What Does It Mean To Be Jewish?

November 23, 2023

Much ink has been spilled and many jokes have been made about this, and yet, there is no singular answer to this question. However, in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayetzei, we get a glimpse at one of my favorite of the myriad of possible answers:

Upon giving birth to her fourth son, our foremother, Leah, names him and says, 

[…] הַפַּ֙עַם֙ אוֹדֶ֣ה אֶת־יְהֹוָ֔ה עַל־כֵּ֛ן קָרְאָ֥ה שְׁמ֖וֹ יְהוּדָ֑ה […]

This time I will give thanks to God! Therefore she [named him]: Yehuda.

Yehuda, or “Judah,” is the origin of titles such as “Jew,” “Jewish” and “Judaism,” and stems from (and shares a grammatical root with) Leah’s sentiment, “odeh,” translating to “I will give thanks,” or “I will be grateful.” This, we believe, teaches us, as an esteemed colleague recently noted, for Jews, everyday is Thanksgiving; the ikar, the essence, of Judaism is inhabiting an “attitude of gratitude,” not just during certain times of year, or only when things go our way, but simply as a perpetual state of being.

To that end, the Talmud teaches,“A person is obligated to recite one hundred blessings every day”, which I see less as an injunction to keep a running tally, and more of a shorthand to instill in us a practice, not only to see that we have so much to be grateful for, but to acknowledge, to name, and to celebrate all that we have to be grateful for. 

And so, in that spirit, few words of gratitude: Thank YOU, each and every one of you, for helping to make this Temple Ohabei Shalom community the vibrant, loving, engaged place it is. We are so grateful for the opportunity to serve as your rabbis and staff. 

Interestingly enough, our sense of gratitude increases when we give of our resources to others – especially our time! And there are so many ways that you can share your gifts with the world and, in particular, to continue strengthening the TOS community, including…

  • Giving TOS your time! Usher at an upcoming Shabbat service, or join one of our Temple committees, including.. 
  • The Social Action committee, which includes
  • Our congregations’ Tikkun Olam work on climate action, food insecurity and more
  • Kayla’s Caring Community, our chesed/caring committee
  • The Adult Education committee, which helps to shape lifelong learning initiatives and bring engaging educational programs to TOS
  • TOS’s Brotherhood and Sisterhood
  • For any of the above, please be in touch with us!
  • Donating to our upcoming holiday toy drive to benefit Boston Medical Center! More information below

Looking to lean into your own personal gratitude practice?

  • Join us for Shabbat! The vast majority of what we consider to be prayers are actually blessing – expressions of gratitude – from the smallest to the most consequential aspects of our existence.
  • Check out some Jewish resources on gratitude, including…
  • Recustom’s Gratitude Ritual booklet, a free download full of blessings and intentions to add at your Thanksgiving meal, or anytime! 
  • The Jewish Teen Initiative’s Guide to Gratitude, a beautiful list of resources, which happens to include episodes from On Being (one of my favorite podcasts!)
  • Sefaria’s Thanksgiving collection, which pulls together sources from the classic and contemporary Jewish literary canon on giving thanks. 


Rabbi Queen, Rabbi Berkman, & the TOS Team