Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Vayiqra, Shabbat Zakhor

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Vayiqra, Shabbat Zakhor 5760/2000-- Happy Purim!

"In the fortress Shushan lived a Jew"

Prof. Moshe Bar-Asher

Dept. of Hebrew Language

Hebrew University, Jerusalem


Most Biblical books do not tell us when they were written. However, the content of a work sometimes provides a clue. Further, to those versed in the subject, the language of the text often provides valuable information.

The verse, "In the fortress Shushan lived a Jew (ish Yehudi) by the name of Mordecai, ... a Benjaminite (ish yemini)" (Esther 2:5), could not have been written in any book of the Bible dating to the First Temple period, for two reasons. First, it speaks of a person who lived in the period of the Exile (2:6), and second, because of its use of the Hebrew language. In the Hebrew of the First Temple period a person who was referred to as ish Yehudi could not be ish Yemini, just as ish Yemini could not be ish Yehudi; for Yehudi[1] (Judean) in the language of the First Temple meant a person from the tribe (or family) of Judah, or a "resident of the land of Judah,"[2] as in the verse, "Likewise, all the Judeans who were in Moab" (Jer. 40:11), i.e., all the people from the tribe (or land) of Judah who were living in Moab.

This we know by analogy to a person described in Hebrew as ish yemini or ben yemini which always means "one from the tribe of Benjamin or from the land of Benjamin". For example, "Sheba son of Bichri, a Benjaminite" (II Sam. 20:1). So too with respect to all the generic appellations denoting relationship which are derived from the names of other tribes or the names of other persons, such as Reuben, Gad and Manasseh: "the Gadites, the Reubenites, and the Manassites" (II Kings 20:33); just as "Canaanite" (kena'ani) refers to Canaan the person (mentioned in Gen. 10:6, 15) as well as Canaan the land, and mitzri "Egyptian" refers to Mizraim the person (Gen. 10:6, 13) and Mizraim (Egypt), the land. Therefore, ish yehudi in the First Temple must mean 'from the tribe of Judah'.


Scholars of the Hebrew Language and Bible interpreters have noted that the word Yehudi changed its meaning after the exile of the Ten Tribes (722 B.C.E.) and became, when those left in Israel were all Benjaminites or Judahites, a collective name for every member of the Israelites. Indeed, this change could not have taken place before the exile of the Ten Tribes. However one must also mention other changes in the meaning of the word that did not take place until later, at the beginning of the Second Temple period. Yehudi then came to mean 'a resident of the province of Judah', called Yehud medinta in Aramaic, as in Ez. 5:8, because this was where the exiles returning to Zion lived in the Persian period, and where descendants of other tribes as well were gathered (of course, with the tribe of Judah foremost).

Another significant change occurred in the meaning of Yehudi; henceforth, "The name Yehudi no longer simply denoted the tribe, ..., nor the faith alone, but the people and their faith, the two forming a complete and inseparable union."[3] This people did not necessarily dwell in the land or province of Judah, rather it was a people "scattered and dispersed among the other peoples ... whose laws are different from those of any other people" (Esther 3:8).[4] Note that these words came from (or were put in the mouth of ) an outsider (Haman).

Henceforth an ish Yehudi (Jew) could be from the tribe of Judah, or from any other tribe, such as Benjamin: "a Benjaminite," as was Mordecai.


The new meaning of Yehudi -- as a noun that does not denote geographical provenance or tribal affiliation, but rather expresses a broad and comprehensive concept associating those called by this name with a specific people and faith -- is confirmed both by the story and the language of the Scroll of Esther. Circumstances developed such that people wished to be included in the Jewish community (or people) without being a descendant of Judah or a resident of the province of Judah, as we read explicitly: "and many of the people of the land professed to be Jews [mityahadim], for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them" (Esther 8:17).

The verb mityahadim, rendered in the JPS as "professed to be Jews," is derived from the noun yehudi and has the new meaning of "a member of the Jewish people according to one's religion (faith and way of life)." Like all verbs of the hitpael form, the verb could mean "to become Jews," or "convert" (mitgayerim in the language of the Talmud; indeed, this is how the Targum renders mityahadim). Mityahadim could also have the sense of "putting on a pretense," as this verb form sometimes expresses: "professing to be Jews,"[5] similar to the use of the hitpael form of the verb "to be sick" in the story of Amnon: "Lie down in your bed and pretend you are sick,"[ve-hithal] (II Sam. 13:5), "Amnon lay down and pretended to be sick" [vayithal] (II Sam. 13:6).

