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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
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
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 (
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
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.
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This edition of Hemdat Yamim is dedicated to the memory of
R ' Meir ben Yechezkel Shraga Brachfeld
Hemdat Yamim is endowed by
and Louis and Lillian Klein, z”l.