Israel Shamir

The Fighting Optimist

Are Non-Jews Human?

An age-long discussion of Jewish attitudes to non-Jews had been pushed out of the central stage by the counter-discussion of goyim’s attitudes to Jews (beastly, anti-Semitic, prejudiced, leading to Holocaust, denying humanity). In the still uncensored corners and nooks of the Web, one still can find references to Jewish holy books and what do they allegedly say about non-Jews. All these references are soundly trashed and refuted by a plethora of Jewish sites robustly defending Talmud and later texts. The defenders of Jewish faith say that the quotes mean something completely different, they are taken out of context and the translation is wrong anyway. Or, often, they say that such a quote can’t be found in the mentioned book, or even the book can’t be found.

Without aiming to reverse the trend or to bring the discussion to a conclusion, we shall amuse you by a funny tidbit of Jewish lore, which is usually flatly denied by Jewish defenders. It is a reference to Midrash Talpiyot that had been known to debunkers of Judaism, saying that gentiles (goyim, or non-Jews) are beasts in human shape.

Midrash Talpiyot (or Talpiot, Talpiyoth) is a once-widely-popular and still-entertaining collection of Jewish lore assembled by a leading personality of XVIII c. Rabbi Eliyahu HaCohen of Izmir (or Elijah ben Solomon Abraham Ha-Kohen of Smyrna) (d. 1729). We shall call him RES. He is better known as the author of Shevet Musar (published in Constantinople 1712, and numerous editions afterwards), a collection of his sermons, one of the most popular books on ethics of his time. He was a brilliant and knowledgeable man, able to deliver a sermon on unusual subjects. I love his discussion of superiority of dogs over cats – dogs kept quiet when sons of Israel escaped Egypt with stolen loot, and thus acquired merit. (It was translated into English and makes a delightful and non-controversial reading). He was a great believer in harmony, in divine justice, in merit as the reason for any achievement.

In modern American Jewish sites, he is somewhat disparagingly called “a Turkish Jew”. In his days, Jews lived in Ottoman Empire and in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth; so it is a Polish Jew or a Turkish Jew. Smyrna (Izmir) was a great centre of Jewish learning, and books of RES were translated into Yiddisch for the Polish Jews. They say he was a member of the heretical Sabbatean sect, and therefore all he wrote is of no value. He indeed flirted with Sabbateans for a while, like a good orthodox Communist would flirt with ideas of Trotsky or even Bogdanov. RES reverted to orthodoxy when it became necessary, and anyway his writing, including Talpiyot, had received imprimatur of leading rabbis of his time.

He was well versed in Kabbala, and this particular text from Talpiyot is based on Kabbalistic teachings. The author refers to “sod” (secret), the deepest level of exegetics.

It is a midrash, a search for deeper (often esoteric) meaning hidden in a normative text. Midrash is often quirky, usually entertaining and unexpected conclusion of delving into a text. It is located on the moot border between sheer fantasy and homiletics. For instance, Bible )Gn 24:1) says Abraham had been blessed “in all things” (בכל), and a midrash explains it as “Abraham had a daughter called Bakol, “In all things”. It is a part of Jewish reading and understanding, but it is often read with a grain of salt.

The normative text interpreted by this midrash is a well-known sentence from Talmud, uttered by the great sage R Shimon Bar Yohai, (Simeon bar Yochai), or RaSHBI. He discussed a technical question of impurity (or levitical uncleanness) caused by dead body in certain conditions. Apparently he had to explain why a dead body of non-Jew does not cause impurity. He did it by the way of midrash: he said that the biblical verse (Num 19:14) regarding impurity contains the word “adam”. Impurity has been caused by dead body of adam, while, he says, the word “adam” in the Bible never refers to a non-Jew. In his words, You (Jews) are called adam [in the Bible], while the non-Jews aren’t called adam. This was the beginning of a long dispute whether non-Jews are indeed human, and whether Jews consider non-Jews human. It will be dealt later, just bear in mind that RaSHBI was a great goy-hater of rather extreme kind.

