The Place of Nature Study in Judaism

The Place of Nature Study in Judaism * Binah-Thinking * On the examination of created things * How the Tzaddik looks at nature * The varieties of fruits * The language of animals, birds and trees

Humanity's constantly expanding stock of knowledge about the workings of the natural world gives us awesome power to exploit and manipulate nature through all kinds of agricultural, industrial and other technologies in order better to satisfy our material needs and desires.

In the Torah tradition such knowledge is respected as being both necessary and desirable for the welfare of humanity as long as it is pursued and applied in full accordance with Torah law. This does not mean that science or nature study are the same as Torah. The purpose of true science (as opposed to pseudo-scientific speculation) is to establish facts about visible, observable natural phenomena and processes and to seek deeper understanding of their mechanics. Torah on the other hand gives us knowledge about the meaning and purpose of the various different aspects of this world and how God wants us to relate to them. Such knowledge could not be inferred merely through observation of the visible world around us; it had to be revealed by the Prophets.

Knowledge and understanding of certain aspects of the natural world can be important adjuncts to Torah knowledge. Among the areas of Torah law that involve knowledge and understanding of natural phenomena of various kinds are:


The systematic, scientific approach to exploring and understanding the world around us is linked with Isaac's quality of Gevurah -- control, restraint, strictness -- associated in Kabbalah with the "left hand", in contrast to Abraham's quality of Chessed -- expansiveness, outreach, kindness -- which is associated with the "right hand".

In the human mind, the left-pole Gevurah-linked faculty is Binah, rational-analytic thought, "left brain thinking", as opposed to the right-pole Chessed-linked faculty of Chokhmah, holistic-visionary perception, "right brain thinking".. Where Chokhmah-thinking is wide-angle vision of whole systems, Binah-thinking narrows the focus in order to examine the individual constituent parts of the system one by one in all their details and to trace how they relate one to another.

Both Chokhmah and Binah are necessary to attain Daat, complete, balanced Knowledge. In the words of the Sefer Yetzira: "Understand (Bin) with wisdom (Chokhmah), be wise (Chakem) with understanding (Binah)... Examine and probe... Make each thing stand on its essence, and make the Creator sit on His base" (Sefer Yetzira 1:4). It is through oscillating between Chokhmah and Binah that we attain Daat, Knowledge of the whole together with its constituent parts. (For full discussion of all these concepts, see Part I, Contemplation: Hitbonenut)

Abraham's revolutionary mental leap was to grasp that all of the individual details of creation -- the stars, the planets and all the other different entities in the universe -- are parts of one unified overarching system created by HaVaYaH. This holistic perception is one of Chokhmah.

Isaac's work, on the other hand, was to come down from the mountain of holistic Chokhmah-vision and get to work out there in the actual field, applying Binah-thinking to look at the world in detail, seeking to understand all the individual parts in themselves and how they connect one to another to make up the unified system of God's kingdom. "And Isaac went out to meditate in the field" (Genesis 24:63).

Binah-thinking is characterized by careful, accurate observation of details followed by the application of acute inferential reasoning to the resulting data in order to generate new knowledge and deeper understanding of interrelationships, causes and effects and so on. Thus Binah is defined in the Talmud as "understanding one thing from another thing" (Chagigah 14a, Sanhedrin 93b, Rashi on Exodus 31:3).

The divine name associated with the left pole of Binah/Gevurah is Elohim (pronounced Elokim except when used in prayer). Although as a name of God this name almost always appears in the Bible with a singular verb, the grammatical form of the name itself is actually a plural. Literally, Elohim means "Powers", referring to the multiplicity of different powers possessed by God as revealed in the creation.

The numerical value of the Hebrew letters of ELoHIM -- 86 -- is the same as that of the letters of HaTeVA, "nature". This teaches us that all of the various different facets of nature embody and reveal different powers of God (see The First Lesson).

God as God is totally above nature, above the world, and utterly beyond the grasp of the human mind. Yet with the application of Binah-thinking it is possible for us to gain some faint apprehension of God's attributes through inferences based on that which we can discern and know in this world. Through deep contemplation of the various phenomena of this world, it can be seen that they all point beyond the world to their invisible Source.

Out of the four basic elements of Water, Air, Fire and Earth, it is Fire that is associated with Binah and Gevurah. Just as fire rises upwards, so the striving of Binah-intelligence is to track and trace these various pointers, understanding one thing from another, and thereby lifting the mind "up" step by step from the multiplicity of separate, visible, revealed phenomena within the creation to their ultimate, unified, unrevealed Source.

