Judah in Judaism

Judah in Judaism

January 14, 2013 Back

What is Judah and where does the term come from? First we must know some background information.

Jews weren’t always known as Jews. They were originally known as Hebrews before they turned into a nation. The term Hebrew comes from the original Jewish forefather Abraham, who was known as “Abraham the Hebrew” or “Avraham haIvri”. Hebrew, or Ivri, means one who lives across, or one who crosses. This is either because Abraham crossed the Jordan river in moving to the Promised land of Canaan, or that he originated from across that river on the other side where present day Iraq is.

Before the Jewish people were known for “Judaism” and being “Jewish”, they were ethnically Hebrew, as in they came from Babylonia, the birthplace of their father Abraham. Other peoples were Hebrew as well, and the term was nothing unique, as we see in Genesis in the Joseph story where Egyptians refer to Joseph as a Hebrew because he came from that general region or looked Babylonian like his great grandfather Abraham.

Later, when this ethnic group changed from  a cultural/ethnic nation of Hebrews into an ideological nation following the path of their father Israel/Jacob, they became known as “Israelites” or “Children of Israel.” Jacob had done the Herculean task of keeping his whole family together after the horrible episode of Joseph and his brothers nearly tearing it apart, he kept his first born Reuven in the family even after he had assaulted his father’s concubine, and thanks to his hard work, the Hebrews finally became a family that would not split apart as did the families of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham left Ishmael behind, and Isaac left Esau behind. Jacob/Israel kept them all.

As Israelites, they became more specialized instead of simple “Hebrews”. They were now a specific family of Hebrews. The change to Jews didn’t happen until literally thousands of years later after the first Israelite civil war.

It happened that after King Solomon died in around 980BCE, his son Rehoboam took over and stupidly decided to raise taxes. This caused a revolt, and since Rehoboam was of the tribe of Judah, every other tribe decided to revolt against Judah. This created the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Eventually, the kingdom of Israel was destroyed by Assyria, leaving only Judah to survive under the Davidic dynasty. From that point on, almost all Israelites were from the tribe of Judah.

The first time these remnants of Israelites are referred to as “Jews” is in the Book of Esther. They are referred to as Jews simply because they came from the kingdom of Judah.

So, the final answer is that Judah means the country of Judah. But it was originally named after the tribe of Judah, and the founder of that tribe – Judah the son of Jacob – his name means “thankful”. It was said by Judah’s mother Leyah after he was born for giving her a fourth son.

Further research can be done into the word “Yehudah” or Judah, in that the root also is common with the word majesty, which is “hod” and echo, which is “hed”. Majesty and Yehuda seem connected by the fact that the royal line passes through Yehudah as stated in the book of Genesis. Echo is a bit more of a puzzle.

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