In Genesis (the first book of the Bible) Judah is the fourth son of Jacob and Leah, born in Padan-aram (Genesis xxix. 35), and the founder of the Hebrew tribe that bears his name.

See also Tribe of Judah, Kingdom of Judah.

In order to save the life of his brother Joseph, it was Judah who suggested the sale of Joseph to the Ishmaelite traders. Judah becomes surety for his brother Benjamin, and prevails upon his father to let him go down to Egypt according to the request of Joseph, after Reuben has failed (Gen. xliii. 3-14).

In subsequent interviews with Joseph, Judah takes a leading part among the brethren (e.g., "Judah and his brethren," Gen. xliv. 14), and makes a most touching and persuasive plea for the release of Benjamin (Gen. xliv. 16-34). In Jacob's blessing (ib. xlix.) he seems to be exalted to the position of chief of the brethren, owing apparently to the misconduct of Reuben and the treacherous violence of Simeon and Levi (see Gen. xxxiv., xxxv. 22), who thereby forfeit their birthright.

According to Gen. xxxviii., Judah married the daughter of the Canaanite Shuah, by whom he had three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah. Er married Tamar, but died childless. According to custom his widow was given in marriage to his brother Onan, who was slain for misconduct; and she was then promised to the third son, Shelah. This promise not having been fulfilled, she resorted to stratagem, and became by Judah the mother of Pharez and Zarah. Pharez was ancestor of the royal house of David (Ruth iv. 12, 18-22; I Chron. ii. 3-16).

Table of contents
1 Name
2 In rabbinic literature
3 Judah as a legendary hero
4 Preeminence of the Tribe in rabbinic literature
5 Historical view


Judah's name is interpreted as a combination of "Yhwh" (given as a reward for his public confession, Gen. xxxviii. 26) with the letter "dalet," the numerical value of which is 4, Judah being the fourth son of Jacob (Talmud, Sotah 10b.)

In rabbinic literature

With reference to I Chronicles v. 2, Judah is represented by the rabbis as chief over his brothers, who obeyed him and who did nothing without his approval; he is styled "the king" (Midrash Genesis Rabbah lxxxiv. 16; Test. Patr., Judah, 1). He is therefore held responsible by the rabbis for the deception that his brothers practised upon their father by sending to him Joseph's coat dipped in the blood of a kid (Gen. xxxvii. 31-32). Judah was punished for it in a similar manner, Tamar sending to him his pledge, saying, "Discern, I pray thee, whose are these" (Gen. xxxviii. 25; Gen. R. lxxxiv. 19, lxxxv. 12). The death of his wife and his two sons (Gen. xxxviii. 7-12) is also considered by Midrash Tanhuma (Tan., Vayiggash, 10) as a divine retribution for the suffering which he caused his father by selling Joseph.

According to Midrash Genesis Rabbah xcv. 1 and Midrash Tanhuma, l.c., Jacob suspected Judah of having killed Joseph; Tanhuma even adds that it was Judah himself who brought Joseph's coat to Jacob. Judah's attempt to rescue Joseph (Gen. xxxvii. 26) is considered insufficient; for, as he was the chief, he should have brought Joseph on his shoulders to his father (Genesis Rabbah lxxxv. 4). His brothers, on seeing their father's grief, deposed Judah and excommunicated him, saying: "If he, our chief, had ordered us to bring Joseph home, we would have done so" (Midrash Exodus Rabbah xlii. 2; Tan., Vayesheb, 12). Judah atoned for that fault by confessing that it was he who had given Tamar the pledge; and he was rewarded for that confession by a share in the future world (Soṭah 7b).

"Bat Shua'" (Gen. xxxviii. 12), according to Jubilees, xxxiv. 20, was the name of Judah's wife, while in "Sefer ha-Yashar" (section "Vayesheb") her name is given as "'Illit."

Judah as a legendary hero

In Jewish literature Judah is represented as a man of extraordinary physical strength. When he shouted his voice was heard at a distance of 400 parasangs; when he became angry the hair of his chest became so stiff that it pierced his clothes; and when he took into his mouth lumps of iron he reduced them to dust (Midrash Genesis Rabbah xciii. 6). According to others, blood flowed from his two bucklers (Midrash Genesis Rabbah xciii. 7).

