The Confounding Origins of the Term "Hebrew"

The word is freighted with both theological and national meaning, which points not just to a semantic tension but to a permanent tension within Jewish identity itself.

Abram’s Counsel to Sarai by James Tissot, 1896-1902. The Jewish Museum, New York.

Abram’s Counsel to Sarai by James Tissot, 1896-1902. The Jewish Museum, New York.

Oct. 11 2021
About the author

James A. Diamond is a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Waterloo. His books include Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon (2014) and, most recently, Jewish Theology Unbound (2018).

In this week’s Torah reading of Lekh-l’kha, which deals with Abraham’s journey to the land of Canaan and his early adventures there, we see the first appearance in the Bible of one of its most confounding, but also most enduring, words: ivri, which, via Greek and Latin, has come into English as “Hebrew.” How the Bible first uses a word often provides some root sense of what it means, and that is very much the case with this one—which, as I will explain, is one especially pregnant with meaning about the very nature Jewishness itself. Abraham, in this passage, is informed that his nephew Lot has been taken captive by foreign powers:

A fugitive brought the news to Abraham the Hebrew (ha-ivri) who was dwelling at the terebinths of Mamre the Amorite, kinsman of Eshkol and Aner, these being Abram’s allies.

By this point, we’ve already known Abraham for more than two chapters. We’ve learned his genealogy, his origins in Ur of the Chaldees, and his familial connections to the land of Haran. But only here does the text bestow upon him an ethnic marker. The report about Lot immediately impels Abraham to set out on a campaign to liberate his kinsman by military means, mustering the 318 men of his household to attack the invading army. Thus, the premier biblical appearance of the term ivri anchors its bearer in a group forged by an ancestral bond powerful enough to evoke self-sacrifice to preserve its integrity.

Note also that the same verse identifying Abraham as an ivri describes the foreign leaders of the community within which he resides as “allies” or, literally rendered, “co-covenanters” (ba’alei brit). These allies are clearly identified as Amorites—members of one of the indigenous tribes of Canaan—and therefore decidedly not Hebrews. This juxtaposition introduces a second crucial feature of the term ivri. Preserving a distinctly Jewish character does not necessarily undermine an ivri’s integration into the dominant surrounding community, extending even to the support of the local population in the ivri’s endeavors.

In fact, the ivri’s overt expression of his unique identity may even earn admiration and encourage a welcoming embrace. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a major 19th-century German commentator, sees this verse as underlying Abraham’s resistance to assimilation and thus providing a model for every subsequent Jew who “did not acquire an alliance at the cost of surrendering his identity.” One can take pride in being a member of a specific covenantal community bound together by religion and ethnicity and yet still be a loyal member of a larger political community bound by citizenship and residence. By characterizing Abraham’s surrounding inhabitants as “co-covenanters,” the Bible optimistically presents an ideal instance of Jewish integration. Unfortunately, the canard of Jews’ “dual loyalty” has frequently overshadowed that ideal.

But we should not presume that the word’s meaning is purely political and national; it also has a theological dimension, found just a few verses later. Abraham’s military victory elicits a repeated celebratory acknowledgment of the “God Most High (el elyon)” from the king and cultic head of one of his foreign confederates. This priest-king pronounces two blessings: “Blessed be Abraham to God Most High, creator of heaven and earth, and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand” (Genesis 14:19–20). The two blessings bring together the God of all creation and the particular providential God who cares for a single community, joining the universal to the particular in a theological mirror of Hirsch’s prescription.


That this word is freighted with both theological and national meaning points not just to a semantic tension, but to a permanent tension within Jewish identity itself. To ask what is an ivri is in effect to ask “Who is a Jew?” In the past half-century, that question has been most often associated with debates over conversion and patrilineal descent in the context of Israeli citizenship and Jewish law (halakhah), but indeed its scope is much wider. What does it mean to be Jewish? and what is it that sustains membership in and deeply rooted loyalty to the Jewish community? These are the real mysteries behind our current arguments.

