What is in a Jewish Name?

    Issue Number 21, May 1999          
Search the Jewish Magazine Site: Google
What is in a Jewish Name?


Search our Archives:

Opinion & Society

Jewish Names

By Mendel Wienberger

When I was a little boy my mother said to me: "Always remember that you are a Jew. Because the minute you forget, someone else will come to remind you". Perhaps she said this after having witnessed from afar Hitler's barbaric attempt at a "final solution", or perhaps it was her way of saying you can be a good American citizen, but never forget your true identity as a Jew. Though at the time I felt no particular allegiance to the Jewish People, her words stuck in my mind. I was, for lack of a better word, a cultural American Jew. Most of my friends were Jewish and I marked the year not only by New Year's Eve and July the Fourth, but by Rosh Hashanah and Passover as well. But I didn't feel that Judaism was a very relevant part of my daily life. Many years later, I decided to take a second look at Judaism and find out just what distinguishes a Jew from the rest of the world. I did feel that we were somehow different. We had a certain look, a certain way of talking, of thinking, even our emotions seemed to bear that mysterious Jewish stamp on them. But the source of our uniqueness was a mystery to me.

I began my investigation with the name "Jew" itself. Certainly there were other names by which we could be called, for instance Hebrew, Israelite or House of Jacob. The name Jew is derived from the tribal name Judah (Yehuda in Hebrew), which was one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Theoretically, we could have been called Reubenites, Shimonites, etc. But due to historical circumstances the vast majority of Jews today are the descendants of the tribe of Judah, Why is this so ? At the end of King's Solomon's reign in the year 2964 (796BCE), the ten northern tribes rebelled against the sovereignty of the House of David, spilt off from the Kingdom of Judah, and crowned their own King, These ten tribes, which were called the Kingdom of Israel, were conquered and sent into exile by the King of Ashur between the years 3187 and 3205 (573-555 BCE). They assimilated completely into their surrounding culture and subsequently lost their identity as tribes of Israel. No one knows who and where they are to this day. The remaining tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Levi, who served the Temple and lived only on land donated to them by other tribes, continued to lived in the South of Israel until they were conquered and exiled by the Babylonians in the year 3338 (422BCE). Judah was the dominant tribe in number, size of territory, and possessed the Divine right to Kingship. Throughout the past 2000 years of exile, a remnant of these three tribes have survived and the name Jew has been the common designation for them.

Still, I wondered, how did the tribe of Judah get its name. As it is related in the Book of Genesis, when Leah, the first wife of Jacob, bore him his fourth son, she was extraordinarily happy. Jacob had four wives and twelve sons were destined to be born from his seed. Therefore, by being blessed with four sons, she now bore a greater share in the future Jewish tribes than the other three wives. In her joy she exclaimed, "This time let me gratefully praise (odeh) G-d! Therefore she called his name Judah" (Gen.29:35) meaning praise. The root word " Hodeh" means thanksgiving as well as praise and it is used in colloquial Hebrew today. (i.e. todah meaning thank you). So the first characteristic I found in the name Jew is the idea of praising G-d and a sense of gratefulness for being given perhaps more than one deserves.

The second time the name Judah is mentioned as a descriptive term is in the blessing Jacob gave to Judah before his death. He said to him, "Judah, your brothers will acknowledge (yodukha) you, your hand will be upon the neck of your enemies, and the sons of your father will bow down to you"(Gen. 49:8). This verse refers to the divine designation of the tribe of Judah as the tribe of kings and the necessity for the other tribes to acknowledge it. A later verse confirms this when it states, " The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a scholar from among his descendents"(Gen.49:10). The idea of acknowledgment with regard to kingship isn't as relevant today because, as I stated earlier, the majority of Jews today are descended from the tribe of Judah. Perhaps what is important is for each Jew to acknowledge his own ancestry and inherent nobility to himself. For me personally, this meant to stop apologizing for or hiding my Jewish identity, but rather to acknowledge it and even feel proud of it. On a deeper level, being a King means possessing the power to rule over one's own thought, speech, and action-the domain of the kingdom of the self.

The attribute of acknowledgment is seen in the life of Judah himself. Judah had three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah. He took the woman Tamar as a wife for Er, his first-born. Er did not want to spoil Tamar's great beauty and refused to procreate with her. He died soon afterward for the sin of spilling his seed in vain. Under the law of Levirate marriage, if a man dies childless, his widow is married to his brother. The children born to this union are named after the deceased. Tamar married Onan, who suffered the same fate as his brother Er, because he was unwilling to build up his brother's name through procreating with Tamar. Judah feared losing his third son Shelah, so he sent Tamar back to her father's house on the pretext that Shelah was too young to marry her.

