Jehoshua M. Grintz discusses the term "Jew"; notes that that "Jew" derives from Yehudi, a pre-exilic term.

Jehoshua M. Grintz

Jehoshua M. Grintz, "Jew," Encyclopaedia Judaica, 22 vols. 2nd ed. (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House Ltd., 2007): 11:253-54

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Jehoshua M. Grintz
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JEW (Heb. יְהוִּדי , Yehudi).


The word “Jew” passed into the English language from the Greek (Ioudaios) by way of the Latin (Judaeus), and is found in early English (from about the year 1000) in a variety of forms: Iudea, Gyu, Giu, Iuu, Iuw, Iew which developed into “Jew.” The word “Jew,” therefore, is ultimately traced to the Hebrew Yehudi, a term which originally applied to members of the tribe of Judah, the fourth son of the patriarch, Jacob. The term was also utilized for those who dwelt in the area of the tribe of Judah and thus later, during the seven years that David reigned in Hebron, his territory was called the Kingdom of Judah (II Sam. 5:5). Later still, with the split of the kingdom during the reign of Rehoboam, the Northern Kingdom was called Israel and the Southern was called Judah, although it also encompassed the territory of the tribe of Benjamin (I Kings 12:16–21). From that time on the term “Yehudi” applied to all residents of the Southern Kingdom, irrespective of their tribal status. After the destruction of Israel only Judah remained, and the term “Yehudi,” or “Jew,” then lost its specific connection with the Southern Kingdom. This is strikingly illustrated in Esther 2:5, 5:13, where Mordecai, although belonging to the tribe of Benjamin, is called a Yehudi. This term was also utilized at that time for the Jewish religion since it is related that, after Haman’s downfall, many from among the people of the land converted to Judaism (mityahadim, Esth. 8:17). The term “Jew” connoted by this time a religious, political, and national entity, without differentiation between these categories. “Jew,” however, was mainly used outside the Land of Israel by Jews and non-Jews and in languages other than Hebrew. Thus Nehemiah, who was an official at the Persian court, refers to “Jews” in his personal “diary,” and the Book of Esther (see above) was almost certainly written by someone close to court circles. From the Persian and Aramaic, the word passed into Greek and from there into Latin. However, while the name “Jew” became common usage outside the Land of Israel, the Hebrew-speaking Jews within the land were particular to call themselves “Israel” (Yisrael: “Israelites”). It seems that this was a deliberate reaction parallel to the general intensification of ancient religious and literary values and aimed at strengthening the identification with the nation’s early history. Thus Ezra, as opposed to Nehemiah, uses the name Israel throughout, and even in the Aramaic letter given to him by the Persian king. From that period on the name “Israel” is used in all Hebrew literature: in the Hebrew books of the Apocrypha (Judith, Tobit, I Maccabees, etc.); in the Judean Desert Scrolls; in the Mishnah and the Hebrew parts of the Talmud; and on the coins of the 70 C.E. revolt and of that of Bar Kokhba (“the redemption of Israel”; “the freedom of Israel”). Exceptions such as “Prince of the Jews” on the copper column erected on Mt. Zion in honor of Simeon the Maccabee (I Macc. 14:47, also 37 and 40) and “Group of the Jews” on the coins of his son, Johanan, are to be explained by the political designation, Judea, by which the gentile world knew the limited territory of the Jewish State. When, indeed, that territory was enlarged, the name “Land of Israel” came once more into use. This difference in usage is strikingly illustrated in the Gospels: the Jews are recorded as having referred (mockingly) to Jesus as “king of Israel,” whereas the Roman, Pilate, and his soldiers refer to him – both verbally and in writing – as “king of the Jews” (Mark 15:32, 2, 9, 18, 26). For Christians, the word “Judaeus” was early conflated with the name of the villain of the gospel story, Judas Iscariot, who was considered the typical Jew. Judas was linked with the devil (Luke 22:3), and the result was an evil triangle of devil-Jew-Judas. This relationship helped to establish the pejorative meaning of the word “Jew” in popular usage. The noun could mean “extortionate usurer, driver of hard bargains,” while the verb was defined as “to cheat by sharp business practices, to overreach.” Many attempts to root out these derogatory meanings by having the dictionary definitions revised have been made in the United States, England, and Europe; they have, however, met with little success, since the problem is not one of ill-will on the part of the lexicographers, but rather of semantics and popular usage. In order to avoid the unwelcome associations and connotations of the word, Jews began in the 19th century to call themselves “Hebrews” and “Israelites” (e.g., Alliance Israélite *Universelle, founded 1860). Nevertheless, these new names quickly took on the same pejorative associations as “Jew,” as scores of 19th century novels testify. Recently, there has been a gradual change in the usage of the word. The brutal murder of a great part of the Jewish people during the *Holocaust has limited subsequent degrading usage of the term. Since the conclusion of the war, antisemitism is under legal scrutiny in many countries, and this covers the use of “Jew” in the pejorative sense, along with “Yid,” “Sheeny,” “Ikey” and the like.

[Yehoshua M. Grintz]

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