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The Hebrew Words for Nation and People

Part I

Biblical Hebrew has many words for “nation” and “people.” I am going to discuss two of them here: אם (om) and the entirely different word לאם (le’om). A future column will discuss the more common words for nation and people: “goy” and “am.”

We all know the word אמים from Hallel (Psalms, 117:1) “shabechuhu kol ha-umim.” This phrase is parallel to “goyim” in the first part of the verse, so we can presume that it means something akin to “nation” here.

But this seems to be only a later meaning of the word. This word (in different forms) appears two earlier times in Tanach. The first time is in a section about Yishmael (Gen. 25:16): “shneim asar nesiim le-umotam.” The second time is in Num. 25:15 regarding Tzur (the father of the infamous female, Kozbi): “rosh umot beit-av be-midyan.” The meaning of our word in both of these passages is something like “tribal unit.” (See H. Tawil, An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew, p. 24 where Tawil notes a related word in Akkadian with the “tribal unit” meaning). Similarly, Radak, in Sefer Ha-Shorashim, views the meaning in these two verses as “mishpacha.”i.e. Family.

In the Aramaic section of Tanach, the singular אמה (“umah”) appears in Daniel 3:29, and the plural “umaya” appears one time in Ezra (4:10) and six times in the book of Daniel. In all of these verses the word means “nation.”

Since the word only appears three times in the Hebrew section of Tanach, always in the plural, we do not even have its singular form in Hebrew. We have to guess what it would be. The conventional guess is אם (=om) if the word was male, and אמה (=umah) if the word was female. (Interestingly, the plural in Psalms 117:1 is in the male form, “umim,” but the plural the other two times is in the female form, “umot.”)

Where did our words אם and אמה come from? E. Klein, (“A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language,” p. 34), points to a related word in the early language of Ugaritic and adds: “these words are usually derived from אמם, a base of uncertain origin.” Other scholars see a relation to “אם” as mother. This also seems to be the approach taken by the Radak in his Sefer Ha-Shorashim. The Koehler-Baumgartner lexicon makes the “mother” suggestion as well but with a question mark.

The modern word for a group religious leader in Arabic, “imam” probably derives from our word as well.

Many of our piyyutim begin with the word “אום.“ For example, “Om Ani Chomah” by Rav Eleazar Kallir (600 C.E.). This is one of the hoshanot recited on Sukkot. Here, Israel is described as “a nation that declares: “I am a wall,” i.e., it remains steadfast to God in spite of the oppression that it suffers. Another piyyut by Kallir (also one of the hoshanot) is: “Om Netzurah Ke-Vavat,” a nation protected like the pupil of the eye.

In modern times, the United Nations is called: “Umot Meuchadot.” This is commonly abbreviated to: או״ם.

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An entirely different word for nation/people is לאם. This word appears 35 times in Tanach in various forms. The singular is “le’om” and the plural is “leumim.” Until I did the research for this column, I assumed that these were connected to אם. I barely noticed the difference and may have assumed that the lamed in לאם was just a prefix!

We all know this word from Gen. 25:23, where it appears three times. Rivkah is told: “There are two ‘goyim’ in your stomach, and two ‘leumim’ will be separated from your womb, ‘u-leom mi-leom ye-ematz,’ one people will be stronger than the other people and the elder shall serve the younger.”

We also know the word from Palms 148:11 which we recite every morning: “malchei eretz ve-chol leumim.” (Daat Mikra, n. 14, suggests that possibly “malchei” applies to both “eretz” and “leumim.”)

The word is usually used in Tanach with reference to foreign nations with Gen. 25:23 being one notable exception.

Where does לאם come from? E. Klein cites the following cognates: a Ugaritic word that means “people, crowd,” an Akkadian word that means “thousand,” and an Arabic word that means “gathered together.” (See similarly, the entry in the Koehler-Baumgartner lexicon).

Tawil, (p. 177), writes that the Akkadian word is a loanword from Sumerian, an older non-Semitic language. He also points out that in Mari texts, it also means “family, clan.” (Mari texts are from centuries before Tanach, from the area of the modern Iraq-Syria border.)

In modern Hebrew, “leumi” is used frequently. For example, we have Bank Leumi, Sherut Leumi (national service), and Bituach Leumi (national insurance). A post at balashon.com on June 13, 2016 suggests that because it was not used in Tanach as often as “am” and “goy” (those words were used hundreds of times each!), לאם did not develop connotations like those words did. This made it more available for use in modern Israel.

Another word on this general topic is “medinah,” since today we might use it to mean country.

This word does not appear in the Torah but it appears in Nach, usually in the later books of Nach (e.g., Yechezkel, Eichah, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, and Nechemiah). Earlier, it appears four times in I Kings, chapter 20.

But what exactly did the word mean and where did it come from? The answer is easily seen. That initial “mem” is not a part of the root. The root of the word is דין: judging. The word meant “district” or “province,” and what created a “district” or “province” was that people were united by judges and a legal system that had authority over them. (See Klein, p. 319). (This is as opposed to a group united by kinship, race, language, religion, etc.)

I wish to acknowledge the post of 6/13/16 by David Curwin of Efrat at his site balashon.com (“Am, Goy, Leom, Uma”) that provided me with the idea for this column and some of the details.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He dedicates this column to our chayalim in Eretz Yisrael who are risking their lives fighting for the Jewish nation.

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