Parshas Vayetzei:
Why is a Jew a Jew?

By Rabbi Eliezer Irons

The people of Am Yisroel, the Nation of Israel are commonly referred to as the Jews. The word Jew is derived from the word Judah who was one of the twelve tribes. Why is a nation which consists of twelve tribes named after only one of them? When in history did we acquire this name?

Throughout the Torah, we find two names for our nation: Yisroel and Ivri. The name Ivri is first introduced in connection with Avraham Avinu. The Torah calls him Avraham Ha'ivri. The Midrash in Parshas Lech Lecha explains that the term Ivri means "side". Avraham was on one side and the rest of the world on the other, with regard to his belief in one G-d. The Jews, in other words Avraham and his descendents, were referred to as Ivrim, because they distinguished themselves from the rest of the world. The name Yisroel we first find in Parshas Vayishlach when Jacob fought with the angel. The angel called him Yisroel, "Ki sarisa im Elokim veim anashim vatuchal" For you prevailed over angel and man. The name Yisroel therefore means, "This nation prevails over all other powers".

The title Yehudim however is not found in the Torah but in the latter parts of Prophets and throughout Megillas Esther. Only when the Jews were in exile were they given this name. It seems quite strange. Why were we always called Yisroel and then in exile had a change of name? The answer is that Yisroel is a name which denotes superiority over other nations. In exile however, where such a name is inappropriate, we are referred to as Yehudim or Jews.

This takes us back to our original question. If the Jewish nation consists of twelve tribes why are we only referred to as Yehudim? One of the key figures that we find in Megilas Esther is Mordechai Hayehudi. The Talmud in Tractate Megilla poses the following question: Mordechai came from the tribe of Binyamin . Why was he called "Mordechai Hayehudi", which infers that he came from the tribe of Judah? The Talmud answers that whoever denies idolatry is called Yehudi. The connection with the word Yehuda and one who denies idolatry is that the word Yehuda is related to modeh; to admit. In addition, the word Yehuda contains all the letters of G-d's name- Yud, Keh, Vav, Keh. Therefore Yehudah means he who acknowledges the existence of G-d.

This theme is also found in Rashi's commentary to Genesis 36:2. The Torah lists the names of Esav's wives. In one verse it mentions the name "Ahalivama"and in another when talking about the same person it refers to her as "Yehudis". Rashi comments that her original name was Ahalivama but she adopted the name Yehudis in order to deceive Yitzchok and have him believe that she denied idolatry and believed solely in G-d. In short, the reason we are called Jews is that the word Jew, derived from Judah, means one who denies idolatry. It is for this reason that in exile, where we stand alone amongst the nations in our belief, that the name Yehudi or Jew is the name of choice.

There is yet another explanation as to why we carry the title "Jew". In this week's Parsha, it says that when Leah gave birth to her fourth son and named him Judah, she explained, "Now let me thank Hashem." The word Judah includes the name of Hashem and the word Hodaah- to thank or to admit. When one thanks he admits that he is indebted to the giver. Rashi quotes the Midrash that says that Leah knew that Yaakov was destined to have twelve children through his four wives which amounts to three children per mother. When Leah had her fourth child she thanked Hashem for giving her more than she deserved. The Rashba explains that Hodaah-thanking- specifically refers to the thanks that one expresses after receiving an undeserved gift.

With this explanation the Rashba answers the following question. The Talmud states that Leah was the first person in history to thank G-d. Is it possible that the Forefathers never thanked G-d? How could this be? The Rashba answers that Leah was the first person to ever receive something which she didn't deserve. The Forefathers praised G-d and blessed Him, but they never expressed Hodaah-thanks- because everything that they had they actually deserved. Leah, however, felt that the gift of this fourth child, Yehuda, was undeserved . The Chidushei Harim says that with this concept we can understand why the people of the nation of Israel are called Yehudim, Jews. This name was given so that a person should always think of himself as undeserving of all the good things that happen to him. When bad things happen, a person is oft to say "Why me?" When everything is going smoothly, when a person has a stable job, a stable marriage, good health and good children, does a person ever ask himself, "Why me, why am I deserving of this good?" For this reason we carry the name, Jew, Yehudi, which means thank you Hashem, we are not deserving of all the good that you bestow upon us.


Rabbi Eliezer Irons is a full time member of the Chicago Community Kollel. Please contact him by writing with your comments or questions.



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