He was a prominent figure in the wars between the Canaanites and his father's family after the latter had destroyed Shechem. These wars are alluded to by pseudo-Jonathan (on Gen. xlviii. 22) and in Midr. Vayissa'u (Jellinek, "B. H." iii. 1-5), and are described at great length in "Sefer ha-Yashar," section "Wayishlah" (see also Jubilees, xxxiv. 1-9; Test. Patr., Judah, 3-7).

Judah's first remarkable exploit was the killing of Jashub, King of Tappuah. The latter, clad in iron armor, came riding on a horse and shooting arrows with both hands. While still at a distance of thirty cubits from him, Judah threw at Jashub a stone weighing sixty shekels, unhorsing him. Then in a hand-to-hand fight Judah killed his adversary. While he was stripping the armor from the body, he was assailed by nine of Jashub's companions, of whom he killed one and put to flight the rest. Of Jashub's army he killed 1,000 men (comp. Test. Patr., l.c.), or, according to "Sefer ha-Yashar" (l.c.), forty-two men.

Great exploits were said to be performed by him at Hazar and Gaash, where he was the first to jump upon the wall and create havoc among the enemy. Midrash Wayissa'u describes also the battle between the children of Jacob and those of Esau, in which the chief part was taken by Judah. When Judah interfered in behalf of Benjamin (Gen. xliv. 18-34), he at first had a heated discussion with Joseph, which is given at great length in the "Sefer ha-Yashar" (section "Wayiggash," agreeing in many points with Gen. R. xciii. 7).

The following incidents may be mentioned: When Joseph retained Benjamin, Judah shouted so loudly that Hushim, the son of Dan, who was in Canaan at a distance of 400 parasangs from him, heard his voice. Hushim came immediately to Egypt, and with Judah desired to destroy the land. In the "Sefer ha-Yashar" it is stated that Judah lifted a stone weighing 400 shekels, threw it into the air, and finally ground it to dust with his foot. He then told Naphtali to count the districts of Egypt, and when the latter reported that there were twelve of them, he said to his brothers: "I take three for myself and let each one of you take one, and we shall destroy the whole of Egypt." It was this decision that induced Joseph to disclose himself to his brothers.

Because Judah had pledged himself to bring Benjamin back to his father, saying, "If I bring him not unto thee, and set him before thee, then let me bear the blame for ever" (Gen. xliii. 9), his bones were rolled about without rest in the coffin during the forty years that the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness. Moses then prayed to God, arguing that Judah's confession had induced Reuben to confess his sin with Bilhah (Soṭah 7b; B. Ḳ. 92a; Mak. 11b). Judah's name was engraved on the emerald in the high priest's breastplate (Num. R. ii. 6).

Preeminence of the Tribe in rabbinic literature

The tribe of Judah had the preeminence over the other tribes in that Elisheba, the mother of all the priests; Othniel, the first judge; Bezaleel, the builder of the Tabernacle; and Solomon, the builder of the First Temple in Jerusalem; and all the pious kings were of the tribe of Judah, as will be the Messiah. This distinction was given to the tribe of Judah as a reward for its zeal in glorifying God at the passage of the Red Sea.

When the children of Israel were about to cross, a dispute arose among the tribes, each desiring to be the first to enter the water. The tribe of Benjamin sprang in first, for which act the princes of Judah threw stones at it (Talmud Sotah 37a). In Midrash Exodus Rabbah xxiv. 1 it is stated, on the contrary, that the other tribes refused to enter the slimy bed of the sea until the tribe of Judah set them the example by plunging in.

According to R. Judah, the Temple in Jerusalem was erected on Judah's land — another reward to the tribe (Midrash Genesis Rabbah xcix. 1); but a different opinion is that only the whole eastern side of the edifice, including the courtyards and the altar, was on Judah's ground, while the Temple proper was on land belonging to Benjamin (Talmud Yoma 12a; Zeb. 53b).

The people of Judah are said to have been versed in the laws of the Torah ("bene Torah"), because in the wilderness the tribe was placed on the east side of the camp (Num. ii. 3), being thus near to Moses and Aaron (Midrash Numbers Rabbah xviii. 4). It seems that the soil of Judah's territory was remarkable for the excellent quality of its grain, one measure of Judean grain being worth five measures of that produced in Galilee (Talmud B. B. 122a).

Historical view

It is generally maintained by historical critical studies of the Bible that Judah is the eponymous ancestor of the tribe of that name, and that the narrative in Genesis gives the history of the tribe in the form of personal history.