Photo Credit: Jodie Maoz

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. In Part I, we focused our attention on the word eretz and how it differs from the word adamah. In Part II, we deal with the rest of the words.

A Psalm ascribed to Moshe Rabbeinu describes G-d as being 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 stuff, the taivel and those who dwell within it” (Ps. 24:1).


The Metzudat Tzion clarifies that when the terms eretz and taivel are juxtaposed, 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 and taivel refers to the rest of the planet.


The Meanings of Taivel

Avot de-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-lamed. 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-lamed in the sense of something typically “mixed in” to food to make it taste better.

Avot de-Rabbi Natan (version #2, ch. 43) explains that the world is called taivel because it is “spiced up” (metubal) with Torah, so that the Midrash is emphasizing the importance of Torah in that the entire world is called taivel simply because there’s a little bit of Torah “mixed into” it.

The word taivel should not be confused with tevel (abomination); even though both words are spelled the same, they are vowelized differently. They bear a shared root because both derive from bet-lamed. 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 kind of abomination labeled tevel is usually a “mixed-up and confused” individual or 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 by “melting pot” admixtures, with many types of people, flora and fauna all occupying the same space.


Arka: A Word from Jeremiah

The word arka (“land”) appears only once in the Tanach. 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 telling them how to respond to Babylonian pressures to worship idols. This is the only verse in the Book of Jeremiah 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 is Hebrew. The connection between the Hebrew words eretz and arka is unclear, but perhaps the tzadi of eretz somehow became a kuf because the two letters appear one after another in the Hebrew alphabet.

So far, we have seen four Hebrew words that mean “land”: eretz, adamah, taivel, and arka. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel (Bereishit 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: Time in This World

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 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 terms highlight man’s frailties and shortcomings. In other words, at a certain point in time, no matter how active a person may be, 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, 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 shortcomings show that man too is subject to the confines of time.


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Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein writes The Jewish Press's "Fascinating Explorations in Lashon Hakodesh" column.