Why Jews

Why Jews?

Where do we get the name “Jew”? What is the origin?

In this week’s parasha we will read about the beginning of the Jewish nation. Jacob will have twelve sons and one daughter and with them come the first steps of our people. But, why “Jews”?

Later in history the twelve tribes will be divided in two kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. The northern tribes will disappear and basically we are all descendants of the tribe of Judah (Cohanim and Leviim are the exception; they are descendants of the tribe of Levi but that is for another post).

We are called Jews (Yehudim) since we descend from Judah (Yehudah).

The parasha this week deals with the etymology of the names. When Judah is born, his mother Leah declared: “I will thank the Lord.” In a nutshell a descendant of Judah is a person who knows how to say thank you.

With the spirit of Thanksgiving around the corner, I wanted to share with you a specific passage of the Talmud (Brachot 54B)

“Rab Judah said in the name of Rab: There are four [classes of people] who have to offer thanksgiving: those who have crossed the sea, those who have traversed the wilderness, one who has recovered from an illness, and a prisoner who has been set free.”

This paragraph gave origin to the custom of reciting Birkat Hagomel (a blessing of Thanksgiving) when people overcome a danger.

Looking closely at the text we find that the dangers that worried the rabbis in the time of the Talmud might be slightly different than dangers we have today.

Rabbis were concerned with long trips, whether on the sea or through the dessert. Ships and planes are safer now!

Rabbis were concerned with illnesses. Life span in the time of the Talmud was 40 years. For reference, average life expectancy through 1800 was just 30-40 years; penicillin was first used to treat infections in 1948 and was a game changer for humanity. While still battling difficult illnesses we sometimes take longer lifespans for granted.

Rabbis were concerned with the possibility of being imprisoned. Wars were common back then and becoming a prisoner was likely to happen; being released was less likely.

Dangers are everywhere but if we look at the big picture we have many reasons to be thankful.

Being thankful is not just a matter of overcoming dangers. Being thankful is an everyday task.

At the end of the day, why are we called Jews? Because we know how to say: Thank you!

Posted by Rabbi Fabián Werbin