Hebrew In Israel | How Red Do You Need To Be? – Learn Torah

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Hebrew In Israel | How Red Do You Need To Be? – Learn Torah

Yoel Halevi No Comments

In this week’s Torah reading we add the section from the Red Heifer in Numbers 19 which was used to cleanse the people when coming in contact with the dead. The question I want to deal with this time is the colour.

The Hebrew uses the word אדמה- Adumah which is the feminine form for this word (not to be confused with Adamah which is earth or soil).  The word is usually rendered as red, but we have to take into consideration at this point that the biblical word for red that cannot be disputed was Argaman (from Sanskrit Ragaman with a prostatic Aleph as a prefix).  Words based in the root אדם are used to describe items which are red, but in our case I think there are some points which indicate a different case.

The word Adom appears in several contexts which clearly indicate other colours than actual red:
  1. Skin or hair colour- Both Esau and David are described as אדמני Admoni which either is redhead, or ruddy skin tone.
  2. Proverbs 23:31 declares wine as red, however wine can also appear in different shades which can be pink and purple and even brown.
  3. Esau calls the dish Jacob makes red when it is a lentil dish which by most is an orange-reddish colour.
  4. Crimson is described as red (Isaiah 1:18), but historically we know it was orange and looked like fire (Antiquities of the Jews; Book 3, 183).  Work done by Dr. Zohar Amar of the Bar Illan University has confirmed that this was the colour (personal communication).
  5. In Qedari’s dictionary (Bar Illan 2007) we find an entry where he describes that Hertsberg (ZDPV 69,177,Leipzig) in Arabic brown houses (maybe hazelnut- Y.H) are called “red” which are found to be sometimes a very red colour, but we need to take into consideration colour deformation while processing the image.


What we see from all of the above is that “red” in our case might not be the translation of Adom, and that many items which are not “red” as we call it today, are in fact red.  It seems to be that the colour in question here is more of the orange-red variety.  Another point is that when we look at the cases we have of red heifers born the past couple of decades, we find that by most they have a brown-orange shade to their skin/hair, and not red.

As a final point, in a discussion I had back in 2001 with Rabbi Ariel of the Temple Institute, I was told that the words used in the Tanakh to describe colours are of a larger spectrum, and that we can find different colours under the same name.  This actually fits into the fact that Hebrew has less words, creating a reality where one word can be used for different things.
2 April 2016

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