What's in a Word?

For the week ending 28 August 2021 / 20 Elul 5781

Seasoning the Land

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

Avot de-Rabbi Natan(version #1, ch. 37) teaches that just as there are Seven Heavens, so too are there seven words for the "Earth": eretz, adamah, arka, charavah, yabashah, taivel and cheled. Although all of these words appear to be synonyms for “the land” as we know it, each word connotes a different aspect of the land and has its own etymological basis. This series of essays will explore these apparent synonyms, seeking to find out how they differ from one another and trying to derive some meaning from this whole discussion. To begin with we will focus our attention on the word eretz and how it differs from the word adamah.

In many triliteral roots that begin with the letter ALEPH, that letter is superfluous to the underlying biliteral root that is at the core of the triliteral string. In this spirit, the Midrash Rabbah (Genesis 5:8) asserts that eretz (with an ALEPH) is related to the words ratzon and ratz (sans an ALEPH), explaining that when G-d first created the world, the land “wanted(ratzah) to follow G-d’s “will” (ratzon), so it started “running(ratz) to cover as much of the Earth’s surface as possible until Hashem told the land to stop. Avot d’Rabbi Natan (version #2, ch. 43) similarly expounds on eretz as related to ritzah (“running”), explaining that the connection highlights the land’s role as G-d’s loyal servant. This point is illustrated by way of a parable concerning a king who summons a family member. The relative comes running to heed the king’s summons, and the king rewards him by granting him a fiefdom. The same is true of the eretz, which was all the more happy to be at G-d’s beck and call.

The Radak in Sefer Shorashim explains that eretz relates to “running” because of the planet’s non-stop astronomical motions. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893) understands eretz as a reference to the physical aspect of creation, as opposed to its spiritual aspect known as shamayim. The observable, physical parts of reality are powered by the unseen spiritual “batteries” that provide energy. The nature of that which receives its energy from elsewhere is to always “run” towards its source of power. Therefore, the eretz can be said to be constantly “running” towards the shamayim that powers it. On the other hand, Rabbi Toviah ben Eliezer (11th century) in Midrash Lekach Tov (to Gen. 1:1) offers a more morbid explanation of the connection between eretz and “running”: Whether they like it or not, everyone is “running” to the eretz in the sense they will eventually be buried in the ground after death.

Interestingly, Rabbi Shaul Mortera of Amsterdam (1596-1660) writes that the verb shoretz (“spreading out”) — from which the noun sheretz (“insect”) is derived — comes from eretz/ratz (possibly using the shiphal inflection or following the approach that any letter can join with a two-letter root to form a three-letter root).

Avot d'Rabbi Natan(version #2) explains that the “land” is called adamah because Adam was created from the earth. But what is the difference between eretz and adamah?

In many places in the Torah, the unqualified term eretz refers specifically to the Holy Land, while adamah refers specifically to the Diaspora. Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) sheds light on this distinction by drawing from Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim’s understanding of the etymology of adamah: Rabbi Pappenheim explains that the biliteral root DALET-MEM refers to “similarity” (e.g., domeh), which implies “incongruency” — because if two things are only said to be similar, then this precludes them from being exactly the same. A corollary of this meaning begets domem (“quiet/inactive”), because the cessation of activity creates “incongruency” between one’s inner goings-on that continue to be active and one’s outer activity which has been paused. As a result, Rabbi Pappenheim explains the word adamah asan off-shoot of this tributary of DALET-MEM, because the adamah is the environment in which plants grow and are active, yet the adamah itself remains passive and sedentary.

Expanding on this explanation, Rabbi Mecklenburg writes that the term adamah applies to the lands outside of the Holy Land because those who live in such places remain sedentary and inactive in terms of fulfilling the Torah’s agricultural laws, which apply exclusively in the Holy Land. On the other hand, eretz derives from the root REISH-TZADI (“fluency” or “persistency”), an allusion to the Earth’s persistent orbit around the sun, and its rotation on its axis. Rabbi Mecklenburg explains that this term especially applies to the Holy Land, wherein people must be constantly active and vigilant in order to fulfill the Torah’s agricultural commandments — the exact opposite of the passivity implied by adamah.

In a previous essay (“The Land Down Under,” June 2018) we differentiated between eretz and adamah by explaining adamah as restricted to the topmost strata of the Earth’s crust, while eretz could even refer to that which is deeper down. Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook (1891-1982) explains that ratzon refers to a person's “final goal” or “ultimate will,” while chefetz refers to one’s more tangible, immediate goal. This is why tangible items are called chafetzim in Mishnaic Hebrew (see Rashi to Koh. 3:1). In other words, one’s ratzon is what one really wants deep down inside. This parallels the word eretz, which also includes that which lies beneath the surface. Midrash Mishlei (ch. 8) writes that the land is called eretz because people “run” on it. This means that the eretz serves as the “game board” upon which one plays out his true goals and dreams. In contrast, the word adamah is more associated with superficiality, as it derives from the biliteral root DALET-MEM (“similarity”). One’s dimyon (“imagination” or “delusion”) might superficially resemble reality, but it is not the real McCoy. The adamah does not imply the place where one does what he really wants to do, but where one does whatever he has deluded himself into thinking he wants to do.

In the next installment we will discuss the remaining synonyms for eretz.

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