What is the source for the idea that all matter is either domem (lifeless), tzomeach (plant), chai (animal), or medaber (speaker)?

I sometimes find this quoted places (in articles and divrei Torah), but have not been able to find a source? Is it a Gemara? A Midrash? A Chasidic teaching?

I even found this, where the Vilna Gaon says "it is known": http://dafyomireview.com/article.php?docid=270&style=print

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    The concept definitely dates back at least to the early 16th century. Rav Yosef Alashkar discusses it; so does the Shla"h a bit later on.
    – Fred
    May 4, 2012 at 0:02
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    @Fred: it goes back even further - Rabbeinu Bechayei refers to this division in his commentary to Ex. 34:35, and he also says that "it is known."
    – Alex
    May 4, 2012 at 0:26
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    Pretty sure this was Aristotle's idea originally.
    – jake
    May 4, 2012 at 0:45
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    @jake: Interesting. This idea seems to be alluded to in R' Saadia Gaon's Emunos V'Deos (Ma'amar 3), as well. (Maybe there's now enough in the comments for someone to post an answer?)
    – Fred
    May 4, 2012 at 1:02

1 Answer 1


The actual source is from non-Jewish naturalists, dating in some for back to Aristotle, who also believed in some sense that man is in a different category (teleologically, and therefore categorically). It was later refined into a rigorous taxonomic system.

The idea was picked up by Jewish scholars from the Medieval Era, though some of them use the word מרגיש instead of חי to refer to animal life. This includes the Kuzari (1:31-39), by the Radak (in his comments to Yirmiyahu 10:8), Rabeinu Bachaye (to Shemos 34:35 and Kad HaKemach, Pesach 1), R. Yehoshua ibn Shueib (Parshas Emor), R. Yosef Albo (Sefer HaIkkarim 2:30), Abarbanel (Parshas Pinchas ch. 28), and is hinted to in the Meiri to Avodah Zara 42b. After this period, it becomes extremely widespread in Jewish thought, appearing almost a dozen times in the writings of the Shelah, for example

  • how do you know the source is from non-jewish naturalists. maybe the non-jewish naturalists got it from the jewish works?
    – michael
    Aug 14, 2016 at 20:23

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