Author: Gidon Ariel

Published Date: August 15, 2016

Chris asked:

I’d like to better understand that evolution of the words Israelite, Hebrew, and Jew. My grandmother and I have spoken about our lack of understanding in the Old Testament how these names came about. Jacob and Israel is obvious, but where/when did the name Hebrew come about and/or why? Same with the name/title Jew? It just seemed to us that there was a hard transition from one name to another and no real understanding of where or why the Jewish people were called by the various names.

Thanks for asking Chris!

The first of these appellations was Hebrew, which is an Anglicization (Latinization? Greekization?) of the Hebrew word Ivri. That word Ivri comes from the great grandson of Noah and his son Shem, and the great grandfather of Abraham, whose name was Eber (or Ever in the original). The word Ever also means “on the other side,” and Jewish tradition teaches that Abraham was on one side and the whole world was on the other; that is, he knew God and no one else in the world did. Today, the word Hebrew most often refers to the language of the Bible and the modern state of Israel (see below).


After Abraham, as you alluded to, Jacob’s name was changed to Israel (see Genesis 32:28) and this became the main name of the nation that grew from the forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. “Israelite” is a member of this nation.

After the development of the Israelite nation as described in the Bible/Old Testament, the nation split into a southern kingdom which was primarily Judea, the land of the Israelite tribe of Judah, and a northern kingdom which was pretty much the rest of the 12 tribes. Historically, the ten tribes (the tribe of Levi was scattered between the southern and northern kingdoms) were exiled and lost, though some of them escaped to Judea and assimilated into the tribe of Judah. Therefore, the term Judahite, or Jew for short, came to mean all Israelites, synonymous with that term and even taking over as the main name for this ethnic group. The book of Esther (2:5) describes Mordechai as a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin, which makes sense according to what I just described in this paragraph.

Fast forward about 2500 years, and you come to the creation of the modern State of Israel, also known as the Jewish State of the State of the Jews. Today, Israeli (the Hebrew word for Israelite) usually means a citizen of this state.

There is a lot more to say about this subject:-), but let’s leave it at this for now.



Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments