Reuven Chaim Klein
What's in a Word? Synonyms in the Hebrew Language

Reaching for the Globe

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Avot d’Rabbi Natan (version #1, ch. 37) teaches that just as there are Seven Heavens, so are there seven words for the “Earth”: eretz, adamah, arka, charavah, yabashah, taivel and cheled. Even though 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. In our previous essay, called “Running for the Land,” we focused our attention on the word eretz and how it differs from the word adamah. In this essay we will deal with the rest of the words.

A Psalm ascribed to none other than Moses describes G-d as having been all-powerful since the beginning of time: “Before the mountains were born and the eretz and taivel were fashioned, from eternity unto eternity, You are G-d” (Ps. 90:2). A similar statement is found in another Psalm attributed to King David: “To Hashem [belongs] the eretz and its contents, the taivel and those who dwell within it” (Ps. 24:1). The Metzudat Tzion clarifies that when the terms eretz and taivel are juxtaposed to one another, each one bears a specific meaning, with eretz referring to the uninhabited parts of the world and taivel referring to the inhabited lands. Malbim similarly explains that eretz refers to the entire globe, while taivel only refers to inhabited places. Rashi (to Ps. 24:1) takes a different approach, postulating that eretz refers specifically to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) and taivel refers to the rest of the planet.

Avot d’Rabbi Natan (version #1) offers two cryptic statements about why the land is called taivel: “Why is it called taivel? Because it is ‘spiced’ (metubal) with everything. Alternatively, because its way is for things to enter it and not for things to exit it.” Both of these statements relate to the connection between taivel and the root BET-LAMMED. Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim explains that root as referring to something losing its independent existence either by being “mixed in” to something else or by “wearing out/rotting away.” The Mishnaic Hebrew word for “spices/seasoning” is tavlin, which derives from the second meaning of BET-LAMMED in the sense of something typically “mixed in” to food to make it taste better. The way Avot d’Rabbi Natan (version #2, ch. 43) records this statement, that the world is called taivel because it is “spiced up” (metubal) with Torah. In this way, the Midrash relays to us the importance of Torah and Torah study, because the entire world is called taivel simply because there is Torah “mixed into” the goings-on of the planet.

The second comment about why the land is called taivel refers to the fact that the nature of the world is that people “enter” the ground (that is, they are buried there when they die), but do not emerge from that grave — at least until the miraculous Resurrection of the Dead will reverse that trend. Consequently, the land is viewed as the place where bodies “decompose” and “rot,” thus connecting taivel to the second meaning of BET-LAMMED.

The word taivel should not be confused with the word tevel (“abomination”). Although both words are spelled the same, they are vowelized differently. Nonetheless, they bear a shared root because both derive from BET-LAMMED. Rabbi Yom Tov Tzahalon (1559-1638), sometimes known as Mahari Tatz, explains that the word tevel at its core means “mixing.” This refers to the idea that one who commits the sorts of destructive abominations labeled tevel is usually a “mixed-up and confused” individual or is somebody who is “mixing up” the regular order of nature by doing something unnatural. Parallel to this, taivel refers to the populated parts of the world, which are characterized as “melting pot” admixtures, with many different types of people, flora and fauna all occupying the same space.

The word arka (“land”) appears only once in the entire Bible. When Jehoiachin and other prominent Jews from Judah were exiled to Babylonia before the destruction of the First Temple, Jeremiah wrote them a letter in Aramaic to tell them how they should respond to Babylonian pressures to worship idolatry. This is the only verse in the Book of Jeremiah that is written in Aramaic: “So shall you say to them, ‘The gods whom the Heavens and the Earth (arka) do not serve will be destroyed from the land (ara’a) and from beneath these heavens’” (Jer. 10:11).

Rabbi Shmuel Yaffe-Ashkenazi (1525-1595) explains that although the rest of this passage is in Aramaic, the word arka itself is Hebrew, because the Aramaic form of eretz is ara’a (with the Hebrew TZADI morphing into an Aramaic AYIN, as often happens) — a word which also appears in this same verse. The connection between the Hebrew words eretz and arka is unclear, but perhaps the TZADI of eretz somehow became a KUF because those two letters appear one after another in Hebrew Alphabet.

