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Avraham Avinu is often called "the first Jew".

When did he become Jewish. Was it when:

  • He recognized G-d?

  • G-d spoke to him for the first time?

  • Covenant Between The Parts?

  • When G-d changed his name?

  • When he had a circumcision?

  • When Yitzchok was born?

  • When he passed the 10th and final test?

  • Some other event in his life?

Or perhaps he was never Jewish and we just mean that he was the first in what would eventually become the Jewish nation.

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If "Jewish" is יהודי, then Avraham isn't usually called that. He is the first עברי, which is the term used in the Torah and many other sources. "Jewish" starts much later (and certainly one can't be Jewish before Yehuda son of Jacob). Can you point to sources naming Avraham as "first Jew"? –  Yishai Beeri Jul 4 '11 at 6:30
    
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Yishai, he was certainly not the first 'Ivri, either. He was AN 'Ivri, as in "from the other side" of the river. Neither was he a Yehudi, of course, as you stated. But he was the first monotheist in generations. He was also the first monotheist to make a movement out of it. –  Seth J Jul 5 '11 at 0:12
    
@Seth: but another explanation is given for Ivri, as well. He was on the other side of the issue of G-d, it was him against the world. (I don't have a source right now, if I remember correctly Rashi brings it). If so, he was the first Ivri. –  Menachem Jul 22 '11 at 21:38
    
He was not the first Ivri - his great great "" "" "" grandfather Eiver was the first Ivri by definition. –  Adam Mosheh Feb 19 '12 at 23:06

6 Answers 6

"Jewish," as @Yishai points out in the comments, is an anachronism. I don't think we're talking about being what we'd call Jewish nowadays - being a member of the Jewish Nation. It's pretty irrelevant to ask whether you'd marry off your daughter to Avraham Avinu or whether you'd count him for a minyan, since neither your daughter nor the other nine guys could have co-existed with him.

I think the sense in which we call him the "first Jew" is that he entered into a covenant with God that would designate his descendants as the "Chosen People" (whatever that means). The first place we have this in the Torah is at the Covenant between the Parts (Gen. 15). Therein, God foretells what would be the forging process of the Jewish Nation through exile and redemption and promises that the conclusion wold be the Jews' acquisition of the Land of then-Canaan. I think it's fair to say that at that point, then-Avram was designated as the progenitor of the "Chosen People."

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Perhaps it was when he rejected idolatry. Hhaza"l explains (exact source I don't know immediately) the reason Mordekhai was called a Jew, Yahudhi, although he belonged to the tribe of Binyomin, is because all who reject idolatry are called Jews, Yahudhim, (as if there is a broader and a more exact definition for the term). This is based in the fact that the name Yahudho derives from the 4 letter Name of HaShem, י and ה followed by ו and ה, combined with the phrase הודיה (thanks/praise) and/or any of its variants; thus the name means roughly "one who praises/thanks HaShem", as opposed to idols.

As to why all of the people of Israel are referred to as "Jews" can certainly be explained in this way, and also that the tribe of Yahudho was the primary surviving tribe during the Babylonian exile, after many of the northern tribes of Israel were majorly exiled by Assyria beforehand. Albeit, amounts of all tribes do exist within the Jewish people today. And in the future, Moshiahh will be able to say who is who.

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By "rejecting idolatry" do you also imply "accepting Hashem" in this case? They seem to be qualitatively different things. –  WAF Jul 4 '11 at 12:05
    
Accepting HaShem fully includes rejection of idolatry. –  אהרון מיכאל נחמן Jul 4 '11 at 20:12
    
The source is Gemara Megilla, 13A: e-daf.com/index.asp?ID=1437&size=1 see here as well: chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/640221/jewish/… –  Menachem Jul 22 '11 at 21:33

Only after Sinai could a person be considered a Halachik, or legal "Jew". From Sinai and onward if your mother is Halachikly Jewish, then you are Jewish. Another way to become a Halachik Jew after Sinai is through a legal process of conversion.

Since Avraham did not live during or after Sinai he would not be considered a Halachik Jew. He would be considered a Ben Noach.

He is our forefather and his monotheistic philosophy remains the bedrock of Judaism. We continue his mission in the world to make known the correct idea of Hashem. However, from a legal standpoint he would not be considered a Halachik "Jew".

