The words "Jews," "Israelites" and "Hebrews" have similarities but they are not synonyms. Using words correctly leads to healthier communication and avoids confusing and sometimes controversial errors. This is particularly true with words that have been used for thousands of years. Clarifying the meanings of these words will help you maintain more accurate conversations and understand reading materials better.
Jews Are a Religious or Ethnic Group
The term "Jew" comes from the Hebrew word "Yehuda" or "Judah." This was the largest of the Twelve Tribes which were named for the sons of the Jewish patriarch, Jacob. Since the sound of the "Y" in Yehuda was generally translated as "J" in English texts, "Yehudim," the plural of "Yehuda," was eventually transformed into "Jews." "Jewish" refers to the religious practice that is based on the written and oral tradition found in the Five Books of Moses.
Some well-known practices of Jewish life are the adherence to the dietary laws known as "kosher," the celebration of holy days such as Passover and Rosh Ha Shannah, and the keeping of the Sabbath, which begins at sundown Friday with lighting the Sabbath candles and continues until sundown on Saturday.
A person can be Jewish if he can trace his lineage back on the maternal side for at least five generations. A person may also convert to become Jew; however, proselytizing or converting for any reason than wanting to be a Jew is not considered a valid conversion by many Jewish scholars. Hence, Jews are an ethnic or a religious group.
The word "Hebrews" is derived from the Hebrew word for "ever," pronounced "ivri" in the Hebrew language, which is both plural and singular. The first instance of this word is in the part of the Book of Genesis pertaining to Abraham. There is much debate among Jewish scholars about the precise meaning of "ever" in this context, but it is a consensus that the word refers to the relationship between Abraham, the father of monotheism and Judaism, and The Creator. The people who look to Abraham as the first patriarch are know by the term "Hebrews," the plural of "ivri." Through many generations, "Hebrew" in its singular form also became known as the language in which the Five Books of Moses is written and, in modern times, the language of the land of Israel.
The term Israel is the translation of the name "Yisroel" given to the Patriarch, Jacob, after staying true to his relationship to God through various trials during his life. The descendants of Jacob, also known as the Twelve Tribes, have been called Israelites since. However, with the birth of the modern state of Israel in 1948 on the land that Jacob himself lived, the term "Israeli" became the description for anyone born within the borders of Israel or who took advantage of the Right of Return. The Right of Return gives any Jew, regardless of where she is born, the right to claim citizenship and live in Israel. So, all Jews are Israelites as descendants of Jacob, but anyone born in Israel, even if not Jewish, are considered Israelis.
Other Uses of These Words
There are also other religions and groups who use the word "Hebrews" or "Israelites" in their name. While "Hebrew" is the language in which the Five Books of Moses, or the Torah, is written, and the language spoken in Israel, "Hebrews" is a less definite word which can mean Jews, but has been adopted by many non-Jews who believe they are descended from one of the lost tribes, or who have embraced Jewish religious laws as part of their belief system. "Hebrews" is also the name of one of the books in the New Testament. There are differing opinions about who wrote the book, but the prevailing belief is that it was Paul, one of Jesus' main disciples.
- Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images