A Jew by Any Other Name: Why Are Jews Called ‘Jews’?

Before this week’s post I just want to take a moment to thank you all for your support following the release of Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism! I’ve sold almost 40 copies in less than a week, which, considering the fact that it’s self-published and I haven’t done a single thing to advertise or promote it yet, is pretty amazing. Y’all are incredible. Keep it up! And don’t forget to leave a review when you’re done reading–the book doesn’t have any reviews to its name yet, and they are very important.

And now for our regularly scheduled program!

(Prefer to listen? This post was featured on this episode of the Jewish Geography podcast🙂


Dear Josep,

A couple years ago when you visited here for the first time, as we were driving past the checkpoint, I said, “Welcome to Judea! Which, I believe, is Latin for ‘Jew-land.'”

“Really?” you said.

“Well, yes, sort of…” I responded.

I don’t remember how much of the historical background I explained to you, or how much you already know, but it occurs to me that it is pretty confusing–why were our ancestors referred to as “Hebrews” in the Bible? What about “Israelites”? When were we called “Jews,” and why?

The Hebrews

The use of this term in the Bible–ivri in Hebrew–is complex and somewhat confusing. Abraham was called a “Hebrew” even before he came to the Promised Land, and Joseph refers to the land of his origin as the “Land of the Hebrews.” The Hebrew root ע.ב.ר. (e.v/b.r.) indicates movement or passage, so the theory is that this term means, roughly, “that guy from way over there across the desert.” But the term was not only applied to the descendants of Jacob. If Abraham was an “ivri,” and Ishmael was his son, his descendants would be “ivrim” too. Same goes for the descendants of Abraham’s cousin Lot–Ammon and Moab–and of Isaac’s other son Esau, the Edomites.

Over time, however, the term Hebrew became associated specifically with Israelites. My (completely unprofessional) theory is that this is because of their status as strangers in Egypt. No one would call you Josep the Catalan in Catalonia; they would call you that if you lived in Castile, or France, or Italy. So while Ammon and Moab and Edom settled down in their own land and ceased to be known as “Hebrews,” a.k.a. “those guys from across the desert”… the Egyptians still referred to the descendants of Jacob that way.

The Children of Israel/Israelites

In Genesis 32, there is a strange story about Jacob meeting an angel and wrestling with him until dawn. When Jacob prevails, he asks the angel to bless him, and the angel gives him a new name: Israel.

So, the nation born from his lineage were called the Children of Israel or the Israelites.

But Jacob  had twelve sons, and each was the patriarch of an individual tribe: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph and Benjamin. Each of these tribes received their own portion of the Promised Land–with one exception: the Levites were given a special spiritual role, so they did not have land of their own. There were designated cities in each of the other tribes where Levites lived. Joseph’s two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, each inherited their own portion of land, so the land of Israel was still divided into twelve portions.

By 12 tribus de Israel.svg: Translated by Kordas12 staemme israels heb.svg: by user:יוסי12 staemme israels.png: by user:Janzderivative work: Richardprins (talk) - 12 tribus de Israel.svg12 staemme israels heb.svg12 staemme israels.png, CC BY-SA 3.0
By 12 tribus de Israel.svg: Translated by Kordas12 staemme israels heb.svg: by user:יוסי12 staemme israels.png: by user:Janzderivative work: Richardprins (talk) – 12 tribus de Israel.svg12 staemme israels heb.svg12 staemme israels.png, CC BY-SA 3.0

Levites and Cohanim

So what was the spiritual role the Levites were given, and why? First of all, tradition has it that the tribe of Levi was the only tribe that was not enslaved, because they did not fall into Pharoah’s trap and refused to work for him. Whether or not that’s the case, Moses was from the tribe of Levi, and furthermore, the Sages teach that the Levites did not participate in the sin of the golden calf. On this merit, they were granted the privilege of being in charge of the holy work at the Temple.