The maxim of RaSHBI is found in a few places in Talmud [Yevamot 61a; Bava Metzia 114b; Keritut 6b].However, RES refers to Avodah Zarah, where indeed the sentence can be found in the Tosafot to page 3a. Tosafot are medieval commentaries to Talmud, usually printed together with the main text. Here you can see the page 3a of Avodah Zarah, where the left column contains Tosafot.


Tosafot says that while adam refers to Jew in the Bible, ha-adam (ha being Hebrew definite article, like the in English) refers to human in general and includes non-Jews; likewise, ben-adam (son of adam) refers to human in general.

Actually, the Bible definitely uses “adam” in reference to gentiles, and the subject has been discussed in Yevamot 61a. Rabbis insisted that RaSHBI is right, even if it is obvious he isn’t. For example, adam is used in reference to Midianites in Num 31:45. Rabbis say that adam is used in contradistinction to cattle, as cattle is mentioned, too. They were good lawyers, never at loss for an answer.

RES asks a good question: who cares whether the Bible uses the word ‘adam’ for Jews only, for we know that non-Jews are also human and they are the same as Jews in their appearance. And he answers this question disclosing a cabbalistic ‘secret’, that is the deepest meaning of the text. The Gentiles are actually non-human but beasts created to serve Jews. They have human shape for two very different reasons. One, it is more pleasant and respectable for a Jew to be served by a beast in human shape, than by a beast in a beast’s shape. Two, a non-Jew may join Jews, while if he were in the shape of beast, he wouldn’t be able to.

The Jews are adam, because God is called adam by prophet Ezekiel, and God and Jews are similar for God performed (or observed) mitzvot (plural of mitzvah, divine commandment) before He commanded Jews to do that. Gentiles can’t observe mitzvot (except seven commandments given to all mankind), or even study Torah for this study (excepting the seven commandments) is an exclusive prerogative of Jews, but a non-Jew can join Jews, and then he will become adam. A Jew is adam because he observes mitzvot. RES didn’t give a thought to lapsed Jews who do not observe mitzvot – probably they were very rare in his world, while nowadays they are majority of people who consider themselves Jewish.

Thus, RES’ outlook is not as racist as that of other rabbis we shall discuss further: for him, the Godlike status of a Jew conditioned on him observing commandments, and a non-Jew, though inherently a beast in human shape, can become a Jew, by God’s leave.

Here is the relevant text of Talpiyot in the original publication


And here is this text:

מסכת ע”ז [עבודה זרה]: אתם קרוין אדם ואין העכו״ם קרוין אדם

א״ה [אמר המחבר]: וכי בשם תליא מלתא, דמה איכפת אם אינן קרויים אדם, כיון שכפי האמת הם אדם ואין הפרש בצורתם בינם לבין ישראל? אמנם, דע סוד הענין, כתיב: “ועל דמות הכסא כמראה אדם מלמעלה” וכו׳, ונמצא שהקב״ה נקרא אדם והוא צוה תרי״ג מצות לישראל, והמצות קיים אותם הקב״ה קודם שנתנם לישראל כאומרם חז״ל, ולכן כיון שאנו מקיימים המצות אנו קרוים אדם, כשם שנקרא הקב׳׳ה, ונמצא דבשם אדם שאנו מתכנים הוא עדות, שאנו דוקא דומיא להקב״ה, ונמצא על היותנו עושים מצותיו כמוהו.

לא כן עכו״ם, שאינן קרוים אדם והוא עדות שמובדלין ומופרשים הם מהקב״ה ועדות יש, שהרי אין שם הבורא עליהם דהיינו אדם, והם בהמות בצורת אדם, כי כל דרכיהם ומעשיהם כדרכי הבהמות, דחוץ מדרכי השם הכל מעשה בהמה יתקרי, ומיהו בראם הקב״ה בצורת אדם כישראל, מפני שהוא רב חסד מטה כלפי חסד, אם ירצו לידבק עם ישראל שיתדבקו, לא כן אם היו צורת בהמה.

