Who Are You Calling a Hebrew?

The Mayflower’s historic 66 day voyage in 1620 from Plymouth, England to the New World was characterized by what was then typical hardship for both passengers and crew.  Arduous handling of the heavy canvas sails, coping with almost non-existent bathroom facilities, and barely surviving on non-refrigerated food were only a few of the challenges faced by those who made that voyage.

While much has improved for mariners, one activity that plagued those on the Mayflower still requires attention today.  Whether a cruise ship like the Symphony of the Seas at over 1,100 feet long (more than a thousand times larger than the Mayflower) or the small motorboat on which the Lapin family explores coastal British Columbia, all boats have bilge pumps.  Their purpose is to return the water that inevitably finds its way into the bottoms of boats back to where it belongs—outside the boat.

The Mayflower had two large unwieldy contraptions made of wood that required the manpower of several men to operate.  Today’s vessels admit far less water and most are equipped with electric bilge pumps which switch on and off automatically as necessary.  Still, even though one knows that the bilge pump will deal with it, it’s always a little disconcerting to spot water in the bottom of one’s boat, especially if it looks like a little more than should be there from normal shaft seal drippage or condensation.  It always reminds me of how utterly dependent one is upon the watertight integrity of one’s ship.  Perhaps this is why sailors tend to be either superstitious or religious.

The fact is that crossing any body of water is an unnatural act for humans.  But whether it is building jetliners or controlling our anger at an insult, we humans specialize in overcoming nature!  So, whether it is a ten-year-old boy crossing the village pond on a home-made raft or an intrepid sailor competing in one of the grueling single-handed round the world races, crossing a body of water is a significant and meaningful experience.

Even crossing over water by a bridge is significant enough to spur an entire collection of bridge idioms: ‘cross that bridge later’; ‘build bridges’; ‘burn bridges’; ‘cross that bridge when we get to it,’ and so on.  Crossing over water plainly carries significance.

Which makes the oldest and most venerable name for Jews also significant and meaningful.  The name Hebrew, as in “Abraham the Hebrew” is a loose transliteration of the Hebrew word, IVRI. 

And the fugitive came and he told Abram the Hebrew…
(Genesis 14:13)

IVRI means someone who has crossed over, usually a body of water. 

And I took your father Abraham from the other side of the river,
and led him throughout all the land of Canaan…
(Joshua 24:3)

Abraham’s first act of obedience to God involved leaving his birthplace and crossing the Euphrates River. 

Joseph in Egypt was referred to as a Hebrew.

Now it happened, when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled outside, that she called to the people of her house, and she spoke to them, saying, “Look! He brought us a Hebrew man to mock us.   
(Genesis 39:13-14)

Joseph had also crossed a river, the Nile on his way to Egypt.

Guess who else crossed water and is also called a Hebrew?  That’s right, Jonah.

And they [the sailors] said to him, “Tell us now, because of whom has this evil befallen us? What is your work and whence do you come? What is your land, and from what people are you?” 

And Jonah said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord God of heaven, Who made the sea and the dry land.” 
(Jonah 1:8-9)

In their founding years, the Israelites experienced three distinct geographical places.  First, they were in Egypt.  Then they transited from Egypt to the desert where they spent 40 years.  Thereafter, they transited from the desert to the Promised Land.  Both of these transitions involved crossing water, respectively the Red Sea and the Jordan River (Exodus 14 and Joshua 3).

Not surprisingly, Jews are called Hebrews, meaning “the water crossers.”  Throughout Scripture, crossing water is always seen as a metaphor for a significant life transition and Hebrews—Water Crossers—are meant always to be ready to transition to a new level of growth.  This may be why Jews, in general, are the world’s worst relaxers.  There’s always another bridge to cross, another journey to take, another challenge to seize.  Now is not the time to relax.  It never is the time to relax.  And it wasn’t ever time to relax for the Pilgrims either.  In more ways than one, they saw themselves as America’s first Hebrews!

21 thoughts on “Who Are You Calling a Hebrew?”

  1. I am a Nigerian man and my last name is ivri, i find that very interesting and never knew what the last name meant in Hebrew, none the less amazing teachings!

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Mr. Ivri,
      So happy to hear from you especially with your distinguished last name. It’s very similar to Abraham’s; he was known as Abraham “HaIvri”. This means Abraham “the Hebrew”.
      At any rate Ivri depicts someone with the courage to stand apart from the mainstream, someone willing to defy popular beliefs and practices. I’m sure that describes you.

