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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?

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    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
    Commented Jan 25, 2015 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
    Commented Jan 25, 2015 at 20:37
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    @DoubleAA Isn't the term "Matbe'ah" (coin) mentioned in several places in the Gemarah?
    – DanF
    Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 2:39
  • @DanF It is. So what?
    – Double AA
    Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 2:45

6 Answers 6

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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. Commented Jan 25, 2015 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
    Commented Jan 25, 2015 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
    Commented May 26, 2016 at 5:19
  • @mevaqesh Now you sound like Marc Shapiro:)
    – user6591
    Commented May 26, 2016 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
    Commented May 26, 2016 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. Commented Jan 25, 2015 at 21:16
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    the demarcation between one color (/ shade) or the other might well be considered a complex system. Commented Jan 25, 2015 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. Commented Jan 25, 2015 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
    Commented Jan 25, 2015 at 21:44
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    He already noted it apparently hebrewbooks.org/… hebrewbooks.org/…
    – Double AA
    Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 2:57
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The discussion here completely ignores the exact meaning of the word טיבעה as given on page 512 in the Syriac Lexicon by M. Sokoloff. Syriac is a late form of Aramaic. Many Arabic words come from Syriac. There are no less than 10 different meanings for the word טיבעה, some of which clearly fit the texts better than the abstract "nature". The meanings are:

  1. seal
  2. die or stamp
  3. coin
  4. hymen (explains Gemara Nidda 20b, either maybe combined with Tehilim 137:8 or, perhaps, gemara describes a certain condition common in Bavel among young women).
  5. opinion, content of words (explains midrashim about Avraham avinu). (I think, this meaning was acquired because ancient coin images were often used as propaganda of the ruling emperors and kings.)
  6. gem, precious stone. (Could be used as currency?)
  7. marshmallow
  8. pill (can also explain Nidda 20b)
  9. 'sealed bread' used in West Syrian Eucharist
  10. muddy spot

Therefore, the Zohar's usage is anachronistic. Here’s the scan:

enter image description here

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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.

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  • 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
    Commented May 26, 2016 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
    Commented May 26, 2016 at 16:30
  • See [here ](beta.hebrewbooks.org/reader/reader.aspx?sfid=31359#)
    – kouty
    Commented May 26, 2016 at 16:39
  • @kouty why did tibbon think that teva is the hebrew equivalent of nature, what's the relationship between them?
    – Bach
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 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
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 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).

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  • Soncino translates טבעך as "your fame", which can be derived from טב״ע "sink; imprint".
    – magicker72
    Commented May 26, 2016 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
    Commented May 26, 2016 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
    Commented May 27, 2016 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
    Commented May 27, 2016 at 5:04
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B"H

The maamar of the Rebbe in Sefer HaMaamarim meluket titled "pasach Eliyahu " goes through the different sources of the root "nature", ranging from it's relation to the word "sunken", like "טבעו בים סוף ", they sunk in the red sea, to מטבעהץ, a "coin ", of the soul, referring to the "imprint " of the Creator on the soul of man, as explained at length there.

Sections 5 and 6 mainly:

ה) והענין הוא, דמבואר בהדרושים20, דבטבע כמה פירושים. דבשו"ת חכם צבי21 איתא, דשם טבע הוא שם חדש שחידשו חכמים האחרונים. דכיון שהכל (גם הטבע) הוא מאתו ית', הרי גם הטבע הוא נס. אלא שנסים אלו הם תמיד, נסים רצופים. ויש אומרים22 שטבע הוא מלשון מטבע. דאיתא במשנה23, אדם טובע כמה מטבעות בחותם אחד וכולן דומין זה לזה, ומלך מלכי המלכים הקב"ה טבע כל אדם בחותמו של אדם הראשון ואין אחד מהן דומה לחבירו. ובתניא24 איתא, דטבע הוא שם המושאל לכל דבר שאינו ע"פ טעם ודעת.

