Shibboleth or Sibboleth – A Word that Makes a Difference

two girls writing on paper
Photo by Pragyan Bezbaruah on

I grew up in Des Plaines, Illinois. That’s Des Plaines (pronounce the s) Illinois (don’t pronounce the s).

Because of Des Moines (don’t pronounce the s), Iowa, people often called it De Plain. We immediately knew these people were NOT from our town

Every region has their own pronunciations or their own words to identify an object. (Talk with the kids about some of the words that identify them as being from your area.) These identifying words or phrases are often called a shibboleth … because of the Bible.

See, back in the time of the Judges (Judges 11-12) there lived a mighty warrior named Jephthah from Gilead. His brothers had deserted him. Yet, when the Ammonites began to war against Gilead, Jephthah was called in to lead the army and he did a fantastic job. God was on His side.

Now another people, the Ephriamites, were angry because they had not been part of the victory.  Well, actually they were probably more angry because they had not shared in the spoil. So they decided to fight the army of Gilead.

Some of the tribes of Israel lived on one side of the Jordan and some on the other. So the men of Ephraim decided they would sneak across the river and infiltrate the people of Gilead and no one would know!

But that’s NOT what happened.

As the men from Ephraim were attempting to cross the river, the men from Gilead would ask them to say the word “shibboleth.” The thing is, the Ephriamites could not pronounce the “sh” sound and would say sibboleth and right away those in Gilead would know they were talking to the enemy — someone who wasn’t supposed to be there.

Some scholars say we don’t know the original Hebrew meaning of the word. Others say it means “ear of corn,” or “river.” (River makes sense.)

And that’s how we got the word shibboleth which is defined as a word or phrase distinctive to a particular group of people. The word is still used today. (You can look it up on the web and see examples of contemporary uses of the world shibboleth.)

A fun fact to teach your kids.

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