How Rambam Uses the Word Goy

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There’s a lot of talk online these days about the different terms used for gentiles in halakhic literature, and how those terms should be properly understood. It’s wonderful that people are actually discussing this and looking at the sources. It’s a discussion that’s long overdue, and I’m thrilled that it’s happening!

However, many of the ideas I’ve seen spread about this topic are just plain wrong. And, worse, many of these ideas are claiming Rambam’s Mishneh Torah as their proof. As someone who has spent the better part of the last 2 decades studying the Mishneh Torah in order to learn the halakhah of the Seven Laws, I must speak up.

To begin with, I’d like to address a claim regarding the Rambam’s use of the Hebrew word goy that has been making the rounds of social media lately. The claim is based on a passage in the Mishneh Torah that I also used to misunderstand, in the same way. Fortunately, this misunderstanding can be cleared up using a tool many of us former-Christians know well – Context.

As an aside, it should be noted that Rambam uses at least nine different terms in the Mishneh Torah to refer to non-Jews. B’ezrath HaShem (1)“with God’s help”, in the coming weeks I hope to provide a short explanation of each of these terms, with examples.

But for now, let’s start with the term goy.

Does Goy Mean Idolator?

The current claim going around is that whenever the Rambam simply uses the word goy in the Mishneh Torah, what he actually means is idolator. As proof to support this claim, people often cite Hilkhoth Ma’achaloth Assuroth (“Laws of Forbidden Foods”) 11:8, which says, “When we say goy, simply, we mean one who serves idols”. Therefore, as the claim goes, goy always means idolator.

Seems pretty straight-forward, eh? The problem is, that’s completely wrong!

The issue is that this phrase is being taken out of context from the rest of the text. So, let’s look at it in context:

Whenever it is stated that wine is forbidden in this context, if the goy who causes the wine to be forbidden serves idols, it is forbidden to benefit from it. If he does not serve idols, it is merely forbidden to drink it. Whenever we say goy, simply, we mean one who serves idols.

Sefer Kedushah, Hilkhoth Ma’achaloth Assuroth 11:8
(“Laws of Forbidden Foods”)
[ english | hebrew ]

This chapter of the Mishneh Torah is discussing the Jewish prohibition against drinking or benefiting from wine handled by non-Jews. The halakhah regarding this prohibition is complex and involves differing degrees of forbidden-ness based on whether the non-Jew is either an idolator, doesn’t serve idols, or actually follows the Seven Laws.

So, in context, what is the Rambam saying in this halakhah? He’s summing up something he just explained in the previous halakhot, by stating that if a non-Jew causes wine to be forbidden (2)for example, by handling it, pouring out a libation from it, or similar., there are two possible outcomes: If the non-Jew is an idolator, then it is forbidden for Jews to benefit from the wine (3)for example, by selling it, drinking it, etc.; but, if the non-Jew is not an idolator (4)for example, Muslims or Noahides., then Jews may benefit from the wine, but may not drink it. Then, he lays out a simple definition of the word goy to be used for the rest of this discussion on wine consumption.

This is much clearer in the Hebrew, which could be alternately translated as follows:

In the context [of forbidden wine], whenever it is stated that wine is forbidden, if the goy who causes the wine to be forbidden serves idols, it is forbidden to benefit from it; [and]if [the goy]does not serve idols, it is merely forbidden to drink it; and [in this same context of forbidden wine], whenever we simply say goy, we mean one who serves idols.

The mistake being made here is in trying to turn this last phrase into a general principle that applies to the entire 14 books of the Mishneh Torah. This clearly was not the intent.

And, think about it – if the claim was true, then one of the above statements would literally be saying, “if the idolator does not serve idols…”. Does that make any sense?

The Chanukah Goy

But, don’t take my word for it. Let’s test the truth of this claim by looking elsewhere in the Mishneh Torah, and finding a place where the Rambam uses the term goy, simply, without any further clarification.

In the section on laws related to Chanukah, we learn this:

A Chanukah lamp that was kindled by a deaf-mute, a mentally incapable person, a minor, or a goy is of no consequence. It must be kindled by a person who is obligated to light it.

Sefer Zemanim, Hilkhoth Megillah w’Chanukah 4:9
(“Laws of the Purim Scroll and Chanukah”)
[ english | hebrew ]

Notice that the Rambam doesn’t include any special qualifiers or further explanation of what he means by goy. Exactly what we’re looking for.

So, what is this halakhah telling us? Basically, it’s listing four groups of people who do not have an obligation to light a Chanukah lamp. Why is this important? In the previous sections, we learned that even though every adult Jew has an obligation to light a lamp during the nights of Chanukah, not every member of a household has to light their own lamp. One person can light the lamp on behalf of the entire household, and they all fulfill their obligations to light. So, this halakhah is telling us that in order for that to work, the person lighting must also be obligated to light a Chanukah lamp – otherwise, the other people will not have fulfilled their obligations.

So, if we were to try and apply the “goy means idolator” claim to this halakhah then we would be left with some pretty big unresolved questions. What about the status of a Chanukah candle lit by a non-Jew who is not an idolator? Or, one lit by a non-Jew who accepts the Seven Laws upon himself? Or, one lit by a non-Jew who is going through the process of converting? None of these are discussed or even hinted at, here or anywhere else! Did the sages just not think of those questions? In other words, we would be left with a huge gaping hole in the halakhah.

However, as we know from elsewhere in the halakhah (5)Hilkhoth Megillah w’Chanukah 1:1 & 3:4, the only ones obligated to light Chanukah lamps are adult Jews. So, in this halakhah, the Rambam is clearly using the word goy to mean non-Jew.

