Me-Am Lo’ez: The Lost Translation

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Me-Am Lo'ezI. Standard Translation

Psalm 114 is very familiar because it is part of Hallel, the group of Psalms recited liturgically on holidays, Rosh Chodesh (beginning of the new month) and at the Passover seder. The first verse has an unusual word that is surprisingly translated universally the same despite the availability of an alternate, and arguably preferable, translation.

בצאת ישראל ממצרים בית יעקב מעם לעז

The traditional translation (Old JPS and KJV) is:

When Israel came forth out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language

Me-am lo’ez (מעם לעז) is rendered as “from a people of strange language” (hence the title of the famous Ladino anthology of commentaries on the weekly Torah portion: link). The word lo’ez is unique in the Bible. One possibly related word is in Isaiah 33:19 – “es am n’oaz. Rashi (ad loc.) says that “no’az” is another form of “lo’ez” and renders the phrase, “a nation speaking a foreign language”. Ibn Ezra, however, believes it comes from the word “az” and the phrase means “a strong nation”. That is also how Targum understands it, translating no’az as takif.

II. Talmudic Translations

Absent any biblical hint of the meaning of lo’ez, commentators went to the Talmud. The Mishnah (Megillah 2:1) uses it to mean someone who speaks a foreign language, in the context of whether one can read the scroll of Esther on Purim in a different (non-Hebrew) language for the benefit of people who understand that language. Therefore, Rashi and other commentators translate me-amlo’ez in the verse as meaning “from a nation that speaks a different language”. Some see this as meaning that the nation was entirely foreign, either that the Jews heroically failed to assimilate or that it was simply inhospitable. However, there is an alternative to this translation which, arguably, allows for an even better interpretation.

R. Donash Ibn Librat, in his critiques of his mentor R. Sa’adia Gaon’s Arabic translation of the Bible (see this post: link), offers a different translation of the phrase. R. Sa’adia Gaon evidently translated as above. R. Donash (par. 45) points out that the term lo’ez is predominantly used in the Talmud in a different fashion.

The Arukh (not quoted by R. Donash) has two entries for la’az. The first refers to the Mishnah above, which uses the word to mean someone who speaks a foreign language. In a parenthetic comment, the Arukh (or a later gloss) states that this is the meaning of the phrase in our verse. The second entry translates la’az as slander or denigrating language. This is, indeed, the predominant usage of the term in the Talmud (e.g. Pesachim 51a; Gittin 5b; Kiddushin 83a; Nidah 13a).

III. Alternate Translation

R. Donash suggests that this latter meaning is the correct translation of me-am lo’ez. The phrase refers to an oppressive nation; the Jews were taken from Egypt, whose people were denigrating and oppressing their slaves. R. Donash points out that lo’ez in Arabic means a destroyer and an adulterer, similar to this translation of “oppressor”.

Interestingly, R. Donash is most famous for his critiques of R. Menachem Ibn Saruk’s Machberes Menachem. However, in this case, R. Menachem and R. Donash seem to agree. R. Menachem (sv. lazlink – PDF), explains me-am lo’ez as “inyan zadon hu“, which probably here means “malicious nation”. This seems closer to R. Donash’s translation than Rashi’s and R. Sa’adia Gaon’s.

Targum on the verse translates lo’ez as “barberai“. My initial inclination was to align this with R. Donash, referring to a barbaric and oppressive people. But that is probably just a modern connotation of the word. Jastrow translates “barberaya” as meaning simply “foreign people,” which corresponds with Rashi’s traditional translation.

The only other commentator I could find who even mentions R. Donash’s translation is Ibn Ezra, who notes the two talmudic usages of the word. I could not find any other commentator or grammarian. For example, R. Yonah Ibn Janach (Sefer Ha-Shorashim sv. laz), Radak (commentary, ad loc.; Sefer Ha-Shorashim sv. laz) and R. Menachem Meiri (commentary, ad loc.) all translate me-am lo’ez as “from a nation that speaks a foreign language”. I found this highly surprising

R. Donash’s translation seems to me to be preferable. Is it really such a big deal that the Jews were enslaved by a foreign nation that spoke a different language? Granted, this allowed for greater misunderstanding and less assimilation. But, really, that only applies to the first generation of immigrants. Later generations were certainly able to communicate in Egyptian, even if it wasn’t their primary language. Note that the Midrash consistently lists four reasons that Jews were redeemed from Egypt (which, in various versions, sometimes include that they didn’t change their language, clothes and names). Clearly, language alone was not a sufficient barrier to assimilation and other factors contributed. Why would the verse only mention language? It seems more significant to me to describe the Egyptian people as denigrating an doppressive.

