The lovely Gimpet of Repressed Expressions has been encouraging me to write something Jewish. It hadn’t crossed my mind, really, because it’s so much a part of who I am that I don’t think about sharing it with others unless somebody asks me specifically. I have no qualms about sending people translations of Psalms and parts of the Torah (Hebrew Bible) though, so I guess that constitutes sharing.
That’s enough of an introduction, so let’s dive into the meat of this material. My goal in this post is to show you how the Hebrews came to be a people, and how the different Abrahamic faiths split off from a common root.
That root was Abraham, whose original name was Abram. Actually it was Avram, but the “v” is changed for a “b” in translated Christian Bibles because in the first translations into Greek and then Latin, the translators didn’t know that the little dot inside the Hebrew letter for “b” makes it “v” and not “b”.
Avram lived in Ur Kasdim, which is thought to have been somewhere in Iraq. At that time, everybody worshiped idols, including his father Terakh. (In Hebrew there is a gutteral sound like the “ch” in “Bach.” I’m going to spell it “kh” because in Middle Eastern Hebrew it’s a softer sound.) At the age of three Avram received a message from Above enlightening him that there is only one God, whose name is Y-H-V-H and is forbidden to pronounce. We don’t know how to pronounce it anyway. That knowledge was lost thousands of years later when the Hebrews were exiled to Babylon. There are people who think it’s pronounced Yahweh on the basis of how it’s spelled in Hebrew, but that is not correct.
Avram married his cousin Sarai, whose name was later changed to Sarah. Note that the change in both of their names involves the addition of an “h.” That is because God gave them a part of His name as a reward for their efforts and valor.
Lots of things happened, and time went by, and Sarah was childless. This was a great sadness to her, and other women made fun of her. Avraham and Sarah had recently returned to Canaan from a trip to Egypt, where Pharaoh had given Sarah one of his princesses as a handmaiden, to make amends for a serious faux pas on his part. Her name was Hagar.
Out of frustration (and lack of faith in God, for which she was sorely punished), Sarah begged Avraham to take Hagar as a second wife and father a child with her. Since Hagar was Sarah’s slave, any child that Hagar gave birth to, fathered by Avraham, would belong to Sarah, and thus she would “have a child.” That child was Ishmael.
When Hagar got pregnant with Ishmael, she started feeling superior to Sarah, who was already burning with shame because of what she had done. Sarah banished Hagar to the desert, but some angels showed up and sent her back to camp to give birth. Everything was OK until Ishmael got to be 13, when he started making fun of Sarah and things were very uncool, so Sarah banished both of them to the desert.
They almost died from thirst, but God showed up in the nick of time, showed them a spring of water that they hadn’t seen before, and assured Hagar that Ishmael would become a great nation and would live by the sword. Thus the Arab nations, fathered by Avraham, split off and became their own people.
By this time Sarah was 90 and Avraham was 100. God commanded all males to be circumcised (Ishmael got circumcised too, at the age of 13, but the Torah does not explain the mechanics of that). Avraham circumcised himself (ouch!) and all the males in the camp. On the third day after his circumcision, Avraham was sitting in the doorway of his tent in pain, when three Arabs showed up. Avraham ran to wash their feet and make a feast for them. Turns out they were actually angels (those angels! You never know.), and in merit of his hospitality they gifted Sarah with a child. That child was Isaac, but his name is really Yitzchak. The Greeks weren’t such good translators.
Lots of things happened, and Yitzchak married Rebecca, whose name is really Rivka (you could easily make that mistake of pronunciation if you didn’t know about Hebrew vowels, which do not exist on parchment. They are an oral tradition. Modern Hebrew doesn’t use vowels either. You just have to know them.) Anyway, her name was Rivka.
Rikva was also childless for many years, but she was very bold and went to talk to God one on one and demanded children. God liked her chutzpah and gave her twins: Jacob, whose name was really Yaakov, and Esau, whose name was really Esav (pronounced AY-sahv). Yaacov became the heir to Yitzchak and Esav became the father of all of the other 70 Nations of the world. If you are not an Arab or a Hebrew, then you are a descendant of Esav.
Just a word on my use of the word “Hebrew” instead of “Jew” or “Jewish”: the first usage of the word “Hebrew” (which is actually pronounced “Ivri” (pronounced EE-vree) was in reference to Avraham. It is thought that the reason for this is two-fold: first, Avraham had to cross several rivers to get to Canaan, and Ivri comes from the Hebrew word “to cross.” The other reason is that Avraham “crossed over” from idolatry to monotheism. The descriptive term “Ivri” was also used when the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, beginning with the capture of Joseph, whose name was really Yosef.
The words “Jew” and “Jewish” comes from the name “Yehudah,” who was one of the twelve sons of Yaacov, whose other name was Israel, which is pronounced Yisrael (Yis-rah-El). Sound familiar? Modern Hebrews living in Israel call themselves either Yehudim or Yisraelim. So unless you come from the tribe of Yehudah, you really are something else. But since the rest of the Tribes got scattered over the earth, everybody took the name Yehudah because it means “to give praise” and “to thank,” because we give praise and thank God all the time.
There is one Tribe that still knows who we are. I say “we” because I am of that Tribe. We are the Levites. The Levites have two branches: plain ol’ Levites, who are the musicians and teachers (that would be me), and the Kohanim, who are the Priests. Bet you didn’t know Hebrews have priests, hey? We do. And they are traceable by a gene, the Kohen gene, that has come down through history in an unbroken chain. The Levites don’t have such clear genetic evidence, but we have also come down the years, father to son, passing the tradition.
The reason for this difference is that Kohanim have very strict restrictions on who they can marry, and Levites don’t.
OK, that’s enough for today. By now you’re probably good and confused. That’s OK. God willing I’ll continue tomorrow.