Headlines »

April 17, 2021 – 9:31 pm | 13 views

Cancel culture is a craze in our times. The airways and streets are ablaze with political correctness and groupthink. This isn’t the first time that cancel culture has taken hold. In my own lifetime I watched groupthink take hold several times and history books are replete with such examples. My …

Read the full story »
Parsha Insights

Where Biblical law and Torah tale is brought vividly to life


The Jewish perspective on topical and controversial subjects

Life Cycle

Probing for meaning in our journey and its milestones.

Yearly Cycle

Discover depth and mystique in the annual Jewish festivals

Rabbi’s Desk

Seeking life’s lessons in news items and current events

Home » Purim

Purim: When Hebrews Became Jews

Submitted by on March 13, 2011 – 1:47 am2 Comments | 3,615 views

The Jews

Today we are known as Jews, but in the Torah we were known as Hebrews and Israelites. Who are we really, Hebrews, Israelites or Jews? The more I think about it, the more I feel an identity crisis coming on.

It might surprise some to know that the first time our people were known as Jews was during the Purim saga. Mordecai is introduced in the book of Esther, as the Yehudi – the Jew. What most people don’t realize is that Mordecai invented this name or, at the very least, popularized it.

Mordecai’s change caught on and the new name stuck. Today we are known almost exclusively as Jews; with few archaic exceptions, we are never described as Hebrews or Israelites. It was a spectacularly successful effort, but why did he do it? What was wrong with our first name?

A Little Background

The story of Purim occurred in 358 BCE. The Babylonians, who, in 420 BCE sacked and destroyed the Temple, forced the exile of our people to Babylon. This exile was foretold by our prophets and was slated to last for only seventy years. Indeed, Jews returned to Israel and rebuilt their temple in 350 BCE.

When Cyrus II of Persia defeated the mighty Babylonian empire, he was supported by the Hebrews. (1) Under Cyrus the Hebrews flourished; they profited mightily from their support of Cyrus the Great and many were appointed to powerful posts in reward. Mingling with their Persian neighbors, the Hebrews gradually abandoned their faith and traditions; assimilating into the larger Persian culture.

When Achashverosh acceded to the Persian throne, Hebrews continued to enjoy unprecedented freedoms and opportunities. Achashverosh led many military campaigns against his neighbors, each supported by the Hebrews, who fought in his ranks and supplied his armies.

In 368 BCE, having returned from an extensive and brutal war in which his empire was successfully expanded, Achasverosh, flush with victory over 127 provinces, threw a ball to thank his allies and supporters. The Hebrews, entrenched in the highest echelons of Persian society, commerce, military and government, were invited as equals to this party.

Mordecai, himself a powerful minister, warned his people against accepting this invitation arguing that the party would be a perfect opportunity to assimilate wholly and seamlessly into Persia. He reminded them that the seventy year exile was nearly over; the prophesied return to Israel and rebuilding of the temple was a mere eighteen years away. Surely they would not discard their destiny for the false promise of power, acceptance and greed.

The Hebrews, enormously wealthy from their association with Persia and drunk with their own successes, disdained the coming redemption, rejected Mordecai’s advice and derided the Jewish tradition. They no longer felt a need for G-d. Ingratiated with the wealthy and powerful Persians, they were now protected from harm and perfectly willing to discard their forefathers’ faith.

The Name Change

For years the name Hebrew was associated with our patriarch Abraham, the Hebrew. Our people proudly bore this name, proclaiming before the world that they were heirs to Abraham’s faith. Just as he followed G-d despite challenges, dangers, temptations and obstacles, so did his children. The very name Hebrew connoted a fierce loyalty to G-d.

Over time a new generation arose; a secular Hebrew nation that rejected Abrahamic faith and tradition. They saw themselves as a nation among nations, a political entity that was naturally suited to form alliances with neighboring tribes and perfectly willing to absorb new teachings and traditions. The name Hebrew was stripped of holiness and bore no resemblance to its original meaning. (3)

Mordecai and those Jews who had remained loyal to Torah had had enough of this corruption. when Herbews became Jews - innerstreamPainful as it was to reject a name they had once cherished and revered, they chose to adopt the nomenclature Yehudi – Jew. Yehudi means to acknowledge the truth of G-d and to commit above all to His Torah. This fierce loyalty, dictated by our quintessential connection to G-d, is intrinsic to the Jew.

Jews were now divided into two distinct groups; secular Hebrews and religious Jews. Mordecai kept warning against reliance on wealth and power, but the secular Hebrews continued to deride him.


