The Me'am Loez is an astonishing masterpiece of Torah scholarship—written completely in Ladino.
Initiated by Rav Yaakov Culi & first published in 1730 in Turkey, it sparked a revolution amid the deteriorating spiritual situation of Sephardi Jewry in the Mediterranean countries.
Reportedly, tens of thousands of families who'd neglected religious observance embraced full religious adherence after reading just the first volume of Me'am Lo'ez.
With the heartfelt goal of giving his fellow Jews a positive answer for the Heavenly Court on the day of death, Rav Culi reassured them that as long as they studied the Me'am Lo'ez every day, they could claim before Heaven that they had learned the whole Torah because the Me'am Lo'ez covers all aspects of Torah.
Its English translator, Rav Aryeh Kaplan, likens its restorative influence to that of Chassidus on Ashkenazi Jewry.
What is the Me'am Lo'ez and what was its power?
Many Sephardi Jews of that time either did not understand Hebrew or did not understand it well, making much of Jewish scholarship inaccessible to them.
The best way to provide them with knowledge was via their spoken language of Ladino.
With a development similar to that of Yiddish, Ladino consists of a strong Spanish base with many Hebrew words mixed in & Hebrew also influences Ladino's syntax. Aramaic, Arabic, Portuguese, Turkish, and Greek loanwords also appear in Ladino.
For centuries, Ladino remained the common language for Jews of Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Greece, the Balkans, the Middle East, and North Africa.
The wife of my husband's brother grew up speaking Ladino because her mother never learned Hebrew well, and Ladino was what she spoke in Spanish Morocco (Tangier). A Moroccan cousin of my husband also attended a school for religious Jewish girls in Tangier, and Ladino was the language of instruction.
Hardly anyone speaks Ladino today and the few who know Ladino or learn it do not use it as their primary language of communication.
However, a Ladino song with a wonderful melody about Avraham Avinu remains popular even today: El Rey Nimrod — King Nimrod.
This song (including an English translation) is easily found today, and several modern singers have recorded it. I first encountered it years ago on a cassette of songs by Yehoram Gaon, and immediately fell in love with it.
A deeply religious song, it's one of the last vestiges of Ladino in popular culture.
What is the Me'am Lo'ez Exactly?
And it is.
But it's also much more than that.
Though written according to the chronology of the verses of Torah, the Me'am Lo'ez reads much like a novel.
And therein lies part of its great power of influence: The Me'am Lo'ez provides enjoyable & fascinating reading.
Throughout the masterpiece, Rav Culi (and the Sages who continued the Me'am Lo'ez after him; Rav Culi passed away after completing all of Beresheit & two-thirds of Shemot) brings a wealth of Torah scholarship written in a conversational manner.
In fact, reading an English translation of the Me'am Lo'ez, it's astonishing to see the breadth & depth of Rav Culi's knowledge.
Even if one studied copiously for 200 years, how could one know so much, both of well-known & copiously studied works and also little-known midrashim?
Tanach, Talmud, mussar, halacha, midrashim, Zohar — Rav Culi not only knew these works with amazing familiarity, but also knew all the commentaries associated with these works.
And although it's thought of a Sephardi work, only its halacha is specifically Sephardi (although in translation, scholars added the Ashkenazi variations in brackets).
The rest of the Me'am Lo'ez reaps from a wealth of universal scholarship: Talmud, Zohar, Midrash Rabbah, Kli Yakar, Yalkut Shimoni, Rashi, Rambam, Ramban, Ralbag, Magen Avraham, Abarbanel, Pri Chadash, and much more.
If you read the Me'am Lo'ez on any parsha or book (like, say, Shoftim/Judges), you will not only end up knowing that parsha or book well, but you will learn a lot of halacha, mussar, kabbalah, and just plain fascinating information.
In its heyday, a bride's family purchased a set of the Me'am Lo'ez for the groom, much like the bride's side purchases a set of the Talmud for the groom today.
And much like today's Jewish man commits himself the the program of Daf Yomi (a page of Talmud per day), Jewish men were also expected to learn a portion of the Me'am Lo'ez every day.
Those who could not afford a set of their own or who could not read attended public readings in synagogues.
(Readings, both public & private, plus discussions, enabled women to also learn the content of the Me'am Lo'ez.)
