The subject of our inquiry is taxonomy, the science of classification, specifically of the living organisms on Earth.
Classification is predicated on the observation that of myriad life-forms that God has created in our world, many possess similarities to one another. There are similarities of a greater degree and of lesser degree.[i] Science endeavors to group these similarities into more general categories and by doing so to classify the tremendous variety of creatures that God has created in our world into families of related organisms.
Because taxonomy is today a science in itself, like any other scientific or intellectual investigation, it too must have its origin in the Torah. Since it has to do with creation, we also expect that its source be in the first part of the Torah, in the account of creation. As we shall see later, this is indeed the case.
The present study is divided into two parts. Part 1 begins by looking at the relativistic nature of every classification system and the hierarchy on which it is based. It then goes on to look at the Hebrew translations for the words “Species” and “Genus.” Next, we will see a two-part definition for the meaning of the Hebrew translation of “species.” We will then proceed to discuss, translate into Hebrew, and correspond to the sefirot, the 10-level taxonomical system currently used in biology for classifying living organisms.
In part 2, we will survey the use of the Hebrew word for “species” (מִין) in both the Written Torah (the Five Books of Moses) and the Oral Torah. We will finish by introducing a Kabbalistic model for defining species. Part 2 will appear in next week’s issue of Wonders.
The relativistic nature of classification
We begin our journey into classification with a look at how medieval Jewish philosophers treated this topic, its terminology, and its usage.
One of the three most important such philosophers was Rav Sa’adyah Ga’on, who wrote a treatise titled Emunot VeDe’ot (Beliefs and Knowledge). Like much of Jewish philosophy written in the Middle Ages, Rav Sa’adyah wrote in Arabic, as that was the language of philosophy then. A particular family of scribes, the Ibn Tibbon family, is famous for their translations of the major works of Jewish philosophy of the time from Arabic into Hebrew and for having created many new words in Hebrew based on Greek and Arabic sources.
In modern times, Rav Sa’adyah’s Emunot Vede’ot was printed with an introductory philosophical dictionary defining and explaining all the basic words and concepts found throughout the text. Although many of these words are Hebrew translations of terms that appeared originally in Greek their Hebrew renditions permit us to grasp greater depth and many more dimensions of understanding and meaning within each.
Significantly, the very first two concepts defined in this philosophical dictionary are the two basic words used in classification: the translation of “species,” which is מִין (pronounced meen; the plural form is meeneem) and the translation of “category,” which is סוּג (pronounced soog; its plural form is soogeem).[ii] The relationship between these two concepts is, as we would expect, hierarchal; species is always under category.
Now, it would seem that having only two words for use in classification is limiting. Without yet going into the particulars, biologists today have 9 distinct levels in their classification system. However, it is important to remember that classification is always relative. To identify a particular species, scientists use what is called a binomial nomenclature, noting, in order, the genus and species of the specimen. For this purpose, our two terms are sufficient.
Additionally, these words are not to be understood as only indicating Species and Genus (in the biological taxonomy), but as relative terms that can be used in a relative fashion at any level of taxonomy to differentiate between the levels. This is similar to the use that Kabbalah makes of many other terms and concepts which repeat in many different contexts, each time retaining the relationship between them.
Let us now go back to the Hebrew word for “species,” מִין. What does this word mean in Hebrew and what is its origin?
Most grammarians base their explanation of this word on its meaning in other Semitic languages. Because ultimately all languages derive from the primordial language of the Torah—Hebrew, the language of creation—it is possible to gain insight into a Hebrew word by studying its meaning in languages that still retain the same form, the Semitic languages. Doing so, the grammarians[iii] explain that this word means “imagined by the heart” (בָּדֹה מִלֵּב). Specifically, they state that the word “species” in Hebrew comes from the heart’s ability to compare and classify different things under one common heading or “picture” (תְּמוּנָה).