On the examination of created things

Study and contemplation of nature for the purpose of attaining deeper connection with God is discussed at length in R. Bachya Ibn Paquda's classic moralistic work, Duties of the Heart (Chovot Halevavot) Second Treatise, On the Examination of Created Things (see also Part I, Love and Kindness).

By this examination is meant meditating upon the marks of divine wisdom manifested in all created things and earnestly evaluating them to the utmost of one's mental capacity... Contemplate, therefore, God's creatures from the largest to the smallest and reflect on those aspects of them that are at present hidden from you.... (Chapter 1)

Is it our duty to study created things or not? The obligation to do so and thereby find proof of the wisdom of the Creator can be established by reason, from the Bible and from the rabbinical tradition.

By reason: It is evident to the intelligent mind that a rational creature's superiority over an irrational one lies in the rational creature's superior ability to perceive, understand and know the mysteries of the Supernal Wisdom -- mysteries whose existence is confirmed throughout the universe, as it says: "Who teaches us more than the beasts of the field and makes us wiser than the birds of heaven" (Job 35:11) When a human being contemplates these foundations of wisdom and studies the signs of this wisdom in the universe, his superiority over the dumb beast rises in proportion to his intelligence. But if he fails to observe and reflect, not only is he not equal to the beast, he is inferior to it, as it says: "The ox knows its owner and the ass its master's crib, but Israel does not know, My people does not consider" (Isaiah 1:3)."

From the Bible: It says: "Lift up your eyes on high and see Who created these!" (Isaiah 40:26). Similarly: "When I look at Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars that You have established..." (Psalms 8:4).

From rabbinical tradition: The Rabbis said "When a person has the ability to make astronomical calculations but fails to do so, the Bible says of him (Isaiah 5:12): 'And the harp and the viol, the tabret and the pipe and wine are in their feasts; but they do not regard the work of HaVaYaH and they do not contemplate the work of His hands' (Shabbat 75a). The Rabbis also said: "From where do we learn that it is a duty to make astronomical calculations? Because it says (Deuteronomy 4:6): 'Observe therefore and do them, for this is your wisdom and understanding in the sight of the nations that, when they hear all these statutes, they will say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people'" (ibid.) The Rabbis also said (Eruvin 100b): "If the Torah had not been given to Israel, we could have learned decency from the cat, chastity from the dove, etiquette from the cock and honesty from the ant." (Chapter 2)

What to study

Rabbenu Bachya continues:

Examination of created things means a close study of the original elements of which the Universe is composed; the products that result from the combination of these elements; the character of the constituents of each compound; its various uses; the marks of wisdom exhibited in its production, form and shape, and in the purpose for which it was created; the beautiful spirituality of this world; its causes and effects and the complete perfection for which it was created; to know its contents -- spiritual and physical, rational and irrational, the immobile and the mobile, minerals and plants; its higher and lower parts; and to realize that the Creator created the Universe in a perfect and orderly combination -- each of its parts distinctly recognizable, so that it indicates and points to the Creator as clearly as a piece of work points to the workman or a house indicates the builder (Chapter 3).

It is possible to discern seven different kinds of signs of divine wisdom in created things:

The first is the mark of divine wisdom apparent in the primary and fundamental elements of the universe. The earth, we see, is at the center. Next to it above is water. Next to the water is the air, and above everything is fire -- all in a just and unchanging balance and measure. Every one of these elements maintains the proper position appointed for it....

The second is the mark of wisdom apparent in the human species -- a universe on a small scale that completes the ordered series of creation and constitutes its crowning beauty, glory and perfection.

The third is the mark of wisdom apparent in the formation of the individual human being -- his physical structure, the faculties of his mind, and the light of reason with which the Creator has set him apart from and above other living creatures...

The fourth cornerstone is the mark of wisdom manifested in other species of living creatures, from the least to the greatest -- those that fly or swim or creep or move on four legs with their various qualities, pleasures and uses.

The fifth is the mark of wisdom displayed in plants and other natural products such as minerals that have been provided for the benefit of the human race because of their usefulness to man in various ways in accordance with their natures, constitutions and virtues... Thus it is said: "And he (Solomon) spoke of trees from the cedar in Lebanon down to the hyssop that grows in the wall; he spoke also of beasts and birds, of creeping things and fishes" (I Kings 5:13).

The sixth is the mark of wisdom discernible in the sciences, arts and crafts which the Creator, blessed be He, provided for man to benefit him, to enable him to obtain a livelihood and gain other benefits of a general and particular character...

The seventh is the mark of wisdom exhibited in the appointment of the Torah and its statutes, to teach us how to serve the Creator and secure for one who consistently lives according to their dictates immediate happiness here and recompense in the life to come hereafter. To this should be added the customs by which the government of other nations is regulated together with their useful features... (Chapter 4).

According to R. Bachya, our primary duty is to study that which is closest to us: the human being.

It is our duty to study the origins and birth of the human, the form and structure of his physical frame, how the various body parts are connected and function together, the purpose of each individual part and the need for it to take its present form. Next we should study man's advantages, his various temperaments, the faculties of his soul, the light of his intellect, his qualities -- those that are essential and those that are accidental; his desires, and the ultimate purpose of his being. When we have arrived at an understanding of the matters noted in regard to man, much of the mystery of this universe will become clear to us, since the one resembles the other... as Job said (Job 19:26): "From my flesh I see God." (Chapter 5)

R. Bachya continues with a remarkable passage discussing at length and in great detail the human body from birth to death, human development and growth both physical and psychological, the various basic human functions, traits, skills and technological abilities. After this, R. Bachya adds:

The study of other species of animals, their habits and their sustenance will not be ignored by one who observes them and reflects upon the marks of divine wisdom to be discerned in them.... The foods assigned to different living creatures are too numerous to specify... And so too when one studies the course of the heavenly spheres distinguished by their various movements and the individual luminaries, all contributing to the order of the universe, he will see in them evidence of power and wisdom such as the human mind cannot grasp and would become weary in attempting to describe... Reflect on that most perfect of God's gifts to living beings and to plants -- the rain, which besides falling in its due season, descends in showers when needed.... How astonishing too is the growth of foods from seeds. A single grain produces a thousand grains and more... We also come across gigantic trees whose roots have sprung out of a single seed or short. Praise be the All-Wise and Gracious One, Who brings into existence such vast effects from causes so small and weak.... (Chapter 5)

How the Tzaddik looks at nature

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov sums up the fundamental orientation of the spiritual seeker in examining the details of the natural world:

The Tzaddik is constantly searching to discover and reveal what God wants. At the root of everything lies the will of God. This applies to the universe as a whole: there is a reason why God wanted to created the universe as a whole. So too in every individual item and detail of creation there lies the will of God. Namely God wanted this item to be exactly the way it is with its own unique form, power and nature, while something else has a different form, power and nature.

The Tzaddik constantly hunts and searches to discover and reveal the will of God in each thing. For example, why was it God's will that a lion should have this form, structure and nature and possess this degree of strength and power while a tiny mosquito has a totally different form, structure and nature and is extremely weak? The same question applies to specific details. For example, in the lion itself: why does one limb have one form and power while another limb has a quite different form and power? The same applies to everything else in the world, inanimate, vegetable, animal and human... On every level there are innumerable different kinds and species and countless varieties within each species. Every single individual item has its own unique idiosyncrasies down to the smallest details of every single limb. This applies to plants, trees and all the other details of the creation. There are countless different creatures, all with their own unique forms, powers and qualities. Everything is the way it is because the Creator, blessed be He, willed that this should be like this and that one should be like that. And the Tzaddik constantly searches to discover and reveal the will of God in each particular.

Likutey Moharan I:17

The varieties of fruits

An example of the Kabbalah way of viewing natural phenomena is found in the following passage about the different kinds of fruits based on teachings by R. Chaim Vital (1542-1620), principal disciple of the outstanding kabbalistic master, Rabbi Isaac Luria, the "ARI"

Even though God has established His rule over the earth through the individual angels that are appointed over each species, even so every individual item in creation has its roots in the supernal attributes, the sefirot....

