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.

Observation
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:

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