Friday, 19 January 2018

Meaning of "Al-Mut" in Psalm 48:15 (Psalm for Monday)

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                                  Psalm 48: God Will Lead Us “Al Mut

       At the end of davening every Monday, we recite Psalm 48 as the “shir shel yom.” This Psalm ends:  “This is God, our God forever and ever; He will lead us al mut” (48:15).   
      In the Tanach and in our siddurim, the five letters are printed as two separate words: “al mut,” because this is the Masoretic tradition. But many of the interpretations are willing to interpret the five letters as if they were one word: “almut.”
       First, I will mention a few interpretations that interpret the five letters as two separate words:
                 -He will lead us until we die. (Radak suggests that the import is that God will lead us in this honorable manner until we die.)
                 -He will inspire us to overcome our fear of death. (Something like this is one of the suggestions in the Daat Mikra.)
                  -He will lead us beyond mortality.  I.e., He will make us immortal as a nation. (Rav S.R.Hirsch)
       Of course, the first of the two words is “al,” not “el.” This makes the first of these interpretations difficult, since “al” has a connotation of “above,” not “until” or “towards.”  The second of these interpretations is difficult because it does not fit the context. The third of these interpretations is creative but it does not seem like a plain sense interpretation.                                                                         
        A different approach interprets the five letters as if they were all one word. Those who adopt this approach observe that a-l-m-u-t can be seen as related to the word “a-l-m,” which means “youth.” (Everyone should know this root from Isaiah 7:14:  “Behold ha-almah [=young woman] shall conceive…”)
       Accordingly the following interpretations are offered:
                 -He will lead us slowly, like we are children. (Rashi) 
                 -He will lead us so our nation will have eternal youth (=immortality). (Rav S. R. Hirsch)
                  -He will lead us as He lead us when our nation was young. (Targum, Radak, one view cited in Ibn Ezra)
                  -He will lead us with strength. I.e., “youth” symbolizes “strength.” (This is one of the suggestions made in the Daat Mikra.)
                  -He will lead us in a way that maintains our youthful strength all of our days. (Meiri)
           Alternatively, Ibn Ezra mentions the possibility that a-l-m-u-t is related to a-l-m with the meaning “hidden.” The meaning of the verse would be: “God leads us [in a good way] in a manner that is hidden [from humans].”
             The main problem with all of these “youth” and “hidden” interpretations is that the text does not read “be-almut” or “ke-almut,” but merely “al mut.”
               An entirely different approach sees “almut” as related to “olam.” Then the verse could be translated: “He will lead us eternally.”  This would fit nicely as a continuation of the earlier part of the verse: “This is God, our God forever and ever.”  Rashi mentions that this approach was advocated by Menachem b. Saruk. Long before this, this approach was taken by the Septuagint. Many of our commentators adopt this approach.
                Of course, our verse does not read “olam” or “le-olam,” but a different word: “almut.”
               I could make the following argument. Perhaps that word A-L-M-U-T was originally A-L-M-Y-T. In other words, perhaps the fourth letter was originally a yod, not a vav.  Then it could be read as “olamit.” This means “eternally.” However, there is no word “olamit” in Tanach. This word first appears in the Mishnah and Tosefta. This makes it unlikely that there was such a word at the time of Psalm 48.  
               (It is true that typically “olam” and words derived from it are spelled with a vav as the second letter. But there are many occasions in Tanach where that vav is omitted. See, e.g., “olamim” in the malchutcha verse in Ashrei.)                                                                                     