Every single plant is unique and has its own unique roots in the supernal world. There are thirty species of fruits of trees. Ten of them correspond to the ten sefirot as revealed in the world of Beriyah. They are far from impurity and close to supreme "world" of Atzilut. For that reason the corresponding fruits have no husk or peel either inside or outside. They are eaten just as they are. Examples are grapes, figs, apples and pears.... There are ten other kinds of fruits that are intermediaries between the world of Beriyah and that of Asiyah. They correspond to the ten sefirot as revealed in the world of Yetzira, which is not as close to impurity as the world of Asiyah yet not as far removed from it as the World of Beriah. Accordingly the pits of these fruits are found inside the fruit. They are not edible because they are not soft like the seeds in the fruits that correspond to the sefirot of the world of Beriyah. Examples of this latter type are olives and dates.... Then there are ten other kinds of fruits corresponding to the ten sefirot of the world of Asiyah, which is closest to the realm of impurity. In the case of these fruits the edible portion is inside, surrounded by an inedible peel which has to be removed and discarded. Examples are pomegranates, nuts and almonds, etc.

(Pri Etz Hadar)

The language of animals, birds and trees

According to tradition, certain outstanding saints and sages attained such exalted levels of perception that they could understand not only the meaning of the outward form and structure of natural phenomena such as plants and animals but their very languages.

Foremost among those credited with such knowledge was King Solomon, as alluded to in the verse: "And he spoke of trees from the cedar in Lebanon down to the hyssop that grows in the wall; he spoke also of beasts and birds, of creeping things and fishes" (I Kings 5:13).

Of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai (1st Century C.E.), the Talmud relates: "Hillel the Elder had eighty disciples. The greatest of all of them was R. Yonatan ben Uziel, the smallest of all of them was Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. They said of him that he had comprehensive knowledge of Mishneh, Talmud, law, exposition, logical inference, astronomy, mathematics, incantations of angels, the language of the demons, the language of trees and the proverbs of launderers and foxes..." (Succah 28a).

Rabbi Chaim Vital writes in a similar vein of his master, the ARI, stating that among his many other areas of expertise were the language of trees, the language of birds and the speech of angels (Introduction to Etz Chaim).

Similar knowledge was attributed to the Baal Shem Tov. The following story is told of one of his foremost disciples, R. Leib ("the Preacher") of Polonnoye:

R. Leib of Polonnoye had a powerful yearning to understand the language of the animals, birds and trees. He decided to travel to the Baal Shem Tov to ask him to teach him this wisdom. When he arrived, there were many people in the Baal Shem Tov's house and the latter paid no attention to him. It was a long time before he even greeted him, and when he finally did, it was with great causalness. R. Leib was quite surprised as the Baal Shem Tov usually showed him great affection since he was one of his closest students. However R. Leib did not pay too much attention because of his great desire to learn this wisdom. He waited for the right time to broach the subject.

One day the Baal Shem Tov had to go on a journey and he asked R. Leib to come with him. R. Leib was delighted. He was sure that on the way the Baal Shem Tov would accede to his request.... As they traveled in the carriage the Baal Shem Tov said to R. Leib: "I know that the main reason you came to me was to learn the conversation of animals and birds. And now I will teach you....

"From the face of the Man in the Supernal Chariot (the Merkavah) vitality is drawn down to man in this lowly world. From the face of the Ox vitality comes down by a downward chain of causes and effects from level to level with contraction after contraction to all the animals (Behemot) in the lower world. From the face of the Lion vitality is drawn to all the wild animals (Chayot). And from the face of the Eagle vitality is drawn to all the birds in the lower world. This is the secret of the Perek Shirah (literally, Chapter of Song, a collection of Biblical verses put into the mouths of various different species of trees, plants, animals, birds and other natural phenomena). The formulae of words expressed by the various forms in the Supreme Chariot determines the vitality that comes down into the lower world to the various species of animals and birds and so on.... This is the general principle, but there are awesome and wondrous secrets in all the details...."

The Baal Shem Tov explained the entire subject until R. Leib had a thorough understanding. The Baal Shem Tov explained many relevant passages in the Zohar and Tikkuney Zohar. With one ear R. Leib listened to the words of the Baal Shem Tov while with the other he listened to what the birds and animals were saying. The Baal Shem Tov carried on teaching him until they approached the town. Then he said to R. Leib, "Have you understood everything?" "Yes" replied R. Leib.

The Baal Shem Tov passed his hand over R. Leib's face, and R. Leib promptly forgot all the secrets which the Baal Shem Tov had revealed to him. All R. Leib could remember was the Baal Shem Tov's opening words about the Supernal Chariot.

The Baal Shem Tov smiled and said, "If you had a need for this wisdom in order to serve God, I myself would have been in a hurry to teach you. I only told you what I did in order to satisfy your thirst. And you forgot it all because you have no need for it! Serve God with simplicity!"

Sipurey Baal Shem Tov



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