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In the standard beracha 'formula' we use the phrase 'מלך העולם'. But what does the word עולם refer to in this context: Earth/world or universe? It may seem obvious that מלך העולם is referring to Hashem being King over everything i.e. the universe. The Midrash Bereishit Rabbah speaks of עולמות preceding 'our' one that were destroyed:

א"ר אבהו מכאן שהקדוש ברוך הוא היה בורא עולמות ומחריבן בורא עולמות ומחריבן עד שברא את אלו אמר דין הניין לי יתהון לא הניין לי

However, some understand the 'preceding worlds' as linked to extinct animals and it seems (in that context) to mean Earth/world rather than universe. For instance the Netziv in HaEmek Davar (Genesis 7:23):

The diggers of the earth find the bones of creatures that do not exist in the world today. from this, many have determined that there was another world before this creation where there were other creatures; and in truth there is such an explanation in Bereishit Rabbah... to my mind it is difficult to say this, for it is explained in Shemot Rabbah (1:2)... that He created worlds and looked at them, and they were not endearing to Him, and He returned them to chaos and emptiness. And if so, no vestige or trace remained from them.

The Tiferet Yisrael in Derush Ohr HaChaim (translation by Aryeh Kaplan "Immortality, Ressurection and the Age of the Universe"):

From all this, we can see that all that the Kabbalists have told us for so many years about the repeated destruction and renewal of the earth has found clear confirmation in our time.

Is there a universal way of understanding the word עולם in these contexts?

(Incidentally... the word 'עולם' occurs around 60 times in Torah (after quickly scouring Mechon Mamre). The term 'חוק עולם' occupies most of the usage of this word. In the Mechon Mamre translation it is consistently translated as pertaining to time e.g. 'everlasting', 'eternal', etc (as do other translations). It is interesting that the use of this word in the Torah is primarily (and perhaps solely) used to describe eternity in terms of time).

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For some possible counterexamples (I guess you can argue both ways about the p'shat translation): In D'varim (33:15 and 33:27), Rashi interprets both instances as referring to the world. In the latter instance, Onkelos could be referring to either the world or the universe (דבמימריה אתעביד עלמא). For another example, Rashi and Targum Yonasan both interpret Y'chezkel (32:2) as referring to the world. –  Fred Nov 13 '13 at 4:15

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