Olam: time and space

Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin
Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin

Leshon Ima with Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin, The Dayton Jewish Observer

This month, we explore the Hebrew word olam, which is often translated as world or universe.

The question arises: did the Hebrews of biblical times who coined the word, comprehend the concept olam in the same way we do? In other words, was olam for them an encompassing word denoting planet, universe, world and the earth with its inhabitants, as it is for us?

In the Bible, where olam is mentioned more than 430 times — with maybe one exception (Ecc. 3:11) — it is used in reference to time not to space.

That is to say, olam is understood in the Bible to express long duration of time, antiquity, continued existence and even eternity or uninterrupted future, but it is not understood in terms of the spatial vast universe.

Some scholars point out that the noun olam is derived from the verb alam meaning hidden, concealed and unknown time.

There are others who 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 or location.

Many phrases were coined in biblical times using olam to elucidate the concept of time.
Examples of this are phrases such as meatah v’ad olam (from now to eternity), l’olam (forever), m’olam (from time immemorial), m’olam lo (never), brit olam (an eternal covenant), l’olam chasdo (His mercy is forever).

Only with the influence of the Greek and Roman worlds did the meaning of olam expand and receive new nuances and understandings.

Now, olam is conceptualized more in terms of the world, the physical universe we live in, as the idea of actual space was incorporated into the notion of time.

New terms immerged like haolam hazeh (this world), versus haolam habah (the world to come), the spiritual place of the righteous.

The Chasidic adage, kol haolam kulo gesher tzar meod (the whole world is a narrow bridge) only enhances this spatial comprehension.

Short is the space to mention all the phrases and terms of post-biblical Hebrew in which olam is at the center.

Suffice it to say that rabbinic literature had a great influence on terms and idioms using olam to express time and space. For example, the terms Melech Haolam (King of the Universe) and Ribon Olam (master of the world) are appellations given to God, acknowledging His sovereignty over the world.

Adon Olam (Master of the Universe), a prayer sung daily and attributed to Ebin G’virol, a Spanish philosopher and poet of the 11th century, only enhances this conviction.

Ethically, olam is at the center of the famous saying: al shloshah devarim haolam omed: al haTorah al haavodah v’al gemilut chasadim, literally, the world is sustained on three principals, the Torah, namely the Law, worship and charity (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:2).

Moreover terms like shem olam, meaning world’s renown and Am Olam describing the People of Israel as the Eternal People also should be noted.

We should mention the phrase lo hayu d’varim me-olam which means nothing of the sort ever happened (Eruvin 40) and the idiom olam keminhago noheg meaning it is the way, the custom, of the world (Avodah Zarah 54).

Of course we cannot forget the term tikun olam, repair of the world, which is the motivation behind social action as we seek to maintain the world’s social justice (Gittin 4:2).

Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin is a professor of biblical literature at Spertus College in Chicago and an adjunct professor of Bible and Hebrew at New College of Florida. She lectures and writes in the fields of Hebrew language and biblical literature.

To read the complete February 2014 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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