Wednesday 31 January 2018


From RRW

The Nature of Thought

The Baal Shem Tov taught, “A person is where his mind is” (Keter Shem Tov 56). The first thing is to be aware. Cease to take the mind and its designs for granted. It shouldn’t be left alone on “automatic.” Monitor everything that goes through the mind. We see how careful people are to keep their doors locked in order to make sure that no one steals, intrudes, or disturbs their home. How much more so should one keep a lock on the mind to prevent its attention from being stolen away to vanity, to keep bad ideas from intruding, to stop negativity from disturbing it.

“Everything begins in thought” (Zohar I, 246b). “They [i.e., the lost ‘holy sparks’ of Divinity] are all elevated in thought” (ibid. II, 254b). Rabbi Nachman states that thought is the tikkun ha-klali (“general remedy”), for everything (Likkutei Moharan I, 29:4). It all depends upon elevating the mind. The mind needs to be awakened from spiritual sleep. Everything we do is basically for the sake of getting out of a constricted state of consciousness (mochin de-katnut) and coming to heightened consciousness (mochin de-gadlut) (see Likkutei Moharan II, 72, end).

Paul McCartney refers to “the face that she keeps in the jar by the door” (“Eleanor Rigby”). There are different head-sets. People unwittingly go into certain mental states and become tied to them. However, just as a person can take off one set of cloths and put on another, so is it possible to “take off” a state of mind and “put on” another – whichever you choose. One of the main ideas of meditation is to reach the simple, indivisible, untrammeled inner essence. From that place one can experience how the self is a pure, simple, unrestricted light. It can don any mentality, any garment.

One can examine thought patterns and ask G-d to improve them. Request G-d’s assistance to activate the most productive ways of thinking. Expanding the mind expands reality (Likkutei Moharan II, 61). Heightening one’s consciousness upgrades, renovates, and uplifts the place that you really occupy. Sometimes you may need to move into a different house. Similarly, one might need to move out of an old mind-set and move into a completely new one. Hitbodedut is the way to accomplish this.

“You favor man with knowledge...” (Shemoneh Esreh prayer). Some have problems concentrating. There could be many reasons for this. Just as unworked physical muscles are flabby and need to be exercised, so it is with “mental muscles.” Laziness highly impedes their growth. The cranium needs to “work out.” But there is still something especially challenging about the mind: It requires extra help from heaven. This is the special favor that we request three times a day.

Prayer can affect, improve, and embellish anything (Likkutei Moharan II, 111). One should supplicate for concentration, memory, and all mental faculties – just like petitioning for sustenance, livelihood, and health. Mental necessities are no less important than physical ones.

A step further: “Think good, and it will be good” (Chabad saying, attributed to the “Tzemach Tzedek”). Ask to attain true positive thinking. The results attained through this are not psychosomatic, but quite viable and real. A person is always thinking. Thoughts create realities that endure forever (Likkutei Moharan II, 53). It is fitting to invest considerable effort to refine, purify, and elevate thought. Practice hitbodedut about all of your thought-processes. Ask to remove negative, self-destructive, damaging things from the mind. Request to strengthen, upgrade, and elevate all good things. The faculty of thought is above all others. It reaches to where all other abilities cannot (Sichot HaRan 46). Inner space dwarfs outer space – implode before exploding!

The universe of the mind is infinitely greater than the physical universe. Seek to see, investigate, and conquer its intriguing frontiers. It does not require any technology to explore – only words of prayer, focus, and meditation.

Rabbi Perets Auerbach’s  - “The Science, Art and Heart of Hitbodedut

Tuesday 30 January 2018

JVO Blog: The Uphill Battle of Teaching Orthodox Judaism

Jewish Values Online ( is a website that asks the Jewish view on a variety of issues, some specifically Jewish and some from the world around us -- and then presents answers from each of the denominations of Judaism. Nishmablog's Blogmaster Rabbi Wolpoe and Nishma's Founding Director, Rabbi Hecht, both serve as Orthodox members of their Panel of Scholars. Nishmablog, over the years, has also featured the responses on JVO by one of our two Nishma Scholars who are on this panel. 

The Jewish Values Online website now offers a new service -- a blog which presents comments on various topics within Judaism and the Jewish world. See Rabbi Hecht is also a blogger on this blog.

His latest post 

The Uphill Battle of Teaching Orthodox Judaism

is now available at
A link is also up on Facebook at

Monday 29 January 2018

Why Some Catholics Still Defend the Kidnapping of a Jewish Boy

Please see

I would not go so far as the caption beneath the title states about the article, that "It’s not about the Church’s relationship with Jews." Obviously it's about the Church's relationship with Jews for, by definition, Christianity must maintain somewhat of a negative perspective on traditional Judaism for its very purpose was to supplant this Judaism. This kidnapping, as such, must be seen within this context.

