One of the most common questions I get is “why are we called Jews?” What does the word “Jew” or “Judaism” even mean? We’re going to talk today about three names that we use: Hebrews, Israelites, and, of course, Jews.
The first real mention of a specific label for our people comes from the Book of Genesis, chapter 14, verse 13. Abraham, the founder of Judaism, is referred to as “Abraham the Hebrew.” So before we were known as anything we were known as Hebrews.
According to the biblical tradition the Hebrews were the direct descendants of Shem, one of the sons of Noah who survived the Flood. The Hebrews come from outside of the land of Canaan. Abraham’s ancestral home was the city of Ur, which is in present day Iraq, which he left at God’s instruction to make his way across Mesopotamia to Canaan. In exchange for making this journey, God promises to invest Abraham as the father of a future great nation — the Hebrews.
Archaeologists have found a variety of inscriptions from a range of sources mentioning a people called the Habiru, or apiru. These inscriptions are from around the year 1800 BCE. The Egyptians, the Akkadians, and the Sumerians all mention these Habiru people, and describe them as nomads, outlaws, rebels, slaves, migrant workers, or, sometimes just as foreigners.
Some scholars have also traced the word “Hebrew” to a root that means “to go over”, or “the other side.” When we add that info to what we know about the Habirus, it could be a description for a group of people who left or rejected their ancestral home and became nomads, before a group of them finally settled in an area of Canaan around Jerusalem. As the historian Paul Johnson notes in his foundational book, A History of the Jews, Abraham may have been a chief of one of these Habiru immigrants groups. For many people, then, the archaeological evidence seems to line up with the biblical traditions.
Of course, other scholars say forget it, the evidence is way to obscure to make this connection. So we can’t be totally sure about the origins of the term Hebrew, but we do know that we have been applying it for over 2,500 years.
Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, found himself alone at night in the wilderness. And there he wrestled with a man until dawn. That man blessed Jacob by changing his name from Jacob to Israel because, the man said, he had striven with both God and man, and had prevailed. From this Jacob concluded that he had seen the face of God, which is why we today interpret the word “Israel” to mean someone who has wrestled with God.
So, Israelites, or the Children of Israel, or the People of Israel — all describe a people who descended from Jacob. But of course, it is not just a genealogical description, it also meant to describe our nature: as people who have wrestled with, and continue to wrestle, with God, as part of our enlightened struggle to understanding our covenant.
Jacob (Israel) had 12 sons, and each son became the spiritual and ancestral head of a tribe. These are the Twelve Tribes of Israel. One of the sons was named Judah.
Fast forward several hundred years. Once the Jews had been freed from slavery in Egypt, and led by Moses to the Promised Land of Canaan, they divided up the territory amongst the twelve tribes. The tribe of Judah received territory that included present-day Jerusalem, the desert alongside the Dead Sea, and a chunk of today’s Negev Desert.
So, if you were a member of the Tribe of Judah, called in Hebrew Yehuda, you were a Judahan, or later a Judaean. Which, by the time you translate into English from stops in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Old French, and Middle English, becomes…Jew. Judaism. Jewish. All relates to the tribe, people, and territory of Judah.
While Hebrew, Israelite, and Jew, describe various geographic, ethnic, and religious origins, for more than two thousand years we have referred to ourselves simply as “Am Yisrael” — the People of Israel.
As the great Jewish educator Avraham Infeld frequently discusses, we always understood our individual Jewish selves as belonging to a People. One of the most powerful notions in Jewish tradition is the idea that we were all present at Mt. Sinai to receive the Jewish law. Those living, those not yet born — all of us. And since we were all there together, and saw and heard the same things, we are bound together as a people, no matter our particular diversity.
This notion of Peoplehood is what kept us together as Jews despite being scattered around the world for the last 2,500 years. Judaism in this sense isn’t a religion, it’s the cultural expression of our Jewishness.
It was only in the last couple hundred years of modernity that we started to parse this notion of Peoplehood into various labels — Judaism and Jews as a religion, or a race, or an ethnicity, or a nation. But these are new constructs, and not at all how we understood ourselves throughout our history.
As the great Jewish writer, thinker, and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said when asked to offer his opinion on who is a Jew, he said “A Jew is someone who ties, who links, his or her destiny to the Jewish People. That is a Jew.”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
© 2017 Jason Harris