              Another approach to our “al mut” can be to interpret the “al” as “el.” The Even-Shoshan concordance lists over 3000 instances of the word “al,” and for more than 20 of them, he suggests it has the meaning “el.” (Our traditional commentators also sometimes interpret “al” as “el.”) Then the statement could be interpreted as “He will lead us to death [=until our deaths].” (Perhaps we could read the second word as “mavet.”) The implication would be that he will lead us for our entire lives. But such a statement sounds too negative. There were surely more pleasant ways that this point could have been made.
              Now I will mention a completely different approach that is suggested by many scholars, and also included as a possibility in the Daat Mikra. They notice that Psalm 9 has the words “al mut” in its first verse, and Psalm 46 has a similar word “alamot” in its first verse. Both of these verses are introductory verses that begin with “la-menatzeach.” This suggests that these unusual words reflect a musical instruction. (This is also evident from the use of the word “alamot” at I Ch. 15:20.) So perhaps our “al mut” - “alamot” is also a term of musical instruction. The musical instructions in the book of Psalms are usually found in the first verse, but sometimes they are found mid-chapter (see, e.g., 9:17 and 47:8), and other times they are found at the end (see, e.g., “selah” at the end of chapters 3, 24 and 46; “selah” may have been a musical instruction; see also the end of the third chapter of the book of Habakkuk.) So  perhaps the substance of our verse at Ps. 48:15 ends with ”hu yenahageinu,” and our cryptic term is a musical instruction as the concluding word.  (Even more creatively, some scholars suggest that our musical instruction word belongs in the first verse of chapter 49!)
                With regard to the meaning of the musical instruction, most scholars notice the resemblance to the word “alamot”=young women and suggest that “alamot” is a musical instrument with a high-pitched tone.
                  To sum up, interpreting “al-mut” as originally reading “alamot” and as reflecting a musical instruction placed at the end of the Psalm is a very simple approach. But admittedly this approach disagrees with the Masoretic view that “al” and “mut” are two separate words.
                With regard to the other interpretations, interpreting the phrase as two words: “He will lead us beyond mortality” (=make us immortal as a nation), or “He will lead us until death,” with “al” functioning as “el,” are also simple interpretations consistent with the text. But I find the first too creative and the second too simplistic.
                Our verse is interpreted in the Talmud Yerushalmi, at Meg. 2:4, and in a parallel passage at Lev. Rabbah 11:9. (The latter passage is the clearer one.) The passage is a homiletical one, and four interpretations are offered. I am not going to mention the two most homiletical ones. But one of the interpretations offered is that “al mut” means “be-almut, be-zerizut” (with youth/vigor, and alacrity). Another interpretation offered is: “bi-shnei olamot”: this world and the world to come.
                 So after all this, how does ArtScroll translate “al mut” in The Complete ArtScroll Siddur (p. 164)? In their main translation they ignore the Masoretic tradition that these are two separate words and translate: “He will guide us like children.” In their commentary, they mention the views of the Targum, Rashi and Meiri, all of whom translate the two words as if they were one. But then they conclude: “According to the Masoretic tradition that these are two words, they mean that God will continue to guide us beyond death, i.e., in the World to Come.”  Interestingly, the Talmudic interpretation that they seem to be alluding to (see the previous paragraph) arrived at the “World to Come” interpretation by interpreting the two words as one word!
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. In the merit of continuing to write this column, he hopes that he will eventually be vigorously led, with the accompaniment of the music of alamot, to Olam Haba. In the interim, he can be reached at