IV. Modern Translations

I could not find a single English translation that significantly differed from the standard approach. Even Robert Alter (The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, p. 433) translates the phrase as “barbarous-tongued folk” and R. Aaron Lichtenstein (not the son-in-law of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik), in his recent The Book of Psalms in Plain English, translates it as “foreign land”. My admittedly brief internet search of Christian and academic translations and commentaries yielded a similar result — translations referring to foreign language, foreign nation or foreign land.

R. Amos Chakham, in the Da’as Mikra commentaries to Isaiah (33:19) and Psalms (114:1), similarly adopts the standard interpretation. In the latter place, he explains (in a somewhat forced fashion, in my opinion) that because they spoke a foreign language, they were oppressive.

Interestingly, the only approaches similar to that of R. Donash I have found in modern writings are in homiletical commentaries to the Passover haggadah. For example, R. Chaim Yosef David Azulai (the Chida), interprets the phrase in his Simchas Ha-Regel commentary to the haggadah as referring to denigration. Interestingly, he says nothing about the phrase in his commentary to Psalms. I have found some other haggadah commentaries that similarly translate the phrase according to the second talmudic usage, like R. Donash, but proceed in a more homiletic direction.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. Sammy Finkelman

    You're missing the most famous use of this word, including maybe the use in Hallel.

    Rashi uses this word a lot.

    The very famous “abbreviation” Belaz” is really:

    B' – in –

    Loaz – a foreign language.

    This is according to the Silberman A. M. / M. Rosebaum Rashi – see their notes at the first mention of Balaz in Berishis. The Rashei Teivos there is just simple a mistake.

    Of course….. this only means that Rashi is being consistent in his translation of Lo-az.

    In fact if Rashi was wrong, and if also other Rishnim did not translate Lo-az that way, that could explain why it was assumed that Rashi was using Roshei Teivos.

    It is possible that maybe Loaz can carry both menaings or something in between. It is the exact same word so whatever it means has to fit in everywhere it it used (at least by people who understood the word the same way)

    Maybe something that applies not only to the language but to the whole culture, but can somehow sometimes mean language alone? In English, or the Greek from which it is derived, the word barbarous may convey both meanings or come near to doing that. In such a case eventually one meaning takes over.

    “inyan zadon hu“, – this makes it mean the same thing that Yisro said.

  2. Joe in Australia 06/06/2010 09:58 PM
    2 people liked this.
    When you wrote this I nearly fell over: “Targum on the verse translates lo’ez as ‘barberai’. My initial inclination was to align this with R. Donash, referring to a barbaric and oppressive people. ”

    You obviously didn’t know this, but the word “barbarian” comes from Greek originally, and although it does mean someone from an uncivilised people, it *really* means someone with an uncivilised language – you know, someone who goes “ba ba ba” all the time instead of speaking Greek.

    So the Targum actually encapsulates both meanings!
    hirhurim 06/06/2010 10:12 PM in reply to Joe in Australia
    I neglected to mention that the Septuagint uses the word Barbarian also.

    I don’t think this encapsulates both meanings. It is clearly like Rashi and R. Sa’adia Gaon.
    The Talmid 06/06/2010 11:31 PM
    Kiddushin ends on 82b; there is no Kiddushin 83a. To what are you referring (I didn’t see anything relevant on 82a)
    thanbo 06/06/2010 11:59 PM
    But “la’az” is an acronym for “lashon am zar,” no? So making it mean “a furrin tongue” in Biblical Hebrew would be a backformation with no actual linguistic basis – it’s not a real 3-letter root, it’s just three letters strung together.

    Or is the acronym the true backformation?
    (Edited by author 1 month ago)
    Adderabbi 06/07/2010 12:47 AM
    I have always been struck by the linguistic similarity between “la’az” and “language” (remember that it is not rare for an ‘ayin’ to correspond to the ‘ng’ sound). Don’t know enough to comment further.
    The acronym, as usual, is a backformation.
    Nachum 06/07/2010 01:21 AM
    thanbo, I think that’s a folk etymology, like most supposed acronyms. (Posh, golf, etc.)

    La’az was an actual language spoken by Jews of the Mediterranean, but that was much later.
    Nachum 06/07/2010 01:22 AM
    Adderabbi, “language” comes from the word for “tongue,” as in “lingual” and so on, actually related to the English “tongue.” It refers to the organ.
    Skeptic 06/07/2010 01:57 AM in reply to hirhurim
    1 person liked this.
    From the OED on barbarous:

