When G-d promised Avraham that his descendants would be numerous, He said, “I will make your descendants like the dirt (afar) of the land such that if a person could count the dirt (afar) of the land, so too will your descendants be countable” (Genesis 13:16).
“Afar” is often paired with eifer” (ashes). For example, when Avraham prayed for G-d to spare Sodom, he started by saying, “I am but afar and eifer” (ibid. 19:27). Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893), the venerated rosh yeshiva of Volozhin, writes that prayers are sometimes answered in the merit of one’s righteous forefathers (see Rashi to Genesis 25:21) or descendants (see Bereishis Rabbah 29:5). Avraham, though, had neither (his father Terach was an idolater and he had no children yet). So Avraham appealed directly to G-d’s mercy, noting that he had no righteous past or future just like dirt (afar) has no useful past and ashes (eifer) have no useful future.
In commanding us to cover the blood of a slaughtered animal, the Torah uses the word “afar” (Leviticus 17:13). Beis Shammai (Chullin 88b) maintains that only literal afar may be used while Beis Hillel says ashes may be used too (since “afar” is a generic term that can encompass eifer). As usual, the halacha follows Beis Hillel, and the Talmud (Shabbos 18a) and Rashi (to Taanis 15a) imply that “afar” and “eifer” are synonyms in some contexts.
The Zohar (Vayishlach 170a) states that eifer and avak remain after a fire and cannot facilitate growth. There is a difference between the two, however. Eifer is produced by being burnt while avak (“powdery dust”) is produced by being pulverized. The Zohar’s critical point is that while afar is the crucible from which all growth emerges, nothing will ever grow from eifer or avak.
It is therefore significant that the Torah (Numbers 19:17) calls the ashes of the Red Heifer afar instead of eifer. Rabbi Moshe Shapiro (1935-2017) explains that this word choice teaches us that sometimes items that seem to be the products of destruction (e.g., ashes) can be transformed into the impetus for creation. Case in point: Unlike regular ashes, the ashes of the Red Heifer do facilitate growth.
Ritual impurity via contact with a corpse represents the mistaken notion that physical death marks the end of existence. The ashes of the Red Heifer teach us that death actually represents renewal and rejuvenation as the soul moves from this world to the next. To convey this lesson, the Torah uses the fecunditious “afar” precisely where one would have expected it to use the infertile “eifer.”
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) traces “eifer” to the biliteral root peh-reish, which denotes breaking something down into smaller components. Eifer is broken down into carbonate particles through conflagration. Other words derived from this root include “perurim” (crumbs), “parur” (a special pot for cooking crumbs or other small grains), “pur” (a special box used for drawing lots that resembles a parur), “pri” (a fruit, which spawns from a tree), “par”/“parah” (uncastrated bovine, used for their reproductive abilities), “tiferet” (all-encompassing beauty, containing multiple aspects), “hafarah” (disintegrating, or nullifying, a vow), and “primah” (tearing clothing into multiple shreds).
According to Rabbi Pappenheim, only “eifer” – not “afar” – can derive from the two-letter root peh-reish since Rabbi Pappenheim believes two-letter roots may only be joined with the letters hey, aleph, mem, nun, tav, yud, or vav – not ayin. Other proponents of the two-letter root theory, however, like Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865), do connect “afar” with peh-reish. He explains that afar is an indispensable part of growing fruit (pri).
Similarly, Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843-1916) in his work Barzilai traces both “afar” and “eifer” to the root peh-reish. In Keses HaSofer, Rabbi Marcus writes that “afar” is actually a portmanteau of ayin-peh (flying) and peh-reish.
Another word for dust, mentioned above, is “avak.” Rabbi Pappenheim argues that afar is run-of-the-mill dirt while avak is finer dust. According to Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, “avak” denotes something that has been rubbed down to its core particles and is so light that it can be blown in the wind. In this spirit, the rabbis use the term “avak” to refer to “rubbing up” against certain sins, without technically violating them: avak lashon hara (Bava Basra 165a), avak ribbis (Temurah 6b), avak sheviis (Sukkah 40b), avak avodah zarah (Tosefta, Avodah Zarah 1:3).
Rabbi Shapiro notes that avak is always the product of a struggle. When Yaakov grappled with Eisav’s angel, the resulting avak was said to have reached G-d’s Throne of Glory (Chullin 91a). Rabbi Yehuda Leib Edel (1760-1828) proposes that since aleph and chet are sometimes interchangeable, “avak” may be related to “chavak” (hug). Particles of powder are so small and insignificant that one only encounters them as residue clinging onto, or “hugging,” other objects.
Another word for “ashes” is deshen. Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935) cites Rabbi Eliezer Lipman Lichtenstein’s Shem Olam to the effect that a fire remains in deshen (like an ember) but not in eifer, which is completely burnt. Rabbi Yehuda Leib Shapira-Frankfurter (1743-1826), R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s great uncle, writes that “eifer” refers to ordinary ashes while “deshen” refers exclusively to ashes born of the rituals in the Temple.
Rabbi Pappenheim explains that ashes is a secondary meaning of “deshen”; its primary meaning is fat (see Deuteronomy 31:20, Psalms 63:6, and Proverbs 15:30). According to Rabbi Pappenheim, “deshen” refers exclusively to ashes derived from burnt animals (since fat is an organic substance found in all living creatures).