Monday, November 08, 2010

How to spell 'goyim'

Summary: and how I would justify the Masoretic reading. Plus the strange, counter-intuitive vowel pattern provided by the Masorah, and its significance.

Post: Goyim is the Hebrew word for nations. And in parashat Toledot, it is used to refer to Israel and Edom, as two nations which emerge from Yitzchak and Rivkah. Yet in our Masoretic texts, we have a pretty strange spelling of the word.

The pasuk, and Rashi:

23. And the Lord said to her, "Two nations are in your womb, and two kingdoms will separate from your innards, and one kingdom will become mightier than the other kingdom, and the elder will serve the younger.כג. וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הֹוָ־ה לָהּ שְׁנֵי [גיים] גוֹיִם בְּבִטְנֵךְ וּשְׁנֵי לְאֻמִּים מִמֵּעַיִךְ יִפָּרֵדוּ וּלְאֹם מִלְאֹם יֶאֱמָץ וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר:

Two nations are in your womb: [The word גוֹיִם] is written גֵייִם [which is pronounced] like גֵאִים (exalted persons). These were Antoninus and Rabbi [Judah the Prince], from whose tables neither radishes nor lettuce were lacking either in the summer or in the winter. — [From Avodah Zarah 11a]שני גוים בבטנך: גיים כתיב, אלו אנטונינוס ורבי, שלא פסקו מעל שולחנם לא צנון ולא חזרת לא בימות החמה ולא בימות הגשמים:

The weird spelling with two yuds instead of vav yud is used for the purpose of a derasha. This derasha might well be homiletic, especially since Rome is not really Edom. And even for a derasha, would the Torah misspell a word to such an extent that it is not a valid spelling? Fine, say it is a krei and ketiv, but I prefer even my ketivs to make sense. What in the world is גיים?

(Indeed, Homer Simpson asks precisely this question. See here:


Now, the Samaritan Torah eliminates this question. They simply rewrite it as גוים.

Unless of course you want to say the Samaritans have it right and the Masoretic text got corrupted. Possible, but for reasons I've gone into a number of times, I don't buy that. The Samaritans consistently and consciously 'correct' there text, and this is known and obvious. So, is there some way of explaining the strange spelling, without appealing to midrash?

Well, one thing we can try is to assert that it is correctly spelled after all. The singular is goy, nation, which is spelled גוי. To make it plural, at ים, such that we end up with גויים. Now, simply make the cholam after the gimel into a cholam chaser, such that we don't need the overt vav to indicate the vowel.

If so, it would be written: gimel cholam-chaser yud chirik-malei mem, since a chirik malei is indicated by a chirik followed by a yud.

The problem with this explanation is that I think it might go against the masorah for the pronunciation of this word. At the very least, it goes against Minchas Shai:

גיים • גוים ק' והחירק ביו"ד
שנייה כמ״ש בפ׳ לך לך על צביים

Thus, according to him it is: gimel cholam malei yud chirik chaser mem.

This is indeed how the word 'goyim' is spelled and pronounced throughout Tanach, in instances where it is not spelled in this weird way.

I'll digress for a moment to Tzevoyim. Twice, in Lech Lecha, we have reference to this place. Using snunit, these are:
בראשית פרק יד
  • פסוק ב: עָשׂוּ מִלְחָמָה, אֶת-בֶּרַע מֶלֶךְ סְדֹם, וְאֶת-בִּרְשַׁע, מֶלֶךְ עֲמֹרָה; שִׁנְאָב מֶלֶךְ אַדְמָה, וְשֶׁמְאֵבֶר מֶלֶךְ צְבֹיִים, וּמֶלֶךְ בֶּלַע, הִיא-צֹעַר. 
  • פסוק ח: וַיֵּצֵא מֶלֶךְ-סְדֹם וּמֶלֶךְ עֲמֹרָה, וּמֶלֶךְ אַדְמָה וּמֶלֶךְ צְבֹיִים, וּמֶלֶךְ בֶּלַע, הִוא-צֹעַר; וַיַּעַרְכוּ אִתָּם מִלְחָמָה, בְּעֵמֶק הַשִּׂדִּים. 

Note that they spelled it along the lines of my suggestion above. They do precisely that by goyim:
בראשית פרק כה
  • פסוק כ"ג: וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה לָהּ, שְׁנֵי גֹיִים בְּבִטְנֵךְ, וּשְׁנֵי לְאֻמִּים, מִמֵּעַיִךְ יִפָּרֵדוּ; וּלְאֹם מִלְאֹם יֶאֱמָץ, וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר. 

So too at Mechon-mamre, where I think this could well be based on their Yemenite Torah:

כג  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה לָהּ, שְׁנֵי גֹיִים בְּבִטְנֵךְ, וּשְׁנֵי לְאֻמִּים, מִמֵּעַיִךְ יִפָּרֵדוּ; וּלְאֹם מִלְאֹם יֶאֱמָץ, וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר.23 And the LORD said unto her: Two nations are in thy womb, and two peoples shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.

Look at the Leningrad Codex, though (although I am relying on a website rather than looking inside -- perhaps I'll confirm this a bit later):
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֜ה לָ֗הּ שְׁנֵ֤י גיים גוֹיִם֙ בְּבִטְנֵ֔ךְ

where they explain it like Minchas Shai, in terms of pronunciation.

Minchas Shai, on Lech Lecha, writes:
צביים• צבוים ק׳ והזקף קטן
והחירק ביו"ד שניה וכן חברו שבסמוך כי יו״ד ראשונה במקום
וא"ו כמו שהוא קרי ועיין מ״ש בפ' נח על פסוק וצבים עד

The idea is that we are not wedging the nikkud into these particular consonantal letters, but rather that the first yud in גיים and in צביים stands in place of a vav. As strange as this may strike us at first, this is just what happens in the fairly common Hebrew word היא, which is most often spelled הוא. See my analysis in this parshablog post, where I give a number of other examples of vowel letters standing in for one another, as an artefact from the early days of Biblical Hebrew spelling. Thus, it actually makes sense. I would add that גיים  appears in cited prophecy, and cited Biblical poetry, which is precisely where we should expect to find this archaic spelling.

To follow the trail one more time, Minchas Shai referred us to his comments on parashat Noach, on the following pasuk:
בראשית פרק י
  • פסוק י"ט: וַיְהִי גְּבוּל הַכְּנַעֲנִי, מִצִּידֹן--בֹּאֲכָה גְרָרָה, עַד-עַזָּה:  בֹּאֲכָה סְדֹמָה וַעֲמֹרָה, וְאַדְמָה וּצְבֹיִם--עַד-לָשַׁע. 
He writes:

Thus, according to sefer Yerushalmi, tzevoyim is written with two yuds instead on just one. According to our seforim, it is written chaser vav and chaser yud, and so does the Rama write. These variants on this pasuk might indicate different directions to go in selecting nikkud for this, and other, cases. For if it doubly-chaser here, then perhaps we would squeeze in a cholam, but the yud would have a chirik under it, indicating a chirik malei.

At the end of the day, I think Minchas Shai's reading has merit. Yet I think he is suggesting it based on sevarah rather than masorah. And I wonder, when a text states "X kerei", whether the intent is to show the malei and chaser letters, as opposed to showing the vowels by using the vowel consonants.


Jenny said...

It's interesting that the Torah, which spells goyim with an extra yud, leaves out a yud in the next word.

joshwaxman said...

good point. the Samaritans indeed stick in a yud in the next word. however, i think our Masoretic text is not even irregular in this regard. for, while mimei'ayich requires the yud, being plural, bitneich requires no yud, as it is singular.

kol tuv,


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