In modern biology, there is a great deal of debate still going on about how to classify species. The simplest, most straightforward definition has to do with fertile reproduction, but there are approximately ten other definitions. Such a great deal of disagreement implies that indeed the concept of species is inextricably linked with the subjective understanding (the imagination of the heart) of each scientist. Since classification is at the heart of biology, this is one of the reasons that physicists dislike biology—they feel that there is too much subjectivity involved and too little objectivity. When you get to chemical biology, things become more objective. But classification depends a great deal both on the mind and on the imagination. In Hebrew, the word for imagination (דִּמְיוֹן) literally means “likeness,” or “similarity.”
So, this is our first point about classification that we learn from the Hebrew word for “species.” When biologists would like to classify species, to define life-forms (all the more so, when they begin to talk about the evolution of species, which is an even more problematic schema), more so than in any other aspect of science, they are projecting their power of imagination from the heart.
The Torah tells us that Adam was the first taxonomist, as he was the first to call animals by names. The name “Adam” (אָדָם) itself stems from the Hebrew word for “likeness” (דִּמְיוֹן), as he was created “in the likeness of God.”[iv] Thus, in order to classify the species of animals and call them by name, Adam was calling upon the wisdom of his own heart.[v] All this, the Torah relates, occurred before Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. As we mentioned, the first time that the word “species” appears in the Torah is in relation to trees. It is easy therefore to understand that when Adam ate from the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, he lost his pristine state of being able to make proper associations; he lost his ability to properly categorize and put things together.
Besides the grammarians’ proof from other Semitic languages that “species” means “imagined by the heart,” where in the Torah do we see that this is the correct meaning of this word? The real proof of this in Hebrew is that the root of the word “species” (מִין) is the same as the root of the word for “picture” or “image” (תְּמוּנָה). So, the idea is that specimens of a particular species have the same “picture.” The concept of species as defined by a picture, or form, is used by many modern biologists to define species. This definition is usually in disagreement with the definition of species as based on the ability to reproduce fertile offspring. The picture does not always refer to the organism’s physical form. It can also refer to its genetic picture. There are many taxonomies that define species based on genetic similarity—meaning that the DNAs are similar enough, regardless of whether fertile reproduction is possible.
This reveals another aspect of creation that is sometimes considered to be a contradiction between the first and second accounts of creation. In the first account,[vi] the verb used to describe the act of creation is either “created” (בָּרָא), implying creation ex nihilo, or “made” (עָשָׂה), which implies improvement—a vision of creation that seems to almost imply gradated change. But, in the second account, the Torah uses an intermediate form of creation, “formed” (יצירה).
This difference in verb choice appears specifically in relation to man. When God first speaks of man, the Torah says: “Let us make man” (according to one of the Chassidic commentaries, He was addressing all of creation, giving an even stronger association of making man with an evolutionary process of which man is the final outcome). But then when he actually creates man the verb to create appears three times—implying that the actual creation was an act ex nihilo: “God created man in His image; In the image of God He created Him; Male and female He created them.”[vii]
But, when we reach the second account of creation, we find that man was formed. And, as noted, formation is an intermediate method of creation.[viii] Why would the first account of creation leave this verb out?
Species and category
Let us turn to look at some linguistic and mathematical properties of the Hebrew translations of “species” and “genus.” The numerical value of the word for “species” (מִין) is 100, or 102. As explained in length elsewhere, in the Torah, square numbers represent a perfect or consummate reality.
Now, if you add an alef (א) whose value is 1, to the word “species” (species) the result is the word that means “out of nothing” (מֵאַיִן). Understanding creation ex nihilo is the most important challenge that modern science faces today. The alef that we have added represents the infinite. So, though “species” (מִין) is already a perfect square since it equals 100, something is still missing something. That something is the letter alef, which represents how creation was not only gradual and based on gradual change but emerged “from nothing” in a tremendous leap.
