The word Jew is a household term, just as Christian and Muslim are.
But where does the word Jew come from?
But if you’d read the Torah – in Hebrew or in English, you’ve probably noticed that the words יהודי and יהודייה are strikingly… absent. How could that be?
The answer has more to do with geography than with religion.
Twelve Israelite tribes inhabited Ancient Israel, until the Assyrians came and exiled the majority. The major remaining tribe, יהודה, continued to reign until the Babylonians came and exiled them as well.
The people from the land of יהודה (today a large chunk of Modern Israel, including Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh and the southern part of the “West Bank”) were taken to Babel. Many migrated from there to ancient Persia, where the Purim story takes place and presents us with the first person referred to as a יהודי – a Jew:
אִישׁ יְהוּדִי הָיָה בְּשׁוּשַׁן הַבִּירָה וּשְׁמוֹ מָרְדֳכַי בֶּן יָאִיר בֶּן שִׁמְעִי בֶּן קִישׁ אִישׁ יְמִינִי. אֲשֶׁר הָגְלָה מִירוּשָׁלַיִם… (אסתר ב':ה’-ו’)
A Jewish man (a man from Judea) was in Shushan the capital, and his name was Mordecai the son of Yair the son of Shim’i the son of Kish, a man from Yemin (the more specific land of Benjamin); who was exiled from Jerusalem… (Esther 2:5-6)
So what was once an ethnicity – יהודי or יהודייה referring to a person from the land of Judea – gradually came to refer to a religion, as the Jewish people wandered from place to place, their religious practice uniting them… as well as their hope to one day return to אֶרֶץ יְהוּדָה- the Land of Judea and the rest of Israel.
יהודי is also part of the name of one of the major political parties that will likely be joining the now-forming Israeli government:
Whether the party is referring to the religion or the geographic region – or both – I’ll leave to you to decide.
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About the Author: Ami Steinberger is founder and director of Ulpan La-Inyan.
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