Avot de-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 these words appear to be synonyms for “land” as we know it, each word connotes a different aspect of the land and has its own etymological basis. In these essays, we will explore these apparent synonyms to find out how they differ and what meaning we can derive from the distinction. In Part I, we focus on the words eretz and adamah.
In many triliteral roots that begin with the letter aleph, that letter is superfluous to the underlying biliteral root at the core of the triliteral string. In this spirit, the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah §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”
Avot de-Rabbi Natan goes on (version #2, ch. 43) to expound on eretz as related to ritzah (“running”), highlighting 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. Said relative comes running to heed to the king’s summon, so the king rewards him by granting him a fiefdom. The same is true of the eretz, which was happy to be at G-d’s beck and call.
The Radak in Sefer Shorashim also connects eretz to the idea of running – in this case 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 the spiritual aspect of creation known as shamayim. The observable, physical aspects of reality are powered by unseen spiritual batteries that provide energy. The nature of that which receives its energy from elsewhere is to “run” towards its source of power; thus, 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 as to 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 they die.
Eretz and Adamah
Avot de-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 Scripture, 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 ceasing one’s activity creates an incongruency – a disconnect – between one’s inner, still active state and one’s outer state of paused activity. Adamah, then, is the environment in which plants grow and are active, yet the adamah itself remains passive and sedentary.
Expanding on Rabbi Pappenheim’s explanation, Rabbi Mecklenburg writes that adamah applies to the lands outside of the Holy Land because those who live in such places remain inactive in terms of fulfilling the Torah’s agricultural laws that apply exclusively in the Holy Land. On the other hand, eretz (from the root reish-tzadi, referring to fluency and persistency) is 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, where people must be constantly active and vigilant in order to fulfill the Torah’s agricultural commandments – the opposite of passivity as implied by adamah.
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 Ecc. 3:1). In other words, one’s ratzon is what one really wants deep down inside.
In the next installment, we will discuss the remaining synonyms for eretz.