Hebrew | Francais


> > Archive

Shabbat Parashat Beha'alotcha | 5769

Ask the Rabbi: Should Ancient Hebrews be referred to by the name Hebrews or Israelites?


Question: I am on my state’s History- Social Science Curriculum Framework and Evaluation Criteria Committee. We have been debating whether the Ancient Hebrews should be referred to by the name “Hebrews” or “Israelites.” How does your organization refer to your ancient ancestors? Related questions: Was it the Hebrews or the Israelites who organized the Kingdom of Israel? From which did the teaching that God established ethical principles for humankind emerge?


Answer: Clearly the names are used interchangeably along with the name Jews (which is a misnomer, as this technically refers only to the descendants of the tribe of Judah). However, study of the most authoritative text, the Holy Scriptures (=Hebrew Bible) reveals that there is a clear, although not absolute, historical distinction between Hebrews and Israelites.

The first person called an Ivri (=Hebrew) is Abraham (at the time, Abram) in Genesis 14:13. One explanation (see Ibn Ezra’s long commentary to Exodus 21:2) of this appellation is that he descended from Ever, a prominent great-grandson of Shem, the son of Noah (Genesis 10: 21-24), who was an early monotheist according to Jewish tradition. (Many of ancient nations were named after progenitors found in that chapter.) Another possibility (see Rashi’s to Genesis 14:13) is that Abram came from the other side (ever) of the river (Euphrates), as is stressed in Joshua 24:3. The name, Israelites (Bnei Yisrael = Sons of Israel), could not have existed at the time, for God renamed Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, Israel much later. However, even after the renaming, Ivrim (Hebrews) was used to identify people from that family. Joseph was called an Ivri three times (Genesis 39:14, 17; ibid. 41:12) and said he was kidnapped from the Land of the Ivrim (ibid. 40:15). They were a known group in Egypt; the Egyptians considered it a disgrace to eat with them (ibid. 43:32). In Exodus, when the family became nation size, they are still referred to several times, including by the Biblical text, as Hebrews. Moses was a “child of the Hebrews,” who later saw a Hebrew being hit and two Hebrews fighting (see Exodus 2: 6, 11, 13). God is presented to Pharaoh as the “God of the Hebrews” (ibid. 7:16). In total there are 11 such references to the family/nation in Exodus as Hebrews, all before the exodus took place. There are also references to Israelites there.

There are no references to the nation as Hebrews throughout the Pentateuch after the exodus. The only exception is the references to a Hebrew slave (Exodus 21:2; Deuteronomy 15:12) that one may acquire. In the entire rest of the Bible, Hebrews are used only in reference to slaves (in which the individual resembled his ancestors, before they were a free nation) and in the context of how the Philistine’s called their Israelite foes (several places in Samuel I). Also, Jonah (1:9) called himself a Hebrew, arguably in a self-deprecating manner. At the same time, there are thousands of uses of the term Israelites in Biblical accounts after (including some before) the time of the exodus.

In short, the nation that left Egypt, received the Torah at Sinai, and founded the Kingdom of Israel in the former Land of Canaan was known as Bnei Yisrael (Israelites). Previously there had been a family/tribe that started with Abraham the Hebrew. He, followed by the first generations of descendants, spread monotheism and morality as respected citizens/leaders of the Land of Canaan (see Genesis 14: 14-23; 21:33; 23:6; 26: 26-29; 35:5), including a region known as the Land of the Hebrews (see above). This family/tribe was known to the outside world, for the most part, as Hebrews. Their forebears continued the same mission as a nation of Israelites (see Exodus 19: 1-6). 

So, while the names Hebrews and Israelites can and often are used interchangeably, the more precise usage depends on the exact period of ancients one refers to.



Top of page
Print this page
Send to friend


This edition of Hemdat Yamim is dedicated to the memory of

R ' Meir ben Yechezkel Shraga  Brachfeld


Hemdat Yamim is endowed by
Les & Ethel Sutker of Chicago, Illinois in loving memory of
Max and Mary Sutker

and Louis and Lillian Klein, z”l.



site by entry.
Eretz Hemdah - Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies, Jerusalem All Rights Reserved | Privacy Policy. | Terms of Use.