The Cohanim–the priests–are a group within the tribe of Levi. They are descendants of Moses’s brother, Aaron, who was the first High Priest. They performed the sacrifices that were the crux of the Temple service. The non-Cohen Levites were primarily gatekeepers for the Temple, and musicians who played hymns accompanying the services.

Now, the Levites and Cohanim did not inherit any of the land, which, in an agricultural Biblical society, meant no livelihood. So those who did own land, the Israelites, were required to give contributions from their produce and livestock to the Levites and Cohanim. That constitutes a major part of the mitzvot hatluyot ba’aretz, the mitzvot pertaining to working the land in Israel. Though we no longer have the Temple and cannot really observe these rituals, we still make symbolic gestures on their account. For example, when I bake bread, I take a little piece of the dough, wrap it in foil, and throw it in the oven to burn. (This, by the way, is one of those weird rituals that turn up in converso families. 😉 ) It’s in memory of the challah contribution that was supposed to be made to the Cohanim.

The lineages of the Cohanim and Levites were actually preserved through much of Jewish history, up until today, because even after the Temple was destroyed, they received certain special roles in the synagogue. That’s why, during the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods when people started adopting surnames, so many Jews became some version of “Cohen” or “Levi.” While Judaism is passed only through the mother, the tribal lineage always passed through the father, and in all European cultures, so does the surname. (Eventually, nu. Don’t get me started on your inordinately confusing naming customs in Iberia!) So while a Cohanic or Levite surname does not necessarily indicate those lineages, it very often does. Believe it or not, genetic research identified a particular pattern on the Y chromosome that is common to most Jews with a tradition of a Cohanic lineage. They call it the Cohen Modal Haplotype.

(And yes, to answer your next question, Eitan’s family does have a tradition of being descended from Levites.)

The Kingdom Splits

So… Joshua conquers the land, everybody settles in their portion, and all is well and good. (Okay, no, actually, it totally isn’t, but I’m not going to recount the entire first section of Prophets here!) Fast forward to King Solomon’s death. There is a dispute over who is the rightful heir to the kingdom, and at that point, the kingdom splits in two. It is now divided into the Kingdom of Judah–which includes the portions of Judah and Benjamin–and the Kingdom of Israel, which includes all the other tribes.

By Oldtidens_Israel_&_Judea.svg: FinnWikiNoderivative work: Richardprins (talk) - Oldtidens_Israel_&_Judea.svg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10872389
By Oldtidens_Israel_&_Judea.svg: FinnWikiNo derivative work: Richardprins (talk) – Oldtidens_Israel_&_Judea.svg, CC BY-SA 3.0

The capital of the new Kingdom  of Israel, as you may have noted, is a city called Samaria. As you can see, the vast majority of the land that was actually a part of the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah are what is now Judea & Samaria (also known as the West Bank).

So. Towards the end of the first Jewish Commonwealth, the Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrian Empire. The ten tribes who lived in that kingdom were scattered throughout the vast empire–and were lost to history. In the ancient world, conquered peoples were often scattered like that with the purpose of disconnecting them from their homelands and assimilating them, and in the case of the ten tribes, it mostly worked. Here and there, there are stories of communities in Asia and Africa that maintained some semblance of Jewish practice, who may be descendants of the ten lost tribes.

Yehudim (Judans, Judeans… Jews)

So then we were left with the Kingdom of Judah. Its citizens were descendants of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi. The Babylonians conquered it, destroyed the first Temple, and tried to do the with the Judans what the Assyrians did with the other ten tribes. But somehow, by some miracle that no historian or anthropologist can quite explain, we resisted assimilation, and maintained a strong core of identity that eventually led to the establishment of the Second Commonwealth under the Persians. But the majority of Judans stayed in Persia and Babylonia even when the second Temple was rebuilt.

