We see that in most of the Bible, the Jews are called "בני ישראל/Israelites"; only in later books are they called "יהודים/Jews" (e.g. Esther 2:5, Zechariah 8:23), after the loss of the 10 tribes. However, the only word appearing for the language of the Jews is "יהודית/Jewish/Yiddish" -- no "לשון הקדש" or "עברית". Granted, one reference is during the 2nd Temple period (Nehemiah 13:24). However, in II Kings 18:26, an Assyrian emissary is asked to speak in "יהודית" rather than in ארמית/Aramaic.

Why, then, even at this earlier point, when the entire nation of Israel lived in the land, is the language specifically referred to as the Judean language? Is that meant to imply that the other tribes were speaking something different? Or was it just the common, understood way of referring to the language?

On a related note, when did Hebrew begin to be known as עברית/Hebrew?

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    Melachim II 18:26: וַיֹּאמֶר אֶלְיָקִים בֶּן חִלְקִיָּהוּ וְשֶׁבְנָה וְיוֹאָח אֶל רַבְשָׁקֵה דַּבֶּר נָא אֶל עֲבָדֶיךָ אֲרָמִית כִּי שֹׁמְעִים אֲנָחְנוּ וְאַל תְּדַבֵּר עִמָּנוּ יְהוּדִית בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם אֲשֶׁר עַל הַחֹמָה: And Eliakim the son of Hilkiah and Shebnah and Joah said to Rabshakeh, "Please speak to your servants in Aramaic for we understand it; do not speak with us in Judean within the hearing of the people who are on the wall." - The emissary was asked to speak Aramaic not Hebrew.
    – ezra
    Commented Jun 28, 2017 at 15:27

3 Answers 3


Well historically speaking the only time, pre-Babylonian exile, that the word יהודית(which in this case is probably best translated as Judean) is employed is when the Assyrians move to sack Jerusalem. This is some 240 years after the Kingdoms were divided, which itself would have fostered dialectic differences, and after the Northern Kingdom(Israel) had already fallen and been deported by the Assyrians.

Beyond that the term עברית is used in Onkelos a number of times(which is probably the earliest written record of it post Biblically) Genesis 32:11 זעירן זכותי מכל חסדין ומכל טבון דעבדת עם עבדך ארי יחידי עברית ית ירדנא הדין וכען הויתי לתרתין משרין: Deuteronomy 26:13 ותימר קדם יי אלהך פליתי קודש מעשרא מן ביתא ואף יהבתיה לליואה ולגיורא ליתמא ולארמלתא ככל פקודך דפקידתני לא עברית מפקודך ולא אתנשיתי

  • Mekubal, what are you tryng to demonstrate from your second paragraph?
    – YDK
    Commented Jan 2, 2011 at 6:15
  • Mekubal, do you mean to tell us that Onkelos predates Megilas Esther?!
    – Yahu
    Commented Jan 2, 2011 at 9:15
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    YDK, the Second part of the answer, which is when was the word Ivrit first used for the Hebrew language. Considering that that Onkelos predates the Mishna(in its present written form), the Midrash, or just about any other Rabbinic text, from what I can tell his is the earliest written usage of the word Ivrit/Hebrew. Commented Jan 2, 2011 at 9:30
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    Mekubal, thanks for your answer. Those uses of עברית in the Targum are interesting finds, but they are not referring to the Hebrew language. In fact, an earlier usage of "Hebrew" is found in the original Torah text at Genesis 41:12, but it refers to Yosef's ethnicity, not his language. Though maybe that is close enough!
    – Yosef
    Commented Jan 2, 2011 at 12:11
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    Mekubal, if you are just looking for a root that uses the term Ivri, which refers to being of the people from the other side of the Euphrates, you have "vayaged l'Avram haivri" (Lech-Lecha 14:13) as the earliest usage. Having the yud and the tav at the end of the Aramaic usage (Avaris) just conjugates the word to "I crossed over" and has no more of a relationship to Ivrit than the example from Lech-lecha.
    – YDK
    Commented Jan 2, 2011 at 20:18

Likely because there were multiple Hebrew-based dialects among the various Semitic people, including lingual differences between the different tribes of Israel.