When Tamar saw that Judah had no intention of marrying her to Shelah, she took action. She took off her mourner's clothing, dressed up as a prostitute, and stood at the crossroads where Judah was meant to pass. When he saw her covered with the veil of a harlot , he failed to recognize her and against his better judgement consorted with her. Tamar took this action because she knew through a prophetic spirit, that she was destined to bear children from Judah's family. If it couldn't be done through normal channels, she was willing to accomplish it unconventionally. She became pregnant, which was a disgrace to Judah's honor and he ordered her to be burned. She discretely informed him, by returning the pledge he had given her, that he was the man responsible for her pregnancy. He was then forced to acknowledge her righteousness and his own error, and declared, "She is right, it is from me because I did not give her to Shelah my son"(Gen.38:26). This willingness to admit one's mistakes and acknowledge the truth is perhaps the greatest trait engraved in the Jewish psyche and is the first step in the journey of return to one's spiritual roots.

So far I found that the name Judah signified praise, thanksgiving, acknowledgement, and kingship. But there was more to learn about this powerful name. At the end of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses blessed each of the twelve tribes. His blessing for Judah is as follows: "This is for Judah, listen G-d to the voice of Judah, and to his people you should bring him. His hands will fight for him and you shall help him against his foes" (Deuteronomy 33:7). Moses gave the tribe of Judah the power of prayer which later became manifest in the eloquent psalms of King David, the sweet singer of Israel, and his son Solomon, the author of the mystical "Song of Songs". In traditional Judaism the power of speech is not one to be wasted or abused, rather it is meant to be a channel which brings godliness into the world through Torah study and prayer. Jews study the Torah out loud so that the sound of their voices fill the air with holiness. Throughout Jewish history, it is the ability to pour out the heart and soul in prayer that has kept the Jewish People strong in faith and hopeful for a brighter future.

As stated earlier, Judah is the tribe of Kings. On the Kabalistic tree of life, kingship corresponds to the sephira (Divine emanation)of malchut,(kingship) the lowest of the ten sephirot. Malchut receives its life-force from the nine which are above it, especially the six emotional attributes: chesed (kindness), gevurah (severity), tiferet (beauty), netzach (victory), hod (surrender), and yesod (foundation). This receptivity is the root of the profound humility experienced at the levof malchut, a feeling that everything has been given from above. But malchut has another aspect- it rules over the world below it. In describing the four spiritual worlds, malchut of one of the four spiritual worlds becomes keter (the crown) for the world below. So in a sense, a Jew must contain two opposing forces in himself: the humility to receive and the confidence to rule. This dual nature was personified by King David, a man completely surrendered to G-d's will, yet at the same time a courageous warrior and a powerful leader of Israel.

Our tradition teaches that the messiah must come from the house of David because he must contain this combination of dynamic leadership and the humility necessary to reach every single Jew on his level. The name Judah itself hints to this duality. In Hebrew, the name possesses the letters of G-d's ineffable name YHVH, plus the letter dalet (). This name is used to refer to G-d's essence as He is beyond all definitions and descriptions. It is the name of G-d's transcendence of the world and of our ability to understand Him. Yet together with His name signifying the source of all existence is the letter dalet, a word whose root, dal means poor. A poor man is humble because all he has he receives from others. The body of a Jew is poor for it receives its life from above, but his soul is transcendent, a veritable part of G-d's own being.

This is the meaning of the name Jew. A person who humbly stands before G-d, using the power of speech to praise and thank the Creator, consciously acknowledging the King of the Universe. Yet at the same time he is a king himself, able to rule over his own mind and heart, and over the physical world in which he lives. It is no accident that the name Jew has stuck to the people of Israel, for this name points to their essence, a godly soul in a physical body, containing within the power of the infinite and the mission to unite heaven and earth.

What my mother, may she rest in peace, said in those few words, so long ago, started me on a journey of self discovery that led from suburban New York to the hills of Jerusalem, from university to Yeshivah, from the wisdom of the west and east to the wisdom of the Torah. I need no one to remind me that I am a Jew. I remember it every day.

Mendel Weinberger is a certified scribe, who lives with his wife and family in Jerusalem.


from theIssue Number 21, May 1999 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

Please let us know if you see something unsavory on the Google Ads and we will have them removed. Email us with the offensive URL (www.something.com)