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Goy (Hebrew: גוי‎, regular plural goyim גוים or גויים) is the standard Hebrew biblical term for a "nation," including the "great nation" of Israel.[1] Use of the plural, "nations," to refer to non-Jews is found from "I will cast out the nations before thee" (Exodus 34:24) and long before Roman times it had also acquired the meaning of "gentile".[2] The latter is also its meaning in Yiddish. The word is also used to pejoratively describe those not of Jewish descent. It is commonly used to refer to Christians and Muslims, but is regularly used by Jews to refer to any and all peoples of faiths other than Judaism.

Biblical Hebrew[edit]

In the Torah, goy and its variants appear over 550 times in reference to Israelites and to Gentile nations. The first recorded usage of goy occurs in Genesis 10:5 and applies innocuously to non-Israelite nations. The first mention in relation to the Israelites comes in Genesis 12:2, when God promises Abraham that his descendants will form a goy gadol ("great nation"). In Exodus 19:6, the Jewish people are referred to as a goy kadosh, a "holy nation".[3] While the earlier books of the Hebrew Bible often use goy to describe the Israelites, the later ones tend to apply the term to other nations.

Some Bible translations leave the word Goyim untranslated and treat it as the proper name of a country in Genesis 14:1, where it states that the "King of Goyim" was Tidal. Bible commentaries suggest that the term may refer to Gutium.[1]

Rabbinic Judaism[edit]

One of the more poetic descriptions of the chosen people in the Old Testament, and popular among Jewish scholarship, as the highest description of themselves: when God proclaims in the holy writ, goy ehad b'aretz, or "a unique nation upon the earth!" (2 Samuel 7:23 and 1 Chronicles 17:21).

The Rabbinic literature conceives of the nations (goyim) of the world as numbering seventy, each with a distinct language.

On the verse, “He [God] set the borders of peoples according to the number of the Children of Israel”, (Deut., 32:8) Rashi explains: “Because of the number of the Children of Israel who were destined to come forth from the children of Shem, and to the number of the seventy souls of the Children of Israel who went down to Egypt, He set the ‘borders of peoples’ [to be characterized by] seventy languages.”

Chaim ibn Attar[4] maintains that this is the symbolism behind the Menorah: “The seven candles of the Menorah [in the Holy Temple] correspond to the world's nations, which number seventy. Each [candle] alludes to ten [nations]. This alludes to the fact that they all shine opposite the western [candle], which corresponds to the Jewish people.”

Modern usage[edit]

A page from Elia Levita's Yiddish-Hebrew-Latin-German dictionary (16th century) contains a list of nations, including word goy (גוי) translated to Latin as ethnicus

As noted, in the above-quoted Rabbinical literature the meaning of the word "goy" shifted the Biblical meaning of "a people" which could be applied to the Hebrews/Jews as to others into meaning "a people other than the Jews". In later generations, a further shift left the word as meaning an individual person who belongs to such a non-Jewish people.

In modern Hebrew and Yiddish the word goy is the standard term for a gentile. The two words are related. In ancient Greek, τα έθνη (pronounced ta ethne) was used to translate ha goyim, both phrases meaning "the nations". In Latin, gentilis was used to translate the Greek word for "nation", which led to the word "gentile".[5]

In English, the use of the word goy can be controversial. It is assigned pejoratively to non-Jews.[6][7][8] To avoid any perceived offensive connotations, writers may use the English terms "gentile" or "non-Jew".

In Yiddish, it is the only proper term for gentile and many bilingual English and Yiddish speakers use it dispassionately or even deliberately.[9]

The term shabbos goy refers to a non-Jew who performs duties that Jewish law forbids a Jew from performing on the Sabbath, such as lighting a fire to warm a house.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b James Orr, ed. (1939). "Goiim". International Standard Bible Encyclopedia 2. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. OCLC 819295. Retrieved January 13, 2012. 
  2. ^ The Cambridge history of Judaism, Volume 2, Cambridge University Press, 1989, p. 193. ISBN 978-0-521-24377-3
  3. ^ Or N. Rose; Margie Klein; Jo Ellen Green Kaiser; David Ellenson (2009). Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice. Jewish Lights Publishing. p. 4. ISBN 978-1-58023-414-6. Retrieved 18 November 2010. 
  4. ^ On Numbers 8:2
  5. ^ Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, 1988
  6. ^ The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
  7. ^ Rich, Tracy R. "Jewish Attitudes Toward Non-Jews". Judaism 101. Retrieved January 13, 2012. "There is nothing inherently insulting about the word "goy." In fact, the Torah occasionally refers to the Jewish people using the term "goy." Most notably, in Exodus 19:6, G-d says that the Children of Israel will be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation," that is, a goy kadosh. Because Jews have had so many bad experiences with anti-Semitic non-Jews over the centuries, the term "goy" has taken on some negative connotations, but in general the term is no more insulting than the word "gentile."" 
  8. ^ Wolfthal, Diane (2004). "III - Representing Jewish Ritual and Identity" (Google Books). Picturing Yiddish: gender, identity, and memory in the illustrated Yiddish books of Renaissance Italy. Brill Publishers. p. 59 footnote 60. ISBN 978-90-04-13905-3. Retrieved January 13, 2012. "The word goy means literally "nation," but has come to mean "Gentile," sometimes with a derogatory connotation." 
  9. ^ Locker, Ben (2008), "Goy Next Door", North Meadow Media, retrieved 2011-04-27