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How could Abraham be the first "Jew"?

by Rabbi Shlomo Chein

  

Library » Jewish Identity » Who/What is a Jew? | Subscribe | What is RSS?


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Question:

How can Abraham be called the "first Jew"? I always thought that Jew meant having to do with being from the tribe of Judah. So Levites and Cohens, not being from the tribe of Judah were not "Jews".

Answer:

The term Jew can be used differently in different contexts. In its narrowest interpretation it would mean someone from the tribe of Judah. In a broader sense it refers to anyone from the kingdom of Judah, which included within it people from the tribe of Benjamin, Levites and Priests as well. A biblical example of this is Moredechai who is called a Jew even though he was from the tribe of Benjamin.1

The history of a People (later to be) called the Children of Israel or Jews, began with Abraham and his covenant with G-d.
In an even broader sense, especially in contemporary times, the word Jew has come to mean anyone who is part of the "Children of Israel", also known as Israelites, or descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (This probably has to do with the fact that the northern kingdom of Israel with its Ten Tribes were exiled and lost. The remaining Israelites were all from the kingdom of Judah).

Saying that Abraham is the first Jew means that he is the father of Judaism. The history of a People (later to be) called the Children of Israel or Jews, began with Abraham and his covenant with G-d.

It is sort of like saying Columbus discovered America. When he discovered this land it wasn't called America; as a matter of fact Columbus who died in 1506 believed until his death that he discovered the colonized part of India. Nonetheless it is common to say that Columbus discovered America, because he discovered what we now call America.

In a similar sense, Abraham was the first of what we now call the Jewish People.

Footnotes

  • 1. Scroll of Esther 2:5

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RELATED CATEGORIES

Jewish Identity

Abraham
First Jew, and first of our three Patriarchs. Born into a pagan society in Mesepotamia in 1812 BCE, he discovered monethieism on his own. He was told by G-d to journey to the Land of Canaan where he and his wife Sarah would give birth to the Jewish People.
Jacob
Third of the three Patriarchs and father of the Twelve Tribes. Lived most his life in Canaan and died in Egypt in 1505 BCE. Also known by the name of "Israel."
Isaac
Second of the three Jewish Patriarchs, son of Abraham and Sarah. Lived in Canaan (Israel); b. 1712 BCE, d. 1532 BCE.
Judah
1. The fourth son of Jacob and Leah. He was blessed by Jacob to be the leader of the tribes. Consequently, the Davidic royal dynasty is from the tribe of Judah. 2. The southern part of Israel which was occupied by the Tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and always remained under the reign of the kings from the tribe of Judah.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.