How Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Ashkenazi (the Chacham Tzvi) defended the view of Rabbi David Nieto in London in the 18th century

Thursday, 6 July, 2023 - 11:07 am


The holiday of Purim is an exilic holiday that took place when the Jews resided under the rule of the Persian empire, during which time the threat of genocide occurred by the minister to the king, Haman. Following the downfall of Haman and the survival of the Jewish people, the holiday of Purim was established with the reading of the Megillah and other traditions of the holiday. As with other exilic holidays, like Chanukah, the miracle of the survival of the Jewish people during Purim, while caused by the miraculous, beyond nature, did not stray from the course of nature.[1] This is unlike the miracles of the Exodus and the splitting of the sea, amongst other miracles that are regarded as open miracles beyond the confines of nature. This raises the question: how does Jewish thought view nature? 


The concept of ‘nature’ is ancient. Socrates says that he was quite interested in the study of nature as a young man, especially the causes of things: why they come into being, why they perish, and why they exist (96a). The word nature is borrowed from the Old French nature and is derived from the Latin word natura, or "essential qualities, innate disposition", and in ancient times, literally meant "birth". In ancient philosophy, natura is mostly used as the Latin translation of the Greek word physis, which originally related to the intrinsic characteristics of plants, animals, and other features of the world to develop of their own accord. In this context, we will present a major controversy regarding the concept of ‘nature’ in 18th century Anglo-Jewry, how it was resolved and its reception in Chabad Chassidic philosophy, as well its relation to Purim. One of the major controversies in Anglo-Jewry of the 18th century pertains to a dispute in 1795, when Rabbi David Nieto of London, who was born in Venice, in 1654, and became, in 1702, the second Chacham of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in London, after Solomon Ayllon. David Nieto was a vocal opponent of Shabetai Zevi,[2] but entered in a controversy when he expressed a view that was deemed to be heretical and bordering upon the doctrine of Baruch Spinoza. The matter was brought before Rabbi Zvi Hirsch ben Jacob Ashkenazi (1660-1718) known as the Chacham Zvi, who accepted Nieto’s explanation.[3] This matter is presented in a responsa of Rabbi Ashkenazi in chapter 18, in his legal work, Sha-alat Teshuvot Chacham Zvi, published in Amsterdam 1712.


The question was sent by the leaders of the community of Sharei shamayim in London. They initially present the drasha that Rabbi David Nieto gave stating that nature and G-d and G-d and nature are one. He proves this from the verse in Psalms 147:8: ‘who covers the heavens with clouds, provides rain for the earth, makes mountains put forth grass,’ and the prayer in the Amidah: ‘Causer of the wind to blow and of the rain to fall.’ He argues further that the term ‘nature’ is a phrase that was invented lately, four or five hundred years earlier, as it is not mentioned by our sages. It is, rather, G-d who causes the wind to blow, rain to fall and the plants to flower. We conclude from this that what the world calls nature is in fact G-d and nature does not in fact exist. It is that which is G-d’s hashgacha (providence) that they call nature. Thus, nature and G-d and G-d and nature are one. He stated that this view is correct, pious and sacred and whoever does not believe in this, is a heretic. On this view, complaints were made that he was straying from the word of G-d. In a response, Rabbi Nieto defended his view by making a distinction between the detailed properties of nature that are not sentient, like temperature of fire, which are not a part of G-d, and the designer of nature that is by the providence of G-d.


Rabbi Ashkenazi responds, firstly, by stating that he sees the words of the most prominent sage that they are in fact consistent with Jewish belief, and had already been stated by Rabbi Judah Halevi (1075-1141) in Kuzari, essay 1:77:


The Rabbi: Certainly; but the elements, moon, sun and stars have powers such as warming, cooling, moistening, drying, etc., but do not merit that wisdom should be ascribed to them, or be reckoned more than a function. Forming, measuring, producing, however, and all that shows an intention, can only be ascribed to the All-wise and Almighty. There is no harm in calling the power which arranges matter by means of heat and cooling, 'Nature,' but all intelligence must be denied it. So must the faculty of creating the embryo be denied to human beings, because they only aid matter in receiving human form from its wise Creator. Thou must not deem it improbable that exalted divine traces should be visible in this material world, when this matter is prepared to receive them. Here are to be found the roots of faith as well as of unbelief.