These appear to be curious questions to others who may easily identify themselves ethnically, nationally, culturally, or even religiously, most often with definitive results. But most attempts at reducing Jewishness to a simple, straightforward definition that all, or even most, Jews would share all break down at some point. When the protagonist in a James Salter novel finds himself among a group of Jews, he reflects on what particularly accounts for membership in this group: “they were a people, they somehow recognized and understood each other, even as strangers. They carried it in their blood, a thing you could not know.” The history of the particularly elusive term ivri can help us locate this unknowable “thing” that somehow inspires familiarity among strangers. And an investigation of its evolution, as will be seen, may best move us forward in the quest for the holy grail of Jewish identity.

Throughout history Jews have been identified by various ethnonyms, from Hebrews to Israelites to Judeans to Jews. Even the Bible uses a number of different words, but ivri has proved the most vexing to both ancient sages and modern scholars. One influential theory among academic experts, widely but by no means universally accepted, is that the Hebrews represented a socioeconomic rather than an ethnic class, associated with nomads who threatened the established indigenous order. Conversely, one prominent scholar, E.G. Kraeling, speculated that it was a self-appointed badge of sovereign pride “that came into vogue at some time in the early history of the [Davidic] monarchy as a result of Israelite self-orientation in the world in which it had become a power.” Most recently, Albert Friedberg has argued that ivri represents a poorer and more disenfranchised group directly under the thumb of a dominant power in whatever region it might inhabit. If ivri simultaneously implies an amalgam of poverty, marginality, disenfranchisement, and nomadism, as well as sovereignty, pride, and power—well, what other people than the Jews does it better characterize?

The truth is, however, that the countless studies and theories are unlikely to arrive at any definitive conclusions. Even if new archaeological discoveries cast further light on the term, its original sense is likely lost to the vicissitudes of time. More important than engaging in a well-worn historical debate is to flesh out how the term reverberates with connotations to Jewish readers. Doing so involves paying attention to interpretive traditions of every theological stripe, whether rabbinic/midrashic, halakhic, philosophical, or kabbalistic. Such an undertaking can help us reconstruct Jewish beginnings as a family, as a people, and finally as a nation.


Virtually all of the approximately 30 subsequent biblical appearances of the term ivri are set in contexts that somehow distinguish Israelites from members of another, usually adversarial, ethnic or national group. This trend indicates that the word connotes an exclusive identity. Its use is clustered in three narratives: the Joseph saga at the end of Genesis and the Egyptian enslavement at the beginning of Exodus, the beginning of the book of Jonah, and the conflict with the Philistines in the first book of Samuel. Together they form the archetypes for all ensuing Jewish experience, and it pays to investigate each.

Let’s look first with the relatively lengthy narrative that begins with the sale of Joseph into Egyptian slavery by his own brothers. In foreign environs, Joseph rises from enslavement to a position of authority. Eventually, libelous accusations by his Egyptian master’s wife—her husband, she declares, “has brought us a Hebrew to mock us” (Genesis 39:14)—cause him to be stripped of his position and imprisoned. He is resourceful enough to overcome that setback, this time advancing to the very highest echelons of political power. Along the way he adopts an Egyptian name, marries the daughter of an Egyptian nobleman, and invests all his political and economic acumen toward the betterment of his foreign host culture.

In the interim, a famine compelled Joseph’s family first to come to Egypt to buy food, and then to settle there, seeking better living conditions. Again, we see the term ivri being used when the text is emphasizing the differences between Egyptians and the descendants of Abraham. We learn, for instance, that “the Egyptians could not dine with the Hebrews (ivrim) since that would be abhorrent to the Egyptians” (Genesis 43:32). Joseph’s contributions to securing a productive future for Egypt are quickly forgotten after his death, at which point his people became vulnerable to xenophobic stereotyping, and accusations that they constituted a potential fifth column.

