Monday, 15 January 2018

Meaning of the world "Olam"

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                         What is the Meaning of the Word “Olam”?

             The word “Olam” appears over 400 times in Tanach ( in various forms).   Even though we are used to it meaning “world,” this was not its original meaning . Rather, almost every time the word appears in Tanach, it is being used with a time-oriented meaning: e.g., “a remote period in the past,” “a remote period in the future,” or “in perpetuity.”
               Some examples of the last are: “chok olam,” “chukat olam,” and “brit olam.” For an example of “a remote period in the past,” this is how we end every Amidah, quoting from Malachi 3:4: “ki-yemei olam u-khe-shanim kadmoniot” (=as in the days of the remote past and as in ancient years).  The common phrase: “min olam ve-ad olam” is best translated as: “from the remote past to the remote future.”
               Many sources that discuss the word “olam” write that it does not mean ”world” anywhere in Tanach except perhaps Kohelet 3:11.  Its meaning in this verse is still unresolved.  See, e.g., Ibn Ezra and Daat Mikra to Kohelet 3:11. But the truth is that “olam” probably means “world“ at Dan. 12:7 (“va-yishava be-chei ha-olam”;  the “ha-“ prefix is what points to the “world” meaning).
            The consensus of scholars today is that the book of Daniel was authored in the middle of the 2nd century B.C.E.  As to Kohelet, the consensus of scholars today, based on the language of the book, is that it is one of the latest Biblical books. See, e.g., Encyclopaedia Judaica 2:349 (first edition). (Of course, Kohelet may have been authored much earlier and its language edited later.)
             The point is that ”olam” did not take on its meaning of “world” until somewhere in the middle  or late Second Temple period.
              Why is this important? It helps us date prayers. For example, the second paragraph of Aleinu uses the phrase “le-taken olam” and “olam” is used here to mean “world.” This indicates clearly that the second paragraph of Aleinu was not composed by Joshua or in the First Temple period. There are also strong reasons to think that both paragraphs of Aleinu were composed at the same time.  (They go well together, and both paragraphs quote or paraphrase from the same chapter in Isaiah, chapter 45.) Thus, our knowledge of the Biblical meaning of “olam” enables us to conclude that both paragraphs of Aleinu were not composed by Joshua or in the First Temple period. (Note also that “ha-kadosh barukh hu,” found in the first paragraph, was not an appellation for God in Biblical times. This is another ground for rejecting the early time period for the first paragraph. There are other phrases in both paragraphs of Aleinu that do not seem to have existed in the Biblical period. ) (Regarding the word “le-taken,” I have written much about this elsewhere. Almost certainly, its original spelling was with a “caf” (=establish), not a “kof.”)
              The notion that Aleinu was composed by Joshua did not arise until the time of the Rishonim.  (Please disregard the reference to R. Hai Gaon in the ArtScroll Daily Siddur, p. 158. It is too hard to explain why here.) From statements in the Jerusalem Talmud (Avodah Zarah 1:2, and Rosh Ha-Shanah 1:3),  it can be deduced that there is a good chance that Aleinu was composed by the early Amora Rav, 3rd century C.E. (I have discussed this all extensively in my book, Esther Unmasked.)
             Going back to the meaning of “olam” in Tanach, there is one more verse that must be mentioned. The verse is Tehillim 89:3: “Ki amarti olam chesed yibaneh…” There are statements of our Sages interpreting “olam” here as “world.” See, e.g., Sanhedrin 58b. But in the plain sense of the verse, “olam” means forever. See, e.g., the Daat Mikra commentary to the verse, and the commentaries of Ibn Ezra and Radak. Also noteworthy is that in the prior verse, 89:2, “olam” is used in its time-oriented meaning.
                   How did “olam” go from its Biblical “time-oriented” meaning to its later “world” meaning? I have seen it suggested that the “time” meaning eventually came to be understood as “enduring as long as the physical world endures.”
                  With regard to the etymology of the word “olam,” some scholars conjecture that it is related to the Hebrew root A-L-M and its meaning “to hide.” In this view, the Biblical, time-oriented meaning of “olam” reflects the hidden (= unknown) past and future. See, e.g., S.D. Luzzatto to Ex. 15:18. Other scholars conjecture that is related to an Akkadian word “ullanu“ that meant “to be distant,” i.e., the distant past and future.  The true etymology of the word is perhaps still hidden!
                    Now that we know that “olam” has different meanings, which meaning is being used in the first two words of the prayer “Adon Olam”? ArtScroll translates the first two words as “Master of the Universe.” The Encyclopaedia Judaica is similar: “Lord of the World.” (As to the distinction between “world” and “universe,” that does not concern me now.) But many others translate “Adon Olam” as something like “Eternal Lord.” See, e.g., The Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer, and the Birnbaum Siddur.   Which translation is correct? I am told that there is even a ramification in the vocalization. If “olam” means “world,” the aleph of “adon” gets a chataf patach.  If “olam” means “eternal,” the aleph of “adon” gets a kametz.
                      To answer the question, the balance of the words of the first line “Adon Olam” are “asher malakh be-terem kol yetzir nivra”= the one who reigned before any form was created. It is clear from this context that the meaning of “adon olam” here is the “eternal Lord.” Also, two lines later we have: “after all has ceased to be, the awesome one will reign alone.”  So again, the author is speaking about an eternal  Lord. 
                       I am aware that the scholar Marc Shapiro initially took the same position that I just did, based on a plain sense reading of  “Adon Olam,” and then retracted it. See his posts of Sept. 4 2007 and Nov. 15 2011 at But in my opinion he should have stuck with his initial gut feeling.  His arguments for the retraction are not convincing.  There are many prominent liturgy scholars who take the positon that I am adopting.
                        It is interesting that the phrase “adon olam” also appears in “Yigdal,” and there all will admit that “olam” is being used with the meaning “world.”
                       (P.S.  Shapiro’s main argument for retraction is based on a passage at Berakhot 7b that he thinks the author of “Adon Olam” was alluding to. But the most that can justifiably be said is that perhaps the author of “Adon Olam” intended a word play and intended to have both the “eternal” and the “world” meanings in mind. But since the author did not follow the passage in Berakhot 7b and write adon “ha-olam,”  the “eternal” meaning should be considered primary in “Adon Olam,” and the “world” meaning is only a possible secondary meaning based on wordplay.)
                I will conclude with the following liturgical tidbit. We use the phrase “ha-yom harat olam” on Rosh ha-Shanah  to mean “the day the world was conceived.” But the phrase “harat olam” originates at Jer. 20:17. There it means “pregnant forever”!
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. His most recent book is: Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy (2015). He can be reached at He hopes to continue writing this column “ad olam”!

