Answers

  1. The first person described in the Bible as a “Hebrew” (Ivri) is Abraham. In the Torah’s account of the war between the Five Kings of Sodom and the Four Mesopotamian Kings, a refugee from the war told Abraham about the abduction of his nephew Lot: “The refugee came and he told Abraham the Ivri (Hebrew)… and Abraham heard that his brother’s son was captured (Gen. 14:13-14).” What does it mean that Abraham was an Ivri?

    The Midrash (Ber. Rabbah 42:8) offers three explanations for why the Torah refers to Abraham as an Ivri: One opinion maintains that it alludes to the fact that if the entire world would be on one “side” (ever) of a scale, and Abraham would stand on the other, then because of Abraham’s great stature the scale would balance. A second opinion explains that Abraham was called an Ivri as a genealogical marker to show that he descended from Eber (Ever), who was a great-grandson of Noah’s son Shem (Gen. 11:21–24). A third opinion explains that he was referred to as an Ivri because of his Mesopotamian origins from the other “side” (ever) of the Euphrates River, and because he spoke the Ivri (ostensibly “Hebrew”) language.

    Pesikta Rabbati (Pesikta 33) offers a fourth explanation: When God saw that the entire world worshipped idolatry, and Abraham separated himself from them by not doing so, He called Abraham an Ivri. That name referred to the fact that Abraham took the opposite “side” regarding this pivotal issue of Monotheism. Another Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 3:8) explains that the Jews are called “Hebrews” (Ivriim), because they were destined “to cross over the (Red) Sea” (she’avru ha’yam).

    Best wishes from the AskTheRabbi.org Team