The opening chapters of Exodus, which tell the story of persecution and enslavement, alternate seamlessly between Israelites (b’ney Yisrael, literally “children of Israel”) and ivrim. Once Pharaoh characterizes the Israelites as potential subversives who threaten Egyptian national security (Exodus 1:9-13), he orders Hebrew midwives to murder the male offspring that Hebrew women would deliver under their care (1:16). The midwives defy Pharaoh’s decree and, when confronted, excuse their disobedience by distinguishing the birthing speed of Hebrew women from that of Egyptian women (1:19). Vis-à-vis themselves, the people in question are the descendants of Jacob, a/k/a Israel, but when contrasted with the Egyptians, they are Hebrews.

We see this most starkly, perhaps, in Moses’ first mature observation of slavery, when he comes upon an Egyptian beating a Hebrew (Exodus 2:11). Again, the term ivri highlights Jewish difference, which, like so often in Jewish history, invites hatred and oppression.

But there’s something else significant about the book of Exodus’s first ivrim: the Bible provides a theological motivation for their act of civil disobedience, namely that they “feared God” (Exodus 1:17). In other words, their allegiance is to an authority that transcends politics and race. What is particularly suggestive is that they carry on the legacy of Abraham and Joseph, their two ivri predecessors, who are the first two biblical characters to be described as “Godfearing.” (See Genesis 22:12 and 42:13.) The term by its sudden intrusion here falls in line with both its prior and its biblical appearances resulting in a composite that captures all those dimensions of what ultimately evolved into full-blown Jewish identity.


Turning to the prophetic books, we find that Jonah, who along with Abraham and Joseph should be considered one of the three great biblical ivrim, seals the pattern when he reveals his identity to his fellow passengers in the face of a looming shipwreck. “I am an ivri and I fear the Lord, God of the heaven who made both sea and land,” he declares (Jonah 1:9). Again, ivri is an ethnic designation, that distinguishes him among a multinational crowd of seafarers, but also a theological one. Unlike his ivri predecessors, however, Jonah here is seeking to evade God’s command rather than to fulfill it. The command in question is to proclaim God’s anger with ancient Nineveh’s wickedness, and—as becomes clear later in the narrative—to move them to repentance. Jonah’s declaration is thus an admission of a betrayal of his ivri legacy which stands for ensuring a viable future.

Jonah’s declaration that he is a Godfearing ivri reveals just how expansive these terms are, as it is an answer to a series of questions from his shipmates that seem to run the gamut of human existence: “What is your business? Where have you come from? What is your country? Of what people are you?” (1:8) An early cultural Zionist publication in the late 19th century even named its journal I Am a Hebrew (Ivri Anokhi), strategically drawing on only the first half of Jonah’s declaration. But the original proclamation irrevocably couples “I am a Hebrew” with “I fear the Lord.” The former remains orphaned without the latter.

The third biblical cluster of the term’s use dramatizes another story that speaks loudly to the modern Jewish ear, signalling the advancement toward nationhood, the climactic phase of Jewish existence. Even after returning to their ancestral home in Canaan and establishing a sovereign Israelite state, the Hebrews once again faced an adversary that threatened further prospects of subjugation. After the Israelites have vanquished the other hostile tribes, the Philistines pose the one remaining threat to their homeland’s integrity. The book of Samuel repeatedly refers to the Israelites as Hebrews in the context of this conflict. Typically, the word appears on the lips of the Philistines, who seem to prefer it to Israelite: “Look, some Hebrews are coming out of the holes where they were hiding” (1Samuel 14:11), or, “Now there was no smith found throughout all the Land of Israel: for the Philistines said, Lest the Hebrews make them swords or spears” (1Samuel 13:19). In stark contrast, the narrator, when describing Israel’s battles with the Philistines, refers to the former as Israelites (b’nei yisra’el).

Yet perhaps most tragically familiar to Jews is another story central to this narrative of a renegade Jew who allies with the enemies of Israel, betraying his compatriots. No less than David, the future king of Israel, seeks refuge from King Saul by embedding himself in the enemy Philistine camp in Gaza. Yet, despite his attempts to endear himself to the Gentile king in order to advance his career and gain influence in his newfound community, his hosts continue to single him out as an ivri of dubious loyalty (1Samuel 29:3).