Yet the second line of the caption may still be more significant -- "It’s about the culture war inside the Church" -- especially to us and not because of any particular interest in this narrow, specific subject in regard to the Church. The article is stating that there is tension within the Church because there is and has been on-going conflict between "revealed doctrine" and "what some would call 'universal human values'.” The fact is that -- and this is not stated in any manner to imply any validity to this Catholic revealed doctrine -- there is a similar issue within the world of Torah observance today. To be blunt, we often ignore -- especially to its full extent -- the tension that can exist between the ethical principles revealed at Sinai and the ethical principles that emerged from human thought which we may share with all humanity.We often do not even see the issue.

For example, the value of freedom of religion would seem to be embedded within our consciousness -- but what is its basis? In that the Jewish People have greatly benefited from the application of this ethic, we would clearly see it as a Jewish value -- but is it? What does Sinai state about freedom of religion? Do we even ask this question? If it is a value, however, which emerged from human thought, how then does it relate to Sinai? Do we perceive, or even contemplate, an issue? (On the issue of freedom of religion, please also see my Freedom of Religion (with Comments on Halachic Tolerance)

The issue is that, even as we assert this value in the promotion of our place within Western society, have we thought about it within the context of Torah thought? The fact is that I believe that there is a concept of freedom of religion within Torah -- somewhat different, though, than the secular, Western articulation of this value -- but the question is whether we have even thought about this. Living within the dichotomy of values in which we do in Western society, this should be an important undertaking within our Torah studies. What is further significant within Torah thought -- and this would clearly distinguish it from the Catholic discussion -- is that there are many T)orah sources that gives value to ethics developed from thought (see, for example, Hakdama to Shas, Rabbeinu Nissim Gaon). To consider the interaction of the ethics of Sinai and the ethics developed by human thought is a Torah topic. It, however, is not a simple one.

This is why I am directing people to this article in the Atlantic. It raises issues that we should see and contemplate l'havdil within our perspective and the realm of Torah. Given the various issues that we presently are experiencing within Orthodoxy, I would say this is a most important undertaking.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Thursday 25 January 2018

Interesting Words in Az Yashir

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First
                                            Some Interesting Words in “Az Yashir”
             There is much to discuss in this Biblical poem. I am limiting myself to a brief selection.
            Azi ve-Zimrat: God is described as “azi ve-zimrat.”  The last word should be understood as if it were written “zimrati.”  I will explain this in a future column. Next, we would ordinarily translate this phrase as “The Lord is my strength and song.” But in the early 20th century the ancient language of Ugaritic was discovered (based on excavations in Syria). Then we realized that in this Semitic language, Z-M-R meant “strength.” That is certainly its meaning here, since we would then have a typical poetic phrase with parallelism: two similar words for “strength.” 
              This “strength” meaning is also the meaning of the root Z-M-R at Genesis 43:11, in the phrase “zimrat ha-aretz.”Jacob is telling his sons to take Joseph a present from the strongest, i.e., best, produce of the land.
             Yarah: “The chariots of Pharoh and his army, God cast (“yarah”) into the sea.” The root of this word is Y-R-H. There is another very important word that has this same root. What is that? The word “Torah.”
             This root Y-R-H seems two have two entirely different meanings:  1) to throw, cast or shoot, and 2) to instruct. Could both Y-R-H meanings be related?  Perhaps, since both are a form of guiding.             But an alternative and very creative relationship is suggested in the concordance of S. Mandelkern: A teacher casts the stone of wisdom towards his student!
              (The explanation for the root Y-R-H being the root of the word Torah is that when the yod is in the first position in the root, it usually changes to a vav when the verb becomes a noun and has a tav or mem in front.) 
             Shalishav:  This word “shalish” appears 17 times in Tanach in various forms. But what does it mean?
            Ibn Ezra points out that the word “mishneh” in Tanach sometimes means “second in rank.” Therefore, he suggests that “shalish” may mean “third in rank.” Abravanel suggests that each “shalish” was in charge of thirty men. The Greek translation of the Torah translated: “soldiers fighting from chariots.” This was probably based on a belief that each chariot had one driver and two warriors. Another view is that “shalish” means “strong fighting man.” The number three sometimes symbolizes the superlative. A classic example is the threefold repetition of “kadosh” at Isaiah 6:3, which implies the highest level of holiness. Based on this idea, “shalish” could mean the highest level (=strongest) fighter. (See further the commentary of S. D. Luzzatto on Ex. 14:7.)
            A similar interpretive issue arises at Gen. 15:9. God tells Abraham to take an “aglah meshuleshet,” an “ez meshuleshet,” and an “ayil meshulash.” Was Abraham being told to take animals that were three years old? third-born? part of a triplet? three of each type? Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in The Living Torah translates these word here as “prime” (=highest quality) This may be the correct approach. See further Hizzekuni and Luzzatto on Gen. 15:9.  (A similar issue arises at Isaiah 15:5.)
             Tub’u: (Tet, Bet, Ayin): “U-mivchar shalishav tub’u ve-yam suf” (=the best of his shalish were thrust down into the yam suf). I always knew that the root Tet-Bet-Ayin meant “thrust down.” That is the meaning here.   But what about the word “taba’at”=signet ring, seal?  I always thought that this word came from this root, because a signet ring/seal was used to press down on something. But when I wrote a column about Egyptian words in Tanach, I learned that “taba’at”=signet ring/seal may instead be an Egyptian word. The Egyptian word is something like “gbt.” This is not an exact match, but scholars believe it is close enough.
            Yechasyumu:  Tehomut Yechasyumu=The depths covered them. The question I will address is why is there an added “u” at the end of “yechasyumu.”  Later on in the poem we have the words “yochleimo,” “timlaeimo,” “torishemo,” “tivlaeimo,” “yochazeimo,”  “tivieimo,” and “titaeimo.“  These words were written with vavs at the end and dotted with a cholam (“o.”). So why not: “yechasyumo”? Here is the answer of S. D. Luzzatto (taken from the translation of Daniel Klein):
                  “Hebrew grammarians…as well as Rashbam say that the [letter mem here] is vocalized with a shuruk in order to match the pronunciation of the preceding yod, which is also vocalized with a shuruk…I say that the reason for the shuruk [in yechasyumu] is to portray to the listener’s ear the sinking into the depths and the submerging under the water, for the function of the “u” sound seems to be to arouse in us an impression of darkness and depth. Anyone who is familiar with the value of the poetic device known as onomatopoeia will not scoff at this… Only with another shuruk preceding it does the final shuruk have the power to arouse such an impression.”
                (In a footnote, Klein suggests an analogous example of onomatopoeia in English: “doom and gloom.”)
            Ne’ermu Mayim: “With a breath from Your face, the waters piled up.” The root here is ayin-resh-mem which means “pile.” But wait a minute. Don’t we know this root A-R-M elsewhere as meaning “cunning/smart”? For example, at Genesis 3:1, the “nachash” is described as “A-R-M.”
              It is hard for me to believe that the words “cunning/smart” and “pile” are connected. Nevertheless I always found the following attempt by Rav S. R. Hirsch at Gen. 2:25 to be exceptionally clever and worth mentioning:  “The root A-R-M… [has] two meanings: cunning, subtle…and as A-R-M-H, a heap of grain. The connection between these two is easily found…Every subtle plan is a joining up of single arrangements to achieve an ultimate purpose….The subtle one does various things which are unnoticed, the single little grains have no importance, but together they make the heap.”
            (In the methodology of Rav Hirsch, identical roots are always connected. Therefore, he must always attempt to find a connection. This is a rare approach. The conventional view is that identical roots are often or usually connected, but not “always.”)
              Very interestingly, Onkelos translates “ne-ermu mayim” as “chakimu maya”=the waters became intelligent. He is using the “smart” meaning of A-R-M here, instead of the “pile” meaning! In his view, the meaning is something like: the water used its intelligence and figured out how to defeat the Egyptians.
            Shamu Amim Yirgazun:  The word “yirgazun” here means “tremble,” from the root R-G-Z. (It is parallel to “chil” in this verse, which also means “tremble.” But don’t we know the root R-G-Z elsewhere as meaning “anger”?  Luzzatto explains the process. The root R-G-Z originally meant “shaking” or “trembling,” as it does here. The term was then transferred to denote any emotional tumult/agitation. For example, it means the excitation of “fear” at Deut. 2:25, the excitation of “sorrow” at 2 Sam. 19:1, and the excitation of “anger” at Hab. 3:2 (be-rogez rachem tizkor). See the commentary of Luzzatto to Gen. 45:24 and Ex. 15:14  (In contrast, in Aramaic it exclusively means “anger.”)
             This all reminds me of one of my favorite translations in The Living Torah of R. Aryeh Kaplan. At Gen. 45:24, after Joseph has disclosed his identity to his brothers, he bids goodbye to them with the phrase “al tirgezu ba-derech” (=do not be agitated while you are traveling).  In the introduction to The Living Torah, R. Kaplan writes that he was trying to produce a translation that was among other things “modern” and ”readable “ Here he decided on: “Have a pleasant journey!”
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at  His most recent book is Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy (2015). 

Tuesday 23 January 2018


From RRW

"Tikkun Olam-the repair of the world."

"If you see what needs to be repaired and how to repair it,then you have found a piece of the world that G-d has left for you to complete.But if you only see what is ugly in the world,then it is you yourself that needs repair."

Rebbe Menachem M Schneerson (Lubavitcher Rebbe)

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”!