Word of the Day Teva: It's in the Nature of the Beast to Make His Mark

Or to be drowned by God in the sea, depending on how this ancient word is used.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
Scarab seal ring imprinted with the name of Pharaoh Seti I, who ruled Egypt in the 13th century BC. It had been found in the Jezreel Valley.
Scarab seal ring imprinted with the name of Pharaoh Seti I, who ruled Egypt in the 13th century BC. It had been found in the Jezreel Valley.Credit: AP
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

The Hebrew word for nature, that is - everything in the world that isn’t man-made, is TE-va.

Surprisingly, perhaps, this is a relatively new word.

To be exact, its root – t-b-a (or t-v-a) is ancient indeed. It is common to all Semitic languages and in verb form, means to imprint - or to drown. In noun form, it also means "ring" (as in jewelry or circle, not telephone).

The earliest Hebrew writing that features the t-b-a root is the Song of the Sea, one of the most ancient texts in the Bible, in which the Israelites praise God for causing “Pharaoh's chariots and his host hath he cast into the sea: his chosen captains also are drowned in the Red sea.” (Exodus 15:4).

So there we have the root used to mean "drown," but elsewhere in the Bible, t-b-a also appears as a noun meaning ring - ta-BA-at, for example in the story of Joseph in Egypt. “And Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand, and put it upon Joseph's hand” (Genesis 41:42).

Why would the Bible bother to tell us of this seemingly trivial transfer of property? This brings us back to the meaning "imprint," and also explains why the Hebrew word for "ring" derives from this root.

'Because I said so' didn't cut it

Rings in the ancient world were not mere decorations. They were used as engraved stamps, with which one would imprint one's mark on a wax or clay seal, thus proving the authenticity of the letter (or in Pharaoh's case, it proved that an order was authentic).

Thus when Joseph received Pharoah’s ring, he was receiving the authority to rule the kingdom in his name.

Just as the ancient Hebrew word for ring derives its name from its use as a stamp, the ancient Hebrew word for "coin," mat-BE-a, is derived from the image imprinted on its face. It borrowed the concept from Aramaic, which shares the same root.

Arabic shares the t-b-a root as well, business there it took on a metaphoric use, referring to that which is imprinted in the personality of a person, or in other words - one's nature.

This word, tabiya, later took on another use – the noun "nature." This probably happened under Greek influence, where the word fisi means both the nature of something and the natural word, just as the word nature does in English.

Perplexing nature

When writing his famous book "A Guide for the Perplexed" in Arabic between from 1191 to 1187, the Jewish philosopher Maimonides used this Arabic word tabiya in both senses. It was left to Shemuel Ibn Tibbon to translate it to Hebrew, so that European Jews, who couldn't speak let alone read Arabic, could learn from Maimonides too.

Ibn Tibbon carried out his translation during Maimonides' lifetime, but it the job was no walk in the park, as he explained in the introduction to the lexicon he appended to his translation. “As I finished this most honorable paper, the Guide for the Perplexed, I saw that I was unable to avoid using foreign words. Most readers will not understand these because of the paucity of our language, and the lack of writings on the exalted sciences in our nation," he wrote.

So given his reliance on foreign or contrived words nobody would understand, Ibn Tibbon thought it advisable to attach the lexicon to his translation. Among the words in his lexicon are teva (“nature”), tiv-EE (“natural”), and me-la-khu-TI (“artificial”).
And from the Hebrew translation of the "Guide for the Perplexed," the word teva spread in Hebrew, and as used to mean nature to this very day.

And then there was Teva

Which brings us to two companies, Teva Naot and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries.
Teva Naot is a privately owned company that makes footwear with arched soles. Then there's Teva Pharmaceutical, the biggest company on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange by a long shot.

Teva's story starts in 1901, when there was a small firm importing and distributing medications in Palestine using mule trains and camel caravans. The company was named for its founders: Salomon, Levin and Elstein Ltd. Among others, they imported drugs from Germany, but with the rise of Nazism in 1933 they had to find new sources, Teva explains.

In 1935 three drug making companies were formed: Assia, Zori and Teva, the last founded by Gunter Friedlander. The companies merged into Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, which went public in 1951. Today Teva is traded on the TASE and Nasdaq, and is worth $46.3 billion as of the start of trade Thursday morning.

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