Waking Up to Who You Are

Realization Dawns Upon the Praying Israelites

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By Philologos

Published February 14, 2011, issue of February 25, 2011.
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From Alvin Hall of Myrtle Beach, S.C., comes this query:

“One of the birkot ha-shachar, ‘the blessings of the dawn,’ that are recited every day in the morning service is “Barukh ata adonai eloheynu melekh ha’olam she’asani yisra’el,” the standard English translation of which is ‘Blessed are you O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has made me a Jew.’ But why does the Hebrew end with yisra’el, ‘Israel,’ and not yehudi, ‘Jew’? Aren’t yisra’el and ‘Israel’ normally used as the names of a country rather than as words for a Jew?”

Although Mr. Hall does not say so in his e-mail, it’s clear that he is using a Reform or Conservative prayer book rather than a traditional Orthodox one, in which the blessing in question is “shelo asani goy,” “who has not made me a Gentile.” Considering this formulation offensive to non-Jews, the Conservative movement’s 1946 Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book changed it to she’asani yisra’el, and the Reform movement followed suit in its 1975 Gates of Prayer. The reason that Reform, generally the more innovative of the two movements, didn’t take such a step first is that its previous siddur, the 1895 Union Prayer Book, omitted “the blessings of the dawn” entirely.

Yet the Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book didn’t make the change up out of whole cloth. Rather, it was relying on an ancient version of the blessing found in the talmudic tractate of Menahot, where it is also given as she’asani yisra’el. Moreover — which brings us back to Mr. Hall’s query — this was not translated by the 1946 siddur, as it was in subsequent Conservative and Reform prayer books, as “who made me a Jew,” but as “who hast made me an Israelite.”

Mr. Hall, it so happens, is projecting the present back into the past. Yisra’el in Hebrew, like “Israel” in English, became the name of a country only in 1948, when a Jewish state was declared by that name. Prior to that, Jews spoke of eretz yisra’el, “the Land of Israel,” but yisra’el itself could denote only one of four things: 1) the “Children of Israel,” or Jewish people as a whole; 2) an ordinary Jew as opposed to a priest or Levite; 3) a Jew named Yisra’el; 4) any Jew at all. In the “blessings of the dawn,” it has the latter meaning and is the exact equivalent of yehudi.

Indeed, of these two terms for a Jew, yisra’el has traditionally been the preferred one in rabbinic literature. True, in the Bible, yisra’el refers only to the entire people of Israel, or else, in First Temple times, to that part of it living in the northern “Kingdom of Israel” that broke away from the southern “Kingdom of Judah” or yehuda. In talmudic and later ages, however, the word often denotes a single Jew. Thus, we have the well-known dictum of the 12th-century Rashi, Yisra’el af-al-pi she-ḥata yisra’el hu, “A Jew remains a Jew even though he has sinned.”

As for yehudi, its original meaning is someone from Judah. Yet in books of the Bible like Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel, that postdate the First Temple period and the Babylonian exile, the word often means a Jew by religion and nationality rather than a Judean by tribal affiliation or place of birth. When, for example, we read in the book of Esther that “there was a certain yehudi whose name was Mordecai, the son of Yair, the son of Shim’i, the son of Kish, a Benjaminite, who had been carried away from Jerusalem with…. Yekhoniah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away,” yehudi clearly denotes a member of the Jewish people, since Mordecai, a descendant of the tribe of Benjamin, is not a Judean.

Though less frequently than yisra’el, one finds yehudi in classical rabbinic literature, too. The word yahadut, on the other hand, which is modern Hebrew for “Judaism,” dates only to medieval times. The traditional rabbinic term for Judaism is dat yisra’el, “the religion of Israel,” familiar to many of us from the bridegroom’s pledge beneath the wedding canopy that he will wed the bride k’dat moshe v’yisra’el, “according to the religion of Moses and Israel.”

Yisra’el and yehudi have thus been interchangeable Hebrew words for “Jew” for the past 2,000 years — a dual usage that existed until recently in other languages, as well, such as “Jew” and “Israelite” in English, juif and israèlite in French, etc. In French, indeed, many speakers favored israèlite until the mid-20th century, considering it was more respectful than juif. What put a final end to its use was the same declaration of the State of Israel that confused Mr. Hall, since even though French distinguishes between israèlite, “Jew,” and israèlien, “Israeli,” the similarity between the two words was felt to be potentially misleading. Today, Israel is primarily the name of a country, just as yisra’el is in Hebrew, in which “Israeli” is yisra’eli. It took a Jewish state to make all Jews yehudim and only those living in it yisra’elim.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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