Rabbi James Rosenberg's June column, “We are awesome too,” struck a heavenly chord. Psalm 19 is also concerned with astronomy:
The heavens recite the glory of God, and the sky tells of the work of His hands.
Day to day utters speech, and night to night tells knowledge.
There is neither speech nor words; their voice is not heard.
Their line goes forth throughout the earth, and their words are at the end of the world...
Indeed, astronomy was essential for determining holy days and festivals. Over time, the calendar threatened to lose synchronization with the seasons, and, since Pesach is specified as being in Aviv, springtime, the calendar was recalculated. There is astronomical discussion in the Talmud. In Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 2, the court determines that witnesses are not required for sanctification of the New Moon, since the calendar was considered acceptable; and Rabban Gamliel disputed with Rabbis Yehoshua, Yochanan ben Nuri and Dosa ben Horkinas over the date of the New Moon.
Today, there are many Jewish astronomers increasing our understanding of the universe, such as Vera Rubin, who helped uncover dark matter, and Marcelo Gleiser, astronomer and philosopher, and Peter Saulson, pioneer in gravitational astronomy.
However, as Rabbi Rosenberg points out, astronomy does not make moral statements, such as Hillel's question, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” Though the answer to that concerns another astronomical question: could the Pesach sacrifice be performed on Shabbos? In Pesachim 66a, Hillel reasons that there are hundreds of other sacrifices on Shabbos, so the answer should be obviously, “Yes!” So it takes human wisdom to know, “when.”
Or as Alexander Pope (oy vey!) stated,
Know then thyself, presume not G-d to scan,
The proper study of mankind is Man...
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides;
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old time, and regulate the sun...
Then drop into thyself, and be a fool!