The Oxford Dictionary provides two definitions for the word ‘Jew’, one the verb form and one the noun form. Even in this age of political correctness, ‘Jew’ in the verb form is defined as “Bargain with someone in a miserly or petty way”. Parenthetically, one would expect that this usage of the word would have ended with the Middle Ages, or at the very least with the end of the Holocaust. Unfortunately, its presence in the Oxford Dictionary shows us that anti-Semitism is still alive and well.
However, the noun form of ‘Jew’ is defined as “A member of the people and cultural community whose traditional religion is Judaism and who trace their origins through the ancient Hebrew people of Israel to Abraham.” Where does this word come from, and why has it been the term used to refer to our people as opposed to Hebrew, Israelite or some other term?
Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter (1798–1866; Góra Kalwaria, Poland), the founder of the Chasidic dynasty of Ger, explained in his commentary on the Torah, Chiddushei HaRim, that the word for Jew in Hebrew is Yehudi, from the name Yehudah (Judah). All Jews have acquired the name Judah. Why is this so? Judah was merely one of the twelve tribes of Israel, so why are we all named after him?
The birth of Judah takes place in this week’s parshah. When Judah was born, his mother, Leah, felt an overwhelming feeling of gratitude to God for giving her a fourth son. She knew prophetically that there would be 12 tribes. Since Jacob had 4 wives she had assumed that each wife would be the mother of three sons. When this fourth son was born, Leah realized that she had been given more than she could have expected. She therefore named her new son Yehudah (Judah) since Yehudah comes from the word ‘hodaah’, which means ‘thanks’.
Rabbi Alter explained that the hallmark of a Jew is one who appreciates all that he has been given. God gives us so much, and it is our job to recognize all that He has done for us and to thank Him for it. This is why, of all of the tribes, the Jewish people are called after the tribe of Judah, the tribe whose very name expresses thanks to God.
Have a thankful Thanksgiving weekend and as always, Shabbat Shalom.