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Origin of the Word "Brit" (covenant)

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                        The Origin of the Word “Brit” (=Covenant)

                The word “brit” is a fundamental word in Tanach. But where does this word come from? Nouns do not just appear out of nowhere in Hebrew. Rather, they are normally derived from a three letter verb. Of course, there is no verb B-R-T in Hebrew. But perhaps we can look at roots like B-R-H or B-R-R and find the origin of the word there.
                    There is a verb B-R-H in Hebrew that means “to eat.” (See, e.g., 2 Sam. 12:17.) Based on this, it has been suggested that the word “brit” has its origin in the festive meal that may have accompanied covenantal ceremonies. However, B-R-H is not the normal verb for eating in Tanach. Rather, it is typically used for someone who is not well and who is being brought food for recuperation. Therefore, it would not seem to be the appropriate word for a festive covenantal meal. (Moreover, we have no evidence that covenantal agreements were originally accompanied by the eating of food. Even in the paradigmatic brit ceremony of Gen. 15, animals are sacrificed but there is no mention of eating them.)
                   An alternative suggestion is based on the Biblical root B-R-R. This root sometimes means “purify,” and other times means “choose.” (These two meanings are related.). We all know the meaning “choose” from the Mishnah in the third chapter of Sanhedrin chapter “zeh borer.”  A “brit” is an agreement with someone you choose. But more fundamentally, a “brit” is a pledge to someone else. The idea of “choosing” is not so related to the fundamental nature of a “brit.” (One commentary who suggests this “choosing” meaning as a possible origin for the word “brit” is Ibn Ezra. See his comm. to Gen. 6:18.)
                 Another approach looks at the “brit bein ha-betarim” as a model for the meaning of “brit.” There, animals were cut in half and God (in some form) walked between them. Based on this, the suggestion can be made that perhaps “brit” means separation. Ibn Ezra (comm. to Gen. 6:18) mentions this as a possibility. Rav S. R. Hirsch (comm. to Gen. 6:18) adopts this approach, suggesting a relation between B-R-T and P-R-D (separate). S. D. Luzzatto (comm. to Gen. 15:10) adopts this approach, suggesting that B-R-T is merely a metathesis of B-T-R (separate, divide). The root B-T-R is used three times in Gen. 15. The idea of “separation” can also be implied in the root B-R-R, since things that are chosen are separated.
                 But a “brit” seems more likely to be a word of unity than a word of separation. So intuitively it is hard to accept “separation” as its original meaning.  The commentators who adopt this approach are probably overly influenced by the brit bein ha-betarim story (and by something similar at Jer. 34:18-19). They are also likely influenced by the expression “koret brit.”
                 (R. Hirsch does make an interesting attempt to justify the “separation” idea. He writes: “Brit” is an arrangement which is to be carried out, quite independently of all external circumstances, even in opposition to them. It literally corresponds to the conception of the “absolute,” something separated, cut off…something absolutely unconditional.”)
                 So far I have suggested explanations based on the concepts of “eating,” “choosing,” and “separating.” But none have the “ring of truth” (pun intended, as you will see). Therefore many scholars adopt a very different approach. There is a word found in the Mishnah in Shabbat (chapter 6) and in the Tosefta to Kelim (chapter 5 of its middle section): “beirit” or “burit.” Jastrow defines it as a “ring,” “hoop,” “thing cut in circular form.” It turns out that this is a later version of a word found in Akkadian in the Biblical period. The Akkadian word is “biritu” and it means “clasp, fetter.” I.e., it is something that binds things together. (Akkadian is the language of ancient Assyria and Babylonia. It is a Semitic language that is related to Hebrew.)