No matter how hard he tried to integrate himself, David could not escape his foreignness in the eyes of others. Heinrich Heine, the greatest German poet of the 19th century, who chose baptism as his “ticket of admission into European culture,” ultimately realized what David surely did some two millennia before him. Despite the high price of admission, Heine acknowledged he could never escape the anti-Semitism endemic to “the lower and higher rabble” of his fellow citizens. A Jew can abandon the people of Israel, but he will never cease to be an ivri to non-Jews.

The term ivri subsequently generates an intriguing debate among the talmudic sages over its meaning. One school of rabbinic thought seizes on its root in the term avar (עבר), to traverse, characterizing Abraham, the first biblically recognized ivri (עברי) as “the one who came from across (ever/עבר) the river,” i.e., from east of the Euphrates. This opinion defines Abraham as a migrant, a foreigner, who surmounted geographic and national boundaries. In this understanding, the term suits well much of the wandering Jewish diasporic experience in search of tenuously welcoming environments, propelled by persecution, expulsion, and ultimately genocide.

A second opinion sees the term signifying a genealogical link to Eber (עבר), the great-great-grandson of Noah and the ancestor of Abraham, and perhaps of some larger tribal group. In this case the term encompasses both hereditary and ethnic facets of identity. Yet a third opinion reads it as “one who stands in opposition to,” literally on the other side of everyone else in an iconoclastic monotheistic belief that bucked the dominant pagan trend. This interpretation layers the term with deeper religious, ideological, and indeed political dimensions, for politics can never be neatly divorced from religious belief in the biblical or rabbinic eras.

To David Kimḥi (1160–1235), a renowned Provençal Bible commentator, the term also indicates a speaker of the Hebrew language, adding a common linguistic bond, another crucial ingredient of nationhood. Taken together, these positions, along with the textual readings I have offered, form a collective response to the thorny question of Jewish identity, which defies reduction to any single characteristic. Language, ethnicity, belief, and geography are ingredients that shape Jewishness in multiple combinations throughout the various Jewish communities scattered across the Diaspora. For far too long land played a limited role, surfacing primarily in hopes, prayers, dreams, and texts. Miraculously, after a lapse of two millennia, territory and political sovereignty have once again returned as pivotal dimensions of Jewish national cohesiveness and consciousness.

The Jewish experience of those millennia shorn of sovereign independence has arrived full circle back to its origins in Abraham the ivri. In his rabbinic incarnation he set the Hebrew precedent expressing all those dimensions requisite for a compendious national spirit—ancestry, language, religion, politics, and territory. He secured them by bursting onto the scene with an exertion of power, both political and spiritual, forging alliances that guaranteed the physical safety, liberty, and beliefs of his community. His Godfearing also established the ethical foundation of Judaic monotheism: “Now I know that you fear God,” the Lord tells Abraham in the conclusion of the story of the Binding of Isaac, thus emphasizing both complete devotion to the Deity and an affirmation of the supreme sanctity of human life.

The modern state of Israel is inspired, perhaps unwittingly, by Abraham’s pioneering Hebrewness. In addition to the security a state normally provides to all its citizens, it now also acts as the safeguard of the spiritual, cultural, linguistic, and physical integrity of all those who identify by any one of these Hebraic features because it is a reincarnation of that original ivri paradigm.

The competing visions for the heart and soul of Zionism before the establishment of the state included the insistence on a complete rupture with the historical Jewish past. Most radical was the Canaanite movement, whose members sought to create an entirely new Jew for the future by attempting to reach back to a pre-biblical Hebraic past, fully Hebrew but not at all Jewish. Along with many early Labor Zionists in the 20th century, they misguidedly seized on the term ivri in their crusade to decouple their ideally conceived prospective state from everything associated with the Jewish diasporic experience, including the Jewish religion, opting for a Hebrew rather than a Jewish state. Yet, their very choice of the term ivri to symbolize their abandonment of their past reflected how estranged they were from that past. They ignored not only the full implications of the term ivri in its biblical context—and specifically the theological ones—but also the way it was understood in the long and rich development of Judaism since ancient times.

Likewise, it is widespread ignorance of Jewish history, its foundational texts, its traditions, Hebrew illiteracy, and assimilation that has caused the alienation of the current generation of young Jews from Israel. Peter Beinart’s thesis in his breakout essay published ten years ago attributing the diminishing identification of Jewish youth to the clash between their liberal democratic values and Israel’s supposed illiberalism could not be further off the mark. The problem at hand is the absence of any meaningful Jewish identity among these estranged Jews within which any bond with Israel could take root. In other words, it is not so much that they lack Zionist enthusiasm per se, or religiosity per se, but they lack that crucial sense of themselves as ivrim. They have ignored precisely Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh’s model of Abraham the ivri mentioned earlier who, though a loyal citizen of his surrounding community “did not acquire an alliance at the cost of surrendering his identity.”

The Zionist enterprise in fact would never have crystallized had all those elements, including religious faith, not sustained Jewish identity long past the demise of other ancient civilizations. Yehezkel Kaufmann, an eminent biblical scholar and professor of Jewish thought at the Hebrew University in the nascent years of the Jewish state, dedicated an entire work, Exile and Estrangement, to this claim. There he lamented favoring cultural to the exclusion of spiritual constituents of Jewishness, asserting, “It is tragic that those who once had religious faith do not recognize that our nationalism came about only because of the faith in which we no longer believe.”

So it is that the founding fathers of the state of Israel ingeniously embraced all the components indispensable for Jewish identity when adding a further “scriptural” layer to the foundational canon that had maintained Jewish existence for the previous millennia. All those biblical and rabbinic texts, whose scope far transcends what we narrowly conceive as religion, lead us to another central Hebrew document carefully crafted by Jews in the 20th century: the Israeli Declaration of Independence. Its final official Hebrew version strategically toggles between self-references to a “Jewish nation” and a “Hebrew nation” as follows:

We appeal to the Jewish nation (ha-am ha-y’hudi) throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Jews of Eretz-Israel in the tasks of immigration and upbuilding and to stand by them in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream—the redemption of Israel.

Yet only a few lines later:

We extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the Hebrew nation (ha-am ha-ivri), settled in its own land.

When reaching out to its prospective neighbors in the region in the context of foreign relations it announces itself as a Hebrew people. However, when turning inward, domestically so to speak, to its own family of international Jewish communities, it announces itself a Jewish nation. The switch reflects the framers’ conceptions of the term ivri as indicating parity with other nations and therefore establishing common ground conducive to building peaceful relations with them. At the same time, Jewish appeals to other members of the nation, homing in on some uniqueness that binds all of them together regardless of their dispersal across the globe. It thus delicately preserves that identity launched by Abraham the ivri expressed in his two blessings addressing God in both universal and particular capacities.

In the end it is crucial to be mindful of the indivisible intersection between the Jew and Hebrew, each embracing the other in the myriad of facets that sustain the all-encompassing nation of Israel (am yisra’el). Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, pre-state Israel’s first chief rabbi and the doyen of religious Zionism, understood the passionate efforts of even the most secular of Zionist pioneers who identified as ivrim as subconscious expressions of deeply rooted religious impulses, an affirmation rather than a rejection of all the Jewishness the designation ivri exudes. The Declaration also sets its single reference to the nation of Israel specifically within the context of the Holocaust: “The catastrophe (Shoah) which recently befell the nation of Israel (am Yisrael)—the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe—was another clear demonstration of the urgency of solving the problem of the Jewish nation’s homelessness.” The ivri, the Jew, and the Israelite all inextricably intertwine in a composite of nation, culture, religion, language, and sovereignty that forms an impenetrable shield securing the nation of Israel’s survival that, in its previous state of homelessness, teetered on the precipice of annihilation.

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