    f. L. barbar-us, a. Gr. {beta}{gaacu}{rho}{beta}{alpha}{rho}{omicron}{fsigma} + -OUS: preceded in use by the simple BARBAR(E, without suffix. The Gr. word had probably a primary reference to speech, and is compared with L. balbus stammering. The sense-development in ancient times was (with the Greeks) ‘foreign, non-Hellenic,’ later ‘outlandish, rude, brutal’; (with the Romans) ‘not Latin nor Greek,’ then ‘pertaining to those outside the Roman empire’; hence ‘uncivilized, uncultured,’ and later ‘non-Christian,’ whence ‘Saracen, heathen’; and generally ‘savage, rude, savagely cruel, inhuman.’ The later uses occur first in Eng., the L. and Gr. senses appearing only in translators or historians.
    moshe shoshan 06/07/2010 05:55 AM
    The question is, why was Dunash/Menachem’s interpretation not picked up on by subsequent commentators? is because they rejected it for some reason, or where them simply ignorant of these relatively obscure sources? Does modern scholarship shed any light on the question. It would be interesting to see what Kohler-Baumgartner’s Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament has to say here.
    Morah 06/07/2010 07:38 AM in reply to Skeptic
    One might argue that a similar logical progression exists with Lashon Hakodesh, spoken by an Am Kadosh — rendering any other language profane, as would be the people who speak it, etc.
    hirhurim 06/07/2010 08:47 AM in reply to The Talmid
    Sorry, I meant 81a.
    hirhurim 06/07/2010 08:48 AM in reply to Skeptic
    Excellent, thank you.
    hirhurim 06/07/2010 08:49 AM in reply to Morah
    See the Ramban in the beginning of Ki Sisa, on “shekel ha-kodesh”, his debate with the Rambam about why Hebrew is called Lashon HaKodesh.
    DF 06/07/2010 11:26 AM
    Support for the Rambam can be found in the subconscious of chazal, who always sought to define “unclean” words in the Torah as though they were notrikin or roshe teivos or even loan words, but not actual hebrew words. See, eg, their defintions for the words “kumaz”, “zimah”, “toeva”, “chessed”, etc. Seems to me the striving to interpret words like these in a way that makes them not acutal hebrew words, is a silent proff for the Rambam’s view.

    MiMedinat HaYam 06/07/2010 06:12 PM
    my gemara (in the back) has “loaz”-ite words, and translates them into (old) french and (hoch deutsch) german. thus, bais yaakov is strictly an ashkenaz institution, where sphardim are forbidden (jnless they speak ladino)

    just a joke
    Scott 06/07/2010 06:31 PM
    “Is it really such a big deal that the Jews were enslaved by a foreign nation that spoke a different language?”

    The answer may be yes. This detail is also mentioned in Psalm 81, recited each Thursday:

    עֵדוּת בִּיהוֹסֵף שָׂמו בְּצֵאתוֹ עַל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם;
    שְׂפַת לֹא-יָדַעְתִּי אֶשְׁמָע.
    Meir Weingarten 06/08/2010 01:21 AM
    BTW: in modern Hebrew someone who talks nonsense is “m’var’ber” = “barberai”.
    a person who just produces noise ba ba (as mentioned already above).
    the corresponding in English would be when we mock someone by saying “blah blah blah”.
    Nachum 06/08/2010 01:32 AM
    More like faux-Chinese talk than “blah blah blah.”
    Sammy Finkelman 06/09/2010 06:44 PM in reply to thanbo
    Rashi wrote about 2,000 years after Psalm 114.
    thanbo 06/13/2010 01:54 AM
    Finkelman: That’s my point. We don’t know what Loez in Ps 114 means. It’s a hapax legomenon. That Rashi applied an abbreviation he used to it, doesn’t tell us that the word originally meant that.
    Sammy Finkelman 06/14/2010 05:43 PM
    >> That Rashi applied an abbreviation he used to it, doesn’t tell us that the word originally meant that.

    The idea that Rashi was using an abbreviation is a mistake! It is the printers around 500 years ago or wehenever who thougjht that was an abbreviation. But Rashi has a word “Loez”.

    If you say that Rashi made a back-formation, you would be saying that this abbreviation predated Rashi But it is far more likely that Rashii meant this as a word for foreign language.

    Actually Lo’ez could mean a foreign language written in characters not normally used for that language. Now the thing is whatever meaning it has, you have to be able to plug it in in all its uses. It is possible maybe it has one prime meaning from which a another meaning derived from it later and it is the later meaning that is used in one place.

    >> We don’t know what Loez in Ps 114 means. It’s a hapax legomenon.

    There is more than that one use, but I don’t think I solved it. To really know what a word means and make sure you are not making a mistake you probably need up to 30 examples. Maybe seven or eight could do. What people do when they run into trouble is actually ignore some of the examples.

    I am thinking that maybe it could mean foreign writing, not foreign speech or maybe language written in characters not normally used for that language. That meaning plugs in well to all uses except Nidah 13a.

    Pslam 114 may be the only use in Tanach, but it occurs in the Mishnah and in some pieces of learning quoted in the Gemora. It occurs most famously in the first Mishnah of the second Perek of Megillah 2 (17a
    in the Gemora) and also in the Gemorah at 18b) That Mishnah has actually puzzled people over the ages.