The first time we are collectively referred to as yehudim is in the Scroll of Esther. In Chapter 1, it says, “There was an ish yehudi (a man of Judah) and his name was Mordekhai the son of Kish, an ish yemini (a man of the tribe of Benjamin).” This sentence effectively shows that the tribes of Judah (Yehuda) and Benjamin had become one, and were now both referred to as “Yehudim.”

Jew, jueu, juif, Jude, judío, yahud, yid (as in Yiddish)–all these terms are derived from the Hebrew name Yehuda.

Zionists, Israel, and Israelis

As you know, the term “Zionist” is not synonymous with “Jew” at all. (Unless, of course, you are an antisemite under the guise of an Israel-hater, but let’s not get into that.) In fact–you are a Zionist. A Zionist is simply a person who believes that the Jews have the right to self-determination in our historic homeland. The word comes from Zion, one of the names of the city of Jerusalem.

After the UN presented the Partition Plan in 1947, and it seemed like the establishment of a Jewish State was something that might actually happen in the near future, a question arose: what should the state be called?

The answer was not obvious.

In the course of writing this letter it occurred to me that I didn’t actually know the background for why the name “Israel” was chosen. So I Googled it, and found a letter that Aaron Reuveni, a writer and translator, sent to Haaretz in 1965. Reuveni claims that he is the one who suggested the name, and gave a description of his deliberation regarding the question. (Hebrew speakers can read it here.)

For two millennia we were identified as Jews–former citizens of the ancient kingdom of Judah. And the last time Jews had autonomy in the Holy Land, it was in a Roman province called Judea. So it would make sense to call it by one of those names.

But. The vast majority of the historic region of Judea was not included in the land designated for the Jews under the Partition Plan. “How can we call a country Judea when Jerusalem and Hebron are not inside it, and the Judean Mountains lie beyond its borders?” writes Reuveni. “Zion” was also considered and rejected, because Jerusalem was not going to be the exclusive capital of the Jewish state, and there can’t be a “Zion” without Jerusalem.

Another reason not to go with Judea, or with “the Jewish State” as an official name, was that that identity came to define our people when we were already in exile. The establishment of the State was a return to our roots. Reuveni writes that the numismatic evidence from throughout history indicates, “without a doubt: the Kingdom of Judah falls, but am yisrael chai (the Nation of Israel lives on).” He explains that while the use of “Judea” continued to appear on the coinage from the Hasmonean period, once the Romans took over, the use of the term disappeared; but during the Great Revolt (the first Jewish revolt against the Romans in 66-73 CE), the very first coin minted used the name “Israel” to refer to the land. This indicates that that name had returned to use.

By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3896426
Coin from the period of the First Jewish Revolt, circa 68 CE. The side with the fleur-de-lis says, “Holy Jerusalem,” and the other side says “Shekel Israel” (=Israeli shekel).

By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 3.0

Reuveni further argues: “An individual is a Jew, perhaps, but the collective is Israel.” It’s true; even when we were referring to ourselves as Jews, the term “Israel” was and still is often applied to communities or to the entire Jewish people as a collective. In Yiddish, for example, kehillos yisroel (the communities of Israel) referred to Jewish communities; klal yisroel and am yisroel were used to refer to the entire Jewish people.

So the name Israel was chosen, and became a modern national identity. In his letter, Reuveni addresses the question of non-Jewish residents of the land: “Won’t the non-Jews protest that the name ‘Israeli’ is being imposed upon them?” he writes. “What right and reason do they have to protest? The Jews who live in Syria are called Syrian Jews; the Arabs who will live in the State of Israel will be called Israeli Arabs.”

And so it was. 🙂

I think the whole discussion emphasizes how much of an anomaly Judaism is as an identity. The Israeli identity is a lot easier to explain: it’s a national identity, like French, German, Chilean, Malaysian. Judaism remains ambiguous and hard to pin down; it means very different things to different people. It can be a national identity, an ethnic identity, a racial identity, a cultural identity, and/or a religious identity. For me, it is all of the above.

Love,

Daniella

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