בבא בתרא כה, א–ב
תניא ר"א אומר עולם לאכסדרה הוא דומה ורוח צפונית אינה מסובבת וכיון שהגיעה חמה אצל קרן מערבית צפונית נכפפת ועולה למעלה מן הרקיע ורבי יהושע אומר עולם לקובה הוא דומה ורוח צפונית מסובבת וכיון שחמה מגעת לקרן מערבית צפונית מקפת וחוזרת אחורי כיפה
Rabbi Eliezer taught: The world is similar to a partially enclosed veranda [אכסדרה], [which is enclosed on three sides] and the northern side of the world is not enclosed with a partition like the other directions. When the reaches the northwestern corner it turns around and ascends throughout the night above the rakia [to the east side and does not pass the north side].
Rabbi Yehoshua says: The world is similar to a small tent [קובה], [and the north side is enclosed too,] and when the sun reaches the northwestern corner it orbits and passes behind the dome.
In this passage the path of the Sun is described, and to understand it you need to know this. The rabbis of the Talmud believed that the earth was a flat disc, and that above the sky was an opaque covering called the rakia. During the day the Sun was visible under the rakia, and then at night it zipped back from where it set in the west to where it would rise again in the east by traveling over the rakia. Something like this:
The other place that you will find the path of the Sun discussed in the Talmud is in Pesachim 94b. Here is the text:
חכמי ישראל אומרים ביום חמה מהלכת למטה מן הרקיע ובלילה למעלה מן הרקיע וחכמי אומות העולם אומרים ביום חמה מהלכת למטה מן הרקיע ובלילה למטה מן הקרקע א"ר ונראין דבריהן מדברינו שביום מעינות צוננין ובלילה רותחין
The wise men of Israel say that during the day the Sun travels under the rakia, and at night it travels above the rakia. And Gentile wise men say: during the day the Sun travels under the rakia and at night under the Earth. Rabbi [Yehudah Hanasi] said: their view is more logical than ours for during the day springs are cold and at night they are warm.
From this is discussion it is once again apparent that in the talmudic view, the sky must be completely opaque. As the Sun passes over the top of the sky at night, it is not in the slightest way visible.
It is hardly news to point out that a long time ago people believed that the universe was different to the way that we understand it to be today. But the belief of the rabbis of the Talmud was standard until only very recently, by which I mean only a few hundred years.
Copernicus and his critics
When Nicolas Copernicus (d. 1543) proposed his heliocentric universe he did so for a number of mathematical reasons but without any evidence. The experimental evidence that supported his claim did not appear for over three hundred years, when in 1838 the first measurement of stellar parallax occurred. Without evidence to support the Copernican model, many rejected it. For example, the famous Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546–1601) rejected the Copernican model, and came up with one of his own in which all the planets orbited the sun, which in turn dragged them around a stationary earth. For about one hundred years after Copernicus, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge ignored the heliocentric model entirely, and the English philosopher, statesman, and member of Parliament Francis Bacon (1561–1626) rejected the Copernican model as having “too many and great inconveniences.”
Galileo and the Catholic Church
Galileo published his discovery of the four satellites of Jupiter in Sidereus Nuncius in 1610. This discovery did not prove that Copernicus was correct, but it lent a great deal of corroborative evidence to the Copernican model. In addition Galileo noted that Venus seemed to change shape, just as the Moon did, sometimes appearing almost (but never quite) full, sometimes as a semi-circle, and at other times as sickle-shaped. The best explanation was that Venus was not orbiting the earth, but that it was in fact orbiting the Sun. And that turned out to be correct too. But as we know, things didn't tun out to well for Galileo. The Catholic Church, which by now had placed Copernicus' book on its Index of Banned Books, also banned Galileo's Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems - the book in which he outlined his proofs that the earth orbited the sun. The works of the astronomer Johannes Kepler (d.1630) were also added to the Index.
The Jesuit Edition of Newton's Principa
In 1687 the Copernican model found support with the publication of Newton’s Principa Mathematica. In that work, Newton described the universal laws of gravitation and motion that were behind the observations of Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler. The book went through three Latin editions in Newton’s life-time, and an English edition was published two years after his death in 1727. A new three-volume edition of the Principia was published in Geneva between 1739 and 1742. This edition contained a commentary on each of the book’s propositions by two Franciscan friars but was noteworthy for another reason. In its final volume, the “Jesuit edition” contained a disclaimer by the friars distancing themselves from the heliocentric assumptions contained in the book:
Newton in this third book assumes the hypothesis of the motion of the Earth. The propositions of the author cannot be explained otherwise than by making the same hypothesis. Hence we have been obliged to put on a character not our own. But we profess obedience to the decrees promulgated by sovereign pontiffs against the motion of the Earth.
So it wasn't just the rabbis of the Talmud who believed the earth stood still. In fact they believed what (nearly) every one else continued to believe for at least a thousand years. The sun certainly looks like it revolved around the earth, so they created a model of the universe in which it did so, either by circling under the earth at night, or by zig-zagging back across the top of the rakia. Neither model turned out to be correct. But in believing this, the rabbis were firmly in the majority.