Skip to main content



SEMITES , a term originally referring to those peoples listed in the table of nations (Gen. 10) as descendants of Noah's son Shem (Sem in the lxx and the Vulgate). The derivative "Semitic" was coined as a linguistic term by A.L. Schloezer in 1781 (in J.G. Eichhorn (ed.), Repertorium fuer biblische und morgen laendische Literatur, 8 (1781), 161). Shem is given five sons who had 21 descendants, making a total of 26 peoples derived from him. These include the Elamites and the Assyrians, the Lydians (but note Gen. 10:13), the Arameans, and numerous Arab tribes (Gen. 10:21–31). They are spread from Lydia, eastward through Syria and Assyria, to Persia. Their northern boundary is Armenia, and their southern, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Early in the development of modern ethnology it was realized that the list in Genesis combines peoples that sometimes have nothing in common but geographic propinquity. "Semite" was then defined by the supposed physical characteristics of the chief surviving representatives of the list, the Jews and the Arabs: dolichocephalic skulls; curly and abundant hair; slightly wavy or straight strong beard, predominantly black; prominent (straight or aquiline) nose; oval face (db, s.v.).

The problematic nature and evil results of earlier racial theories have led to a restriction of the terms Semite and Semitic in careful modern usage to linguistic categories. Aside from the biblical referent, the linguistic is the only modern scholarly-scientific use of the term. The combination of peoples under the rubric Semites in Genesis 10 is not justified by the linguistic criterion. The common features of the languages of the Assyrians, Arameans, and Arabs, which suffice to mark them as members of one family, set them apart from the "Semite" Lydians (Lud) and Elamites, whose languages are totally unrelated. These common features comprise the identifying marks of the Semitic *languages, and in current usage the peoples speaking these languages are called Semitic – today mainly the Jews (Hebrew) and Arabs, but in ancient times the Akkadians, the Amorites, the Babylonians, the Phoenicians, and the Canaanites as well. A striking instance of divergence between modern and ancient classification is the case of the Canaanites and Phoenicians. Genesis 10:6 and verses 15–19 represent them as Hamites, perhaps owing to their close relationship with Hamitic Egypt over many centuries. However, the languages of Phoenicia and Canaan – the best known of which is Hebrew (Isa. 19:18) – are Semitic in the modern sense, as are the peoples who spoke them. (The "Hebrews" do not appear at all in the table of nations; however, it is generally supposed that Eber, a descendant of Shem (Gen. 10:21, 25), is their eponym.) For the modern ethnological classification of the "Semites" see the article Theory of *Race; for the political use of the term, see *Antisemitism.

[Moshe Greenberg]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Semites." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . 19 Feb. 2019 <>.

"Semites." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . (February 19, 2019).

"Semites." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Retrieved February 19, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.