And, this would seem to invalidate the claim that goy means idolator everywhere throughout the Mishneh Torah.

But, perhaps this is an isolated exception? Let’s look at another example.

The Goy Scribe

In the laws related to writing a Torah Scroll, we learn:

A Torah scroll, tefillin, or mezuzah written by a min (6)The more authoritative manuscripts say “min” rather than “apikoros”, here. should be burned. If they were written by a goy, an apostate Jew, a betrayer, a slave, a woman, or a minor, they are not acceptable and must be entombed, as [implied by Deuteronomy 6:8-9]: “And you shall tie… and you shall write.” [Our Sages explain that this includes only] those who are commanded to tie [tefillin on their arms]and who believe in what they write.

Sefer Ahavah, Hilkhoth Tefillin, Mezuzah, w’Sefer Torah 1:13
(“Laws of the Tefillin, Mezuzah, and Torah Scroll”)
[ english | hebrew ]

This halachah is found in a section of the Mishneh Torah discussing the qualifications that a scribe must have in order to write Torah scrolls, or the tiny scrolls contained in tefillin and mezuzoth. In order for these scrolls to be kosher, they must be written by someone who is commanded to wear tefillin, and who believes in what they are writing.

Anyone who is a min (7)A “min” is someone who denies God’s existence or oneness – see Hilkhoth Teshuvah 3:7, an apostate Jew (8)An “apostate Jew” is a Jew who regularly breaks the Torah – see Hilkhoth Teshuvah 3:9, or a betrayer (9)A “betrayer” is a Jew who betrays their fellow Jews to gentile authorities – see Hilkhoth Teshuvah 3:12, clearly doesn’t believe the words of the Torah are true. Therefore, scrolls they write are invalid.

Women and slaves are not obligated in time-bound commandments, like wearing tefillin. And, minors aren’t obligated in any mitzvot, because they’re children. So, scrolls they write would also be invalid.

And, this leaves us with one category – the goy, used simply. Based on context, this clearly means non-Jew, whether or not they are an idolator. Why? Because, if the non-Jew keeps the Seven Laws, then their scrolls would be unkosher because they’re not commanded to wear tefillin. And, if the non-Jew is an idolator, then their scrolls would be unkosher for that reason plus the fact that they don’t believe in the Torah.

So, again, here’s a clear example of goy being used simply, but clearly just meaning non-Jew.

And, there are many, many more examples of this use of the term goy throughout the Mishneh Torah. But, from these two examples alone, it is obvious that the term goy, used simply, does not always mean idolator in the Mishneh Torah. That claim is utterly false.

Goy Simply Means Non-Jew

The truth of the matter is that when Rambam uses the term goy in the Mishneh Torah, he simply and generically means non-Jew.

There are a handful of exceptions to this, of course. But, when he intends to use the word goy in a different way, he makes that clear in context, as we saw in the Hilkhoth Ma’achaloth Assuroth 11:8 example.

So, what does this all mean for us? It has serious implications when it comes to how we understand the Mishneh Torah; especially in regard to certain passages towards the end of the Mishneh Torah that relate to Noahides. A full discussion of that topic is forthcoming, but will have to wait for another day. But the main take-away here is that, in the Mishneh Torah, the question of whether a particular halachah for goy applies to Noahides (those of us observing the Seven Laws) will depend on the context of the halachah.

B’ezrath HaShem (10)“with God’s help”, I will be releasing more articles on this topic shortly, clarifying some of the other common words and phrases Rambam uses in reference to non-Jews, and expounding on some important Noahide-related concepts brought forth in the Mishneh Torah.

Until then, let me know your thoughts on this in the comments below!

Footnotes   [ + ]

1, 10. “with God’s help”
2. for example, by handling it, pouring out a libation from it, or similar.
3. for example, by selling it, drinking it, etc.
4. for example, Muslims or Noahides.
5. Hilkhoth Megillah w’Chanukah 1:1 & 3:4
6. The more authoritative manuscripts say “min” rather than “apikoros”, here.
7. A “min” is someone who denies God’s existence or oneness – see Hilkhoth Teshuvah 3:7
8. An “apostate Jew” is a Jew who regularly breaks the Torah – see Hilkhoth Teshuvah 3:9
9. A “betrayer” is a Jew who betrays their fellow Jews to gentile authorities – see Hilkhoth Teshuvah 3:12
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About Author

Jacob Scharff has been a Torah-observant Noahide for more than 20 years, has taught numerous Torah classes, and recently received a Haskamah from one of his main teachers. He has been learning the Seven Laws directly from the Jewish sources, particularly the Mishneh Torah, under the guidance of his teachers for the last decade. He currently lives in Minneapolis, MN, USA, with his lovely wife, where he spends his time playing with computers, studying Torah and doing Mitswoth.

4 Comments

  1. Jacob,

    Nice article! I remember us breaking our heads over the use of the term goy when we learned together. I’m glad to see the learning continued and was put to good use. Keep it up, B”N need this kind of teaching!

    G’mar Tovah,

    Hillel

  2. Thank you for explaining the truth of the matter on the term ‘Goy’. My rabbi used to call us ‘goy’ all the time when we attended his Torah study classes, even though most of us felt uneasy about this term. My rabbi had explained on many times over that there was no intended pun or malice towards us as the term simply meant a non-Jewish gentile person / s. I think it must be the sound of the term that scares us or just we where not understanding this new lingo. This by the way was many years ago, and now I teach Torah to the gentiles and at time find that I need to explain the meaning of the term ‘Goy’ to my students. Thank you for the information.
    Shalom,
    Adrian

  3. Pingback: Non-Jewish Judaism: Judaism without the Jew | Seven Laws Blog UK

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