On Root / On Earth Day, if You're Going to Talk Dirt, Do It Right

Earth Day gives us an opportunity to explore Hebrew terms for earth, land and soil.

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Just when you thought there was a week between Pesach and Shavuot with no celebration or commemoration, here comes a new holiday. This time, it's not a Jewish or even an Israeli one. It's a day for the whole planet: Earth Day, or as it's called in Israel, Yom Kadur Ha-aretz.

Kadur means "ball," and ha-aretz refers to "land" or "earth." The combination of the two specifies "Planet Earth."

Half celebration, half day of warning and consciousness-raising, as anthropologist Margaret Mead put it, Earth Day is "the first completely international and universal holiday that the world has ever known." It's occurrence on April 22 gives this column an opportunity to discuss our own particular Hebrew terms for this general family of concepts: earth, land, soil – and to explain the name of a certain leading newspaper.

Adam's red blood

Two central Hebrew words need to be discussed together to understand the different nuances involved: eretz and adamah.

Both appear at the beginning of the Beginning, in Genesis, chapters 1 and 2. The very first verse of the Bible states that God created "the heavens," hashamayim, and "the earth," ha-aretz (and no, whatever this newspaper thinks of itself, it's not that "haaretz" that God created).

In this story of Creation ha-aretz refers to the entire planet. But in other contexts it can also mean "land" or "country."

However, in the very next chapter of the Bible, a completely different word is introduced. The human - ha-adam - is described as being fashioned from the 'afar ha-adamah, "the dust of the earth."

There is a clear etymological connection between adam and adamah, the "earthling" and the "earth" (or "human" and "humus"). Less well-known, perhaps, is that the underlying root of adam, aleph-d-m, also gives us adom, "red," the color of Mediterranean terra cotta soil, and possibly also dam, "blood." The connection thus moves from the etymological to the metaphysical.

Both eretz and adamah have a universal and a particular meaning. On the one hand, eretz means "earth" in the sense of the planet. The adjective artzimeans "earthly" ("material"), as opposed to shmeymi, "heavenly" or "celestial."

On the other hand, eretzalso means "land" in terms of "country" – like Eretz Yisrael, "the Land of Israel." Here artzi, as in thefamily name of singer Shlomo Artzi, is a different form, first person singular possessive, and means "my land."

This newspaper is called Haaretz, "The Country," just as the leading Spanish paper is called "El Pais." Like New Yorkers, for whom NYC is The City, Israelis refer to their beloved home simply asha-aretz. We believe we have a wonderful country, even though saying that in Hebrew, eretz nehederet, calls to mind the popular political satire show of that name that excels at exposing our faults and foibles.

When Israelis go abroad, they go to chul. Chul is an acronym that stands for chutz la'aretz, simply "outside The Land." Coming back, they travel artzah, "to The Land." Though be careful using that term. It's also a command to a dog: "Down, boy!"

All the dirt on soil

Now, adamah means "land" in the sense of "dirt" or "soil." For instance, an 'oved adamah is "someone who works the land" ('avodah is "work"). The plural, adamot, refers to "lands" of the type that can be bought and sold, cultivated or developed, whereas the plural of eretz, aratzot, refers to "countries" or "states," as in Artzot Habrit, the Hebrew term for "the United States," meaning literally, "the Lands of the Covenant."

In addition to today's Yom Kadur Ha-aretz, "Earth Day," a few weeks ago there was a different day observed in Israel, by a specific public – Yom Ha-adamah, "Land Day." Land Day falls on March 30 and commemorates events on that day in 1976 when six Israeli Arabs were killed in the Lower Galilee protesting land expropriations by the Israeli government. The day has become a yearly event of solidarity and protest among Israeli Arabs.

Thus Hebrew distinguishes between the nuances of earth and land. But for us earthlings to survive, both must be maintained justly and sustainably. And for that to happen, every day needs to be an Earth Day.

Comments? Queries? Quibbles? Write: jeremybenstein@gmail.com. Particularly promising or piquant posts will be addressed in this space.

A view of Earth as photographed from Apollo 17 spacecraft in December 1972.Credit: AP
A man walks with a dog along a dry cracked reservoir bed during a drought period in Alcora, eastern Spain, in 2005.Credit: AP

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