Midrash Mishlei (ch. 8) explains that the land is called arka because it “fled” from before G-d when He wanted to give the Torah to the Jewish People at Mount Sinai. I am not sure what this means, but the basis for this exegesis seems to be the similarity between the Hebrew arka (with an ALEPH) and the Aramaic word arka (spelled with an AYIN), which means “to flee.”

So far we have seen four Hebrew words that mean “land”: eretz, adamah, taivel, and arka. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel (Ber. Rabbah 13:12) expounds on these four words by explaining how each one alludes to a different one of the four seasons: eretz refers to spring when the land presents forth (ratz) its produce; taivel refers to the summer when the land’s produce rots; adamah refers to autumn when the ground starts dividing into patches/clumps; and arka refers to winter when the land is bereft (reik, “empty”) of its produce.

Cheled (Ps. 49:2) and chedel (Isa. 38:11) seem to be metathesized forms of the same term (see Ibn Ezra to Ps. 39:6). Radak in Sefer HaShorashim understands both CHET-LAMMED-DALET and CHET-DALET-LAMMED to be synonyms for zman (“time”), presumably understanding that it refers to the ephemeral, temporary nature of This World and its inhabitants. The Jerusalem Talmud (Shabbat 14:1) similarly explains that when the Torah calls mankind “inhabitants of cheled/chedel,” this alludes to the way in which people are similar to “weasels” (chuldah). Just as a weasel drags food from one place and leaves it in another without knowing beforehand whom he is benefitting with that food, so too people work hard to produce and leave things in This World without the foreknowledge of who exactly will reap their benefits in the future. This is reminiscent of how Choni the Circle-Maker asked a farmer why he bothered to plant a tree that would take seventy years to bear fruit (see Taanit 23a).

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Continuing with this somewhat morbid theme, Rabbi David Chaim Chelouche (1920-2016), the late Chief Rabbi of Netanya, explains cheled as a portmanteau of CHET-LAMMED (“beginning”) and LAMMED-DALET (“birth”). He explains that the word reminds us that one can be cognizant of the day of one’s beginning-birth, but one cannot know ahead of time the day of one’s death.

The root CHET-DALET-LAMMED also means “to stop/withhold” (chadal) and the root CHET-LAMMED-DALET gives way to the Mishnaic Hebrew term chaludah (“rust”). Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 11:8, Ps. 17:14) explains that both of these terms highlight man’s frailties and shortcomings. In other words, at a certain point in time, no matter how active a person is, he will eventually show signs of wearing down and will prove mortal. He will eventually be forced “to stop.” The same is even true of metals, which are typically the strongest materials available, but yet after prolonged exposure to the elements they will rust and show their frailty. According to this, cheled/chedel focuses on “land” as an element of creation subject to the whims of time, just like man’s deficiencies and short-comings show that man too is subject to the confines of time.

Avot d’Rabbi Natan (version #2) explains that the land is also called charavah and yabashah, which are synonyms for “dry-land,” because of the land’s role in absorbing the water of the Deluge after the flood ended (or absorbing Abel’s blood after he was buried, according to Midrash Mishlei).

Avot d’Rabbi Natan (version #2) adds three more words for “land” that the standard edition found to be too farfetched: reishit, gay, and sadeh. See also Vayikra Rabbah 29:11 for a different list of seven words for “land.” Finally, Rabbi Avraham Bedersi notes that the word karka represents a totally different concept from the list of words that we discussed in this essay. He clarifies that in Biblical Hebrew karka does not mean “land,” but rather it denotes the floor underneath a building or sea (although he admits that in Rabbinic Hebrew the term came to be almost synonymous with eretz and adamah).

About the Author
RABBI REUVEN CHAIM KLEIN is a researcher and editor at the Veromemanu Foundation in Israel. His weekly articles about synonyms in the Hebrew Language appear in the OhrNet and are syndicated by the Jewish Press and Times of Israel. For over a decade, he studied at preimer Haredi Yeshivot, including Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles, Yeshivat Mir in Jerusalem, Beth Medrash Govoha of America. He received rabbinic ordination from multiple rabbinic authorities and holds an MA in Jewish Education from the London School of Jewish Studies/Middlesex Univeristy. Rabbi Klein authored two popular books that were published by Mosaica Press, as well as countless articles and papers published in various journals. He and his wife made Aliyah in 2011 and currently live in the West Bank city of Beitar Illit. Rabbi Klein is a celebrated speaker and is available for hire in research, writing, and translation projects, as well as speaking engagements.
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