And the reading of the original Me'am Lo'ez is where we struggle today.
The Story of the Hebrew & English Translations
Like Yiddish, Ladino was originally written with Hebrew letters.
And the script used was similar to Rashi-script.
Who knows Rashi-script today?
Only frum people, and not all frum people can read it. And it's not as easy to read as regular Hebrew script.
Furthermore, as noted above, hardly any Ladino-speakers remain to understand, let alone translate the Me'am Lo'ez.
You also need to be a real Torah scholar in order to both understand & explain the concepts elucidated in the Me'am Lo'ez.
Fortunately, such a person was found in Yerushalayim in the late Sixties: Rav Shmuel Yerushalmi.
Interestingly, it was an Ashkenazi Jew, Rav Chanoch Eliezer Wagshal, who initiated the first Hebrew translation project.
After hearing Sephardi Sages discuss the Me'am Lo'ez & seeing Sephardi shopkeepers learn from it during pauses in sales, Rav Wagshal decided (with the support of another Ashkenazi Jew, Rav Asher Zelig Margolius) to seek its translation into Hebrew.
Actually, even before these Ashkenazi rabbanim sought to produce a Hebrew translation, the greatest Sephardi Sages of that time already spoke with Rav Margolius about a Hebrew translation to prevent the Me'am Lo'ez from being completely lost to the Jewish people.
A decade later, Rav Wagshal approached Rav Aryeh Kaplan with the goal of translating it into English.
Despite Rav Kaplan's Ashkenazi-sounding surname, Rav Kaplan's family originates from the Spanish city of Carmona and Rav Kaplan's grandfather was fluent in Ladino. Though he taught Ladino to Rav Aryeh Kaplan, it happened early in his youth and much had been forgotten.
Not to mention, many Ladino words known among Sephardi Jews of the 18th Century failed to remain in use over the centuries.
For these reasons, Rav Kaplan reluctantly conceded to utilizing Rav Shmuel Yerushalmi's excellent Hebrew translation (rather than translating exclusively & directly from the original Ladino), though his English translation also follows & utilizes the original Ladino.
(The above information is found in the Translator's Preface to the English translation of Beresheit-Noach in Volume 1 of the Me'am Lo'ez.)
Neither the Hebrew nor the English translations reflect a complete translation of the Me'am Lo'ez.
Especially in the books following the Chumash, it's questionable how closely the Hebrew translation follows the original Ladino.
Certainly, both translations are fascinating & enriching masterpieces, which retain much of the original content of the Ladino Me'am Lo'ez.
However, the Hebrew translation of Beresheit/Genesis omits several paragraphs dealing with Kabbalistic interpretations.
However, Rav Kaplan restored some of them into the English translation.
On the other hand, the English translation omits some scientific discussion.
Rav Culi made those scientific interpretations according to the most brilliant knowledge of the 18th Century, but at the time of Rav Kaplan's translation, those same interpretations were outdated and Rav Kaplan feared they might diminish appreciation of the Me'am Lo'ez in full.
(I couldn't help wondering about this, knowing how science ebbs & flows throughout time. I remember reading another translation of a book about Jews in Yemen, with the translator's apologetic disclaimer regarding certain natural medical practices of that time as being what they considered helpful back then — only for such techniques to make a comeback in our times, with evidence to back up their efficacy.)
Note: Like Rav Yaakov Culi, Rav Aryeh Kaplan passed away before completing the English translation, and so the English translation was completed by others.
Reading the above brought me to the sad realization that the best a non-Ladino speaker could do is read both the English & the Hebrew translation, but even then, you still won't get the full original, whether the supposedly outdated science or the deep Kabbalistic interpretations or other deviations.
(Also, I found it intriguing that Rav Culi had no problem including certain Kabbalistic interpretations for the most ignorant of his time, but both Rav Yerushalmi & Rav Kaplan concluded that at least some of them are not appropriate for us, even we frummies. How times have changed...the 18-century am haaretz could apparently handle what the the 20th-century educated frummie could not)
However, with all the Spanish comprising Ladino, couldn't one of the many frum Spanish-Hebrew-speaking rabbis of today produce at least a full Hebrew translation—and really, there are even rabbis who know Spanish, Hebrew, and English too.
Can't we have a complete translation of the original in both Hebrew & English?