ובמקום אחר כתבתי דבראם כצורת אדם לכבודם של ישראל, שלא נבראו העכו״ם כי אם לשמשם דיום ולילה לא ישבותו ממלאכתם, ואין כבוד לבן מלך שישמש אותו בהמה בצורת בהמה כי אם בהמה בצורה אדם.

And here is annotated translation:

AZ [Avodah Zarah, a tractate of Babylonian Talmud. The title means Alien Worship, usually translated as Idolatry, and so it is understood by modern Jews.] You are called Adam, and gentiles aren’t called Adam.

The Author said: Actually, what does it matter that they aren’t called Adam, if they are really human (Adam), and there is no difference between their appearance and the appearance of Israel? However, learn the secret of the matter. It is written [Ezekiel, 1:26] “above on the throne was a figure like that of a man (Adam) etc”. So we find that God is called Adam, and he commanded 613 commandments to Israel. These commandments were observed by God, before he gave them to Israel, as our Sages of blessed memory said. So, for the reason we observe the commandments we are called Adam, like God had been called. So we find that the name Adam we use is a witness that we are Godlike, for we observe the commandments as He does.

Not so the gentiles. They aren’t called Adam, and this is a witness that they are separated and removed from God, and the witness is that the name of Creator is not upon them, namely Adam. They are beasts (behema) in human (Adam) shape. All their ways and deeds are the ways of beasts, for what is not God’s way is called beastly deeds. And who created them, God created them in human (Adam) shape, like Israel, for He is full of grace, and benevolence; if they desire to stick to Israel, they may stick to, while they wouldn’t be able to, were they created in beast’s shape.

And elsewhere I wrote that God created them in the human (Adam) shape to show respect to Israel, as the gentiles weren’t created but to serve Israel day and night, without break, and it is not respectful for King’s son to be served by a beast in beast’s shape, it should be a beast in human (Adam) shape.

  • Adam (אדם) – Man, First Man, human, men, people. It is used in singular for plural subjects as well. In this text, few meanings of the word are used interchangeably. Plurality/singularity is frequent in Hebrew/Aramaic texts, see Israel, below. Adam the First Man has been great and Godlike; afterwards, men diminished and became less and less similar to Adam, until Israel came into being, and in Israel, Adam had been reborn to his godlike fullness. So the implication is that Israel is like Adam the First Man, Godlike, while non-Jews are not.
  • Gentiles (אומות האולם)– the MT text has akum (עכו”ם), literally star-worshippers. This is a term for a non-Jew, like goy or nochri, or ummot haolam. The quoted line in Talmud is available in these versions: ummot haolam (אומות האולם), or gentiles, or the nations of the world, or nochri (נוכרי) or aliens. These terms are interchangeable, likewise bene Noah (בני נוח) Sons of Noah. In the old days, when Jews were afraid of persecutions, whenever Jews were asked on their attitude to non-Jews, they usually said that akum refers only to ancient star-worshipers, not to modern Muslims or Christians. Nowadays this Jewish equivalent of Islamic taqiya (precautionary dissimulation or denial of religious belief and practice in the face of persecution) is rarely practiced. Talmud has been published in Israel with straightforward ummot haolam (gentiles) instead of deniable akum. In our text, RES speaks about his days and people of his time, not about some old history.
  • God (קב״ה) The Holy, Blessed be He, a Name of God used throughout this text.
  • Israel (ישראל) – Jews, Children of Israel. It is used in singular for plural subjects. The connected verb is usually used in plural. This singular-for-plural form supported a midrash homiletics: Jews are united as members of one body, that’s why they are plural-in-singular.
  • Behema (בהמה) In this text, the writer uses a specific word for beast – behema (בהמה) – a tame (as opposed to wild) animal; usually cow, camel, donkey Hebrew dictionary explains: בהמה היא בריה הנתונה לשלטונו של האדם, behema is a creature in man’s dominion. English dictionary (Merriam-Webster ibid 1d) explains: beast is an animal under man’s control. Wild animals aren’t called behema; small pets (cats, dogs) aren’t called behema either.
  • Stick with Israel (לידבק עם ישראל) – join Israel, or join the Jews. This expression is used regarding Jethro, the priest of Midian and father-in-law of Moses (Exodus, 2). Bible says he understood “the Lord is greater than all the gods”. He knew that, the Sages remark, as previously he worshipped all the gods (idols). Rashi says that despite this recognition he did not want to join Israel, as he saw no advantage in it. Only when he saw the Red Sea Parting and the Battle of Amalek, he understood the advantage and joined Israel. The Red Sea Parting had been a great miracle; but he still hesitated as he had thought that Amalek is a tool of Divine Wrath. However, when Israel won the battle despite the odds, he understood that God loves Israel, and then he joined Israel. Rashi also uses this expression discussing Gibeonites. King David refused to allow them to join Israel, for they were lacking three criteria: being merciful, modest and charitable.
  • Without break (לא ישבתו ממלכתם) – they shall not cease doing their service, as in Genesis 8:22. The word contains שבת(Sabbath), so it implies that they should not have Sabbath rest, either.