ומבואר בהדרושים, דג' פירושים הנ"ל הם ג' ענינים. דלפירוש החכם צבי שטבע הוא נסים רצופים, שם טבע קאי על הנהגת העולם. ולהפירוש שטבע הוא מלשון מטבע שהקב"ה טבע כל אדם בחותמו של אדה"ר, ופירש הרמב"ם25 דחותמו של אדה"ר הוא צורת מין האדם אשר בה האדם אדם, שהכוונה ב"צורת מין האדם" היא (בעיקר) לצורה הנפשית שבו26 – שם טבע קאי על החיות האלקי שבעולם, שהוא נפש העולם. והשייכות דענין זה לטבע כפשוטו היא, כי הציור והטבע דכל נברא הוא כפי אופן החיות האלקי שבו. ולהפירוש שטבע הוא שם המושאל לכל דבר שאינו ע"פ טעם ודעת – שם טבע קאי על הכח האלקי שמהווה כל נברא מאין ליש, דהתהוות מאין ליש היא למעלה מהשכל. דזה שהחיות אלקי מחי' את הנבראים, יש לזה מקום בשכל27, וענין טבע (להפירוש שטבע הוא זה שאינו ע"פ טעם ודעת) הוא בהתהוות הנבראים, דבריאה יש מאין היא למעלה מהשכל.

ו) ומבואר בהדרושים, דשני הפירושים (הענינים) בטבע, שהוא החיות האלקי שמחי' את הנבראים ושהוא הכח האלקי שמהווה את הנבראים מאין ליש, שייכים להפירוש שטבע הוא מלשון טביעה, טובעו28 בים סוף29. דכמו שבטביעה כפשוטה, כשדבר נטבע במים, המים מכסים על הדבר שנטבע בהם, כמו כן הוא בחיות האלקי שנתלבש בנבראים להחיותם, שהנבראים מכסים על החיות האלקי שמתלבש בהם. ועד"ז הוא בכח האלקי שמהווה את הנבראים מאין ליש, דענין הטבע שבו הוא גם מלשון טביעה, דכיון שההתהוות היא באופן דהעלם והסתר, שהכח המהווה מתעלם ומסתתר בהנבראים, לכן שייך בו הענין דטבע מלשון טביעה והעלם.

וישלומר, דהטעם על זה שהענין דטבע מלשון טביעה בהתהוות הנבראים מובא בהדרושים בסגנון של חידוש [שגם בזה י"ל טבע מלשון טביעה30], כי מהחילוקים בין חיות הנבראים להתהוות הנבראים הוא, דהחיות האלקי שמחי' את הנבראים הוא בגילוי בהנבראים, שנרגש בהם שיש בהם חיות, וענין ההעלם הוא רק שאינו נרגש שהחיות שבהם הוא חיות אלקי31, וההתהוות דהנבראים (שנבראו מאין ליש) אינה נרגשת בהם. דלא רק שלא נרגש בהם שההתהוות היא מאלקות, אלא שעצם ענין ההתהוות שלהם אינה נרגשת בהם32. והטעם לזה הוא, כי החיות האלקי הוא מתלבש בהנבראים ע"י לבושים המעלימים33. [וכיון שהוא מלובש בהנבראים לכן הוא נרגש בהם, אלא שמצד לבושים המעלימים אין נרגש בהם שהוא חיות אלקי]. והכח האלקי שמהווה את הנבראים הוא מובדל מהנבראים ואינו מלובש בהם32. [ולכן אין נרגש בהנבראים ההתהוות שלהם].

Brief summary:

sources:

Nature as Continuous Miracles: According to the teachings of Chacham Tzvi and discussed in various discourses (Hadrashim), nature is viewed as a continuous series of miracles. This perspective suggests that everything, including what we perceive as natural phenomena, originates from Hashem's ongoing miraculous involvement in the world.

God's Personal Stamp: Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) and the Rambam (Maimonides) explain that just as a person uses a seal to imprint multiple coins, Hashem "stamps" each person with the essence inherited from Adam HaRishon (the first human). This metaphor illustrates how every individual bears a unique spiritual imprint, indicating divine intentionality in human creation.

Divine Essence: In the teachings of the Tanya (Likutei Amarim), "nature" also refers to the divine essence infused into all things. This concept emphasizes that the underlying essence of everything in existence reflects the divine creative power, which transcends human comprehension and operates beyond mere cause and effect.

In essence, these sources highlight that "nature" encompasses ongoing divine miracles, individual spiritual imprints, and the profound divine essence that permeates all existence.

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