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I was told by someone who I consider to be very reliable that the word טבע, which means nature, does not have a source in Biblical or Talmudic literature, and it is a word that first emerges in Rabbinic literature in the Rishonim, possibly borrowed from another language.

Today I saw a passage in Niddah 20b:

אמר רבי זירא טבעא דבבל גרמא לי דלא חזאי דמא

Said Rebbi Zeira: "Tiva" of Bavel caused me to not inspect [menstrual] blood.

None of the Rishonim that I saw on that Gemara explain what טבעא דבבל means, but I saw that M. Jastrow explains it as a reference to a Babylonian coin, which Rebbi Zeira was unable to recognize. (Let's not discuss what exactly the Gemara means according to this.)

However, Artscroll interprets this to be a reference to the natural sciences, and their translation reads "natural [sciences] caused me ..." Artscroll seems to understand טבעא here to be the same as טבע, nature. However, I don't think this word is ever used to mean that in Talmudic literature, and Jastrow has no mention of טבע ever being connected to nature.

Does Artscroll have any source here? Does טבע ever appear in Talmudic literature, such that it could mean "nature" in this context?

  • In Tanakh the root is to sink, like טבעו בארץ שעריה (and I think from that comes טבעת ring which was used to stamp things). – Double AA Jan 25 '15 at 20:22
  • @DoubleAA Gesenius has those senses as the same root, implying that the "nature" meaning is related to the part of things that is "embedded" in them. – WAF Jan 25 '15 at 20:37
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    @DoubleAA Isn't the term "Matbe'ah" (coin) mentioned in several places in the Gemarah? – DanF Jan 26 '15 at 2:39
  • @DanF It is. So what? – Double AA Jan 26 '15 at 2:45
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Hagahos Yavetz there says he thinks it means nature, and it is from here that the 'chachmei teva' took the expression. He says there is no other instance of this word in this usage.

In Tel Torah the coin explanation is given. He couldn't tell the difference between all the coins in Bavel because they were all similar, kol shekein (how much more so) he couldn't differentiate blood. And in Hagaos Yeshanos it actually says matbea diBavel.

All this information courtesy of She'arim Mitzuyanim Bihalacha.

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    Good find, thanks. Somewhat suspicious to be the only usage of the word - אין לו עד and whatnot. – Y     e     z Jan 25 '15 at 20:46
  • @YeZ i edited in my source. Trying to bring Moshiach. I agree. The Yaavetz is a stretch. He agrees its a chidush. Artscroll lishitasam picks the most common, accessible pirush unless it's fundamentally flawed. – user6591 Jan 25 '15 at 21:03
  • @user6591 there may be a deeper undertone to Artscrolls shitta; the appearance of the word teva in the Zohar is cited as evidence of its medieval origins by its detractors (including interestingly, the Yaavets himself). Now I see the Zohar issue being raised below... – mevaqesh May 26 '16 at 5:19
  • @mevaqesh Now you sound like Marc Shapiro:) – user6591 May 26 '16 at 11:38
  • @mevaqesh that's funny. You can't tell, but one of the up-votes there was from me. Most pirushim on Rashi have been influenced by Maharal's pshat on tikun sofrim so it was nice to see someone quoting the mefarshim on the Medrash who disagree. But back to the conversation here, treating Artscrol like the Goliath oligarch come to destroy all truth for the sake of the unfounded status quo is giving them a little too much credit in the intelligence department. They are simply a bor hamisgalgel. Set in motion by conformity for sure, but not malicious or premeditated. – user6591 May 26 '16 at 15:28
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See this discussion.

Some scholars have claimed that the Zohar's use of Teva to mean "nature" is anachronistic and does not reflect Talmudic usage. In trying to debunk this claim. Rabbi Miller tries to find instances in the Mishnah and Talmud where it means nature. But if it means coinage, then there is no proof.

The other answer here points out Hagahos Yavetz, that this is a singular instance in which this word means nature. I think coinage could work out just as well here - the idea being that the coinage system of Bavel was complicated. And while Rabbi Zera, who was a Palestinian Amora, did not understand the complexities of this foreign system, Rabba, who was a resident of Bavel, would be familiar with coins. If we say this means nature, then I think we should need to show that Rabba was a physician, and perhaps that there was a particular "nature" that was applicable to Bavel and not Eretz Yisrael.

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    the idea (according to Soncino) is that his inability to grasp that complex system demoralized him and stripped him of confidence that he would be able to grasp and apply the even more complex system. – josh waxman Jan 25 '15 at 21:16
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    the demarcation between one color (/ shade) or the other might well be considered a complex system. – josh waxman Jan 25 '15 at 21:17
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    there is a reason that one needs shimush (under an existing expert) in seeing mar'ot dam. is this shade considered red or not? how about this shade? what if it has dried, is on this type of fabric (which provides a given texture or contrast). I can recognize colors, but I know that I don't know this complex system. – josh waxman Jan 25 '15 at 21:33
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    Ironic that anyway Yaavetz wouldn't have minded saying that the passages in the Zohar were from later. – Double AA Jan 25 '15 at 21:44
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    He already noted it apparently hebrewbooks.org/… hebrewbooks.org/… – Double AA Jan 26 '15 at 2:57
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Similar to the Yaavetz cited by Mr. User6591, the Maharsha on this Gemara also understands the word טבעא used by the Gemara to refer to טבע. He is not directly addressing the meaning of the word, as the Yaavetz is, but from his explanation it is quite clear that this is what he takes it to mean. This would be an earlier source for this understanding of the Gemara.

