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Thoughts on the Color ‘Adom’ in Tanach

I just acquired a scholarly book on colors in Tanach, so I am ready to discuss some issues on this topic. The book is: “Colour Terms in the Old Testament,” by Athalya Brenner (1982).

We all know the words “dam,” “adom,” “adamah” and “adam.” What is the relationship between them?

דם is “blood.” It is widely viewed as one of the primary words in Hebrew. It is also widely agreed that the color “adom”= red derived from it.

What about אדמה = the earth, ground? A widespread view is that it is called this because of its color, which can fit within the broad range of color that the word “adom” spanned in biblical times. See the discussion below.

The most interesting question is why “adam” became the word for “man (= mankind).” A widespread view is that man got its name from “adamah.” This view is stated already in the first century by Josephus. See Antiquities, I. Of course, Genesis 2:7 and 3:19 state that man was created from the “adamah.” Here, for example, is 2:7: “The Lord God formed ha-adam from the dust of the adamah, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life…”

The Torah is here implying that “adam” is called this because he derives partly from “adamah.” But the verse may merely be engaging in wordplay, which is common in the Torah. Also 2:7 and 3:19 do not add: “therefore he was called ‘adam.’” (Compare Gen. 25:30: “Al kein kara shemo Edom.”).

In the modern period, one who argues for the “adamah” origin of adam = man is Ernest Klein. In his etymological dictionary, he points out that there is a similar development in Latin. There, “homo” (man, related to the word “human”) is related to “humus” (ground). That last word is the source of “exhume” (take out of the ground) and “humble” (lowly, on the ground).

But there is another approach to adam = man. If we step back from the Torah and think deeply and do a little research, we will find that “adam” with the meaning “man” is not a word that originated with Israelites and Hebrew. It is found in other early Semitic languages and probably long preceded Hebrew. In this early era, when one ancient man saw another, would he have called him: “earth from the ground?” This seems unlikely.

S.D. Luzzatto is one who rejects the “adamah” origin for “man.” He writes: “The term adam is apparently derived from adom (“red”) and not from adamah (“earth”), for the animals, too, were created from the earth. Man, however, is physically distinguished from the animals in that he is not covered with hair, and his skin (in moderate climates) tends to ruddiness.” (comm. to Gen. 1:26, Klein translation)

Another who rejects the “adamah” origin is Rav S.R. Hirsch (comm. to Gen. 1:26): “There [referring to an earlier article] we tried to make it clear that both grammatical and logical analogy speak against the usual assumption that the word אדם is derived from אדמה, which would make “earth-born” the characteristic of Man … the special characteristic of Man would be just that he is not entirely originated from the earth.”

But what Rav Hirsch suggests instead is farfetched: “Man is called אדם, the ‘red one’ par excellence. We have already noted … that red is the least refracted ray in the spectrum, the ray closest to the pure light; hence it is a most appropriate metaphor for man, the creature closest to God, the image of God…” (See his Collected Writings, vol. 3, p. 181. See also his Gen. 1:26 comments.)

The essay in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (vol. 1) writes that the etymology of “adam” cannot be explained with certainty. It mentions many possibilities. The ones it considers most reasonable are:

1) “to be red” (the normal human color), and

2) “skin,” based on an Arabic word similar to “adam” (see Brenner, p. 161).

It also points out that one factor that militates against the connection with “adamah” is that in the Semitic language of Akkadian, their cognate root to אדם appears with the meanings “red” and “red soil,” but not with the meaning “man.”

(Of course, on a homiletical level “adamah” is an appropriate etymology, as man can “grow.”)


Going back to Brenner’s book, she writes that linguists Brent Berlin and Paul Kay researched 98 different languages for their book “Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution” (1969). Here is a summary of their conclusions that I found online. (Obviously this summary is only a rough one and there are exceptions.)

  1. All languages contain terms for white and black.
  2. If a language contains three terms, then it contains a term for red.
  3. If a language contains four terms, then it contains a term for either green or yellow (but not both).
  4. If a language contains five terms, then it contains terms for both green and yellow.
  5. If a language contains six terms, then it contains a term for blue.
  6. If a language contains seven terms, then it contains a term for brown.

With that background, let us talk about the “parah adumah.” Brenner writes (p. 63) that no natural cowhide is red. “Clearly, the cow cannot be ‘red.’…today we would probably term it ‘bay’ or ‘brown’ in English, חוּם (=‘brown’) in modern Hebrew. There is no contemporaneous term referring to ‘brown’ in Old Testament Hebrew … Berlin and Kay refer to this phenomenon when they describe stage II, e.g., three term languages: the term for red in this stage includes all reds, oranges, most yellows, browns, pinks and purples…’’

Also taking the “brown” approach is the Conservative movement’s Etz Hayim commentary (2001). At Num. 19:2, the translation at the top translates “adumah” as “red.” But here is their note at the bottom: “Hebrew: adom, which here probably means “brown,” for which there is no word in the bible.”

Here is their note on the next word, תמימה: “‘Unblemished brown.’ A cow completely uniform in color, without specks of white or black or without even two black or white hairs, is extremely rare.” They are following Brenner here. The novelty in the cow is the complete uniformness of the color, not the color itself.

Brenner also wrote that the Sages must have realized that “adumah” in the verse refers to a brown cow. She writes that the Mishnah uses the term “adumah” only because it was following the biblical wording.

Brenner (pp. 59-62) also points to the Esav story which refers to cooked lentils that are “adom.” She writes that whatever color the lentils were originally, they tend to lose their distinct color when cooked in a pot (נזיד) and would likely turn faded yellow or faded brown.

I mentioned above that חוּם is the word for “brown” in modern Hebrew. This word appears four times in Tanach, exclusively at Gen. 30, and describes markings on sheep. But its meaning here was probably “dark, black.” See, e.g., Onkelos, Ibn Ezra, Radak, Luzzatto, and Rav Hirsch. (Compare Rashi).

(Also, Jastrow does not give it the meaning “brown” anywhere in early Rabbinic Hebrew/Aramaic.)

That the cow must be brown or light-brown is probably the view of Rav Saadiah as well. See Rav Saadiah’s translation of “adumah” at Num. 19:2 (edition of Rav Kafih). In note 1 here, Rav Kafih points out that it would be strange for the Torah to give a commandment that involved locating an animal that if found would be a “pele atzum.”

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. As an earthly being, he enjoys “humus.” (See E. Klein paragraph above).

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