The Scroll of Esther itself seems to point in the direction of the first interpretation, namely that they became Jews; the mityahadim are apparently the same as those who are later referred to as nilvim, "all who might join them": "the Jews undertook and irrevocably obligated themselves and their descendants, and all who might join them, to observe these two days in the manner prescribed and at the proper time each year" (Esther 9:27). The same law applied to the Jews (and their descendants) as well as to those who might join them.[6]


The status of the mityahadim and nilvim is mentioned in a baraitha in Tractate Yevamot (24b), which states explicitly that they were converts: "For Rabbi Nehemiah said it matters not whether they are converts on account of lions,[7] or converts because of a dream,[8] of converts of Mordecai and Esther,[9] they are not accepted into the faith until they re-convert at the present time." They are called converts even though they joined the Jewish faith because of fear of the ruling class.[10] An even earlier source, the Septuagint, says that the nilvim (Esther 9:27) were nimolim, i.e., circumcised.[11] In the time of the Septuagint circumcision was considered the most significant act performed by the person wishing to convert and become one of the Lord's people.


In conclusion, the word yehudi changed its meaning in the Second Temple period. No book illustrates this development better than the Scroll of Esther. Yehudi no longer denoted geographical or familial-tribal origins alone, but became the name applied to those members of a group, of a people bound together by ties of faith and religious practice. To indicate the tribal affiliation of a Jew, additional information had to be provided, as the Scroll of Esther did in introducing Mordecai as a "Jew, ... a Benjaminite" (first mentioning the broader identification, then the specific detail). If one wanted to refer to a person from the tribe of Levi or of Judah, presumably one would say a yehudi, a Jew, from the "house of Levi" or from the "tribe of Judah."

[1] Of course we must note the exceptions of the personal names Yehudi and Yehudit (Judith): Jehudi son of Nethaniah (Jer. 36:14), and Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite (Gen. 26:34), and Yehudit (Judean) in the sense of 'the language of the land of Judah' (II Kings 18:26, 28; Jer. 13:24).

[2] This view is reflected in a later period, in a passage of the Babylonian Talmud (Megillah 12b): "He was called Yehudi because clearly he came from Judea, and called Yemini because he was from [the land of] Benjamin." Alternatively, as R. J. Ben-Levi explains further on, in an attempt to reconcile the two attributions, "His father was from [the tribe of] Benjamin and his mother from Judah."

[3] Cf. G. Hirschler, commentary on the Scroll of Esther in the series, Torah, Nevi'im, Ketuvim im Perush Mada'i, ed. A. Kahana, Tel Aviv, 1930, p. 257.

[4] This notion coincides remarkably with the view presented further on in the above-mentioned Talmudic discusion: "Rabbi Johanan said he was from Benjamin, so why was he called Yehudi? Since he rejected idolatry; and all who reject idolatry are called Yehudi (Jew)" (Megillah 13a).

[5] This is according to Ralbag and several modern exegetes (cf. Hirschler, loc. sit., note 3).

[6] It is unclear whether the nilvim in Isaiah ("the foreigner ... who has attached himself to the Lord," and "the foreigners who attach themselves to the Lord," 56:3, 6) had the same status. Indeed, the fear that "The Lord will keep me apart from His people" is dispelled, for "all who keep the sabbath and do not profane it, and who hold fast to My covenant" are destined to be brought to the House of the Lord and to rejoice in His House of prayer; however this is to happen by virtue of the Lord's house becoming "a house of prayer for all peoples." Thus the matter is unresolved and requires further investigation.

[7] Rashi: "Those who convert on account of lions -- e.g., Samaritans, as it says in II Kings 17:25: 'so the Lord sent lions against them,' and they converted, as it is said there with respect to the exile from Samaria."

[8] Rashi: "Those who convert on account of a dream -- a dreamer told them to convert."

[9] Rashi: "Mordechai and Esther -- 'many of the people became Jews.'"

[10] Rashi, loc. sit., s.v. "ke-va-zman ha-zeh."

[11] Cf. Hirschler (note 3, above), who cites the Septuagint's version but for some reason dismisses it.

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