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Parshas Tetzaveh (Purim Edition) 5773

Who is a Jew?

Did you ever wonder why we’re called “Jews”? What does the word “Jew” even mean?

Most historians will tell you that the word “Jew” (Yehudi in Hebrew) is an abbreviated form of the Hebrew word Yehudah (“Judah” in English), which, in origin, was the term used for a member of the tribe of Judah, one of the Twelve Tribes that conquered and divided up the Land of Israel.

Toward the end of the First Commonwealth, Sancherib, King of Assyria (705 – 681 BCE), exiled the Ten Tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to Assyria, and all that remained in the Land of Israel were the Two Tribes of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, Judah and Benjamin, plus an assortment of Kohanim (Priests) and Levites from the tribe of Levi (see Kings II Chapter 17 for the entire story).

[The Ten Tribes of the Northern Kingdom came to be known as the “Ten Lost Tribes” and were never seen or heard from again. Click here to view a short video about the Ten Lost Tribes and where they might be found today.]

The majority of Jews then living in the Southern Kingdom were from the larger Tribe of Judah, which means that most Jews alive today are likely descended from Judah, hence the name Yehudi, or Jew, that we Jews have been called by all these years.

This explains why you won’t find the name Yehudi , or Jew, mentioned anywhere in Scripture prior to the Exile of the Ten Tribes. Before that time, Jews were called B’nei Yisrael (lit. “Children of Israel”) or Ivrim (“Hebrews”) – but never Yehudim.

Our Sages offer a different reason why we are called Jews, and it is based on a verse in the Book of Esther that we read publicly each year on the holiday of Purim. In Chapter 2 verse 5 we read the following: “There was a Jewish man in Shushan the capital whose name was Mordecahi son of Jair son of Shimei son of Kish, a Benjaminite …”

The Talmud in Megillah 12b points out a contradiction in the verse. First we are told that Mordechai is Ish Yehudi, a “Jewish” man, which seems to indicate that he comes from the Tribe of Judah. At the end of the verse, however, he is referred to as Ish Yemini, a Benjaminite, who descends from the much smaller Tribe of Benjamin? So which is it?

The Rabbis answer that Mordechai really descended from the Tribe of Benjamin, but was called a Yehudi, a Jew, because he repudiated idolatry [when he refused to bow down to Haman who considered himself a god]. For whoever renounces idolatry is called a Jew, Yehudi [from Yehudah, a name whose letters contain the Four-Letter Name of G-d].

So who is a Jew according to the Torah? Not one who merely eats bagels, feels guilt, speaks with an accent, likes to pay wholesale, etc. etc. A person who does those things might be Jew-“ish”, but is not a complete “Jew”.

A Jew is someone who has the courage and strength to renounce falsehood and idolatry, to take an unpopular stand for the sake of truth, just as Mordechai did way back in Shushan over 2300 years ago. The Jewish people at that time were eager to join King Achashveirosh’s wild party because they had lost their passion for what it means to be Jewish. They were also willing to bow down to Haman who had made himself into a god because that’s what everyone else was doing. They were externally Jewish but had lost that inner spark and pride that they once had. Only Mordechai, the Ish Yehudi, the “Jewish” man, had the courage to stand up for what’s right and to proudly declare that he was not going to bow to falsehood.

Today more than ever we need the Jewish people to be Jews. There is so much falsehood, immorality and idolatry in the world in which we live. Instead of joining the “party” out there which is so empty and devoid of morals and values, we must learn to appreciate all the incredible beauty and wisdom that we have in our own backyard - in our own Torah and religion. We need to fill ourselves up with Jewish pride and to show the world what it means to live a life full of meaning and purpose.

When we Jews finally start acting like Mordechai the Jew, we will merit to see the redemption of the Jewish people with the coming of the Messiah. Amen.


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