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Why are we Called Yehudim (Jews)?

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The Hebrew word for “Jew” is “Yehudi” and it stems from the Hebrew name Yehudah (Judah). The term Yehudi (Jew), as opposed to the term Yisrael (Israelite), is not a new term. In fact, the term is used repeatedly in The Book of Esther, which dates back to well over 2,300 years ago. Yehudah (Judah) was only one of the twelve tribes of Israel and it is rather puzzling that the entire nation, comprised of these twelve tribes, should collectively be referred to as his descendants, Yehudim.

Perhaps the key lies in the origin of Yehudah’s name. Yehudah was Leah’s fourth child. Upon his birth, she pronounced: “This time I will give thanks to God.” Why does Leah only feel the need to give thanks to God upon the birth of her fourth child? Surely, she would have been grateful to God for giving her each of her first three children as well? Rashi explains that Leah gave thanks when she delivered her fourth son, because she felt that she had received more than her share. Jacob’s four wives knew by way of prophecy that Jacob would have twelve sons that would form the Jewish nation. By rights, each of Jacob’s wives should, therefore, give birth to three boys. Once Leah had four sons, she realized that she had received more than her allotted portion. Thus, she gave thanks to God.

We learn from this that gratitude and thanks stem from people feeling that they are receiving something that they are not entitled to. An attitude of entitlement is diametrically opposed to an attitude of gratitude. I would suggest that perhaps we are all called Yehudim, because the ultimate mission of all the tribes of Israel is to realize that, in truth, we deserve nothing, and, therefore, thank God for everything. When we genuinely understand our positions as finite, fallible human beings created through the tremendous benevolence of the infinite, kind, and omnipotent Creator of the entire universe, we consider everything we have, including our very lives, as a Divine gift.

On this Thanksgiving holiday, let us work on internalizing the realization that we are entitled to nothing at all and, therefore, manifest tremendous feelings of gratitude for all our blessings and gifts.