What is a Goy?

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The term “goy” today refers to a Gentile. It is not normally derogatory but, like many words (including “Jew”), with the wrong tone it turns into an insult. However, in Biblical Hebrew the word means something else.

Rashi (Ps. 2:1) quotes R. Menachem Ben Saruk as saying that the words “goy”, “umah” and “le-um” are similar (kerovei inyan). Ostensibly, he means that all three words mean “nation.” However, R. Wolf Heidenheim (quoted in Ha-Kesav Ve-Ha-Kabbalah, Gen. 25:23) infers that these words are similar but not identical. They have slightly different definitions. While Rashi only lists those three words (I could not find R. Menachem’s discussion in his Machberes Menachem), we should add a fourth similar word–“am.”

The Malbim (Ya’ir Or, gimmel no. 7) distinguishes between am, goy and le-um as follows:

  • Goy – a group of people who unify under mutually agreed upon rules, a society
  • Am – a society with a ruler, such as a king or lord
  • Le-um – a nation united with a single belief system, a state religion

R. Wolf Heidenheim (ibid.) defines the words similarly but with a slight twist:

  • Goy – a group without any unifying principle
  • Am – a group unified either under a ruler or a joint ideology or ruler
  • Le-um – a kingdom (or king)

Shadal (also quoted by Ha-Kesav Ve-Ha-Kabbalah, ibid.) defines the three terms very differently:

  • Goy – a group of people living in one area, whether a specific land or traveling together. The term generally refers to the people but also indirectly to their land.
  • Am – a unity born of joint purpose, whether for their combined benefit, i.e. a society
  • Le-um – a subset of a nation with unique practices, such as a tribe

All three agree that goy is the loosest form of association, the broadest definition of a nation or people. Indeed, the Bible sometimes refers to the Jewish people as a “goy” (e.g. Ex. 19:6).

However, the term now refers specifically to a Gentile individual. The transformation is explained by Radak (Sefer Ha-Shorashim, sv. goy) as follows:

Our Sages commonly called a man who is not Jewish a “goy.” This was their common practice because they wanted to say that a man wasn’t Jewish but from another nation. However, they were unsure from which nation, whether he was an Edomite or Ishmaelite or from any other nation. Therefore, they would just say “goy, nation,” i.e. from another, non-Jewish nation.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, 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 serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also 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.

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