Furthermore, how about a transliteration of the original Rashi-script to the Latin-based script used by all Spanish-speakers today? Wouldn't that make the original Me'am Lo'ez accessible to at least Spanish-speaking Jewry today (plus make it a lot easier for non-native-Spanish-speakers to work it out)?
The Obstacles Standing before Transliteration & New Translations
While this whittles down quite a bit the number of available candidates for the task, they certainly exist.
The problem is that with Rav Yerushalmi's skillful translation, there isn't much impetus to re-invent the wheel.
Just to figure out the omitted sections—sections which really might not be appropriate for the average reader today—and other deviations from the original?
No, it's an overwhelming task for such minor reasons.
Ditto with an English translation, even though we have rabbis knowledgeable in Spanish & English.
And what about a transliteration? Shouldn't that be easy enough if Ladino is anyway based on Spanish?
Well, actually, no...
Disclaimer: Different regions of Spanish-speakers pronounce the same words differently. I chose one & lack the knowledge to include all the variations. In fact, I never learned Spanish; I only tried to learn some to understand the original Ladino of the Me'am Lo'ez. Anyway, please keep the above in mind if you're used to a different pronunciation.
It seems that Ladino adopted a—let's call it phonetic, maybe?—pronunciation of Spanish words.
For example, the Spanish word for "people" is gente.
Gente is pronounced "hen-teh."
However, in the original Me'am Lo'ez, gente is spelled:
(Imagine the "zh" pronounced like the "s" in "pleasure." It's a j-z sound not found in English, but common in European languages.)
On the other hand, it depends how the tet-yud ending are voweled. Is there a chirik (ee) under the yud or a tzereh (eh)? It doesn't say.
But even if the Ladino-speakers pronounced it with a tzereh under the yud, making the pronunciation "zheenteh," it still isn't how the Spanish gente is pronounced.
Yet it would make sense to transliterate ג'ינטי as gente.
But in doing so, you would lose the original Ladino pronunciation.
Once you do that (and if you do that throughout), it's not really Ladino anymore.
Likewise, the Spanish que (than, that) is pronounced "keh."
Ladino spells it קי.
Is that pronounced "keh" or "kee"?
I'm not sure, but if it's "kee," then you couldn't spell it que, right?
Other words like ella (her), which is pronounced "eyah" or "ayah," are spelled phonetically in Hebrew-scripted Ladino: אייא
Likewise, there are words like:
It only takes a bit of research & guessing to figure out this is the Spanish provencho — pronounced "pro-beh-cho." (It means "advantage" or "benefit.")
But again, how would you spell it according to the Spanish alphabet?
So that's a major complication in coming up with a good Spanish transliteration.
And just for kicks, here is a phrase from the original Ladino Me'am Lo'ez:
"...no tienen hatzlacha keh plantan arvolis e no tienen proveezho de eyos..."
In real Spanish, it would go something like this:
"...no tienen hatslaja que plantan arboles y no tienen provencho de ellos..."
If you know Hebrew, you probably caught the insertion of hatzlacha/success.
(I'm not sure how you transliterate hatzlacha in Spanish; thanks to Hava for her suggestion in the comments.)
In English translation:
"...they don't have success with planting trees and they don't benefit from them..."
If you know Spanish & Hebrew, plus you can read Rashi-script, then feel free to try reading the original Me'am Lo'ez here:
From Loss to Acceptance
As a complete body of work and one of the most brilliant & encompassing works of Torah scholarship since the Talmud, it's lost to us (though in translation, we retain the majority of it).
I mourned that fact for a bit, then realized that if Hashem wished us to have a complete translation of the Me'am Lo'ez in at least Hebrew, then we would have it.
Ladino-proficient Torah Sages with the skill necessary to translate into Hebrew existed in the centuries since the publication of the Me'am Lo'ez.
Yet it never happened until 1967.
And whether it was for the English-speaking audience or the Hebrew-speaking audience, knowledgeable rabbis agreed that at least some parts of it must be omitted.
So I took comfort in the fact that we received exactly what Hashem wanted us to receive from the Me'am Lo'ez.
And regardless of any omissions, the translations of the Me'am Lo'ez provide us with a wealth of Torah knowledge & compelling reading for our times—and refreshing sustenance for our souls.