The Moabites, for example, had a Hebrew dialect that was only slightly different from Hebrew (source). One famous example of this is the Meisha Stele, written either in the Phoenician script or ancient Hebrew, which are two similar alphabets and the words themselves are a form of Hebrew.

In Tanach we see that many people from Am Yisrael had names that were also used by the Edomites. Here's a list from Da'at Mikra:

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However, Edomites also had words we don't recognize, such as the name of their chief deity, Qos (קוס) which brought upon names such as Qos-Gabar.

Rabbi Ahron Marcus in Barzilai explains that because different tribes bordered different non-Jewish nations, over time, their Hebrew evolved in different directions (he wrote a lot on the subject; the entire book is dedicated to the development of the Hebrew language. The following is only a small part of what he has to say on the matter of Hebraic dialects):

"With the building of the Temple, many architectural terms were added to the Hebrew language, influenced by Syrian architects and builders. These terms we learn from Kings I and Yechezkel, where they appear, hundreds of years later, in style differences and names and lingual varieties that we have yet completely interpret. Moreover, commerce ties with India, Arabia, Southern Africa and Egypt were developed. Due to the split between the two kingdoms, Judea and Israel, a situation came about that one bordered the nations that spoke a southern Semitic dialect and the other had neighbors who spoke a northern Semitic dialect...Yonah ben Amitai, from Gat Hachefer...his city of birth, Gat Chefer, was in the Tribe of Zevulun, not far from Tzidon, and was surrounded by the Phoenician langugage, whose influence can be found in the richness of this prophet's speech..."Beshelmi" (Yonah 1:7), which came from the mouth of one of the sailors. This is a clear Phoenician term..." (pg. 205-207)

"Like all of the prophets, Ovadiah prophecied the destruction of the kingdoms whow ere considered, techincally, vassals of Judea: Edom, Peleshet, Efraim, Shomron and Gilad..."S'farad" is a word with a Phoenician structure, with a Dalet at the end (like "Rafsad")..."Ketel" is a northern Semitic and Aramaic word...by Yonah, whose birthplace neighbored the northern border of the area of the Hebrew language...we find more than any other prophet, words taken from Phoenician and even Assyrian...like "Meshamrim" instead of "Shomrim", "Lo" instead of "Oto", "Charishit" instead of "Me'alefet"...by Hoshea and Amos the differences in the north are more defined. Especially we find by them Shin instead of Samech...for example, בשורי instead of בסורי; and השירו instead of הסירו. And by Amos we find בושס instead of בוסס, and בולס instead of בולש, and מסרף instead of מצרף. And in Hoshea, און instead of הון..."Anach" (Amos 7:7) is a strange Sumerian word which entered the Hebrew through Phoenician, and the same about Haharmonah (4:3). From the common language of the north we find "Doga", "Avtit", "Kaluv", "K'vrah"...

By Nachum we find Assyrian titles for officials - "Tafsar" (3:17)...likewise for "Hutzav" and "Gulta"...

At the time, the richness of the language in Judea reaches its peak. The first in the line of southern prophets is Yoel...by Yoel the word "Acar" similar to the Arabic verb "Acar" - to farm the earth. By Yoel we find for the first time the word "Kerem" and whole slew of farming terms: "Mamgerah", "Magrefot", "Dashah", "Magal"...the rest of the new words point to a relationship with the southern Semitic dialects spoken by the neighboring nations..." (pg. 300-303)

Therefore, it seems very likely that the Hebrew dialect of Judea became known over time by other nations as "Yehudit" - "Judean".

For more on Hebrew dialects, see here, for example.


If you spoke about עברית in Biblical times, would you mean

  • the language the Torah was written in,
  • the closely-related languages of Ammon and Moav,
  • the dialect used in the Southern Kingdom (Yehuda),
  • the dialect used in the Northern Kingdom (Yisroel), or
  • any combination of the above?

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