Contact Us

The Holiday When We Became Jewish

The Holiday When We Became Jewish

 Email

What is the significance of the name "Jew"? Where does the word come from and what does it mean?

The word Jew (Yehudi in the Hebrew) is a derivative of the name Judah (Yehudah), Jacob's fourth son; hence calling someone by this name would seemingly imply that the person is a descendant of that particular tribe. However, as is well known, Jacob had twelve sons, progenitors of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, all of whom comprise our great nation. Why, then, is the entire Israelite nation known as "Jews"?

(The conventional answer to this question is that the majority of Jews today are descendant from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin-—the two tribes which comprised the "Kingdom of Judea." The other ten tribes, the members of the "Northern Kingdom," were exiled to unknown lands. There must, however, be a deeper reason for the fact that the Chosen Nation has been called by this name for close to 2500 years!)

Perhaps this question can be cleared up by analyzing the very first individual to be dubbed "Jew." The first instance of this word appears in the biblical Book of Esther, which chronicles the story of Purim: "There was a Jewish man in Shushan the capital, whose name was Mordechai the son of Yair... a Benjaminite" (Esther 2:5).

That's right: the first "Jew" was actually from the tribe of Benjamin!

An objective study of the Purim story reveals that the whole frightening episode was plainly avoidableAn objective study of the Purim story reveals that the whole frightening episode was plainly avoidable. The entire incident was a result of Mordechai's obstinate adherence to a code of behavior which was clearly outdated and inappropriate for the times. Mordechai was an elderly rabbi who yet recalled days – more than half a century beforehand – when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem and Torah Law was supreme. His snubbing of Haman might have been condign during that generation. But things had changed dramatically. The people of Israel were in exile. How did Mordechai dare put his entire nation in danger of extinction by slighting the king's favorite minister? Apparently someone neglected to inform this sage that the ability to conform is the key to survival...

Mordechai, however, thought otherwise; and he had a famous precedent supporting his "foolish" actions. Many years earlier, a powerful Egyptian ruler wished to take his ancestor, Benjamin, as a slave. Benjamin's brother Judah wouldn't hear of such a possibility. In what would be his proudest and most defining moment, Judah completely ignored all royal protocol, angrily approached the powerful ruler – who, unbeknownst to him, was actually their brother Joseph – and threateningly demanded Benjamin's release.

Judah is the embodiment of the exiled Israelite who must walk a thin line: While he must live at peace with his neighbors, follow the laws and customs of the land, and "pray for the peace of the regime," he has the courage of his convictions to stand up against all the powers that be in order to defend his ideals. In the words of Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch, "Only our bodies were sent into exile; not our souls!"

Mordechai "the Jew" was a proud student of his great-uncle Judah. He knew that Torah law forbids a Jew from bowing to Haman (and the statuette which dangled from a chain around his neck), and for him that was the final word. Indeed, Judah's and Mordechai's actions were vindicated as events unfolded--no harm came to either of them as a result of their brave conduct.

Judah is the embodiment of the exiled Israelite who must walk a thin lineLeading by example, Mordechai succeeded in implanting this sense of pride in the hearts of the masses. When Haman issued his decree of annihilation, not one Israelite even considered abandoning his religion in order to be spared death. At that moment, we all became "Jews." Accordingly, the Book of Esther is the first place where our nation as a whole is referred to as Jews.

The name stuck. Because the next 2,500 years would repeatedly test our "Jewishness." Under countless regimes – both friendly and, as was usually the case, hostile – we struggled against friends and enemies who wished to impose their will upon us at the expense of our relationship with G‑d. Again and again we proved ourselves true to G‑d, earning the name Jew through oceans of blood and tears.

The grand story of history concludes in similar fashion as the Purim story: we are here to tell the tale and our enemies aren't... The joy of Purim is greater than any other holiday because it tells the story of the nation who never allowed its soul to be shackled--the story of the Jew.

By Naftali Silberberg, based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Rabbi Silberberg resides in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Chaya Mushka, and their three children.
Image: Detail from a work by chassidic artist Shoshannah Brombacher. To view or purchase Ms Brombacher's art, click here
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
 Email
Join the Discussion
Sort By:
21 Comments
1000 characters remaining
Anonymous Uganda May 20, 2016

I love the story and please God bless his chosen people for ever and ever Amen Reply

Daniel Masri Gainesville Florida February 20, 2015

Natanyahu Goes to Washington The similarity scary yet so comforting at the same time Life as a Jew...Could have been written today!!!! Reply

Leah Urso Tekoa, Israel March 21, 2011

What can you tell us about Yair, Mordechai's father? He must have been special to have a son like Mordechai! Reply

Free lance Lisboa, Portugal March 20, 2011

Purim We should all the more abide by the "TORAH" and its teaching and not deviate or change to suit the modern world or ourself nor give-in to the "Winds of Changes". Let TRUE Jewish culture reach out not "Doctored Image" which causing so much misunderstanding! Reply

micha Passaic, NJ March 16, 2011

Re: Reference to "Jews" In Daniel There is also "Yehudei" in the Aramaic section of Ezra, eg 6:7, returning to the entire people. Now we get into the question of which happened first, Esther or Ezra...