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Do you have any sources? Bnei Yisorel are called Bnei Yisorel while they are in Egypt. The name of the nation does not change after Har Sinai. –  avi Jul 21 '11 at 9:56
    
Hypothetically speaking, what if there were descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and were slaves in Egypt, were taken out of Egypt, etc., but did not stand at Mount Sinai with the rest of the nation - would they still be halakhically Jewish, or only as "Jewish" as Abraham was? They would have the same status as any Jew before Har Sinai. But if you say Avraham was a Noachide, then does that mean whatever mitzvot he did were not done because he was commanded to do so (except for bris milah)? –  Adam Mosheh Feb 19 '12 at 23:32

This article from Chabad.org, Was Abraham Jewish? On the Identity of the Pre-Sinai Hebrews, pretty thoroughly discusses this topic.

I'm not sure how to elaborate on it without rewriting the whole article, but after discussing the different times Avraham was chosen by G-d and the Covenants made between G-d and Avraham, one paragraph says:

Accordingly, when we refer to Abraham as the first Jew or convert, it does not mean that he was actually Jewish in the sense that we know today—in the sense of a binding obligation. Rather, he had the technical status of a Noahide, just as any other person of the time (albeit one that was given additional unique commandments such as circumcision, in which he was indeed obligated). It was not until his descendants stood at Mount Sinai and G‑d proclaimed, “You shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples . . . and you shall be to Me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation,” that we became the Jewish People.

Please read the article for context.

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I found this article on Avakesh.com that brings many different opinions about when Avraham Avinu became Jewish, if at all.

Some of the sources he brings are a little less than ideal (e.g. children's books and wiki answers), while others are pretty good.

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I would argue that Avhraham never became Jewish, and he is only the first of what we would later call Jewish.

I give three reasons for this.

  1. Avraham's children do not all inheret from him. That is, many of his children are listed as being from a different nation than that which the "Jews" would be called. (i.e. Ishmael Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah.)

  2. If one wanted to argue that Judaism started in the time of Avraham, then it would seem that status of 'first' really belongs to Sarah, for in Halacha you are Jewish based on the status of your Mother. It appears that since only Yitzchak was born to Sarah, that is the only family line that becomes Jewish. (However this argument fails with Yitzchak and Rivkah, whee Eisav also breaks into other nations and is not considered Jewish) It is only after Yaakov, when we are called Bnei Yisorel where we remain a single nation from then until now.

  3. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are called the "Abrahamic faiths", this would imply that Abraham was not exclusively Jewish by common consensus.

As an aside: The term "Jewish" or "Jew" refers back to the split between the 10 tribes which became "Israel" and the Yehuda and Benjamin, which became a single nation of Yehuda. I would suggest that the honour of "First(recorded) Jew" goes to Mordechai. In the Megillah Ester, Mordechai is labeled a "Jew".. where he is called a yehudi, even though he is listed as from the tribe of Benjamin.

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"I would argue that Avhraham never became Jewish, and he is only the first of what we would later call Jewish." I don't understand this sentence: its first half seems to contradict its second. –  msh210 Jul 21 '11 at 15:36
    
A tadpole is not a frog. But a tadpole is the first of what would later become a frog. –  avi Jul 21 '11 at 16:18
    
No, a tadpole is what later becomes a frog. If Avraham is the analogue of the tadpole, you're saying he became Jewish when he was older? Or perhaps you mean some other analogy. –  msh210 Jul 21 '11 at 17:27
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Point 2: The Gemara calls Eisav an apostate jew, as brought here: judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/9042/was-eisav-jewish/… . Also, as answered elsewhere on this page, anyone who rejects idolatry is called a Yehudi, as mentioned in the Talmud, Megilla 13A: e-daf.com/index.asp?ID=1437&size=1 . Since Avraham rejected idolatry, he could definitely be called a Yehudi. –  Menachem Jul 22 '11 at 21:35
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@avi: Regarding point 1 and 2 - I'm not sure what the distinction between "Yisroel" and "Jew" is in this case. The Gemara calls Eisav a Yisroel Mumar, even though he wasn't the son of Yisroel. See here as well, where that Gemara is used to prove that (all) the Avot were considered "Yisroel" even before Matan Torah: hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=5763&pgnum=59 . In Bereshit 21:12, G-d tells Avraham that only Yitzchok will be considered his descendant, so the other sons were never Jewish (or whatever), so sending them away didn't make them not Jewish. I remember learning... –  Menachem Jul 24 '11 at 3:41

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