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What is the Meaning of the Name "Jew"?

What is the Meaning of the Name "Jew"?


The term "Jew" is derived from the name of Jacob's fourth son, Judah--Yehudah, in the Hebrew—and may have originally applied only to Judah's descendents, who comprised one of the twelve tribes of Israel. On his deathbed, Jacob assigned Judah the role of leader and king—a prophesy that was fulfilled in 869 BCE when all twelve tribes submitted to the reign of King David of the tribe of Judah.

After the death of David's son, King Solomon, a civil dispute split the twelve tribes of Israel into two kingdoms: the Kingdom of Judah in the south, which included the tribes of Judah and Benjamin (and some Levites and priests) and was centered around the capital Jerusalem and the Holy Temple; and the northern Kingdom of Israel, which included the other ten tribes.

In the 5th century BCE, the Kingdom of Israel was conquered by Assyrian King Sennaherib, and the ten tribes were exiled and lost. The only remaining Israelites were the residents of the Kingdom of Judah, and the term "Yehudi" or "Jew" came to refer to all the Israelites, regardless of their tribal ancestry.

But there is also a deeper meaning to the name "Jew. The first individual to be called a Jew (Yehudi) in the Scriptures was Mordecai, of Purim fame. "There was a man, a Yehudi, in Shushan the capital, whose name was Mordecai . . . a Yemini" (Esther 2:5). The Talmud (Tractate Megillah 12b) asks on this: "He is called a Yehudi, implying that he descended from Judah; he then is called Yemini, implying that he is a Benjaminite!" Rabbi Jochanan responds: "He was a Benjaminite. Yet he was called a Yehudi because he rejected idolatry—and anyone who rejects idolatry is called a Yehudi."

The commentaries explain that the name Yehudah shares the same root as the Hebrew word hoda'ah, which means acknowledgement or submission. One who acknowledges G‑d's existence and submits to His authority—to the extent that he is willing to sacrifice his life for the sanctification of His name—he is called a Yehudi.

Hence Abraham is commonly referred to as "The First Jew." As the first person to use his own cognitive abilities to discover and recognize the one G‑d, reject the idolatrous ways of his ancestors and contemporaries, actively publicized the truth of G‑d and was prepared to give his very life for these goals—Abraham epitomized "Jewishness" many centuries before the term came into common use.

Mrs. Rochel Chein is a member of the Ask the Rabbi team.
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Anonymous bidwell December 13, 2017

question if you call some one a jew is it racist? Reply

bee phil August 15, 2017

Hebrew was the name given to abraham and his family when they first arrived in canaan which means people who crossed a huge river since they came from Ur where it is bounded by two great rivers, euphrates and tigris...while jew was the name given to the people of judah after returning from exile in babylon Reply

Anonymous May 5, 2017

Abraham in the bible was not called a Jew he was called a Hebrew man.. there is no J in the Hebrew. so why call him a jew.. Reply

Anonymous October 2, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

I dispute this article. First, Abraham would have had no clue what the word Jew meant. Ancient Hebrew did not even have vowels. The plural of Judah would be something like Yahudi. The plural for Jew would be something like Yewe. This article strangely applies the word Judah to Jew. In Isaiah, Sennaherib, not only captured the Israelites in the northern kingdom of Israel, but also took many Israelites from the Kingdom of Judah, who at that time, were slaves to the Babylonians. The author apparently forgets this and he also strangely states that those of Judah, following Sennaherib's capture of the Israelites, all became known as Jews. This is strange since the word Jew is mentioned first in 2 Kings 16:6 and the book of 2 Kings is several books prior to Isaiah in the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible. Despite disagreeing with the author based on the sequence of events in the Bible, I am also curious how he translates Judah to Jew. Reply

Menachem Posner March 13, 2016

The year of the exile There is a well-known discrepancy between the traditional Jewish dating system and the system used by some secular historians. The Jewish tradition places this exile in the middle of the 5th century BCE. Reply

Rob Australia March 6, 2016

Israel was conquered by Assyria in 722 BC not the 5th Century BC. Reply

Neil Ohio January 1, 2016

Dean, the land of the tribe of Judah was "Judea". It works better in Hebrew. Reply

DEAN Bluewater December 22, 2015

I'm confused. Everything I have read before this has said that the word Jew came from those who lived in the land of Judea. It has nothing to do with any particular tribe. This is why it became a name for all descendants of Abraham and Sarah. Reply

Maria San jose ca December 22, 2015

Father abraham was the first to cross over ,therefore he was the first Hebrew . Reply

Anonymous December 21, 2015

First Jew? What about Noah? Wouldn't he be the first to accept g/d Reply

Anonymous USA December 28, 2014

What is a jew I see people who are Israelites called Jews even thought hey are not of the Tribe of Judah. Also royalty is from King David who is Jewish. Everyone has royalty so does that mean that we are all Jews? Reply

Gem Aus August 8, 2014

I liked this response. Very interesting. Reply

Dakar Maryland August 10, 2017
in response to Gem:

Definitely Reply

Anonymous July 30, 2014

Today its solved by DNA No mystery. DNA analysis shows links between all Jews wherever they are from and whatever they look like. There's even a strong DNA link with the 'palestinian' 'arabs' which supports the argument they were Jews converted to Islam over the centuries. Reply

