By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, April 15, 2010

In the Bible, Adam was the name of the first human and is also the generic Hebrew word for humans in general. The etymology and associations of the word say something about the biblical view of humans. 

Adam is closely related to the word adamah, meaning earth or clay. Adamah is in turn connected to adom, meaning reddish (the normal colour of clay.) Rabbinic writings are replete with midrashim that expand on this connection; "Adam was made from dust that was gathered from all corners of the world... his body from Babylon, his head from the Land of Israel, and his limbs from other lands" (Sanhedrin 38a-b).

Whatever the literal truth of these statements, they express an appreciation of the affinity between the stuff people are made of and the earth, (an association that the Latin-based word "human" does not carry). Some Jewish environmentalists therefore suggest that a preferable translation of adam is "earthling", which would better remind us of our origins. At the same time, humans are not merely biological creatures: "God breathed into Adam a living soul" (Genesis 2:7) - the clod of earth was animated by a divine spirit.

Last updated: 11:32am, April 15 2010