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Topic: Hebrew, Definition

Ed Halper from University of Georgia's Department of Philosophy wrote:

Potifar's wife and Pharaoh's wine steward refer to Joseph as a 'Hebrew' (Bereshit 39:14, 41:12). And Joseph refers to himself as coming from the 'land of the Hebrews' (ibid 40:15). What does 'Hebrew' refer to? Jacob's family? Jacob had a small family at that point, whereas the Canaanites were an established nation. So why would the whole land of Canaan be thought of as the land of the Hebrews prior to the Exodus and the conquest of the country?

Dear Ed Halper,

The word 'Hebrew' -- 'Ivri' -- comes from the word 'Ever' meaning 'the other side.' The Torah first uses this term when referring to 'Abraham the Ivri.' Three reasons are given for this:

  1. Abraham was a stranger 'from the other side.' Born east of Canaan in Ur Kasdim, Abraham had come from the 'other side' of the Jordan River.
  2. Abraham stood 'on the other side' in opposition to the entire pagan world. His recogognition of the One G-d, and his adamant refusal to comply with 'modern' ideology set him at odds with the rest of humanity.
  3. Abraham was a descendent of Ever. Ever was the great-grandson of Noah's son Shem.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch addresses your question. He writes: "It is remarkable that already here the land is called the 'Land of the Hebrews.' His [Abraham's] family must already have been considered so important that the land where they were living was already known as their land."

Another possibility: Our Sages say that when Noah divided up the world among his three sons, the land of Israel fell to the portion of Shem. Later the Canaanites conquered it - but originally it was inhabited by Shem's offspring. Hence the term 'Eretz Ha-Ivriim' -- 'the land of the Hebrews' -- named after Ever, Shem's most prominent offspring.


  • Bereshit 14:13.
  • Rashi, Bereshit 12:6, based on Torat Kohanim 20:19.

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