that pi is greater than three for thousands of years. Archimedes, who lived about 2,200 years ago, narrowed the value of pi down to between 3 10/70 and 3 10/71 ! (Judah Landa. Torah and Science. Ktav Publishing House 1991. p.23.)


Today, March 14, is not only Pi Day. It is also the anniversary of the birthday of Albert Einstein, who was born on March 14, 1879. As I've noted elsewhere, Einstein was a prolific writer; one recent book (almost 600 pages long) claims to contain “roughly 1,600” Einstein quotes. So it's hard to chose one pithy quote of his on which to close.  So here are two.  Happy Pi Day, and happy birthday, Albert Einstein.

As a human being, one has been endowed with just enough intelligence to be able to see clearly how utterly inadequate that intelligence is when confronted with what exists.
— Letter to Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, September 1932
One thing I have learned in a long life: That all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike — and yet it is the most precious thing we have.
— Banesh Hoffman. Albert Einstein: Creator and Rebel. Plume 1973