  2. Umaefulam Ugochukwu N.

    Thanks My Rabbi, this journey with you brings home life reality of necesory continual motion. God bless you.

  3. Love the wisdom you always give. Love Susan too. You both are the highlight of my week, whether it be the podcast, blog or Susan’s musings.
    Thank you for giving me God’s wisdom.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thank you Elise–
      We are fortunate to be able to work together imparting ancient Jewish wisdom

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear David–
      During a recent interview, the host asked me a great question: What advice would I give to my 20 year-old self? I thought of several things I wish I’d known when I was 20. Still, without them I’ve survived but I know my life (over which I have no complaints only gratitude) could have been even better had I known these things earlier. I suspect the same is true for you. Here you are. At middle-age. And you’re doing great. But how much better had you had a rabbi when you were 20? That’s just me thinking aloud

  4. I absolutely love this article. Very enlightening. However, more than Plymouth, England crossed over. Seeing as how the geographical region if the middle eastern areas significantly reveal most people from that area are actually moreof a darker complexion, why is this not taught? Also, with that being said, what about the actual slaves who crossed over water as well. I have heard a few rabbis acknowledge this fact, however, i would to hear your point of view on this painted picture in America of Hebrews.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Shane–
      I must confess to confusion at your note. When you write “more than one Plymouth England crossed over” I don’t understand how any geographical location crossed anywhere. I must be misunderstanding. You also speak of how a geographical region reveals complexion. I am sorry I just don’t get how a region reveals anything. I wish I could respond to your desire for my point of view on “this painted picture in America of Hebrews” but again, I regret I am just not getting your point. At any rate, I wanted to acknowledge your letter and thank you for writing

  5. I really enjoy watching you, Rabbi and Susan, on TCT… and love to hear you speak of your children. (Tonight there was a portion of the show that had that “family touch” again, referring to the importance of birth order.
    Blessings to you, each and all, Lapin Family.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thanks Bev,
      Yes, we’re fortunate, not because we like our children but because they seem to like us! Thanks for watching our daily TV show.

  6. Someone else,”Wow.” Today I got a family book put together by a cousin’s husband. I made recall of old chats, and my young ears. Now old tears. The value of the Tanak , of hearing the older voices there, and audio on old cassette played today of this.
    We must,” hear.”

  7. Elrita M Ferrera

    I have always referred to Hebrew/Jews as respectful description of growth. I pray I am not in error.

  8. Often you refer to continual work. Remember to “He maketh me to lye down in green pastures” rest. Work is fun but Mary has chosen the better part. I’m sure when you mentioned your boat that you both relax, at least I hope so.

  9. I absolutely LOVED your podcast from September 23 that was a replay of your Texas visit. I enjoyed a more religious podcast and it was fascinating to learn about Amalek and modern history!

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thanks Gail,
      I’m so happy whenever anyone tells me they enjoy my work. Whether it’s the spoken word on the podcast, the written word in articles and books, or the visual word of the TV show, we intend it all to bring benefit and joy to our friends.

  10. As I was reading this I could not help but be drawn to the two “water crossings” you eventually mentioned, the Red Sea and the Jordan. My first thought was more humorous, “leave it to the Jews to make a new way of crossing water”. But, then I reflected a bit longer, thought about you and Ancient (yet, up to date) Jewish Wisdom and concluded, there must be more to it. Is there? Given the translation you provided I can only expect something deeper in this same line of thinking.

    Thanks for all of your hard work. I include Susan in that of course.

  11. Crossing the water is clearly evident in that old metaphor for finality: ‘crossing the river Jordan’ that most Judaeo-Christian initiates remember since childhood. Thanks for this Thought Tool explicating and honoring the legacy of the water-crossing Hebrews. Also it’s grand to have the imperative of the bilge pump explained if not demonstrated by that salty old mariner Rabbi Lapin, from abundant personal experience. May you live to cross many more waters!

  12. Oh wow!! Rabbi, I am reading this article in a public place, a well know Jewish owned coffeehouse where I occasionally do my studying of Torah. I could not contain myself while reading this. Almost everyone is looking at me bursting with awe and excitement, and yet I’m speechless.

    So much is going through my mind with this. I knew IVRI means someone who has crossed over, but not the part of usually crossing a body of water.

    And the statement that “crossing any body of water is an unnatural act for humans especially stands out.” I think about the Tribe of Zebulun and their symbol being a ship. I think of Yeshua from the new testament being raised within the territory of Zebulun by the sea, and the ability to walk on water.

    So much ancient wisdom gaining upon me right now, and I am enjoying it tremendously. Thanks again Rabbi!

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