Ask the Rabbi: How Could Abraham Be the 'First Jew'?

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Question: I understand that in Judaism, Abraham is considered the first Jew, but how can this be? I can see Abraham being the first Hebrew, but technically isn’t Judah the first Jew?



Answer: The English word “Jew” is derived through Old French from the Hebrew word Yëhudi, originally denoting an inhabitant of the southern kingdom of Yëhuda which resulted from the split of the ancient kingdom of Israel under the reign of King Rëchav‘am, son of King Shëlomo and grandson of King David.

We find the term used in many of the later books of Tanach, from Isaiah onward. In that sense, of course, it can’t possibly be applied to Avraham, who lived nearly a millennium earlier than Rëchav‘am.

Avraham was surnamed ha‘Ivri (cf. Genesis XIV, 13), and several reasons are adduced for that surname. One of the best known is the famous midrash (Bëréshith Rabba XLII, 13) that asserts Avraham had the moral courage to stand on one bank of a river (éver) while the rest of the world stood on the other. Another possible derivation is from Avraham’s adherence to the monotheistic faith which was propounded in the famous academy founded by Shém ben Noach and administered by his grandson, ‘Éver. Whichever derivation you prefer, the term came to be applied to Avraham’s descendants (cf. Genesis XXXIX, 14-17; XL, 15; XLI, 12), such that they were famous for it, known internationally by that name.

Even their language, the Holy Language, came to be called by that name, and to this day is known as ‘Ivrith.

As a side note, it should be pointed out that the ethnographic term habirū (or hapirū, both spelling variations occur) in Akkadian language sources, which some secular archaeologists try to apply to the ‘ivrim, is certainly not cognate with the word ‘ivri. Akkadian was a Semitic language spoken in Mesopotamia in ancient times, but there is no known case in which original Hebrew ‘ayin morphed into the Akkadian guttural consonant represented by h (which was generally equivalent to the Hebrew letter cheth (ח); cf. e.g. Akkadian ahāzum, Hebrew achaz, “seize, grab”). On the basis of other cognate words (e.g., Akkadian emēdum, Hebrew ‘amad, “stand”), ‘ivri wuld have been rendered in Akkadian *ebrium. (The asterisk indicates a hypothetical, unattested word). The term habirū might be cognate to the Hebrew word chavér, “companion, comrade,” but not to ‘ivri.

But Avraham was much more than simply an adherent of monotheism and the seven Noachide laws. The Jewish tradition is repeatedly insistent that Avraham observed the entire Torah, voluntarily, before it was commanded at Sinai (cf. e.g. the last mishna in Qiddushin, Yoma 25a, VaYiqra Rabba II, 9, and many other sources). It is in this sense, then, that he prefigured his descendants’ acceptance of the Torah as commandments by willingly and voluntarily undertaking its observance, that he can be called the “first Jew.”

Indeed, the Talmud tells us why Avraham is called a “patriarch”: “It was taught in Eliyahu’s study hall: The world exists for six thousand years, two thousand of chaos, two thousand of Torah, and two thousand of the Messianic period” ‘Avoda Zara 9a). The Talmud then goes on to ask: “When did the two thousand years of Torah begin?” and concludes: “From ‘and the souls which Avraham and Sara made in Charan,’ (Genesis XII, 5).” Rashi ad loc. explains this by quoting Onqëlos’ Aramaic paraphrase of the verse, vëyath nafshatha dësha‘bidu lë’Oraitha (“and the souls which they subjected to the Torah”).

The clear question: since the encounter at Sinai, when the Torah was commanded, would not happen for some four centuries after Avraham’s death, where did he learn Torah?

The midrash (Bëréshith Rabba LXI, 1) praises Avraham, applying to him the verse: “Happy is the man who has not gone according to the advice of evil-doers … but whose desire is in Ha-Shem’s Torah, and who reviews His Torah by day and by night.” (Psalms I, 1)

The verse prompts Rabbi Shim‘on to ask: “His father did not teach him, and he had no mentor, so from where did he learn the Torah?” His answer: “The Holy One, Blessed is He furnished him his two kidneys as a sort of pair of rabbis, and they derived and taught him Torah and wisdom.”

The commentary Mattënoth Këhunna puts his finger on the problem with this answer: “By himself he weighed and investigated and arrived at the root [of things].” In short, it sounds like sophistry, avoiding the question by suggesting that Avraham somehow taught himself. In fact, though, in order to “weigh and investigate matters” he still had to acquire basic information concerning the commandments to be “weighed and investigated.” Our question returns: Where did Avraham get the raw materials for his research?

The written Torah provides us a clue, when Avram was told: “ … who will come out of your bowels will inherit you.” (Genesis XV, 4) Of course, Yitzchaq was born like every other child, from his mother’s womb, but every child carries a genetic contribution from both the mother and the father (as the Talmud is well aware; cf. Nidda 31b). That of course means (as modern genetics substantiates) that the characteristics of descendants are present in potential in their ancestors’ genetic material.

But (as the Rabbis of the Talmud also tell us) that genetic contribution extends beyond the physical make-up of the child into the metaphysical: “The soul has a father and mother just as the body on Earth has a father and mother” (Zohar II, 12b). Presumably, this component is also present in potential in one’s ancestors.

We must also remember that Avraham was a prophet, a navi’. In large part, the powers of nëvu’a encompass a navi’s ability to see not merely physically (for which the Holy Language provides the verb ra’a) but also metaphysically (for which the very different word chaza is used), a form of perception which transcends the four physical dimensions which limit our world, the familiar three spatial ones and time (interestingly, a friend of mine who is an ophthalmological surgeon informs me that there is a physiological link between the eyes and the kidneys).

Torah sources record several instances in which certain prophetically sensitive individuals were able to perceive who would be descended from them (cf. Bëréshith Rabba LXXXIV, 14, Mattënoth Këhunna ad loc. and Bëmidbar Rabba XVIII, 7 for details).

It is in this sense, then, that we may conclude that the subsequent bënei Yisra’él had a precedent in their ancestor Avraham. Avraham was able, through the metaphysical realm in which there is no time and no chain of causality, to access whatever his descendants would learn in future generations. It is in this sense, then, that Avraham, our father, was the “first Jew.”