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Jew (word): Wikis


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This article focuses on the etymology of the word Jew.


Biblical and Middle Eastern origins: The Jews in their land

The kingdom of Judah appears in red in this map of ancient Israel around 900 BCE (The text is in Catalan).

The Jewish ethnonym in Hebrew is יהודים Yehudim (plural of יהודי Yehudi) which is the origin of the English word Jew. The Hebrew name is derived from the region name Judah (Yehudah יהודה). Originally the name referred to the territory alloted to the tribe descended from Judah the fourth son of the patriarch Jacob (Numbers). Judah was one of the twelve sons of Jacob and one of the Twelve tribes of Israel(Genesis). The Genesis 29:35 [1] relates that Judah's mother — the matriarch Leah — named him Yehudah (i.e. "Judah") because she wanted to "praise God" for giving birth to so many sons: "She said, 'This time let me praise (odeh אודה) God (יהוה),' and named the child Judah (Yehudah יהודה)", thus combining "praise" and "God" into one new name. Thereafter Judah vouchsafes the Jewish monarchy, and the Israelite kings David and Solomon derive their lineage from Judah. After the splitting of the united Kingdom of Israel, the name was used for the southern kingdom of Judah, containing not only the land of the tribe of Judah but also that of Benjamin and Simeon. With the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel, the kingdom of Judah became the sole Jewish state and the term y'hudi (יהודי) was applied to all Israelites. When the word makes its first appearance in writing (in the book of Esther) its meaning has already expanded to include converts to the Jewish religion as well as descendants of Israelites.

In Hebrew, the name "Judah" (י ה ו [ד] ה) contains the four letters of the Tetragrammaton — the special, holy, and ineffable name of the Jewish God. The very holiness of the name of Judah attests to its importance as an alternate name for "Israelites" that it ultimately replaces.

Hasmonean coin of John Hyrcanus (134 BCE to 104 BCE) with the inscription "Hayehudim" (of the Jews).
Obv: Double cornucopia.
Rev: Five lines of ancient Hebrew script; reading "Yehochanan Kohen Gadol, Chever Hayehudim" (Yehochanan the High Priest, Council of the Jews.

In the Book of Esther we find the earliest reference of the word "Jew" being used. The name appears in the Bible in a verb form, in Esther 8:17 [2] which states, Many of the people of the land "mityahadim - became Yehudim/Judeans/Jews" because the fear of the Yehudim fell on them. Also in Esther we find that the name "Jew" is given to a man from the tribe of Benjamin, in Esther 2:5-6, [3] There was a man a Yehudi (Judean/Jewish man) in Shushan the capital, whose name was Mordecai the son of Jair the son of Shimei the son of Kish, a Benjamite; who had been exiled from Jerusalem with the exile that was exiled with Jeconiah, king of Judah, which Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had exiled.

The Middle English word Jew is from the Old French giu, earlier juieu, from the Latin Iudaeus from the Greek Ἰουδαῖος. The Latin simply means Judaean, from the land of Judaea. In the Old English the word is attested as early as 1000 in various forms, such as Iudeas, Gyu, Giu, Iuu, Iuw, Iew.

Ancient terminology

Obverse of a Jewish silver Yehud coin from the Persian era, with falcon or eagle and Aramaic inscription "יהד" "Yehud" (Judaea)
Reverse of a Roman denarius from 120 BCE with inscription "Bacchius Judaeus", pertaining to the Jews in the Hasmonean era

In some places in the Talmud the word Israel(ite) refers to somebody who is Jewish but does not necessarily practice Judaism as a religion: "An Israel(ite) even though he has sinned is still an Israel(ite)" (Tractate Sanhedrin 44a). More commonly the Talmud uses the term Bnei Yisrael, i.e. "Children of Israel", ("Israel" being the name of the third patriarch Jacob, father of the sons that would form the twelve tribes of Israel, which he was given and took after wrestling with an angel, see Genesis 32:28-29 [4]) to refer to Jews. According to the Talmud then, there is no distinction between "religious Jews" and "secular Jews." In modern English, the term "Israelite" is never used to refer to contemporary Jews, but can be used to refer to Jews of the Biblical era. The Jews of today's State of Israel are called "Israelis" (as are all the state's citizens, regardless of ethnic origin) and do not call themselves "Israelites" in English. They refer to themselves using the Hebrew word "Yisraeli", which is the same for both.

Usage by non-Jews

The term Israelite has also been appropriated by various non-Jewish groups, for example the Rastafarians, who claim descent from the tribes of Israel.

Changes in use

The word Jew has been used often enough in a disparaging manner by antisemites that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was frequently avoided altogether, and the term Hebrew was substituted instead (e.g. Young Men's Hebrew Association). Even today some people are wary of its use, and prefer to use "Jewish". Indeed, when used as an adjective (e.g. "Jew lawyer") or verb (e.g. "to jew someone"), the term Jew is purely pejorative. However, when used as a noun, "Jew" is preferred, as other circumlocutions (e.g. "Jewish person") give the impression that the term "Jew" is offensive in all contexts.

In much the same manner, the Yiddish term for Jew (איד,ייִד) Yid, (singular), ייִדן Yidn (plural)) — originally a benign term — was once used as an ethnic slur, but now is often used by Jews in praise, to describe an upstanding religiously observant Jew (e.g., "He's such a Yid, giving up his time like that") or to distinguish upstanding religiously observant Jews from non-observant, with the implication that the latter would be better people if they were stricter in their observance (e.g., "Yidn wouldn't do such a thing").

In the past, the term "Jewess" was sometimes used for Jewish women. This word, like "Negress" is now at best an archaism, and is generally taken as an insult.[citation needed]

See also

A page from Elia Levita's Yiddish-Hebrew-Latin-German dictionary (16th century) contains a list of nations, including an entry for Jew: Hebrew: יְהוּדִיYiddish: יוּד German: Jud Latin: Iudaeus


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