Rabbi Ashkenazi then proceeds to cite the 16th century commentary on the Kuzari, Kol Yehudah (Venice 1594) by Italian R. Judah Moscato (1530-1593), to clarify what nature exactly is, according R. Judah Halevi. In this context, R. Judah Moscato first quotes Maimonides in the Guide for the Perplexed (2:14), who writes: ‘The actions of G-d are perfect; they are in no way defective, nor do they contain anything useless or superfluous. In similar terms Aristotle frequently praises Him, when he says that Nature is wise and does nothing in vain, but makes everything as perfect as possible.’ Further in the Guide for the Perplexed (3:19), it clarifies, however, that nature itsel is not an intellectual being, but rather an intellectual cause endows (hit-bi-a) everything with its natural properties (ko-ach tiv-i).In conclusion, R. Judah Moscato writes that G-d is called ‘nature’:[4]


In truth, G-d is called ‘nature,’ as mentioned there, since he stamps with his seal all the coins of creation. This is the meaning of the statement of the sages in Talmud (Avodah Zara 3b): ‘The Holy One, Blessed be He, sits and sustains the entire world, from the horns of wild oxen to the eggs of lice.’ The sages indicated that even the smallest of insects was created by G-d, Himself. For this reason, it states ‘eggs of lice’ and not just ‘lice,’ and the ‘horns of wild oxen’ and not just ‘wild oxen,’ to present the fundamental idea that everything is in the hands and providence of G-d, and G-d did not appoint an officer, minister or prince over them.


In the context of this view of R. Judah Moscato, in his understanding of the Kuzari, Rabbi Ashkenazi approves the views espoused by R. David Nieto in London. He writes: ‘We need to pay gratitude to the all-encompassing sage the prominent honourable, Rabbi David Nieto or his sermon (drasha) that he expounded to warn the people not to stray in their hearts after the views of the philosophers regarding ‘nature,’ as from it has come many dangers, and instead he illuminated their eyes with his true belie that everything is with the providence from Him, may He be blessed.’


Reception – view of the Chacham Tzvi – no ‘nature’


Although the view that there is no such thing as nature was articulated by R. David Nieto, and supported by Chacham Tzvi, by citing R. Judah Moscato in his interpretation of the Kuzari, this view within Jewish thought on the concept of ‘nature’ became subsequently attributed to the view of the Chacham Tzvi and cited as such until today. Moving further away from the original responsa, a further variation is made: while the view of R. Judah Moscato is presented in the responsa as a support for the view articulated by R. David Nieto, in its denial of the existence of a concept called ‘nature,’ in subsequent generations, their views are cited as two different explanations for the idea of ‘nature.’


This can be seen in the work of Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber of Lubavitch, who, in 1918 (Sefer hamamorim 5678, p. 89), presents five explanations for the concept of ‘nature:’


1. Teshuvat Chacham Tzvi: it’s a newly invented name by later philosophers, for in truth the idea of ‘nature’ is not applicable at all, as all comes directly from G-d, as it states in Psalms 147, but rather everything is miracles, only that they are performed frequently.


2. It states in Mishnah Sanhedrin (4:5): ‘a person stamps (טוֹבֵע ) several coins with one seal, they are all similar to each other. But the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, stamped all people with the seal of Adam the first man.’ Maimonides explains that ‘seal of Adam the first man’ refers to the form of the species of man which makes the person a person. This refers to the form of the soul. In the context of the world, ‘nature’ refers to the Divine life that controls the world.


3. It is derived from the word ‘drowned’ (tub-u), as in Exodus 15:4: ‘drowned in the Sea of Reeds.’ The analogy is a stone that falls into the water and is covered by the water, but with no change occurring to the stone itself. This refers to the Divine radiance and life that becomes garbed and captured in the physicality of the world, and which becomes concealed by the world.


4. The Tanya (ch. 19) states: ‘Nature’ is an applied term for anything that is not in the realm of reason and comprehension. This refers to creation of the universe ex nihilo, which defies human comprehension. It is merely how the Creator endowed (hit-bi-a) it with the ability to come into being.


In 1938, Rabbi Joseph I. Schneerson presented a fifth view: ‘Nature’ means hidden and covered: how G-d is constantly present in the world, but hidden from that which is created.


Nature does exist


According to the above five interpretations, apart from the view of the Chacham Tzvi, in his articulation of the view of R. David Nieto, the term ‘nature’ (teva) does exist and refers to the concealment of G-d within either the creation, running or material existence of the world. In summary: there are two views regarding ‘nature:’ a. R. David Nieto’s view that there is no distinction between ‘nature’ and ‘miracles:’ the natural world in all its minute details is an open and constant miracle. b. G-d concealment within the world is ‘nature.’


Covenant of Noah – ‘nature’ receives Divine characteristics


Support for the idea of a distinct concept called ‘nature,’ in terms of the running of the universe in a set pattern of laws, may be derived from Genesis 8:22, where it states in the covenant to Noah after the flood: ‘And G-d smelled the pleasing odour, and G-d resolved: “Never again will I doom the earth because of humankind, since the devising of the human mind are evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done. So long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease.” This suggests the concept of ‘nature’ is the unchanging laws of nature.