-micha Reply

MENASH MOSES ELIAS THANE, Maharashtra, India March 16, 2011

JEW Thanks for the beautiful explanation of the word Jew, which is actually complicated but very rightly put and explained by you. Its not easy to be a Jew and survive as one in today’s world. The jewish identity still holds good and even though we are surrounded by 100’s of idols, we still pursue the Jewish race and traditions. What a lovely tradition that we follow that even in the wilderness for nearly 2,500 years, still we read understand & follow the traditions that are laid by the Almighty. The ways of G-d are wonderful and precious. We all together with all the Jews of the world in the entire Diaspora will always follow and love the Jewish traditions and keep the torah learning to all our children from generation to generation. Loved all your comments and words... Reply

Naftali Silberberg (Author) March 18, 2009

Re: Reference to "Jews" In Daniel Those references are to Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah -- who were called Jews because they were descendants of the tribe of Judah.

The Megillah is the first place where we ALL are called "Jews" -- even Mordechai the Benjaminite. Reply

micha Passaic, NJ March 18, 2009

The title It shows up in the book of Daniel, e.g. 3:8 and 3:12.

I think the day in which we became Jews was the 9th of Av, with the exile of the Northern Kingdom, or perhaps a later 9th of Av, when the Southern Kingdom (the Kingdom of Judah) fell. Reply

Yona Rivka Kimelman worcester, ma March 8, 2009

Not foolish but steadfast I think the Rabbi was speaking "toungue in cheek" when he suggested that Mordechai acted foolishly. If you read a bit deeper, he's actually saying the opposite. According to the accepted norms of society, his behavior may have seemed extreme, even foolish. But it is precisely that tenacity that has ensured our survival. Reply

Josh March 8, 2009

The name "Jew" Oooh, I never knew that- very interesting! Reply

Adam Costilla Spencer, IA via chabadofstockton.com March 6, 2009

Thank you Iv'e been looking all over for the real story behind Purim, and this is the first place I have gotten a clear discription of it. Very Informative. Reply

Miriam Toronto, Canada March 6, 2009

I disagree with this article Mordechai's actions weren't foolish. It's because of Mordechai that the Jewish people were saved. If he can be criticized, perhaps he can be criticized for not using the same stubborness to help the Jewish people at that time not assimilate beforehand. But I don't think one can criticize him for being foolish because fools aren't as daring or as loyal to G-d. He was a very righteous man who might have made a mistake as we all do but one shouldn't call him foolish as his actions helped to save the Jewish people! Reply

Naftali Silberberg (Author) March 16, 2008

Re: Great Article. Slight correction, though. See http://www.sichosinenglish.org/books/prince-in-prison/09.htm

The Previous Rebbe’s statement regarding our bodies being exiled as opposed to our souls was prefaced by the following words:

"This is reflected in the well-known statement of one of our holy forebears (when the former regime tried to force the rabbis to institute reforms in Jewish education and in the status of rabbis and the rabbinate):"

In a footnote, it is clarified that “one of our holy forebears” is a reference to Rabbi Sholom DovBer – the Rebbe Rashab. Reply

R. Kudan Albany , NY March 14, 2008

Great Article. Slight correction, though. I think the quote, "Only our bodies were sent into exile; not our souls!" should be attrtibiuted to the Rebbe Rayatz instead of the Rebbe Rashab. The below quote is from Sichos in English website:

"When the Rebbe departed for exile in Kostrama on the third of Tammuz, a crowd of Jews gathered at the train station to farewell him. In his parting blessings the Rebbe said:"It was not by our will that we were exiled from Eretz Yisroel, and it is not with our strength that we will return there. Our Father, our King, blessed be He, sent us into exile, and He will redeem us, gather our dispersed from the four corners of the earth, and lead us upright to our holy land through our righteous Moshiach, speedily in our days.

"But all the peoples of the earth should know that only our bodies were delivered into exile and servitude, not our souls. We must openly declare that concerning our religion, Torah, mitzvos, and Jewish customs, no one can tell us what to do, and no coercion is allowed." Reply

baruch tova greenleaf wi March 2, 2007

when we became jews Rabbi:

though I agree, we, as Jews have not stod up. Hence, the ultimate version of Amalek, Hitler. On this Purim we, again, are faced with Amalek's latest conceptualization. Let us pray that we, as a nation, called Jews stand up soon or we once again will be herded to the slopes of babi yar.

shalom and good shabbos. Reply

Jaime Acharon Dumaguete City, Philippines March 2, 2007

Though not so familiar with the Law and belief of the Jews but i find it very benificial to me when i happen to read the informations about what is Purim all about...may God be with us all. Reply

Leah Urso Tekoa, Israel March 1, 2007

Mordechai Yehudi My little students here in Israel corrected me when I wrote Mordechai's name on the blackboard. They added "yehudi" to his name! Great article - thanks and Purim sameach! Reply

Anonymous Birmingham, AL February 28, 2007

A Free Soul You touched on the one thing that people hate about Jews. That "free soul" has joy when there should be sadness according to circumstances. It causes a Jew to have hope when the our situation looks hopeless.

The free soul of a Jew is secure in places and times of insecurity. There are times when the outlook is bleak, but that free soul knows that the light will shine through again and some how transmits that through the mind, speech and action of a Jew.

When people around deliberately do thaings that should get a Jew down, that free soul lifts the Jew above the negativity, whatever it may be. When I think about, it seems that the free soul thrives during adversity.

This is a great article. Thank you for sharing. Reply

Marla Emdur Boynton Beach, FL. February 28, 2007

TORAH I couldn't thank all of you on the editorial team enough! May G-d bless you, many blessings!!! Be well -Good Purim! Much Love, Reply

Chen Goodman Baltimore, MD via chabadsf.org February 27, 2007

Jew Once someone asked me where the word "jew" comes from? Before I had a chance to tell him, his friend hit him over the head and said "because they are from Jerusalem"

Good Stuff - Happy Purim Reply

Related Topics