ME–AM LO'EZ , an 18th-century ethico-homiletical Bible commentary in *Ladino, the outstanding work of Judeo-Spanish literature. The commentary, conceived on an encyclopedic scale, was begun by Jacob *Culi, who felt that, after the chaos left by the *Shabbetai Ẓevi heresy, there was a need for the reabsorption of the masses into Orthodox Judaism. Because of their ignorance of the Hebrew language they had no access to traditional literature, and gradually turned away from religious observance. As is clear from his preface to the first volume, on Genesis, this is what Culi had in mind when, in about 1730, he undertook the writing of this work. His aim was to popularize Jewish lore by means of extracts from the Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, Zohar, and the biblical commentaries – in fact all the branches of rabbinical literature – translated into the Ladino vernacular. Culi originally intended to call his work Beit Ya'akov, but quoting from Psalms 114:1, "When Israel went forth out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language," he finally called it by the original Hebrew of that phrase, Me-Am Lo'ez. Written in an unpretentious, popular style and in an attractive form, Me-Am Lo'ez was to put the elements of Jewish life at the disposal of people unable to use the sources. It deals with all aspects of Jewish life, and often with life in general, with history, ethics, philosophy, and biblical exegesis. It comments on the prescriptions of the Law and clarifies them with a profusion of detail. Culi's idea was to compile the first part of his commentary around the weekly portion of the Pentateuch, assembling, verse by verse, all the material that had any bearing on the section. This was linked together by anecdotes, legends, historical narrative, and folklore. The easy, colloquial style of the work gives it a conversational quality. Culi's popular style that fully suited his educational goals was unique in the way he dealt with aggadic Midrash. He did not quote the names of the rabbinic sages or the verses found in Midrash. He freely retold the stories in his own language, often combining a number of sources into one fluid story. On the other hand, he was loyal to his sources. Almost 300 years after Columbus, Culi still writes about the sun circling the earth, based on the Midrash. The first volume of Me-Am Lo'ez was published in Constantinople in 1730. No work designed to instruct the Jewish masses had ever proved so popular. In Turkey printing of the work was done a few pages at a time, distributed prior to Shabbat, and then bound when the volumes were complete.
When Culi died in 1732 he was about to publish his commentary on the first part of Exodus. He left many unfinished manuscripts on the other books of the Bible, which later writers used as the basis for their continuation of his work. Isaac b. Moses Magriso completed the volumes on Exodus (2 vols., Constantinople, 1733, 1746), Leviticus (1753), and Numbers (1764). Isaac Behar Argśeti wrote only a part of his commentary on Deuteronomy (1772). Both Magriso and Argśeti followed Culi so faithfully that the Me-Am Lo'ez on the Pentateuch maybe considered a unified work. Using the same method, others sought to cover the rest of the Bible and complete the undertaking. Joseph di Trani of Constantinople wrote on Joshua (2 vols., 1850, 1870); Raphael Ḥiyya Pontremoli on Esther (1864); Raphael Isaac Meir ibn Venisti on Ruth (1882); Isaac Judah Abba on Isaiah (1892); Nissim Moses Abod on Ecclesiastes (1898); and finally Ḥayyim Isaac Sciaky worked on the Song of Songs (1899). There may have been other volumes, written in the spirit of Culi, that are no longer extant or that were destroyed before printing. One such work was Isaac Perahyah's commentary on Jeremiah, lost in the 1917 fire in Salonika. The commentaries on Genesis and Exodus were the most popular. There were at least six editions of Genesis between 1730 and 1897, and eight of Exodus between 1733 and 1884. The different places of printing show the popularity of the work among the Sephardim of Turkey and the Balkans, and there was even a partial Arabic translation in North Africa. Those who did not own the expensive complete set (sometimes given as a dowry) studied it in reading groups. For a long time the Me-Am Lo'ez was the only literature for thousands of Sephardi Jewish families, and its reading was often considered a religious duty. It was so well thumbed by generation after generation that very few sets remain in existence. The Me-Am Lo'ez played a role in Sephardi culture parallel to, but wider than, that of the Yiddish *Ẓe'enah u-Re'enah in the Ashkenazi world, its main difference being that it was not intended primarily for women. As a vast synthesis of everything that had been written in Hebrew, the Me-Am Lo'ez was directed to all – men, women, and even children. A Hebrew translation was undertaken by Shmuel Yerushalmi, titled Yalkut Me-Am Lo'ez. From 1967 through 1979, he published 20 volumes, which included his own "Me-Am Lo'ez" commentary on the books of Samuel, i Kings, Ecclesiastes, Ruth, and the Song of Songs. All of Yalkut Me-Am Lo'ez has appeared in English translation (New York, 1977–94). In addition, an edition in Latin transliteration was initiated by the Ibn Tibbon Institute at Granada University, Spain (MeʿAm Loʿez, El gran comentario bíblico Sefardí, vol. 1, 1964). Unfortunately, the apparent lack of knowledge of Ladino and Turkish led to an edition with many inaccuracies. Yalkut Me-Am Lo'ez has been translated into a number of other languages, including Russian. Thus, Me-Am Lo'ez continues to be a source of knowledge and inspiration to this day.
M. Molho, Le Meam-Loez (Fr., 1945); M.D. Gaon, Maskiyyot Levav (1933); A. Yaari, in: ks, 10 (1933), 271–4; idem, Ha-Defus ha-Ivri be-Kushta (1967), index of books; M.J. Bernardete, in: Homenaje a Millás-Vallicrosa, 1 (1954), 127, 146–51; C. Crews, in:Proceedings of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, Literary and Historical Section, 9 (1960), 13–106; O. Camhy, in: Le Judaïsme Sephardi, 19 (1960), 829–34; M.J. Bernardete et al., In Search of our Sephardic Roots (1970); A. Meyuhas Ginio, in: Studia Rosenthaliana, 35:2 (2001), 133–42; L. Landau, in: Moreshet Yehudei Sefarad ve-ha-Mizraḥ (1982), 213–24; idem, in: Shevet ve-Am, 5:10 (1985), 307–21; S. Hagai, in: Maḥanayim, 4 (1992), 276–81; Y.R. Molcho, in: Oẓar Yehudei Sefarad, 5 (1962), 80–94. website: S. Alfassa, in: http://isfsp.org/meam.html.
[Henri Guttel /
David Derovan (2nd ed.)]