The fourth book of the Pentateuch is known as Bamidbar after its opening verse, which reads: “Hashem spoke to Moses in the midbar of Sinai…” (Numbers 1:1). If you are confused as to the proper translation of the word midbar, that is because early English translations of the Bible disagreed over how to render it. In the Wycliffe Bible, for instance, midbar is translated as “desert”; in the Tyndale and KJV editions, it is rendered as “wilderness.” Without choosing sides in that particular debate, this essay explores the etymology of the Hebrew midbar and considers if and how it might differ from potential synonyms aravah and tziyah.
The word midbar appears approximately 270 times in the Bible and is often attached to a proper place-name, like Midbar Sinai, Midbar Sin, Midbar Paran, Midbar Shur, Midbar Kadesh, Midbar Damesek, Midbar Ein-Gedi, and Midbar Yehuda. The word aravah (plural: arvot) appears 60 times in the Bible, and is also sometimes attached to a proper place-name, like Arvot Moav and Arvot Yericho. Finally, the word tziyah appears 16 times in the Bible, with all instances in Psalms, Job, or the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Trei Asar). Unlike the other two terms, it never appears in the Pentateuch and it is never attached to any proper names.
The early lexicographers Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach (990-1050) and Radak (1160-1234) trace the word midbar to the triliteral root dalet-bet-reish. Radak writes that the core meaning of midbar is “pastures far away from civilization,” the ones to which shepherds would lead their flock in order to graze. In a borrowed sense, midbar came to refer to any remote or far-flung area which is distant from human settlement.
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814) sees the word midbar as related to dever, explaining that the midbar refers to an empty, uninhabited place devoid of human life – as though a plague had wiped out civilization, G-d-forbid. Alternatively, Rabbi Tzvi Matisyahu Abrahams in his work Root Connections in the Torah (Mosaica Press) relates midbar to the word dibbur. The desert/wilderness is a place free from any distractions, an especially ripe place for a person to hear Hashem speaking.
In the case of aravah, all the early lexicographers – Ibn Janah, Radak, and even Ibn Saruk – trace it to the three-letter root ayin-reish-bet. Byzantine Greek scholar Rabbeinu Meyuchas ben Eliyahu explains that a desert/wilderness is called aravah because of its topography: aravah denotes a depressed valley less exposed to sunlight than a plain at higher elevation. To bolster this explanation, he compares aravah to words that share its ayin-reish-bet root, like erev (“evening”) and orev (“raven”).
Rabbi Abrahams offers a different way of connecting aravah to the other words that use the three-letter root ayin-reish-bet. According to him, the core idea behind this three-letter string is a breakdown of boundaries, a breakdown which causes a blending and blurring of distinctions between things. A “mixture,” for example, is called a taarovet or irbuvia, with all of the constituent ingredients mixing to form a single mass. Similarly, the word erev (“evening”) denotes a time of day when it is harder to distinguish between objects as they seem to merge together in the darkness. An eiruv is a Halachic mechanism used to merge otherwise distinct domains for the purposes of allowing one to carry on Shabbat; and an areiv (“guarantor”) obscures the distinction between the actual borrower and another person who undertakes to pay the borrower’s debt. Rabbi Abrahams explains that aravah, in turn, is a desert plain that is something between a mountain or a valley, obfuscating the differences between those two landscapes.
The etymology of the Hebrew word tziyah is subject to dispute amongst the early lexicographers. Menachem Ibn Saruk traces it to the monoliteral root tzadi, Ibn Janach traces it to the triliteral root tzadi-yod-yod, and Radak traces it to the triliteral root tzadi-yod–hey.
Implicitly following Ibn Saruk’s approach, Rabbi Pappenheim expands on the meaning of the monoliteral root tzadi and its various tributaries. He defines the core meaning of that root as “exiting” or “going out.” According to this understanding, tziyah refers to a “desert/wilderness” so dry and/or desolate because its moisture and/or inhabitants have left it. In a similar way, matzah (“unleavened bread,” a dry food) and metzitzah (“sucking”) are also derived from this monoliteral tzadi root.
Now that we have established the etymological bases of the three words midbar, aravah, and tziyah, we can examine various explanations about how they differ from one another.
In the haftarah to Parashat Bamidbar, the prophet Hosea relates that Hashem warns the Jewish People to stop worshiping idolatry, which he likens to a married woman cheating on her husband, “lest I strip her naked and present her like the day she was born, and I will change her into something like a midbar and I will render her like a tziyah land” (Hoshea 2:5).
In explaining this passage, Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer (1720-1797), the Vilna Gaon, writes that midbar and tziyah mean essentially the same thing, but that tziyah implies a more intense desolation than midbar does. Based on this, he explains that Hashem’s warning meant that if the Jewish People do not cease and desist from committing idolatry, He would strip them of the important gifts that He previously granted them. Depriving them of the gift of nevuah (“prophecy”) would leave them like a midbar, and taking away the gift of ruach hakodesh (“divine spirit,” a lower level of divine inspiration) would leave them as bereft as a tziyah.
The prophet Jeremiah foretold that even though Babylonia was destined to conquer the Kingdom of Judah, their fate was to eventually become destroyed and be left as “a midbar, tziyah, and aravah” (Jeremiah 50:12). In this one passage, Jeremiah uses all three words for “desert/wilderness” to describe the future desolation of Babylonia.
As he often does, the Metzudat David (there) writes that in this passage the Bible simply uses a series of synonyms to express the same idea, a form of poetic expression without intending any semantic difference between them. Malbim (there) disagrees, referring the reader to his discussion of the differences between these terms in Isaiah.
Isaiah foresaw the Jews’ future return to the Holy Land and its rejuvenation. In doing so, he speaks of a time when “the midbar and tziyah will rejoice, and the aravah will be glad” (Isaiah 35:1). In other words, the Holy Land will be transformed from a desolate and forsaken place into a fruitful and populous home. It is in the context of this passage, that Malbim explains the difference between these three expressions.
Malbim writes that tziyah primarily refers to an especially dry and arid place caused by prolonged exposure to heat. For this reason, the Psalmist praises Hashem as the One who transforms a tziyah into a source of water (Psalms 107:35), as the tziyah represents the exact opposite of an area blessed with springs and pools of water. In contrast, the term aravah denotes a place in which all sorts of wild growths like thorns and thistles dominate. Thus, the aravah is not completely dry like the tziyah, but rather has enough moisture to support these wild flora. The opposite of an aravah is a flourishing garden, and indeed elsewhere Isaiah foretells of when Hashem will comfort the Holy Land by transforming its aravah into something like “the Garden of Hashem” (Isaiah 51:3). Lastly, Malbim contends that the word midbar refers to an empty deserted place where people are generally not found; thus midbar implies a place that is inherently unfit for settlement or cultivation, which consequently leaves it empty of human settlement or even human passersby. As Malbim clarifies, the tziyah and aravah are desolate because of external factors (the tziyah because it is afflicted by extreme heat, and the aravah because it has become dominated by wild weeds), while a midbar is a place that is inherently unworthy of cultivation.