For some of us, this is the time for travel. Traveling is a thrilling experience that expands the mind and provides appreciation for different cultures with which we share the world. Identifying with those who travel this season, I wish to explore the Hebrew word olam, often translated 'world' or 'universe.' The question arises, did the Hebrews of biblical time who coined the word comprehend the concept olam as we do, a word denoting 'planet,' 'universe,'' world,' and 'the earth' with its inhabitants?
In the Bible, olam is mentioned more than 430 times. Interestingly, with possibly one exception (Ecc 3:11), olam is used in reference to time, not to space. In other words, olam expresses long duration of time, antiquity, continued existence and even eternity or uninterrupted future. However, olam is not understood in terms of a spatial, vast universe. Some scholars point out that the noun olam is derived from the verb alam meaning 'hidden,' 'concealed,' and 'unknown time.' Others point to the Akkadian word ullu meaning 'remote time,' as the origin of the Hebrew concept. Either way, olam is the Hebraic conceptualization of time. not of space
Many phrases were coined in biblical Hebrew using olam to elucidate the concept of time. Phrases like me-ah-tah ve-ad-olam (from now to eternity), le-o-lam (forever), me-olam (from time immemorial), me-olam lo (never), brit olam (an eternal covenant), and le-olam chasdo (His mercy is forever), are but a few examples.
Only with the influence of the Greek and Roman worlds the meaning of olam expanded. Now, olam was conceptualized in terms of the physical world we live in and the idea of actual space was incorporated into the notion of time. New terms emerged like ha-loam ha-zeh 'this world,' the world we live in, versus ha-loam ha-bah-'the world to come,' the spiritual place of the righteous. The Chasidic adage, kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar me-od, 'the whole world is a narrow bridge,' only enhances this spatial comprehension.
Space is too short to mention all the Hebrew phrases derived from rabbinic literature where olam is at the center. Suffice it to mention, Melekh ha-olam, 'King of the universe,' Ribon olam, 'Master of the world,' and Adon olam, 'Master of the Universe,' appellations given to God acknowledging His sovereignty over the world. The famous saying: al sh'loshah de-varim ha-olam o-med…'the world is sustained on three principals:' the Torah, worship, and charity' (Avot 1:2) is a rabbinic ethical bequest to us. And, last but not least, we should mention the term tiqun olam meaning 'world repair,' the motivation behind Jewish social action.
I wish all our readers planning a trip a safe journey. May they return to their olam, their family and home, b'shalom.
Professor Rachel Zohar Dulin teaches Hebrew and Bible at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership.