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  • Writer's pictureOfer S. Beit-Halachmi

The Surprising History of "Hebrew".

   Hebrew עִבְרִית Ivrit‎, as you know, is the name of a language. Names of languages are commonly called after a country, as English in England, German in Germany, and French in France. If so, where is the land of Hebrand (or Hebrany or Hebran)?

   Indeed, in the Hebrew Bible itself we find "Judaish" (or Judaean) יְהוּדִית, Yehudit, (2 Kings 18:18) and "language of Canaan" (Isaiah 19:18) as the name of the language. Each of these terms refers to language that was spoken in the land of Judaea or in the land of Canaan.

   The word "Hebrew" in the Hebrew Bible appears 34 times and refers to ethnicity and not to a name of a country: ״Abram the Hebrew״ (Genesis 14:13), Joseph recognized as "Hebrew slave" (Genesis 39:17), and Jonah say "I am a Hebrew" (Jonah 1:9). If we try to translate the word "Hebrew" in Jonah 1:9 עִבְרִי אָנֹכִי, we will not translate it as "I am a Hebrew speaker" but as "I am one of the people of the Hebrews".

James Tissot, The Caravan of Abraham (watercolor 1902)

   The word Hebrew עִבְרִי Ivri comes from the root word "עבר Avar", to pass, to cross over or across (at or from the other side). One of the more common explanations for the word as the name of the decedents of Abraham comes from Joshua 24. In this chapter Joshua is giving his last public speech to the Israelites. He repeatedly reminds the people of their origins; that they are descendants of the family of Abraham that came from across the River עֵבֶר הַנָּהָר: "Your fathers used to dwell beyond the River" (Joshua 24:2 and 3). And Joshua tells them to "put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River" (24:14 and 15).

   In his speech Joshua reminds the people of two other occasions of crossing: the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, and the crossing of the Jordan River. Assuming that this is the origin for the name of the people, we may understand "Hebrews" as "the ones who cross over"-- they are the people that came from across the River.

   In fact, the word Hebrew, as the name of the language of the Jews, was used by the ancient Greeks and in later European languages. Hebrew speakers started to use "Hebrew עִבְרִית Ivrit" as the name of their own language only in the 19th century.

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