Anonymous Egypt February 3, 2014

I will give you the answer you need ... so we can say ( CASE CLOSED ) , listen to me ! the word jew is derived from the word judah .. judah son of israel and grandson of abrahim ... so we can't say that abrahim was from judah but the opposite ... ismael and judah are genetically sons of abrahim ... so the arabs and jews got the genetics of abrahim ( thier father ) but only isacc was able to get the Soul of abrahim as choosed man of god ... then israel recieved this soul and judah as well ... we call this soul today the JEWISHNESS ... so abrahim and judah have the same soul and genetics .. and ismael have only the same genetics .. the genetics can transfer from father to his son .. yea but the jewishness transfer through G-D will .. and later through the mother side .. the noahides are sons of noah including the jews ... god choosed israel from the descendants of noah to be nation for him and get the soul of noah and abrahim .. the rest of nations got the genetics of noah but nothing about the soul .. so god asked them few commandments easy to do according to thier power. Reply

Anonymous October 2, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

And, of what source do you get your information, as it certainly does not come from the Bible. The Noahides? I guess I missed something studying scripture or is that what Jews call non-Jews. God gave the Noahides few commandments? You imply that this is because they don't have as much of a soul as Jews or no soul at all. How do you think people feel when you say something like that? Your basically saying all other religions are inferior. Reply

Anonymous USA February 1, 2014

Definition Question, in the Torah, who were the first people to be coined Israelites? Were Jews or anyone from the tribe of Judah alive at that time? Had Judah been born yet? I am of the understanding that when Moses crossed over with all Hebrews and those considered the Mixed Multitudes, they then were called Israelites. All Jews are Hebrew but not all Hebrews are Jews. It was not until Judah was appointed as leader of the those who stayed back with they; Benjamites, and some Levites, that they were then legally called Jews, belonging to the tribe of Judah. Judaism is no more than another organized form of religion. Made by man with mans rules and regulations telling people what they can and cannot do. No where does the Tanakh mention that we shall follow and observe anything outside the Holy Scriptures, i.e. man made rules telling us to follow oral law. The Written Law is the final Word. This is why Christians and Jews are always being offended by one trying to convert the other. Reply

Jacqueline North Wales October 1, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

Moses did not enter the land, because of his anger! Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA January 24, 2012

Hmm. Oddly enough, then, Abraham proselytized. He actually was a missionary, trying to convert idol worshippers into one G-d worshippers, right? So, when did we stop trying to convert people? Reply

Rob W. Pittsburgh, PA / U.S.A. December 27, 2011

Who is a Jew? Despite all the popular contemporary arguments to the contrary, "Who is a Jew?" is a legal question. Judaism, whether people like it or not, whether they want to admit it or not, is a legal system. Just as the U.S.A. has immigration & naturalization laws, Judaism has rules and regulations regarding who is Jewish from birth, and how a Gentile might become a Jew. Once a Gentile converts to Judaism, his / her legal status / spiritual identity is identical to that of someone born Jewish. While beliefs and observances are important in Judaism, neither of those are factors in distinguishing who is Jewish and who is Gentile. A Gentile can "believe" in Judaism all he / she wants to (and should by the way), but without a proper conversion, he / she is still Gentile. Again, he / she doesn't need to convert; to get in harmony with G-d, there are the Noahide Laws. A Jew(ess) can eat traif and be an Atheist all he / she wants to, but is still Jewish nonetheless. Reply

Jeff Loveland, CO August 31, 2011

Christians In response to Matilde in Mexico's question, "Will this mean that a "jew" is everyone who recognizes the one G-d, rejects idolatry and submitts to the authority of G-d Almighty, just like most christians do?"
That's a flawed question because submitting to the authority of G-d Almighty means more than just singing songs and picking some instructions ("commandments") that are nice to follow while rejecting others. Submitting to Authority means striving for complete obedience of all instructions (Torah). The Christians do not believe in doing that, in fact they teach against G-d's eternal Word and instructions of life as "bondage" and "legalism". So no, they're not considered Jews. Reply

Anonymous san jose , ca September 30, 2010

What is the Meaning of the Name "Jew"? The orgin of the name goes back to ADAM's time. If you read the hebrew scripture you will find that GOD revealed his name to the man he put in the garden of Eden. so the first Jew was ADAM he knew GOD. To explain it more, if we see how Judah got his name, we see that his mother Leah wanted to thank GOD for her fourth boy that made Jacob love her better than earlier, so she takes GOD's name and attached it to the hebrew word yealed Boy /son making it yehuda. so the orgin of the name Jew are the people who know GOD or GODs people. Reply

Rob W. Pittsburgh, PA / USA August 23, 2009

Can we call Abraham Proto-Jewish? Noah is way to early to be called a Jew. Adam is even earlier. These Biblical figures appear to be Monotheists, however. We don't hear about them having idols or multiple deities. By the time the Bible gets to Abraham, however, we are getting closer to the foundations of the Nation of Israel. Abraham was Jacob Israel's grandfather; therefore Abraham was Judah's great-grandfather. Maybe we can call Abraham Proto-Jewish. He was the founding father of Monotheism as we think of it today. Both the Arabs (most of whom today are Muslims) and the Hebrews (now dispersed around the world as Jews) love Abraham as a Patriarch. Reply

Beverly Kurtin Hurst, TX August 20, 2009

Complicating a simple question Where does the term "Jew" come from? From Judah, period. It has nothing to do with Abraham, Noah, nothing else. Reply