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Insights into the Hebrew Language: The Word "Jew"

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Doniel Baron

Why are Jews called "Jews"?

We are a nation of many names: Israel, Jacob, Ephraim, to name a few. Why does it seem that the name "Jew" sticks the most? What does the name mean?

The words Jew (Yehudi in Hebrew) and Judaism (Yahadut) come from the name Judah, or Yehuda as it is pronounced in Hebrew. Yehuda was one the 12 tribes that descended from our forefather Yaakov. Understanding who Yehuda was and what he represented provides us with the key to comprehending the name Jew and understanding who we really are.

The word Yehuda comes from the Hebrew word lehodot, which means to thank. Indeed, upon his birth, Leah, Yehuda's mother, exclaimed "hapaam odeh et Hashem," this time I thank God. Feelings of gratitude characterized Yehuda's birth. The commonly used word todah, meaning "thank you," stems from the same root.

Our Sages taught that a person's name is given by his parents in a moment of Divinely inspired insight, and a name describes something about the person who bears it.

The Tribe of Yehuda

Yehuda was a tribe. Our forefather Yaakov, in his final blessings to the sons he knew would give rise to the entire Jewish nation, proclaimed that the monarchy within the Jewish people should remain in the tribe of Yehuda. Indeed, the entire Davidic line of Jewish kings descends directly from Yehuda and according to our tradition, the Messiah, the final leader of the Jewish people, will also come from that line.

Why was it specifically Yehuda who would lead the Jewish people and represent royalty? Wouldn't someone like Yosef, who symbolized holiness and the ability to resist temptation in his refusal to succumb to the advances of his Egyptian master's wife, be more fitting to lead the Jews throughout history? Yet Yehuda's name hints at his preparedness for royalty. A particular incident in the Torah illustrates the inner meaning of that name and how it relates to one's ability to lead.

Yehuda's son Er had been married to a woman named Tamar. Er died young, and his brother Onan married Tamar in his stead. Tamar soon found herself widowed again with Onan's untimely death, but remained determined to cling to the family of Yehuda. Her father in law promised her that when his younger son Sheila came of age, he too would marry Tamar. Yet as the years passed and Sheila matured, Tamar began to suspect that no wedding was planned. She tenaciously clung to her conviction to bear children to Yehuda's tribe, and had a prophetic inclination that someone great would descend from her.

Resorting to other means to attain her goals, she disguised herself, and met Yehuda at a crossroads while dressed as a woman of ill repute. She successfully tempted Yehuda, who did not recognize her. He soon discovered he had no money to pay her wages. Promising to return with payment, he gave her his signet ring and staff as collateral. Yet when he returned to pay her, the woman he sought was nowhere to be found, and nobody had heard of her.

Some time later, it became evident that Tamar, who was a member of his household, was pregnant. Yehuda was outraged at her obvious promiscuity and publicly challenged her. At that critical moment, Tamar could have in front of everyone accused Yehuda of fathering the child she carried. Instead, she let only him know, and offered him the choice as to whether he would admit his mistake. She declared that the owner of the staff and signet ring she held was the father – a message only Yehuda could understand.

The sign of a true leader is his ability to admit he was wrong.

Shocked with the sudden revelation of the identity of the woman he had met, Yehuda could have let Tamar meet her demise, together with her secret. Instead, he chose to publicly admit that she was correct, and that he was the father, and that she was correct in so tempting him since he had refused to marry her to Sheila.

Hallmark of Royalty

One can only imagine the courage it must have taken to confess that mistake, and the embarrassment that ensued. Yehuda knew that as a leader, it was his only choice. His name also exemplified this trait. One who thanks another essentially admits that the other helped him or her in some way. Therefore, every conveyance of gratitude is really an admission of sorts. Not surprisingly, the Hebrew verb lehodot also means to admit. Yehuda's fitness for monarchy was not because he was perfect. He was not. Instead, Yehuda possessed a critical trait necessary to lead effectively – the ability to admit his mistakes.

King David exhibited the same attribute. He made mistakes, but unlike his predecessor who was a great king but who justified his errors, King David responded to the prophet Nosson's admonition simply with acknowledgement of his mistake. Everyone makes mistakes. The sign of a true leader is his ability to admit he was wrong. The honesty and the courage to be modeh is the hallmark of a king.

On a deeper level, King David lived in a constant state of hodaa, thanksgiving and admission that whatever he had was not his own. Our Sages explain that Adam was slated to live for a thousand years, yet he died at the age of 930. Adam prophetically saw his descendent King David had not been allocated years of life, and gave 70 of his own. Adam, who introduced death to the world through his sin, saw it fit to give of his life to King David who would give rise to the Messiah who would begin the process that would banish death forever. David therefore admitted and knew that every second of his life was borrowed time, a gift from somewhere beyond himself, and lived his life with that consciousness.

Being a Jew

The word "Jew" is an anglicized version of yehudi. It is ironic that those who sought to destroy us just six decades ago forced us to brand ourselves with the word "Jude" or other variations of the word yehudi, the attribute which sets us apart. It is the very concept of being a yehudi who is modeh – to thank and admit – that preserves us.

The very appellation "Jew" reflects our acknowledgement and dependence on God.

The essence of our nation is to both thank and admit. The first words a Jew traditionally says every morning are modeh ani, I thank/admit (from the prayer mode ani etc, I thank (and admit) before you, God, living eternal king for returning my soul). Our national consciousness proclaims that we cannot accomplish anything on our own; we acknowledge our receipt of help from above, and are thankful for it. The very appellation "Jew" reflects our acknowledgement and dependence on God.

The story of Yehuda and Tamar is one replete with meaning for generations. Tamar was carrying Yehuda's twin sons, Peretz and Zerach, who were saved as a result of Yehuda's admission. King David and the Messiah are descended from Peretz. Yehuda's admission saved the future of the Jewish people. Our greatest hope as a people is to give thanks where it is due, and acknowledge in our hearts and our minds that if we amount to anything in life, we give credit to the One above who helped us every step of the way.

Read Related Articles:
The Meaning of "Adam": Insights into the Hebrew Language
The Word "Hebrew": Insights into the Hebrew Language

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