Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi (in Eruvin 19a) lists seven Biblical words for the netherworld: “sheol,” “avadon,” “be’er shachat,” “bor shaon,” “tit hayaven,” “tzal-mavet,” and “eretz hatachtit.”
“Sheol” and its various forms appear close to 70 times in the Bible. The word’s literal meaning is “grave.” The Ibn Ezra translates it as such and criticizes the Christian Vulgate for translating it into Latin (in Genesis 37:35) as infernos (inferno). Rashi, however, explains that although the plain meaning of “sheol” is grave, it can exegetically refer to the netherworld. The Malbim writes that “sheol” literally means a deep pit from which it is impossible to leave.
My friend, Rabbi Tzvi Matisyahu Abrahams, takes a more exhortative approach in his book Root Connections in the Torah. He writes (p. 274): “The grave is called sheol because at the time when we will be placed into the ground, there will be a big question (sheilah) mark hanging over our heads as to where we will be headed.”
The second word on Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s list is “avadon” (Psalms 88:12), which either refers to the destruction/rotting of the body after death or to the fact that souls are lost (avad) there for some time.
The third word is “shachat,” or “be’er shachat” (Psalms 16:10, 55:24), which often means a pit. Rabbi Avraham Bedersi HaPenini (1230-1300) writes that “shachat” is a pit dug to capture wild animals. He connects it to the netherworld by noting that the wicked sometimes set up traps to ensnare the righteous. He also explains that “shachat” is an expression of destruction (hashchatah), for the body rots and decomposes in the grave.
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) identifies the root of “shachat” as shin-chet, which means bending. When a person is in a pit, he is forced to bend his body.
The fourth word listed by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi is “bor shaon” (Psalms 40:3). R. Yonah ibn Janach and others explain that “shaon” (which means ruckus) and “shaanan” (which means quiet) are actually related to each other. “Bor shaon” might therefore mean “Pit of Silence” and refer to the fact that one can’t speak after death.
Rashi (to Isaiah 9:4) and the Radak (in his Sefer HaShorashim) explain that “shaon” has the same root as “shoah” (holocaust or destruction).
The fifth word is “tit hayaven” (literally, slimy mud), found in Psalms 40:3 alongside “bor shaon.” The netherworld restricts one’s freedom of movement like somebody stuck in quicksand, and the dead lie lifelessly in the grave.
Rabbi Pappenheim maintains that “hayaven” is derived from the root yud-nun, which means trickery or deception. It is related to “onaah” (essentially to profit by ripping somebody off), and “yayin” (wine, which deceives the drinker by tasting good but then taking away his capacity to think properly). Similarly, quicksand deceives people by appearing to be dry land that one can walk on. (Similar explanations are offered by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch [commentary on Genesis 9:20] and Rabbi Aharon Marcus [Keset HaSofer to Genesis 10:2].)
The sixth word is “tzal-mavet,” which literally means shadow of death (Psalms 107:10 and Job 10:21). The seventh word is “eretz hatachtit” (literally, “the underworld”). The Talmud cannot find an example of the Bible using this word but says a tradition links it with the netherworld.
Another version of Rabbi Yehoshua’s list, found in Sefer Russiana and Menorat HaMaor by Rabbi Yitzchak Abuhab (14th century Spain), has “eretz chittit” (the Land of the Hittites) instead of “eretz tachtit.” The Tosafists prefer this version. They note that “eretz tachtit” actually does appear in the Bible (several times in Ezekiel 31; see also Deuteronomy 32:22) while “eretz chittit” does not. If we assume, therefore, that “eretz tachtit” is a (very understandable) scribal error, the Talmud’s entire discussion makes more sense.
The Maharsha (1555-1631) explains that these seven words correspond to seven different places in the netherworld (see Sotah 10b). Midrash Konen (printed in Rabbi J.D. Eisenstein’s Otzar Midrashim, p. 256) writes that Korach and his companions occupy sheol; the lost souls of the wicked occupy avadon; robbers, thieves, and those who withhold wages from workers occupy be’er shachat; those who violate the laws governing sexual relations occupy tit hayaven; slanderers occupy tzal-mavet; and those who argue with Torah scholars occupy eretz tachtit.
The Tosafists cite several sources that presume that “alukah” (literally, leech or sanguisuga) – which appears in Proverbs 30:15 – is another term for the netherworld. The Maharal explains that the netherworld sucks out a person’s soul just as a leech sucks out a person’s blood. Similarly, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (1749-1821) explains in Nefesh HaChaim (1:12) that the netherworld cleanses a person of his sins just as a leech sucks out a person’s bad blood.
The Talmud asks why Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi didn’t include “gehinnom” and “tophet” in his list. It answers that they are not names for the netherworld. (Indeed, in the Bible, “gei ben hinnom” and “tophet” refer to sites in southern Jerusalem where idol worshippers served Baal.) Rather, they are allusions to why somebody might end up there.
“Gehinnom,” says the Talmud, refers to the deep valley (“gei”) that people who engage in pointless (“chinam,” which Rashi explains refers to sexual impropriety) activities descend to. And “tophet” is the place where those who are convinced, or seduced, (“mifateh”) by the Evil Inclination fall.