Monday, 15 January 2018

Meaning of the world "Olam"

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                         What is the Meaning of the Word “Olam”?

             The word “Olam” appears over 400 times in Tanach ( in various forms).   Even though we are used to it meaning “world,” this was not its original meaning . Rather, almost every time the word appears in Tanach, it is being used with a time-oriented meaning: e.g., “a remote period in the past,” “a remote period in the future,” or “in perpetuity.”
               Some examples of the last are: “chok olam,” “chukat olam,” and “brit olam.” For an example of “a remote period in the past,” this is how we end every Amidah, quoting from Malachi 3:4: “ki-yemei olam u-khe-shanim kadmoniot” (=as in the days of the remote past and as in ancient years).  The common phrase: “min olam ve-ad olam” is best translated as: “from the remote past to the remote future.”
               Many sources that discuss the word “olam” write that it does not mean ”world” anywhere in Tanach except perhaps Kohelet 3:11.  Its meaning in this verse is still unresolved.  See, e.g., Ibn Ezra and Daat Mikra to Kohelet 3:11. But the truth is that “olam” probably means “world“ at Dan. 12:7 (“va-yishava be-chei ha-olam”;  the “ha-“ prefix is what points to the “world” meaning).
            The consensus of scholars today is that the book of Daniel was authored in the middle of the 2nd century B.C.E.  As to Kohelet, the consensus of scholars today, based on the language of the book, is that it is one of the latest Biblical books. See, e.g., Encyclopaedia Judaica 2:349 (first edition). (Of course, Kohelet may have been authored much earlier and its language edited later.)
             The point is that ”olam” did not take on its meaning of “world” until somewhere in the middle  or late Second Temple period.
              Why is this important? It helps us date prayers. For example, the second paragraph of Aleinu uses the phrase “le-taken olam” and “olam” is used here to mean “world.” This indicates clearly that the second paragraph of Aleinu was not composed by Joshua or in the First Temple period. There are also strong reasons to think that both paragraphs of Aleinu were composed at the same time.  (They go well together, and both paragraphs quote or paraphrase from the same chapter in Isaiah, chapter 45.) Thus, our knowledge of the Biblical meaning of “olam” enables us to conclude that both paragraphs of Aleinu were not composed by Joshua or in the First Temple period. (Note also that “ha-kadosh barukh hu,” found in the first paragraph, was not an appellation for God in Biblical times. This is another ground for rejecting the early time period for the first paragraph. There are other phrases in both paragraphs of Aleinu that do not seem to have existed in the Biblical period. ) (Regarding the word “le-taken,” I have written much about this elsewhere. Almost certainly, its original spelling was with a “caf” (=establish), not a “kof.”)
              The notion that Aleinu was composed by Joshua did not arise until the time of the Rishonim.  (Please disregard the reference to R. Hai Gaon in the ArtScroll Daily Siddur, p. 158. It is too hard to explain why here.) From statements in the Jerusalem Talmud (Avodah Zarah 1:2, and Rosh Ha-Shanah 1:3),  it can be deduced that there is a good chance that Aleinu was composed by the early Amora Rav, 3rd century C.E. (I have discussed this all extensively in my book, Esther Unmasked.)
             Going back to the meaning of “olam” in Tanach, there is one more verse that must be mentioned. The verse is Tehillim 89:3: “Ki amarti olam chesed yibaneh…” There are statements of our Sages interpreting “olam” here as “world.” See, e.g., Sanhedrin 58b. But in the plain sense of the verse, “olam” means forever. See, e.g., the Daat Mikra commentary to the verse, and the commentaries of Ibn Ezra and Radak. Also noteworthy is that in the prior verse, 89:2, “olam” is used in its time-oriented meaning.
                   How did “olam” go from its Biblical “time-oriented” meaning to its later “world” meaning? I have seen it suggested that the “time” meaning eventually came to be understood as “enduring as long as the physical world endures.”
                  With regard to the etymology of the word “olam,” some scholars conjecture that it is related to the Hebrew root A-L-M and its meaning “to hide.” In this view, the Biblical, time-oriented meaning of “olam” reflects the hidden (= unknown) past and future. See, e.g., S.D. Luzzatto to Ex. 15:18. Other scholars conjecture that is related to an Akkadian word “ullanu“ that meant “to be distant,” i.e., the distant past and future.  The true etymology of the word is perhaps still hidden!
                    Now that we know that “olam” has different meanings, which meaning is being used in the first two words of the prayer “Adon Olam”? ArtScroll translates the first two words as “Master of the Universe.” The Encyclopaedia Judaica is similar: “Lord of the World.” (As to the distinction between “world” and “universe,” that does not concern me now.) But many others translate “Adon Olam” as something like “Eternal Lord.” See, e.g., The Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer, and the Birnbaum Siddur.   Which translation is correct? I am told that there is even a ramification in the vocalization. If “olam” means “world,” the aleph of “adon” gets a chataf patach.  If “olam” means “eternal,” the aleph of “adon” gets a kametz.
                      To answer the question, the balance of the words of the first line “Adon Olam” are “asher malakh be-terem kol yetzir nivra”= the one who reigned before any form was created. It is clear from this context that the meaning of “adon olam” here is the “eternal Lord.” Also, two lines later we have: “after all has ceased to be, the awesome one will reign alone.”  So again, the author is speaking about an eternal  Lord. 
                       I am aware that the scholar Marc Shapiro initially took the same position that I just did, based on a plain sense reading of  “Adon Olam,” and then retracted it. See his posts of Sept. 4 2007 and Nov. 15 2011 at But in my opinion he should have stuck with his initial gut feeling.  His arguments for the retraction are not convincing.  There are many prominent liturgy scholars who take the positon that I am adopting.
                        It is interesting that the phrase “adon olam” also appears in “Yigdal,” and there all will admit that “olam” is being used with the meaning “world.”
                       (P.S.  Shapiro’s main argument for retraction is based on a passage at Berakhot 7b that he thinks the author of “Adon Olam” was alluding to. But the most that can justifiably be said is that perhaps the author of “Adon Olam” intended a word play and intended to have both the “eternal” and the “world” meanings in mind. But since the author did not follow the passage in Berakhot 7b and write adon “ha-olam,”  the “eternal” meaning should be considered primary in “Adon Olam,” and the “world” meaning is only a possible secondary meaning based on wordplay.)
                I will conclude with the following liturgical tidbit. We use the phrase “ha-yom harat olam” on Rosh ha-Shanah  to mean “the day the world was conceived.” But the phrase “harat olam” originates at Jer. 20:17. There it means “pregnant forever”!
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. His most recent book is: Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy (2015). He can be reached at He hopes to continue writing this column “ad olam”!