If we add to the word for “species” (מִין) the Hebrew word used by the Medieval philosophers to denote an “individual” specimen (אִישׁ, pronounced eesh), the 6 letters can be rearranged to spell the complete Hebrew idiom meaning, “something from nothing” (יֵשׁ מֵאַיִן). The species, thanks to its ability to reproduce in a fertile manner exhibits the infinite. When God created species, he imbued them with immortality through their ability to reproduce. This is the spiritual motivation that underlies the inclusion of the ability to produce fertile[ix] offspring in the definition of species. The power of fertile reproduction is called “the power of the infinite” in Chasidic thought.[x] What this means is that though the individual specimens of each species die, the species continues thanks to reproduction, thanks to the power of the Infinite that is exercised in reproduction.
Now let us look at the word for “category” (or Genus), סוּג. Its numerical value is 69. Thus, the sum of “species” (מִין) and “genus” (סוּג) is 169, another square number: 132. So from 102 we have gone to 132. Just the initial letters, ס and מ together equal 100, another sign that these two words connect to for a whole.
[Note that the value of the remaining letters (ין וג) is 69, the value of “genus” (סוּג). But, now instead of spelling the word for “genus” they spell either “agony” (יָגוֹן)[xi] or interestingly, “Jung” (יוּנְג), the identifier of the collective consciousness. What this means is that at the level of genus, though there is no ability to reproduce fertilely, there is apparently some type of collective consciousness between species within the same genus. If this is true for species within a genus then it is true by extension at the higher levels above the genus. There too we should find signs of collective consciousness, which as we go further up the classification hierarchy becomes more and more unconscious. We understand that this collective consciousness governs the total behavior of all those creatures classified under one heading.]
Modern biological taxonomy
Now, let us look at the scientific system of biological classification and translate each of the categories into Hebrew. We are looking for the words that are the closest to the English term.
- Species: we have already seen the medieval translation of this word (מִין).
- Genus: Like species, we have seen its Medieval translation, which is סוּג. Since the first philosophical principle, as we saw, is the relativity of species and category, this seems to echo the scientific requirement that when stating the classification of any creature you must state (at least) its species and genus. This is sufficient to define a given creature.
- (Tribe): Certain texts add this level in between the Genus and the Family. Interestingly, biologists put tribes under family, while based on the Torah we would think that the opposite is the case, as every tribe has many families. For now, we will leave this level out as it is simply a sub-division and there are many such sub-divisions possible. The Hebrew word is straightforward, שֵׁבֶט, pronounced shevet.
- Family: The Hebrew word for this level is also straightforward, מִשְׁפָּחָה, pronounced: mishpachah.
- Order: We translate this as סֵדֶר, pronounced: seder. Now in English, the word “order” implies either what comes first and what comes second, or, as it is used in the context of classification, it implies an interrelated group. The Hebrew word סֵדֶר, also carries both meanings. On the one hand it refers to the order of things. But, on the other, it also implies the relationship between many things placed together. One example of this second meaning is found in the Passover Seder, where we place many things on the table, and they have a particular relationship to one another. We can say that the first meaning implies a linear relationship (first, second, etc.), while the second implies a more complex relationship. As we shall see, using a very straightforward correspondence, the level of order corresponds to the sefirah of beauty (תִּפְאֶרֶת).
In Kabbalah, the sefirah of beauty is representative of a linear reality (as in the crossbeams that went through the middle of the panels of the Tabernacle), but it is also representative of a composite relationship just as the word beauty itself implies the coming together of many colors to form one beautiful whole; the composite relationship would then be likened mathematically to a second-degree quantity, such as acceleration. An example of an order is the carnivores, an order of the class of mammals.
- Class: We translate this as קְבוּצָה (pronounced: kevutzah). An example is mammals.
- Phylum: We translate this as אוּמָה (pronounced: umah) which literally means a nation, as the nation is under the kingdom.
- Kingdom: Translated as מַמְלָכָה (pronounced: mamlachah). Note that this is not what we would have expected, because kingdom is the English translation of the word מַלְכוּת. But as we shall see there is a reason for this.
