Happy Pi Day2019, and Happy Birthday Albert Einstein


From  here .

From here.

Today, March 14, is celebrated as Pi Day by some of the mathematically inclined in the US. 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). The year 2015 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 in 2015 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/ 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 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
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Mencahot 106a ~ Gauss, Tosafot, and the Sum of Consecutive Numbers

A mincha offering is accompanied by a minimum of a one-issaron measure of flour. But a mincha can also be accompanied by a multiple of that number, up to a maximum of 60 issronot. What happens if a person vows to bring a specific number of isranot of flour to accompany a mincha offering but cannot recall how many he had in mind? What number of issronot of flour should he offer? Well it’s a bit tricky. The sages ruled that a single offering using the full sixty issronot of flour is all that needs to be brought. But the great editor of the Mishnah, Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi disagreed. In a spectacular way. Here is the discussion in tomorrow’s page of Talmud:

מנחות קו, א

תנו רבנן פירשתי מנחה וקבעתי בכלי אחד של עשרונים ואיני יודע מה פירשתי יביא מנחה של ששים עשרונים דברי חכמים רבי אומר יביא מנחות של עשרונים מאחד ועד ששים שהן אלף ושמונה מאות ושלשים

The Sages taught in a baraita: If someone says: I specified that I would bring a meal offering, and I declared that they must be brought in one vessel of tenths of an ephah, but I do not know what number of tenths I specified, he must bring one meal offering of sixty-tenths of an ephah. This is the statement of the Rabbis. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi says: He must bring sixty meal offerings of tenths in sixty vessels, each containing an amount from one-tenth until sixty-tenths, which are in total 1,830 tenths of an ephah.

Since there is a doubt as to the true intentions of the vow, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi covers all the bases and requires that every possible combination of a mincha offering be brought. So you start with one mincha offering accompanied with one issaron of flour, then you bring a second mincha offering accompanied with two issronot of flour, then you bring a third mincha together with three issronot, and so on until you reach the maximum number of issronot that can accompany the mincha - that is until you reach sixty. How many is that in total? In tomorrow’s page of Talmud the total number of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi’s mincha offerings is calculated: 1,830.

How did the Talmud arrive at that number? We are not told, and presumably you simply add up the series of numbers 1+2+3+4….+59+60, which gives a total of 1,830. That certainly would work. But Tosafot offers a neat mathematical trick to figure out the sum of a mathematical sequence like this:

שהן אלף ושמונה מאות ושלשים. כיצד קח בידך מאחד ועד ששים וצרף תחילתן לסופן עד האמצע כגון אחד וששים הם ס"א שנים ונ"ט הם ס"א ושלש ונ"ח הם ס"א כן תמנה עד שלשים דשלשים ושלשים ואחד נמי הם ס"א ויעלה לך שלשים פעמים ס"א וכן נוכל למנות פרים דחג דעולין לשבעים כיצד ז' וי"ג הם עשרים וכן ח' וי"ב הם עשרים וכן ט' וי"א הם כ' וי' הרי שבעים

Screen Shot 2018-11-21 at 8.55.09 AM.png

How did we arrive at 1,830? Take the series from 1 to 60 and add the sum of the first to the last until you get to the middle. Like this: 1+60=61; 2+59=61; 3+58=61. Continue this sequence until you get to 30+31 which is also 61. You will have 30 sets of 61 (ie 1,830). This method may also be used to count the number of sacrificial bulls on Sukkot, which are a total of 70. How so? [There are thirteen offered on the first day of sukkot, and one fewer bull is subtracted each day until the last day of sukkot, on which seven bulls are offered.] 13+7=20; 12+8=20; 11+9=20… [There are a total of 3 pairs of 20+ an unpairable 10]= 70.

In mathematical terms, the Tosafot formula for the sum (S) of the consecutive numbers in Rebbi’s series, where n is the number of terms in the series and P is the largest value, is S= n(P+1)/2. Which reminds us of…

Carl Friedrich Gauss

Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855) was one of the world’s greatest mathematicians. He invented a way to calculate the date of Easter (which is a lot harder than you’d think), and made major contributions to the fields of number theory and probability theory. He gave us the Gaussian distribution (which you might know as the ”bell curve”) and used his skills as a mathematician to locate the dwarf planet Ceres. The British mathematician Henry John Smith wrote about him that other than Isaac Newton, “no mathematicians of any age or country have ever surpassed Gauss in the combination of an abundant fertility of invention with an absolute rigorousness in demonstration, which the ancient Greeks themselves might have envied.”

There is a delightful (though possibly apocryphal) story about Gauss as a bored ten-year old sitting in the class of Herr Buttner, his mathematics teacher. Here it is, as told by Tord Hall in his biography of Gauss:

When Gauss was about ten years old and was attending the arithmetic class, Buttner asked the following twister of his pupils. “Write down all the whole numbers from 1 to 100 and add their sum…The problem is not difficult for a person familiar with arithmetic progressions, but the boys were still at the beginner’s level, and Buttner certainly thought that he would be able to take it easy for a good while. But he thought wrong. In a few seconds, Gauss his slate on the table, and at the same time he said in his Braunschweig dialect: “Ligget se” (there it lies). While the other pupils added until their brows began to sweat, Gauss sat calm and still, undisturbed by Buttner’s scornful or suspicious glances.

Screen Shot 2018-11-19 at 2.29.07 PM.png

How had the child prodigy solved the puzzle so quickly? He had added the first number (1) to the last number (100), the second number (2) to the second from last number (99) and so on. Just like Tosafot suggested. The sum of each pair was 101 and there were 50 pairs. And so Gauss write the answer on his slate board and handed it to Herr Buttner. It is 5,050.

…and now for some homework

Gauss was raised as a Lutheran in the Protestant Church, and so he did not learn of this method from reading Tosafot. But it is delightful to learn that the same mathematical solution that launched Gauss into his career as a mathematician can be found on page 106a of Menachot. With Chanukah just a few days away, can you calculate how many candles in total you need to light using the Gaussian-Tosafot method?

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