On some sites dealing with Jewish-Gentile disputation, this quote of MT has been discussed. A typical response was: “A non-authoritative work that was done long after the Talmud. I don’t know what it says and frankly I don’t care. You also have to realize that many medieval works were done around the time of the Crusades with massive Christian persecution, so the message many Jews needed to hear to stay alive was an “us good, them bad” one. Update: Fred checked the Midrash Talpiot and couldn’t find this quotation anyhow. Thank you Fred!” Clearly this response has been given by an illiterate person; he did not know who is RES, and he did not know that he worked five hundred years after the Crusades, and he lived in the country free from Christian persecution. Anyway, now Fred will be able to find the quotation.

However, was the RES’ dim view of gentiles accepted by the Jews, or was it a one-time-off? Yes it was, but usually it was presented in a more nuanced way. A more important Jewish book of 20th century is Orot by R. Abraham Isaac Ha-Cohen Kook, a first Zionist Rabbi of Palestine (d. 1935), described as one of the most celebrated and influential rabbis of the 20th century. He wrote in this book:

The difference between the Jewish soul (ha-neshama), its essence etc, and the gentile soul (ha-neshama), – all of them on all their levels, – is greater and more essential than the difference between the spirit (nefesh) of the human being (ha-adam) and the spirit (nefesh) of the beast (behema).

Or in original Hebrew:

ההבדל שבין הנשמה הישראלית, עצמיותה וכו’ וכו’ ובין נשמת הגויים כולם לכל דרגותיהם, הוא יותר גדול ויותר עמוק מההבדל שבין נפש האדם ונפש הבהמה.

Instead of direct comparison of a non-Jew to a beast, our elder contemporary compares his spirit and finds it more close to that of a beast than to that of a Jew.

The English Wikipedia, being under Jewish control, has a dithyrambic article about R Kook. While a contributor tried to introduce a sub-chapter on Kook’s goy hatred and referred to this quote, Wikipedia’s gatekeepers blocked him:

I think this is a matter of undue weight. This is a short article and Rav Kook was known for many things, many wonderful teachings. I think it is undue weight to give this one out of context very damming quote about non-Jews. Bigglovetalk 22:04, 10 June 2008 (UTC).

You wouldn’t be amazed to learn that Bigglove prevailed and the quote can be found on the Talk page only.

To conclude this already too long piece: there are more than one point of view among Jews on this subject. In postmodern times, there are LGBT “synagogues”, there are pork-eating “Jews”, there are female “rabbis”, and there are goy-loving and goy-hating “Jews”. The late great Prof Yeshayahu Leibowitz (d. 1994) used to say that a Jew can hold any belief at all or no belief whatsoever; he is only obliged to observe mitzvoth, commandments. For this reason Sabbateans (who didn’t observe some mitzvoth) broke with Judaism, while Chabad (who differ on dogma more than Sabbateans, but observe mitzvoth) remained within Jewish framework. The intention of this piece is not to establish a norm (Thou shall/shan’t hate a goy), but to show that denial of goy’s humanity existed in Jewish circles from Talmud to our days. And to entertain you with this titbit of the Jewish lore, for sure.

Israel Shamir can be reached at

This article was first published at The Unz Review.

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