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-che-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 second 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 Baruch 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 (Avoda Zara 1:2, and Rosh Hashanah 1:3), it can be deduced that there is a good chance that Aleinu was composed by the early Amora Rav, third 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 it 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 malach 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 seforim.blogspot.com. 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 position 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 Berachot 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 Berachot 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 Hashanah to mean “the day the world was conceived.” But the phrase “harat olam” originates at Jer. 20:17. There it means “pregnant forever”!
By Mitchell First
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 [email protected]. He hopes to continue writing this column “ad olam”!
For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.