              Since a “brit” is in its essence something that binds people together, this would be a very sensible approach to understanding the origin of the word. This approach is argued for in the “brit” essay in the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (one of my favorite works; it has essays on the words, not just conclusory entries). It is also the approach taken long ago in the classic work Brown-Driver-Briggs. After finding this approach in these two sources, I found that it was already adopted by our own Marcus Jastrow!  In his “brit” (covenant) entry, p. 194, Jastrow gives the fundamental meaning of the word “brit” as “circle, ring, chain,” and he refers you to his earlier “beirit” entry on p. 166. There he refers to the Akkadian word.
                 The most common expression for entering into a “brit” in Tanach” is “koret brit.” Can the term “koret brit” help us understand the original meaning of the word “brit”?
                 The “separation” understanding of the word “brit” fits with “koret brit,” even though it is a bit tautological (”cutting a separation”). But what about the “ring” interpretation? Jastrow’s entry for “brit” includes the following conjectural statement: “ ‘koret brit,’ to cut a ring out; to make a covenant.”  I believe that Jastrow is suggesting that the way a “ring” was created involved cutting. That is how the term “koret brit” could have arisen with “brit” meaning “ring.”
                   By the way, how does one annul a “brit”? The word typically used is “hefer” which comes from the root P-R-R which means “break.”  So the common words used with “brit,” namely “koret” and “hefer,” both go well with understanding “brit” as a “ring” that unites two parties.
                    Finally, The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament points out that the Akkadian and Hittite terms for “treaty” (terms not related to “brit”) both have the meaning “bond.”
                    For all of the above reasons, I believe that the “ring” meaning of “brit” was the original meaning.
                    (I am not ruling out other possible interpretations of “koret brit.” One possible interpretation is that “koret brit” refers to the ceremony of cutting of the animals that may have often accompanied the “brit.” But this does not mean that the word “brit” itself had a meaning of “cutting.” Another interpretation is that “koret/cut” is figurative for “decide, decree.” For example, in English, we “cut” deals. In Hebrew, there are expressions like “gezar din” and “chitukh din.” There is much support for this interpretation.)
                     Regarding the ceremony of the cutting of the animals that may have often accompanied a “brit” (see  Gen. 15 and Jer. 34: 18-20), most likely the ceremony symbolized the uniting of the parties through common blood. This is suggested in the Hertz Chumash, comm. to Gen. 15:10.  Or perhaps this cutting ceremony makes palpable the punishment befalling the one who violates the pact. This is what Rashi suggests at Jer. 34:18. No one really knows.
               As long as we are on the subject of “brit,” let us briefly discuss the term for the U.S.  in modern Hebrew: artzot ha-brit. When and why was this term adopted? Artzot (or medinot) me’uchadot would have been more appropriate. The editor of the site did some preliminary research in a post of April 23 2010. Although he could not determine precisely when the term artzot ha-brit was first used in Hebrew to refer to the U.S., he found that this term was already used to refer to the U.S. in 1857. But more interestingly, he found that in 1859, the term was used to refer to Germany (=the German confederation).  It is possible that it was used to refer to Germany before it was used to refer to the U.S.!
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. His most recent book is Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy. He can be reached at