Encyclopedia of Medieval Philosophy

2011 Edition
| Editors: Henrik Lagerlund

Natural Philosophy, Jewish

  • Tzvi Langermann
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4020-9729-4_351


After a period of ingestion, when Jewish thinkers came to grips with a large and variegated body of scientific literature, mainly written in the Arabic, comprehensive philosophies of nature were developed. The most systematic and influential thinker in this field as in so many others was Moses Maimonides. A fixed and permanent natural order was an important feature of his philosophy. Though in conception and in most details it was an Aristotelian philosophy of nature, in fact Maimonides asserts that an unchanging natural order is a key and requisite feature of his religious philosophy that recognizes a Creator God above nature. However, Maimonides’ seemingly wholesale acceptance of “Greek” science irked many later thinkers, most especially Moses Nahmanides' who proffered a particularist philosophy. If nature has a role here, it is only as a lower order system; if they behave properly, Jews can insert themselves in a higher order, in which they come under the direct control of God.

In this entry, we will investigate some Jewish conceptions of how the world as a whole operates. The earliest attempt to articulate what can be called a comprehensive, if highly schematic, natural philosophy is found in an extremely concise and highly enigmatic treatise, Sefer Yesira (The Book of Creation). There is considerable controversy about the book’s date, provenance, and purpose (Langermann 2002; Wasserstrom). The Hebrew word ṭeva‘, which later came to mean, “nature,” does not appear there, nor is there any other word with a similar meaning. Instead, Sefer Yesira lists correspondences, mostly based upon numbers (3, 7, 12) and the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, on the one hand, and three dimensions of reality on the other: ‘olam, which refers here to the physical universe, both heavens and earth; shanah, literally “year,” here meaning time; and nefesh, signifying here the human body. These correspondences explain the overall pattern of events in the universe. In the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries, Jewish savants throughout the diaspora expounded and expanded upon this text. Most tried in one way or another to read into it the medicine, astronomy, and physics that they had absorbed from other sources; many attempts to articulate a philosophy of nature can be found in these commentaries (Jospe).

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Primary Sources

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Tzvi Langermann
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Arabic Faculty of HumanitiesBar Ilan UniversityRamat GanIsrael