- Domain: This is a relatively newer level of classification. For instance, the animal and vegetable kingdoms both belong to the same domain. There are other domains such as molecular organisms, which are neither vegetable nor animal. Nowadays, scientists identify either 3 or 4 different domains. Before the use of domains, you could be either a botanist (studying the vegetable kingdom) or a zoologist (studying the animal kingdom). But now, these two occupations have something in common. Sometimes a Domain is called an Empire. How should we translate this word into Hebrew? In the Torah we have the concept of “kings” and “kings of kings.” Clearly, the kings correspond to the level of kingdom, while the Domain or Empire is like a kingdom of kingdoms. God is called “the King of the kings of kings” (מֶלֶךְ מַלְכֵי הַמְּלָכִים), and His kingdom is described as “Your kingdom is the kingdom of all worlds”[xii] (מַלְכוּתְךָ מַלְכוּת כָּל עֹלָמִים), where the Hebrew idiom uses the word מַלְכוּת, to designate “the kingdom [of all worlds].” So, we will use the word מַלְכוּת (pronounced: malchut) to translate Domain.
- Life: This is the highest level of the modern classification scheme, as we are only contemplating living organisms. Of course, the translation of this word is straightforward, חַיִּים (pronounced: chayeem). God is described as the source of all life in the verse: “For with You is the source of all life.”[xiii] In Chasidut, it is explained that this verse refers to the level of pleasure in the sefirah of crown. Thus, there is a simple definition that all life sprouts out of the pleasure principle, which is the intermediate level of the sefirah of crown.
Now, let us correspond these 10 levels of classification to the sefirot[xiv]:
Life (pleasure) – חַיִּים
Kingdom – מַמְלָכָה
Domain – מַלְכוּת
Class – קְבוּצָה
Phylum – אוּמָה
Order – סֵדֶר
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Family – מִשְׁפָּחָה (and Tribe – שֵׁבֶט)
Genus – סוּג
Species – מִין
Clearly, this correspondence requires an in-depth explanation, which we will leave for another opportunity. What we will note right now though is an astounding numerical signature that this model contains. If we add the numerical values of all 10 Hebrew words that we have used, we will find that their sum is exactly 1820:
חַיִּים מַלְכוּת מַמְלָכָה אוּמָה קְבוּצָה סֵדֶר מִשְׁפָּחָה סוּג מִין = 1820
As discussed elsewhere in length, 1820 is one of the most significant numbers in Torah as it is the number of times that God’s essential Name, Havayah (the Tetragrammaton) appears in the Pentateuch. It is also the product of 26 and 70,[xv] the numerical values of Havayah (י-הוה) and the word “secret” (סוֹד), which alludes to the verse: “The
[i]. As we shall see, classifying species correctly requires a rectified imagination. We have discussed this relationship and other aspects of classification in our book, The Breath of Life..
[ii]. It is quite normal for philosophical concepts to appear as part of group or system of concepts that go together. Our task is of course to understand how they relate one to another within the framework of a complete system.
[iii]. Mandelkern, Heichal HaKodesh, s.v. מִין.
[iv]. Genesis 1:27.
[v]. Ibid. 2:19.
[vi]. Ibid. ch. 1.
[vii]. Ibid. 1:27.
[viii]. See in length in the 24th of Tevet lecture, 5768 (www.inner.org/times/tevet/kafdalettevet/E68-0424.php).
[ix]. An example of offspring that is not fertile is the mule, the product of the mating of a female horse with a male donkey.
[x]. Tzemach Tzedek, Derech Mitzvotecha, Mitzvat Pru Urvu.
[xi]. As we will see, the first appearances of the word “species” in the Torah are in the context of the vegetable kingdom. In addition, all the appearances of this concept in the Oral Torah pertain to the vegetable kingdom.
[xii]. Psalms 145:13.
[xiii]. Ibid. 36:10.
[xiv]. See our lecture series on evolution (note 1) for an alternate model for corresponding only part of the full modern taxonomical structure to the sefirot.
[xv]. As we shall see later, 70 is the one of the most important numbers associated with classification in the Torah.