On Root / What Does the Word 'Hebrew' Mean?

It isn't clear, but there are clues going back to the dawn of history, and they seem to do with the theme 'passage'.

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It's time for this Hebrew language column to explore the most Hebrew word of them all: "Hebrew," 'ivrit.

We English speakers don't usually think of proper nouns as having meanings at all – they're just names. Likewise, the majority of language names are simply taken from the place in which they are spoken: French, English, German, Spanish, etc.

"Hebrew" though, is not derived from a place name: there's no 'Hebrewland' or 'Hebrewstan.' Moreover, like all Hebrew words, 'ivrit has a root of its own – 'ayin-v-r - that sheds light on its history and meaning.

First Hebrew(s)

Though the vast majority of the Bible is written in Hebrew (some is in Aramaic), the word "Hebrew" is never mentioned there as the name of the language. The few times that the Hebrew language is referred to (2nd Kings 18, Isaiah 36) it is called "Yehudit," that is, "Judean." (In modern Hebrew, "yehudit" would mean "Jewish.")

The English word "Hebrew" actually refers to two different things: the language and the people. The ethnic group, 'ivri, does appear in the Bible (e.g., Genesis 14, Exodus 1 and 2, Jonah).

There are several theories as to the origin of the name. One is based on the genealogies of Genesis.

Noah's son was Shem, father of Semitic peoples and languages. In chapter 10, he is described as "the father of all the children of Eber." That name is spelled 'ayin-v-r ("b" and "v" being the same consonantal letter) – which is the same root as 'ivri.

While the similarity is suggestive, nothing specifically links Eber with Hebrew or Hebrews.

Another tradition has it that Abraham is called "the Hebrew" (ha-'ivri) because he came from "across the river" (the Euphrates). "Across" is me'ever, again using the same root. This idea is continued metaphorically in that Abraham and his family stood against the rest of the ancient world in terms of monotheism and ethics.

These senses connect to the general meaning of the root 'ayin-v-r "pass, cross, traverse, undergo."

Those meanings also crop up in the third theory, that the Hebrews are connected to a semi-nomadic people named "habiru" mentioned in the Tel el-Amarna letters from the 13th centuries BCE.

These otherwise unknown Semitic "habiru" also may have come from across some great divide or other, hence the origin of that name. But while assuming a connection with this group was popular for a while, it has more recently been brought into doubt.

A passing grade

All those historical speculations are about the past, 'avar – what has "passed."
That is only one of the many uses of this root, in the sense of "pass" or "get through." For instance, one who takes a test and gets a good grade – 'over, "passes."

In the past, new immigrants to Israel were initially settled in transit camps, ma'abarot. But don't confuse that with a more futuristic image of the space shuttle - ma'aboret (which also means "ferry").

And if one passes or crosses over other sorts of boundaries, such as legal or moral ones, that might constitute an 'aveirah, "a transgression," or sin. Repeated offenses of this sort are liable to brand one an 'avaryan, a "criminal."

On the other hand, to be 'over masach (literally "passes the screen"), is to be telegenic, "go over well" in the media.

If the word 'over looks like English "over"- well, there's no connection, but there is a story. In any army, there's a special language that is used on walkie-talkies. In English, when you want to confirm you have heard what has just been said and end your transmission, you'll say: "Roger – over!" This has been Hebraicized in the IDF as "Rut – 'avor!," "rut" simply being the "r" word in Hebrew, like "roger" in English, and 'avor – because it sounds like "over."

That may be me'al ume'ever, "above and beyond" what you expected to read in a column on Hebrew.

Some claim that Israelis don't speak Hebrew, any more than Italians speak Latin. But while the contemporary lingo is indeed far from the classical tongue – and getting farther – there is a continuous historical memory, and dynamism and global influences, even if they augur great changes, are the life blood of any living language. Which 'ivrit surely is!

Caravaggio's rendition of Abraham, middle, trying to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham's moniker "Ha-'ivri" may be the source of the modern word "Hebrew."Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Fishing in the Euphrates by the time-honored method of catching the thing. Credit: Reuters

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