The Word "Hebrew": Insights into the Hebrew Language

May 9, 2009

9 min read


Jews are also referred to as Hebrews. What can this name tell us about the character of Jews?

What's in a name? A Mercedes is called a Mercedes because the car's inventor named it after his daughter. Nylon, at least according to one theory, is an acronym for New York – London, two cities associated with the material's development. Neither name describes the essence of the object known by the name. Names are generally mere symbols used to identify one object or another, but not to describe the essence of a thing.

In Hebrew, a rose by any other name is not necessarily a rose. Every Hebrew name has an inner meaning and provides us with insight into that which is described. Our Sages even applied this to people's names and explained that parents have an almost prophetic inspiration when they choose a child's name. Therefore, a name change can have a profound impact on an individual, including changing his destiny. For example, there was a man named Avram who was destined to remain childless. But Avraham, the same person with a new name, would give rise to nations.

The very word "Hebrew" demonstrates this idea. The Jews are called, among other things, "Hebrews" and the Jewish language is known by the same name. If a name stems from a deeper root, then the very name Hebrew should give us an insight into the Jewish people.


The word Hebrew comes from the word Ivri, a term used to describe our forefather Abraham. The word literally means "from the other side." Geographically Abraham came from the other side of the river, probably a reference to the Jordan since he came from Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) to Canaan (Israel) on the other side. He was also both the physical and spiritual heir of Ever, Noah's great-great-grandson (hence the name Ivri) who lived on a higher spiritual plane than most of the world.

Abraham was on one side and the entire world was on the other.

Our Sages explained that there is another meaning in the name Ivri. It is a name that also reflects an ideological other side; Abraham was on one side and the entire world was on the other. A deeper look at the story of Abraham provides us with a insight into just how alone and he was in a world which was his polar opposite.

One Man against the World

Abraham lived to see the entire world rebel against God. They conspired together to build a tower to reach the heavens. Some wanted to ascend and wage war, others to worship idols there, and some just wanted to remain there, high above the world in a place of power that defied God's dominion. They were otherwise unified in their efforts to build what we know as the Tower of Babel. King Nimrod, a charismatic demagogue and master of persuasion, led their cause and he was determined to recruit every human being in the world to his movement because he understood the overwhelming force of unanimity.

Yet there was one individual who absolutely refused to join: Abraham. This irked Nimrod and his followers to no end, for they knew that their absolute unity in purpose gave them unbelievable power. They finally convinced themselves that Abraham's opposition was meaningless since they saw in the stars that Abram, his name at the time, would not bear children, which in their eyes meant that his mark on the world would be immaterial. What they did not know was that God would change his name to Abraham, a person who would give birth to a movement that would forever change the world and render them, not him, irrelevant.

Ponder the loneliness of having the entire world publicly against you.

Imagine what it must have been like to be Abraham. Ponder the loneliness of having the entire world publicly against you, while you remain stalwart in your faith and cling tenaciously to that which you know is right. Yet all the ridicule would not move Avraham.

Our Sages relate that Terach, Abraham's father, owned an idol shop and one day asked young Abraham to mind the store. Avraham was raised to worship idols and did so with his family, but something nagged at him. He was so underwhelmed by the naivete of a customer who believed that man-made gods could help that he broke all of the idols, save the largest one in whose hand he placed the hammer that smashed the others. When his father returned and ask how all the idols were destroyed, young Avraham smugly responded that the large idol had killed all the others. Terach brought his son to King Nimrod to teach him a lesson, but Nimrod soon discovered that no matter what he would argue, Avraham would outsmart him. Exasperated, he sentenced Avraham to death and threw him into a blazing furnace. Miraculously, Abraham emerged unscathed.

Abraham's lonely determination paid off. Ultimately, the same Abraham who had been utterly alone in his faith and shunned by the world, convinced thousands to cross over to his side. He merited fame, wealth, and power and the world soon looked to him for guidance.

It was he who determined the map of the world and even the balance of power. The world saw its first war during his lifetime, and one of the sides made the sorry mistake of capturing Lot, who was both Abraham's nephew and brother in law. He joined the war and determined its outcome so decisively that in its aftermath, the local powers asked him to rule over them and he minted his own currency which was the most desired throughout the world. This all began with Avraham being the sole voice against the many.

Transcending the World

There is an even deeper meaning in the name Ivri and Avraham being on the "other side." The Torah said that God took Abraham "outside" and said habet na hashomayma, please gaze upon the heavens, count the stars, if you can, for such will be your children. Our rabbis observed that the Hebrew word habet means to gaze from above. Therefore it is explained that God took Abraham outside of the entire universe and Abraham looked down upon the stars. What meaning is there in Abraham's extra-terrestrial experience at the exact moment he was promised many children?

The inner meaning of being an Ivri is transcendence, the ultimate "other side" one can achieve. That means that as descendents of Abraham we have the ability to leave the system of natural cause and effect that governs the world, including the mystical influence the planetary bodies have on the earth. This gift to Abraham and to us, his spiritual descendents, means that while the rules of science or astrology may suggest one conclusion, we have the power and license to turn to God and ask for another. Abraham himself could not have children and his wife also did not even have a womb. Yet he received the gift of transcendence, which meant that for Abraham and his descendents anything would be possible.

A Nation of Ivriim

The Jewish people received this gift nationally – the ability to go beyond the rules of nature and exist in an entirely different plane. God called himself the God of the Ivrim in connection with the Exodus from Egypt. Our Sages explained that we earned that name when we passed through the Red Sea which split for us; the word Ivri also means to pass through to the other side.

An entire nation stood in a place that was not and could not naturally have been the habitat of human beings. They passed through the heart of the sea. Imagine the surreal experience of millions of people watching the fish glide by in the towering walls of water on either side, as the entire nation traversed it without so much as a drop of mud on their shoes. In contrast, moments later their pursuers drowned in the depths of the path they had just traversed. That other worldly experience was an integral part of our becoming a nation in fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham as he looked down upon the stars from the other side of the universe.

Being Jewish is about standing up for what we believe is right, regardless of popular opinion and practice.

The parallel is clear – we are a nation of Ivriim. We stand alone and, if we connect to who we really are, we have the power to transcend what appear to be the immutable rules of nature. History best illustrates this idea. What other nation has suffered so much for its belief system and has nonetheless clung tenaciously to it and not only survived but thrived? Empires have risen and fallen, and the laws of nature would have had the same happen to us, but we're still here.

We are called Hebrews, Ivriim, because we inherited that legacy of Abraham. We are a lonely people, persecuted throughout most of history. Generation after generation tried to convince us we are wrong. Sometimes those efforts appeared polite and more often they were accompanied by the sword. To be a Jew historically meant trouble. It meant exclusion from guilds, second class citizenship at best, and being the scapegoat for society's problems. Yet we remained and remain to this day apart and in our faith and customs. We maintain our national language and distinct identity, and despite our small numbers, have persevered in a way that no other people have or could have. This is so despite centuries of temptation to abandon our heritage. Jews are different, and are proud of it.

Being Jewish can at times be lonely, but the generations that preceded us knew it was worth it. This knowledge held up even if it meant being an Ivri, standing alone on one side with the world taunting us from the other. Our ancestors who had, at best, a fraction of the culinary and cultural conveniences we have today, clung to their heritage. Intercity coach trips across Eastern Europe or North Africa hardly had the kosher food option every major airline offers today.

Being Jewish is about standing up for what we believe is right, regardless of popular opinion and practice. We are promised that ultimately the nations of the world will look to us for moral guidance just like they revered our forefather Abraham's counsel. Until then, we need the strength to live up to our name – even if means being an Ivri when we find ourselves on the other side of public opinion.

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Insights into the Hebrew Language: The Word "Jew"
The Meaning of "Adam": Insights into the Hebrew Language

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