However, the argument made in Jewish thought is the opposite: an indication of the concept of nature, in contrast to G-d, is the fact that the natural world is by definition in decline. It is rather the covenant of Noah by G-d that endowed the world with the characteristic of the immutability of the laws of nature. This means, that ‘nature’ in itself is the world that is in constant decay and decline, as is the nature of the natural world, whereby plants wither, the seasons change and man is mortal. The covenant of Noah, then, with its promise of the preservation and lack of cessation of the seasons, endowed the world not a covenant with nature, but a connection to the Divine, beyond. Nature, as G-d, by definition, defies the concept of decline and change, as stated in Malachi 3:6: ‘For I am the L-rd - I have not changed; and you are the children of Jacob—you have not ceased to be.’ This idea that there are two distinct concepts: nature and beyond nature, and ‘nature’ also points to the belief in G-d that is beyond nature is articulated by 15th century R. Isaac Arama (1420-1494) in his work Akeidah (Bo, Gate 38), where he argues based on Exodus Raba 15:11: ‘When G-d chose His world he set the beginning of the months and years’ that we can derive knowledge of the Divine from the establishment of the natural world. R. Isaac Arama writes: just like the order of the existence of the establishment of nature testifies to the true existence of His being, may He be blessed, so does the shattering of the laws of nature (through miracles) tell the greatness of the name of the glory of His kingship.’


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This idea still suggests a distinction between two concepts: ‘nature’ that is by definition set in a motion of decline, and the Divine and the miraculous that is beyond nature. Does Jewish thought embrace, however, the idea, articulated by Rabbi David Nieto that ‘nature’ itself is a reflection of the Ein Sof, beyond nature? This question is compounded by the fundamental principle in Jewish philosophy as argued by Sa-adiah Gaon in Emunot ve-deot (1:1) and the Guide for the Perplexed (2:12) that finitude cannot be a receptacle for infinitude.


The embracing of the concept of ‘nature’ as not a real phenomenon in Chabad philosophy, following the Chacham Tzvi, may be found in the work of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi in Likkutei Torah (Re-eh 22c), where he writes:


The Divine name ‘E-lokim’ is gematria ‘hateva’ (nature), which means because ‘E-lokim’ acts as a shield to ‘Hava-yeh’ as a shield of the sun, that conceals on the revelation of ‘Hava-yeh’ – and from this is derived that which the world runs according to nature – this concealment is called ‘teva,’ even though it is all from the Divine name ‘Hava-yeh,’ who renews creation every day with His goodness. He concludes: see Chacham Tzvi who writes close to what I have written.


The above however still suggests there is the concealment of the Divine and that which is beyond concealment. The idea that ‘nature’ in its concealment of the Divine may also reflect the Divine is argued by Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, known as the Rebbe, in 1952 in Sefer hamamorim 5712 (p.338-9). He argues that the reason the world appears an independent being, is because in its source, it comes from the Atzmut, that derives its very being also from itself, without any cause. This means that the power of the Atzmut is not only found in the power of creation but in the material physicality of the world itself, as reflected in Isaiah 44:6: ‘I am the first and I am the last, and there is no god but Me.’ In 1966, in Likkutei Sichot (5:98 f.19), the Rebbe argues further that the although the immutability of nature is a reflection of the Divine, beyond nature, this is in fact manifest within nature, that they themselves, in species, are immutable, similar to Moses, where it states in Deuteronomy 34:7: ‘Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated.’ In 1981, in Likkutei Sichot 20:35 f. 31, he takes this point further by arguing that the statement is Genesis that the seasons will not cease should be understood not just as the external power of the Divine Ein sof, above nature, but from within nature itself. This appears to finally embrace the view of the Chacham Tzvi, that the world is not only a concealment of the Ein Sof, or points to the Ein Sof, but is a manifestation of the Ein Sof.


Miracles – beyond nature


This is consistent with the idea of Purim as a miracle that is vested within nature, whereby the most profonde miracles are that in which the Ein Sof is revealed within the workings of nature itself, revealing that in truth, following the view of the Chacham Tzvi, in validating the view of R. David Nieto, the natural world and the Ein Sof are not two separate phenomena but one of the same.


Based on the second view above, the idea of miracles is that which is beyond nature. The word for miracles in Hebrew is from Numbers 21:8: ‘Make yourself a serpent and put it on a pole,’ and Isaiah 49:22: ‘So said the Lord G-d, "Behold I will raise My hand to the nations, and to the peoples will I raise My standard (a-rim ni-si).’ In this context, there are two kinds of miracles: ones which are completely beyond nature and ones which is within nature but in an elevated state (romemut ha-teva). While the former transcends nature, the latter demonstrates the truth of the matter that nature itself is beyond nature.[5]













[1] Torah Ohr, 93c and 100a:

[2] Author of Eish dat:

[3] Encyclopaedia Judaica vol. 3, p. 734, and Mateh Dan – Kuzari sheni:


[5] Sefer ha-mamorim 5698, p. 171.


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