Haman was a poor barber, who chanced upon an enormous treasure and parlayed his newfound wealth into a powerful position in the royal court. He was a cunning man, who strategically injected large sums of money into the right coffers and thus ingratiated himself with the King.

Rising from humble origins, Haman craved respect. The king obliged him and ordered all to bow before him. The secular Hebrews, who were friendly with Haman, eagerly bowed to him and benefited from his largess. But Mordecai refused to bow. Haman was enraged, but also mystified. He asked his Hebrew friends, why Mordecai, a successful and powerful politician, would risk his post by refusing to bow.

The Hebrews explained that Mordecai wasn’t a Hebrew; he was in fact a Jew. Jews, they explained, were anachronistic throwbacks to the dark ages, who refused to embrace Persian society and, who harbor foolish hopes for an eventual redemption.

Haman had heard enough and flew into a rage against Mordecai and his people. He campaigned for several years against the Jews and finally, having promised Achashverosh ten-thousand silver pieces, he secured permission to annihilate them. The date for annihilation was set to Adar 13, 354 BCE; a mere six years before the seventy year exile was slated to end.

Though Haman tolerated the Hebrews, his sons and henchmen targeted them too. Just as Mordecai had predicted, the wealthy Hebrews suddenly found themselves vulnerable despite their former power. At this point they rediscovered their faith and quintessential connection with G-d. They joined Mordecai in his prayers and began to attend his lectures. They stood fast to their heritage throughout this time despite the danger to life and limb. (4)


The story had a happy ending as we all know. Esther changed the king’s heart, Haman and his sons were hung and the Jews secured the right to defend themselves in war. Not a single Jew died in battle and indeed, six years later the Jews returned to Israel and rebuilt the Temple.

The nomenclature Jew remained. It stands for much more than nationality and culture. It stands for more than tradition and history. It stands for more than a homeland and economy. It stands for our eternal connection with G-d, our undying loyalty to the Torah and for the immortality of our people. The nation that survived Haman and the nation that, G-d willing, will for ever continue to survive. (5)


  1. Secular historians date the Persian victory over Babylon to 539 BCE. Our traditions teach us that this victory occurred more than a century later, shortly after the Jewish exile to Babylon in 420 BCE.
  2. This change is also evinced in Jonah’s words (Jonah 1; 9) And He said to them: I am a Hebrew and I fear G-d, the Lord of the heavens. That he had to add the fact of his allegiance to G-d even after having identified himself as a Hebrew speaks volumes about what the name otherwise evinced
    in his day. In truth this name change dates back to the split of the Jewish country into two kingdoms, named respectively the kingdom of Israel and kingdom of Judea. When the ten tribes that comprised the kingdom of Israel split off (later to be banished by Assyria) the remaining Jews were (mostly) Judeans, of the Tribe of Judah. The Kingdom of Israel was, with few exceptions, pagan and idolatrous, prompting a move on the part of traditional Jews away from the name Israel toward the name Judean, or (later) Jew.
  3. For the section on Haman see Babylonian Talmud, Megilah 12b and 16a.
  4. This essay is based on Likutei Diburim, Purim 5701.
Tags: , ,


  • Anonymous says:

    There seems to be an error in your brief history, as time is moving backwards! Thanks for the article

  • Anonymous says:

    In the building of the Tabernacle as described in the the last four Parashahs of Shemos (Exodus) G-d commanded that Shittim (Acacia wood) be used for the Ark, table, carrying poles and support beams. Since the Jews were in the desert where nothing grows, as Rashi points out, the only way they could have had the wood available was if they carried it from Egypt. Thus, Rashi concluded that Jacob brought seedling Acacia trees from Canaan and transplanted them in Goshen in anticipation of the need to fulfill the Mitzvah of building the Tabernacle. So it appears that Shittim wood was part of the plan and when called for, the lumber was prepared and ready. The Acacia tree has a rough exterior with a thick homely bark and long sharp thorns growing out of its branches while sporting lush green leaves and beautiful flowers at certain times of the year. Thus in order to make this tree suitable for such Holy service the rough exterior has to be peeled off and the wood must be smoothed over with an abrasive cloth. This procedure is called refinement and it indeed is a painful process. But, when we apply this principle to ourselves we can see that every hardship we endure individually and as a nation is a gift because with every moment of suffering HaShem brings us closer to the eternal rapture of basking in His G-dly light.

Leave a comment!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also Comments Feed via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.