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Though the Bible is full of the awareness and appreciation of nature from the creation narrative up to the Psalmist's declaration, "The heavens declare the glory of God…" (Ps. 19:2), it does not profess a comprehensive doctrine of nature in relation to man and God. Nature is a testimony to the work of the Creator (Isa. 40:26; Amos 5:8; Job 38–41), not a subject for speculation. As opposed to the pagan world-view which endowed natural objects with divinity, the Bible makes it quite clear that the natural world was produced by, and totally subject to, God – not in any way part of Him. This, in sum, is its doctrine of nature.

In Rabbinic Literature

A similar lack of speculative interest in nature is apparent in rabbinic literature, though to a lesser degree. Contemplation of the majesty of the heavens or the myriad creatures on earth served the rabbis as a reminder of the wondrous ways of the Creator rather than as the starting point of physical speculation. Thus when R. Akiva considered the manner in which land and sea animals were confined to, and dependent on, their respective elements he would say, "How mighty are Thy works O Lord" (Ps. 104:24; Ḥul. 127a). On the other hand, the purely aesthetic appreciation of nature was played down in preference to the more centrally religious values. This is apparent in the (generally misunderstood) passage, "He who walks by the way studying, and interrupts his studying by saying 'How pleasant is this tree, how pleasant this plowed field'… it is as if he were deserving of death" (Avot 3:8).

The nearest to a conceptual discussion of nature comes in rabbinic consideration of cosmogony and of miracles. The ideas that God looked into the Torah and using it as a blueprint created the natural world (Gen. R. 1:1), and that miracles were built into the natural order at the creation (Avot 5:5; Gen. R. 5:5) would seem to reflect Stoic doctrine (see *Creation and Cosmogony; *Miracles).

The teleological argument, from design in nature to the existence of a Designer, is found in rabbinic literature, albeit in a philosophically naive form. Thus it is said of Abraham that he first came to know God by pondering on the comparison between the world and a palace. Just as a palace which is illuminated must have an owner so too must the world (Gen. R. 39: 1; cf. Midrash Temurah 5).

In Hellenistic and Medieval Jewish Philosophy

In their philosophy of nature, as in other branches of philosophy, Hellenistic and medieval Jewish thinkers were influenced greatly by the current general philosophical doctrines. Thus, for the most part, they adopted the view that the universe is governed by immutable laws; that all objects in the sublunar world are formed out of combinations of four basic elements – earth, air, fire, and water; that the celestial world consists of a fifth element; and that substances in the universe can be classified hierarchically as inanimate, vegetative, animate, and rational. However, the philosophical view of nature posed problems for the traditional Jewish view as expressed in the Bible and Talmud. For traditional Judaism the universe did not run according to set immutable laws. Rather God directly regulated the workings of the universe that He had created, ensuring that events would lead to the specific goal He had in mind. The medieval Jewish philosopher, unable to give up this view of nature completely, sought in his philosophies of nature to reconcile the biblical and talmudic concepts of *creation and *miracles with the theories of secular philosophy. For some of them, the design and order that they observed in nature constituted the evidence for the existence of a Creator – the teleological argument.

*Philo held that the world was governed by laws which were instituted by God at the time of creation. He maintained that all objects in the universe were composed of combinations of the four elements, interpreting the wings of the seraphim in Isaiah's vision (Isa. 6) as the four elements, one pair representing earth and water, and the second pair, fire and air. The third pair he interpreted as the forces of love and opposition which initiate movement in the other four elements (De Deo, 9–10).

*Saadiah, too, held that all objects are composed of four basic elements (Emunot ve-De'ot, 10:17; 1:3; 2:2), and that the world is governed by set laws. As a follower of the *Kalam, which accepted creation and advanced proofs for it, Saadiah had no difficulty with the doctrine of creation. Among the proofs which Saadiah advanced for creation was one based on the order existing in nature, a proof that he adopted from the Kalam. Saadiah argued that since all composite objects must be fashioned from their component parts by an intelligent being, so the world, which is itself a composite of many composites, must have been created (ibid., treatise 1). *Baḥya ibn Paquda employs a similar argument in his Ḥovot ha-Levavot (1:6).


Adopting the neoplatonic conception of the universe as a series of descending spheres, Jewish neoplatonists sought to combine the theory of emanation with the biblical concept of creation. In attempting to do so, Isaac *Israeli, somewhat arbitrarily, maintained that the intellect, which next to God is the highest being in the world, was created by God, and that all other objects emanate from the intellect (S. Fried (ed.), Sefer ha-Yesodot (1900), 69). Aristotelian influences are evident in Israeli's doctrine of the elements.

Joseph ibn *Ẓaddik, although generally a neoplatonist, adopted Aristotle's philosophy of nature. However, he deviated from it in his definition of matter and form, assigning to matter the position of the one real substance and to form a status similar to that of accidents (Sefer Olam Katan, 1:2).

*Judah Halevi, who was generally critical of Aristotelian philosophy, criticized the Aristotelian doctrine of the four elements on the ground that it has no basis in experience, for while we do perceive the qualities of heat, cold, wetness, and dryness, we do not perceive them in their pure form as primary elements (Kuzari, 5:14).


Abraham *Ibn Daud, the first of the Jewish Aristotelians, in his Emunah Ramah, adopted the Aristotelian concepts of form and matter, substance and accident, and the categories, finding allusions to the categories in the 139th Psalm. Unable to accept the Aristotelian doctrine of the eternity of matter insofar as it conflicted with the biblical concept of creation, Ibn Daud posited the existence of a formless prime matter which was the first stage in the process of creation.

*Maimonides, while he totally accepted Aristotelian physics, differed with the Aristotelian view that the world is eternal. Maintaining that neither eternity nor creation could be proved, he chose to accept creation as the theory advanced in the Bible. He held that miracles were predetermined at the time of creation, and that they were not abrogations of natural laws, but occurred through the exertion of one natural force upon another.

*Levi b. Gershom disagreed with the Aristotelian notion that time and motion are infinite (Milḥamot Adonai, pt. 6, 1:10–12). Levi proved that the world was created from the teleological character of nature. Just as every particular object in nature moves toward the realization of its own particular goal, so the universe, the sum total of all the things that exist within it, moves toward an ultimate end. He is unique among Jewish philosophers in that he rejects the idea of creation ex nihilo, maintaining that there existed an eternal absolutely formless matter out of which God at a particular point in time created the universe (ibid., 1:17–28). He interprets the biblical story of creation to coincide with this theory.

*Crescas criticized Aristotelian physics, especially his doctrine of space, maintaining that, in opposition to Aristotle, a vacuum was possible (Or Adonai, bk. 1, pt. 2, ch. 3). Crescas believed that it was inconsequential whether or not the world was eternal; what is important is that God created the world ex nihilo, but not necessarily at a specific moment in time.


Guttmann, Philosophies, index S.V. nature; law, natural; and science, natural; Husik, Philosophy, index; I. Efros, Philosophical Terms in the Moreh Nebukhim (1924), 50, 134–5; H. Malter, in: Festschrift… Hermann Cohen (1912), 253–6 (Eng.); Zunz, Poesie, 634; S.H. Bergman, Faith and Reason (1963), 27–54, 81–97, 98–120; I. Epstein, Judaism (1954), index; N. Rotenstreich, Jewish Philosophy in Modern Times (1968), 52ff.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.