VAYIGASH (Genesis, 44:18-47:27) — “What is a Jew?”

Yehudi – Jew.  It is a word that appears relatively late in the Bible.  The Torah usually calls us Yisrael – Israel, or Ivrim – Hebrews.  The term Yehudi appears mostly in the Books of Esther and Nehemiah.  (Also, occasionally in Zechariah, Jeremiah and Kings.) 

One reason we are now called Yehudim (plural of Yehudi) is that most people who identify as part of our Nation are descendants of the Tribe of Judah.  When the ten tribes in the northern Kingdom of Israel were led away to captivity, the remainder of our People were inhabitants of the southern Kingdom of Judea.  Most of the residents of that kingdom who were not Priests or Levites were either from the Tribe of Judah or Benjamin.


But there is more.  Judah was a role model. 

Last week we read that “Tzofnas Paneach,” the Egyptian viceroy (Joseph in disguise) insisted that he would not sell food to Jacob’s sons until they brought Benjamin to Egypt.  (See “Holy Gangsters”.) Jacob refused to send him.  He was afraid something terrible would happen, and he would lose Benjamin, just as he had lost Joseph.  He wouldn’t budge.  Not until Judah stepped in: 

“I will accept responsibility for him.  You may demand him from me.  If I don’t bring him back to you . . .  I will have sinned against you forever.” (Genesis, 43:9) 

Rashi explains that Judah was willing to put his share in the Next World on the line.  If he would not succeed in bringing Benjamin home from Egypt, he would forfeit his eternal reward.  Forever is a very long time. 

In this week’s Torah reading, Benjamin’s freedom is in jeopardy.  He has been accused of stealing, and therefore threatened with slavery in Egypt, exactly what Jacob was afraid of. 

Again, Judah stepped in.  He pleaded, he cajoled, and he threatened all of Egypt.  He would not take no for an answer.  He had promised that he would get Benjamin home, and, one way or another, he was prepared to do it.  He even offered himself as a replacement slave instead of Benjamin. 

Judah refused to back away from his commitment to his father.  He would do whatever was necessary to keep his word.


Not everything in Judah’s life was a source of pride. 

Several years earlier, Judah committed an embarrassing indiscretion.  He had impregnated a woman whom he THOUGHT was a stranger.   In reality, she was Tamar, his daughter-in-law. Due to a veil over her face, he thought she was … well … engaged in “the world’s oldest profession.” 

The reason Tamar did this was as a means of tricking him into fulfilling the Mitzvah of marrying the widow of a childless relative.  She wanted the offspring of this union to be considered as the child of her deceased husband.  (See Deuteronomy, 25:5-10 and Genesis, 38:8-11 and 14.) 

[The Commentaries go into deep discussions as to why G-d determined that Judah’s offspring, who eventually included David and the other kings of Israel and the Messiah, should be conceived in such an ignominious fashion.  See “The Paternity Suit”.] 

Judah’s pregnant daughter-in-law refused to identify the father of her expected twins.  When subtly confronted with evidence, Judah publicly proclaimed, “She is more righteous than I!” (Ibid, 38:26) 

How embarrassing!  How degrading!  Yet, Judah was wrong, and he knew it.  He admitted it. 

The name Yehudah has within it the word modeh – to admit. 

After Judah admitted his mistake, his brother Reuben learned from his example, and admitted a mistake of his own.  (See “The Inferior Decorator, or, Stay Out Of My Bedroom!”

Judah wasn’t perfect.  He was, however, a giant of character.  He taught the rest of us how to live our lives.


What is a Yehudi — a Jew? 

I have three answers.  A Yehudi is a person who: 

              1)Stands by his principles with no room for compromise when he is right.

              2)Admits when he is wrong.

              3)Prays for the wisdom to know the difference.

Have a great Shabbos.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links. 



“The Stimulus Package” (2009) 

… Pharaoh took over everything.  He now owned a 20% interest in every farm in Egypt.  And how did the Egyptians react to the news?  They welcomed it! …


Read more.


“What is a Jew?” (2003)  

Yehudi – Jew.  It is a word that appears relatively late in the Bible.  The Torah usually calls us Yisrael – Israel, or Ivrim – Hebrews… 

One reason we are now called Yehudim (plural of Yehudi) is that most people who identify as part of our Nation are descendants of the Tribe of Judah…

Not everything in Judah’s life was a source of pride…

What is a Yehudi – a Jew? 

I have three answers.  A Yehudi is a person who…

Read more.


“When GOOD Things Happen to Good People” (2002) 

… You haven’t seen your son in twenty-two years. You thought he was dead. The last twenty-two years of your life have been torture. Your years of torment are over. You have your son back. Couldn’t you wait a few minutes and find a better time to Daven?!… 

Read more.


“Chanukah Leftovers” (2001) 

… The smell of latkes is slowly dissipating from our homes.  The jelly donuts have left their stains on our shirts and their calories on our girths.  Another Chanukah has been consigned to our memories and photo albums.  Now what? 

It’s time to clean up our Menorahs.  (If we didn’t do it yet!)  We have to deal with our Chanukah surplus.  Not every millimeter of every candle has been melted.  Not every ounce of olive oil has been burnt.  What should we do with the leftover oil?  Salad dressing? Some popcorn, perhaps?  One final batch of latkes so the potatoes and oil don’t go to waste? … 

Read more.


“Staying ‘On the Wagon’ ” (2000) 

… Imagine for a moment Jacob’s intense grief and anguish. For twenty-two years he had been separated from his beloved son Joseph. As far as he knew, a wild animal had attacked Joseph, and all that remained of him was a torn and bloody robe. During this painful time, Jacob refused to allow himself to be consoled… 

Now, twenty-two years later, Joseph’s eleven brothers have returned from Egypt with wonderful news. Joseph has been found; he is alive and well. And, he has made it “big!” He is second only to the King of Egypt. He is rich, famous, and powerful. 

Jacob refuses to believe the story.  It just can’t be true.  Not after all these years!  Finally, however, the convincing proof presents itself… 

Read more.


This is the weekly message at Copyright © 2000-2012 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.


Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel ( and chaplain in Monsey, New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.


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Published in: on December 31, 2003 at 1:02 pm  Leave a Comment  

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