    I did not find it in Kiddushin 81a but I did find it in Pesachim 51a, Gittin 5b, and Nidah 13a.

    I also found it, quite by accident, in a piece of learning that is quoted most fully at Menachos 64b. That piece is also quoted in Sotah 49b (last page) and Bava Kamma 82b. In both of these it is chopped off and another piece of learning attached to it. There was something internmediate which we don’t have – they underwent different changes in words (you know, in one place it is lahen in anothe lahem etc)

    The one in Bava Kamma looks like some important errors got in (they actually mixed up inside and outside the walls of Jerusalem) and the words “Loez Lahem Chohmas yevanos” dropped out altogether.

    With regard to what it means in the Psalm, I have a few thoughts:

    1) If it meant something as simple as a foreign language, there would be other uses of the word. It can’t be ust a word for a foreign language – except maybe you could say because it is poetry of a sort, there might eb a reaching for a rare near synonym

    2) This is not making a lot out of the fact that a foreign tongue is spoken in Egypt. The parallelism is to Mitzraim. This is another way of describing Egypt. “Am Loez”

    Maybe it is the fact they wrote in heireoglyophics.

    3) On the other hand, there could be some kind of refeernce to language based on Devorim 4:20 and 34 – taking out a nation from “the melting pot” a nation from within another nation.
    Sammy Finkelman 06/14/2010 07:33 PM

    I wrote: That meaning plugs in well to all uses except Nidah 13a.

    It also doesn’t plug in well into Pesachim 51a. There are 3 uses there, basically identical. This is all also in the Tosephta somewhere but I don’t know what the abbreviation on the side means. You could plug in various kinds of meaning in Pesachim. It deals with 3 cases where (in two cases, Yehuda and Hillel the sons of Rabban Gamliel and in one case Rabban Gamliel himself) did something that to the people in that community looked like an aveireh and the people there (la’azeh aleihem – or olov – kol Hamedina) and said in our days we never saw anything like this.

    The examples were two brothers bathing together, wearing a certain type of sandal on Shabbos and sitting down on Shabbos in a place where non-Jews sat down to do business. In all cases they complied rather tha tell them they were wrong. This is brought down as a teaching that in a place where they think something is wrong don’t tell them different.

    La’azeh aleihem. What does that mean? Held them to be Loez people? Am Haaretz maybe? Violaters of commandments? denigrated them? In general we know what that story says but what do the words mean.

    Another correction. mI wrte:

    “It occurs most famously in the first Mishnah of the second Perek of Megillah 2 (17a in the Gemora) and also in the Gemorah at 18b)”

    It’s in teh gemorah at 18a, not 18b.

    It is impossible in megillahto plug in the meaning slander or denigrating language.or any kind of denigration. But a foreign language also doesn’t make too much sense,

    It seems like Rav and Shmuel knew what the word “Loez” meant but someone later in the Gemorah – the stam – probably didn’t know what it really meant and introduced the mistake that it meant a “foreign langauge” to subsequent generations. Rv and shmuel said only Greelk Lo’ez. maybe that means Greek characters.

    There was a time when theer were people who spoke Hebrew but they could only read Greek.
    Sammy Finkelman 06/17/2010 02:56 PM
    “inyan zadon hu“ makes it mean the same thing that Yisro said in Parshas Yisro. R. Menachem Ibn Saruk’s Machberes is relating Am Lo’ez in Psalm 114 to that.
    Sammy Finkelman 06/17/2010 03:00 PM
    Lo’ez I think means something that is very strange – that doesn’t fit – two parts that don’t go together, a head on a wrong body..

    I think the meaning that plugs into Pesachim 51a is “they were amazed (or astounded)”

    With this the thought in our days we never saw anything like this is an explanation of la’azeh aleihem – or olov – kol Hamedina.

    I found out in Ben Yehuda’s English Hebrew Hebrew English dictationary that a word for stranger (I was looking ion teh english portion) is Lo’ez.
    Sammy Finkelman 06/18/2010 05:43 PM
    I think one word that plugs in best is: Peculiar

    Or maybe better incongruous.

    Maybe the definitoon of Lo’ez should be:

    Peculiar, odd, or wrong in an incongrous way. Noun sometimes made into an adjective or verb. When used without further explantion, writing in one language in characters from another language. And towards the end of the period of the Talmud mistakenly thought to be a word for another langauge perhaps because of the use of the term “B’lo’ez, which may have been used to indicate words written in a script different from that usually used for that language but came to be understood as in a foreign language. They would have used Hebrew characters because most of the people didn’t know Greek or Latin, and meant the script they were using but came to bbe understood as simply saying this is the foreign word for this.

    If that is the case Rashi was not the first person to write B’Lo’ez but it’s actual correct meaning was misunderstood. If I am correct the mistake already in there in some of comments in the sugya at Megillah 18a.

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