I came across this a few years ago, but was just reminded about it recently. The Ramah (R’ Meir Ha-Levi Abulafia, 12th Century, Toledo, Spain), one of the greatest of the Rishonim, wrote encyclopedic commentaries on several Talmudic tractates, most famously Sanhedrin and Bava Batra.
The following comments are on a section in the 4th Chapter of Sanhedrin which records many Rabbinic views on the creation and fall of man, a timely topic the week before the anniversary of both, namely Rosh Hashana. The Gemara (38b) records a pair of statements, one attributed to R’ Yehuda in the name of Rav, and the other to R’ Elazar. Here is the Gemara (though the Ramah seems to have had a variant text, the basic idea is the same):
תלמוד בבלי מסכת סנהדרין דף לח עמוד ב
אמר רב יהודה אמר רב: אדם הראשון מסוף העולם ועד סופו היה, שנאמר +דברים ד'+ למן היום אשר ברא אלהים אדם על הארץ ולמקצה השמים (ועד קצה השמים), כיון שסרח - הניח הקדוש ברוך הוא ידו עליו ומיעטו, שנאמר +תהלים קל"ט+ אחור וקדם צרתני ותשת עלי כפכה. אמר רבי אלעזר: אדם הראשון מן הארץ עד לרקיע היה, שנאמר, למן היום אשר ברא אלהים אדם על הארץ ולמקצה השמים עד קצה השמים, כיון שסרח - הניח הקדוש ברוך הוא ידו עליו ומיעטו, שנאמר אחור וקדם צרתני וגו'. קשו קראי אהדדי! - אידי ואידי חדא מידה היא.
R’ Yehuda said in the name of Rav: Original Adam was from one end of the world to the other, as it says, (Devarim 4:32) “From the day that God created Man (Adam) on Earth from the edge of Heaven…” . Once he sinned, God placed His hand upon him and shrunk him, as it says (139:5), “You have formed me front and back, and placed Your hand upon me.” R’ Elazar says, Original Man was from heaven to Earth, as it says, (Devarim 4:32) “From the day that God created Man (Adam) on Earth from the edge of Heaven to the edge of Heaven” . Once he sinned, God placed His hand upon him and shrunk him, as it says (139:5), “You have formed me front and back, and placed Your hand upon me.” These two verses contradict each other! No they don’t, they are identical measures (i.e., from Earth to Heaven and from one end of the Earth to the other).
The Ramah asks:
This is very baffling, because it’s well known that the earth sits under the zenith of the dome like a rounded navel. Therefore, the distance from the Earth to the Heaven would be exactly half of the distance from one end of the Heaven to the other.In other words, the Earth is flat, and the sky is a perfectly hemispherical dome over it. Thus, from the Earth to the Heaven, at its zenith, would be equivalent to the radius of the sphere, which is only half of the distance from one end of the Heaven to the other, which is equivalent to the diameter, or twice the radius!
Yet, according to this Talmudic statement, it seems that the roundness of the firmament isn’t as wide as it is long, rather, it’s long and thin to the point that its width is equivalent to half of its length, and the Earth is in the middle of the firmament lengthwise, so from the Earth to the Heaven would be like from the edge of Heaven to the other edge, and this matter requires further thought.
So the Ramah is not satisfied with the suggestion of an oblong firmament. He would much rather stay with his original view, the ‘well-known’ one, namely, that the firmament is a perfect hemisphere. Thus, he concludes:
However, all of these things are in the language of nonsense (leshon havai), like when it says (Devarim 1:28) “Great cities, with fortifications up to the Heavens”. It means that the cities had very tall fortifications, and this is how we will explain these matters, with no other implication.
This piece has it all. An example of a Rishon who believes things about the natural world which have long since been discredited, though they were prevalent (he even says so) at his time. He is unwilling to take at face value a Gemara which flies in the face of prevalent contemporary belief. And so he radically reinterprets the Gemara to be a simple case of exaggeration (i.e., the Gemara is merely stating that Adam was very, very tall).
Chalk up another one for the ‘R’ Avraham ben Harambam’ camp.