Taxonomy: Species in the Oral Torah

Groups of Species

One of the most interesting ways that the word “species” (מִין) used in the Oral Torah[1] is as part of idioms. The sages group different species together creating well-known groups of 4, 5, or 7 types of plants. This echoes the fact that the concept of species in the Written Torah (in the account of creation) began with the vegetable kingdom as well.

The groups of plant species discussed in the Oral Torah are:

  • Four Species: On Sukot, the Torah commands us: “You shall take unto yourselves on the first day the fruit of the citron, a branch of the date palm, branches of the threaded tree [myrtle], and branches of the willow, and you shall rejoice before God for seven days.”[2] Interestingly, the Torah does not use the word species to describe these four types of plants, but we are all familiar with the concept of the Four Species (אַרְבַּעַת הַמִּינִים), which is how they are referred to in the Oral Torah.
  • Five Species: There are five types of grain that when baked are considered bread, requiring us to recite the blessing over bread when eating them and recite the grace after meals after eating them.[3] These five types of grain (חֲמֵשֶׁת מִינֵי דָּגָן) are also called “produce” (תְּבוּאָה). The word “produce” is beautifully alluded to in the initials of the first five words of the Torah’s second account of Creation, “These are the chronicles of the heavens and the earth upon their creation”[4] (אֵלֶּה תוֹלְדוֹת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ בְּהִבָּרְאָם). The second letter in the last word of this phrase is the minor hei (ה) of בְּהִבָּרְאָם, whose numerical value is of course 5, alluding to the five species of produce. Note that in this case, each of the five species is actually a super-species, or a Genus in modern scientific terminology. As we said, the concepts of species and genus in Torah are relative allowing us to reference what is a genus as a species.
  • Seven Species: The Torah describes the Land of Israel as, “A land of wheat and barley and of grapevines, and figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey [of date palms].”[5] This verse describes the seven species (שִׁבְעַת הַמִּינִים) of plants with which the Land of Israel is blessed.

The Species Series of Numbers

So now we have seen that the Oral Torah mentions these special groups of 4, 5, and 7 species. Let us take these three numbers and, using the method of finite differences, form a quadratic series from them:

4   5   7   10   14   19
  1   2   3   4   5  
    1   1   1   1    

It is easy to see that the numbers of these series are generated by the function:

f[n] = rn ┴ 4

where rn denotes the sum of integers from 1 to n.

The 12th number in this series will be r11 ┴ 4, or 70. Is there anywhere that we find a group of 70 species of anything in the Torah?

After the Exodus and the splitting of the Red Sea, the Torah relates that the Jewish people, “came to Eileemah where there were 12 springs of water and 70 date palms….”[6] One of the earliest texts of Kabbalah, which precedes even the holy Zohar, is the Bahir, whose name means the Book of Brilliance (another synonym for “light”). The Bahir notes that this was the first sight that the people saw after the splitting of the Red Sea on their journey to the Land of Israel. Eileemah was a desert oasis with 12 different springs of water. What the Bahir adds is that the 70 date palms were not 70 specimens of the same species of palm tree, but rather 70 unique species of palm tree. So, the first thing that the Jewish people did after being freed from the slavery of Egypt was species classification.

The Criteria for Species in Kabbalah

But that most important thing that the Bahir adds is a very deep definition of the basis for classifying the 70 date palms as belonging to 70 different species. The Bahir[7] gives us three criteria:

  1. “They were not similar to one another” (וְלֹא הָיוּ דּוֹמִים זֶה אֶל זֶה). This criterion corresponds to a morphological distinction.
  2. “They did not function similarly” (וּפְעֻלַּת זֶה לָזֶה). Functional distinction includes but is not limited to each date palm’s reproductive method. This is an expansion of the present working definition of species usually used in biology. Clearly one of the most important things to study is mating habits, but this also includes all the behavior of the particular specimen.
  3. “The taste of their fruit was different” (וְטַעַם זֶה אֵינוֹ דּוֹמֶה לְטַעַם זֶה). One might initially be surprised that a palatable distinction serves as a criterion for species-hood. However, to appreciate this final criterion one must know that in Kabbalah, taste represents the spiritual aspect, i.e., the very essence of a tree that bears edible fruit.[8] Thus, taste represents the word of God in the fruit.[9] How can this criterion apply to organisms that do not bear fruit? The answer is that this criterion is a particularization of a more general principle: observing the use that the organism has for human beings. One of the most important foundations of understanding nature according to Torah is that all of nature is continuously elevating to be incorporated into rectified human reality.[10] Thus, the place that each organism occupies in the human scheme defines its essence. According to Torah, man (i.e., the rectified, God-serving man) is indeed the measure of all things.

According to the Bahir, a specimen has to be unique on all three counts in order to be considered a separate species!

[1]. See the previous two installments on taxonomy appearing in Wonders issues 34 and 35.

[2]. Leviticus 23:40.

[3]. Challah 1:1. Pesach matzah also has to be made from one of these five species of grain.

[4]. Genesis 2:4.

[5]. Deuteronomy 8:8.

[6]. Exodus 15:27. See also Numbers 33:9.

[7]. Bahir §166.

[8]. According to this spiritual perspective, if a fruit has lost its taste it should not be consumed.

[9]. See also our article on nutrition:

[10]. For instance, the sages say that in the future, all trees will bear edible fruit.

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