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September 23, 2000 / 23 Elul 5760; Issue #287

Circular Reasoning


M. Stolzenbach from Brentwood, TN wrote:

Dear Rabbi,

A friend asked me about the description of the circular brass pool in the Temple. (I Kings, 7:23) Skeptics say that if this pool was 10 across and 30 around, then G-d doesn't seem to know the value of "pi." Either that, or the pool was not exactly circular.

One friend retorted (this was in e-mail) that approximate measurements are enough for some purposes. But my friend said that G-d certainly ought to know the exact facts, and this proved that the Bible was written by men, not by G-d. Can you help him, and me? (By the way, he liked your explanation concerning the evidence for the Exodus.) Thanks.

Dear M. Stolzenbach,

First let's define our terms: Pie is the relationship of one's belly button to one's belt buckle.

But seriously. The verse says that Solomon constructed a circular pool that was "ten cubits from edge to edge....and 30 around." The question is, how can this be? If it was ten across, it would be more than thirty around. (It would be closer to 31.4, a difference of 1.4 cubits, or approximately 3 feet.)

This has nothing to do with "knowing the value of pi." It's a simple question of circling the pool with a tape measure. Could it be that Solomon -- builder of one of the architectural wonders of the ancient world, the Temple -- had a tape measure that was off by three feet?

Obviously, as the commentaries explain, the verse is offering an approximation. There are many such instances where the Torah uses approximate numbers. Just one example: When the Torah tallies the members of each of the 12 tribes (Numbers 1:20-46), each tribe's population is rounded to the nearest 50.

Why does the Torah give approximations? To offer us relevant information without burdening us with details, details often dealt with in the Oral Torah. In the case of "Solomon's Pool," the approximation teaches us that in Jewish legal matters relating to construction, we may use this 1 to 3 ratio as an approximation regarding rabbinical law.

Besides, there is no number to express the value of "pi." (That's why it's called "pi" and not written as a number.) No matter how specific the verse would be, you could always ask, "why wasn't it more specific?" That is, if the verse had said the pool was 31.4 units around, you could say, "that's wrong, it was really 31.415..." and so on.

In conclusion, the Torah sometimes approximates, and in the case of "pi" approximation is mandatory, and none of this shows anything about the Torah's authorship, Moses' ability to count or Solomon's ability to wield a tape measure!

A fascinating footnote for the mathematically-minded: The Vilna Gaon enlightens us to the fact that the value of "pi," 3.1415, is hinted in this verse. In Hebrew, each letter has a number associated with it. In the above verse, the word "circumference"(kav) is written one way "kuf vav heh" which equals 111 but it is pronounced a slightly different way "kuf vav" which equals 106. (That is, there is a stated value and an actual value.) The ratio of these two numbers equals the ratio of 3 ("pi" as stated by the verse) 3.1415 (the actual value of "pi" to the 10,000th). [ie. (111 / 106) x 3 = 3.1415]

  • Rambam, Commentary on the Mishna
  • Aruch Hashulchan Orach Chaim 363:22
  • See Eruvin 14a

Good News for Jews?


Al Samarov wrote:

Dear Rabbi,

These days, I'm much more interested in the Olympics than in politics, but I have one question for you: What do you think about a person as Jewish as Joe Lieberman is, in a position as prominent as the Vice Presidency is? Is it "good for the Jews?"

Elana from Memphis, TN wrote:

Dear Rabbi,

Hi! I don't know if y'all have received a lot of questions about this, but I was just wondering what the Orthodox think of this new Joe Lieberman guy running for vice president. Do y'all think it be good for the Jews and Israel or not?

Dear Al Samarov and Elana,

My great-great-grandfathers might have known; they were prophets. I am not. Certainly Mr. Lieberman personally is pro-Israel. But what might be the reaction of others to the phenomenon of a Jew in such a high office?

Let me offer one classical Jewish approach to this question, although there certainly may be others: The verse says that in exile, the Jews will suffer "many conflicting evils." The commentaries explain: "Evils that conflict with one another, like the sting of a wasp and a scorpion."

The remedy for a wasp sting, says tradition, is cold water. Hot water aggravates it. For a scorpion bite, it's the exact opposite: Hot water heals, cold water hurts. But what if someone gets stung by a bee and a scorpion at the same time? He can't heal it with hot water; he can't heal it with cold water. That's called "conflicting evils."

Sadly, this fairly well describes the Jewish position during much of our history. When we are weak, we're oppressed because we are weak. When we are strong, we're hated because we are strong. We seem to get stung either way.

In another vein, note that when Esther became queen of Persia, Mordechai instructed her to hide the fact that she was Jewish? Why? Among other reasons, Mordechai didn't want the Jews in Persia to say "Hey! We've got a sister in the palace!" and thereby increase their complacency and lessen their feelings of dependence on G-d.

But in the U.S. today, one hopes that complacency is already at its lowest, and that the nomination of a person who observes halacha and who calls Judaism "the anchor of his life" would evoke renewed interest in Judaism and Torah observance.


  • Devarim 31:17
  • Da'at Zekenim Mi'ba'alei Hatosefot, ibid.

Written by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer, Rabbi Reuven Subar, Rabbi Mordecai Becher, Rabbi Baruch Rappaport, Rabbi Moshe Yossef and other Rabbis at Ohr Somayach Institutions / Tanenbaum College, Jerusalem, Israel.

General Editor: Rabbi Moshe Newman
Production Design: Michael Treblow

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