  • I do not find the book but I am sure that Rabbi Yehuda Ibn Tibon in his book, Beur lemilim hazarot printed in sof Haemuot Vehadeot has the word Teva. to translate nature. When I read this I understand that this is a new word he invented as Etsem for essence, Mahut, Sug, ... I do not find the book in this instant. – kouty May 26 '16 at 16:24
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    In the end of Sefer Haemunot Vehadeot, the translator, R. Yehuda Ebn Tibon wrote a list of words he invented to translate philosophic books, Teva is one of the list. – kouty May 26 '16 at 16:30
  • See [here ](beta.hebrewbooks.org/reader/reader.aspx?sfid=31359#) – kouty May 26 '16 at 16:39
  • @kouty why did tibbon think that teva is the hebrew equivalent of nature, what's the relationship between them? – Bach Jul 21 '17 at 0:11
  • tevs is the process to make coins which are similar one to the other. nature is linked to reproduction of the same pattern for mineral, vegetal and animal speciesthrough the world – kouty Jul 21 '17 at 1:48
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Does טבע ever appear in Talmudic literature, such that it could mean "nature" in this context?

Yes. The Gemara Megillah 14b states:

אמרה לו: עדיין שאול קיים, ולא יצא טבעך בעולם

"She said to him, your teva has not yet issued forth from the world".

This could easily be interpreted to mean nature. (And indeed, it is).[1] The alternative is that it means your currency (being related to the word mishnaic Hebrew word מטבע - coin); the sign of a new monarch.

One very powerful piece of evidence for this explanation is the girsa of this text as presented in the Midrash Shemuel (Buber; 23):

אמרה ליה אף על פי שמשחך שמואל עדיין מטבעו של שאול קיים, ולא יצא מטבעך לעולם ,

"She said to him, even though Samuel anointed you, the currency of Saul is still extant, and your currency has still not [been] issued to the world"

Note also Rambam's formulation in Hil. G'zelah Va'avedah (5:18) which pegs the monarch's authority on the circulation of currency. This seems to be based on our passage in Megillah (as noted by R. Chaim Kanievsky):

במה דברים אמורים, במלך שמטבעו יוצא באותן הארצות, שהרי הסכימו עליו בני אותה הארץ, וסמכה דעתן שהוא אדוניהם והם לו עבדים. אבל אם אין מטבעו יוצא


[1] I assume virtually all acharonim read it this way, as were they to understand it to be a reference to currency, which is merely indicative of monarchy, they would not gloss over this point. One Acharon from whom this seems evident is R. Shelomo al-Fasi (18th cent.) who paraphrases this passage in his Kruv M'moshach to Hilcht Sanhedrin (10:5) as:

ועדיין לא נודע טבעך בעולם

If it meant currency then this statement is quite strange as the problem would not be that the currency was not known, but rather that it had not been circulated.

This is also implied by the common paraphrasing of the passage in Megillah in a variety of later sources. One such source is the Tanchuma:

מדרש תנחומא (ורשא) פרשת לך לך א"ל הקדוש ברוך הוא לך לך מארצך ואני אודיע טבעך בעולם

Considering that I cant find a source in Chazal for the expression טבעך בעולם except in Megillah it seems probable that that is the source for the expression, and the Tanchuma does not seem t o be referring to currency. If, one thinks that the wording of the Tanchuma is not dependent on the passage in Megillah, then one would have an early source that implies teva means nature (although does not prove it).

This is also the implication of another Tanchuma:

מדרש תנחומא (ורשא) פרשת שלח אמר אברהם לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא רבש"ע לחנם אמרת לי קח נא את בנך, א"ל לאו אלא להודיע טבעך בעולם שנאמר (שם /בראשית/ יח) כי ידעתיו למען וגו'

The same inference could be made form the Rashbash:

שו"ת הרשב"ש סימן רנ וכך אמרו במסכת מנחות בפרק כל המנחות, אמרה כנסת ישראל לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא רבונו של עולם החזיק לי טובה שהודעתי טבעך בעולם


Another authority who evidently ascribed to a "coinage" reading of the Gemara (like Rambam's reading) is R. David Nietto (17th cent.) who writes that "teva" is a medieval word to describe nature. (De La Davina Providencia pp. 19-20 cited in Golden Doves With Silver Dots p. 139).

  • Soncino translates טבעך as "your fame", which can be derived from טב״ע "sink; imprint". – magicker72 May 26 '16 at 20:53
  • @magicker72 I don't know how imprint could mean fame. Presumably they are associating it with the word טבע. Either way, we already have explanations for it both ways, so I am not really sure how much Soncino adds. – mevaqesh May 26 '16 at 23:14
  • For your fame to be known is to leave a mark (in English, at least). I mention this because it seems to me that all of your footnoted sources make more sense with "fame" than with "nature". – magicker72 May 27 '16 at 0:18
  • @magicker72 i find it a little far fetched to me. One's nature being known or not sounds fine. Again, I think that the evidence that it means coin is the strongest. Nevertheless, the question just asked for a Talmudic passage that could mean nature. The Gemara Megillah satisfies this criterion (in contradistinction to the other answers). All the rest is commentary. – mevaqesh May 27 '16 at 5:04

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