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As strange as it seems (pun intended), the Bible sometimes uses two different words for foreigner/stranger – “zar” and “nachri” – in the same sentence. For example, in recommending that a person wait for others to praise him rather than toot his own horn, the Book of Proverbs states: “A stranger (zar) shall praise you, but not your [own] mouth, a stranger (nachri) and not your [own] lips” (Proverbs 27:2).

In this passage and many others (e.g., Isaiah 28:21, Obadiah 1:11, Psalms 81:10), “zar” and “nachri” appear in tandem as if they’re synonyms. But the commentators suggest that they’re actually different kinds of strangers.

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The Ibn Ezra, for example (long commentary to Exodus 21:2), writes that a nachri is from an entirely different nation while a zar is from a different tribe within the same nation. The same understanding can be gleaned from the Vilna Gaon’s comments to Proverbs 27:2.

The Malbim explains that a zar is somebody from a familiar locality who is nonetheless considered strange or foreign in terms of a particular behavior. A nachri, though, is a complete foreigner. He’s from an entirely different land and nation. A nachri, therefore, is strange in multiple ways, while a zar is strange in only one way.

(By the way, I used to think that the English word “bizarre” is related to “zar,” but the Oxford English Dictionary maintains otherwise.)

Thus, a non-kohen is considered a “zar” vis-à-vis eating terumah or sacrifices (Leviticus 22:10, 12-13), but he isn’t a total stranger and thus isn’t called a nachri. Similarly, a man is a zar to a woman if he isn’t her husband (see Deuteronomy 25:5 and Ezekiel 16:32), but he isn’t a nachri.

The Hebrew word “mamzer” is said to be related to “zar” (Yevamot 76b), which makes sense according to the Malbim’s explanation because a mamzer is a full-fledged Jew; he’s not a stranger or foreigner. He’s only a foreigner in one aspect, in that he can’t marry a Jew with acceptable lineage. So he’s a zar, not a nachri.

The Book of Proverbs (2:16, 5:20, and 7:5) compares foreign wisdoms to a zarah and a nachriah. Sefer Chassidim (619) explains that a nachriah is a non-Jewish woman and a zarah is a Jewish woman. The Malbim explains that these two women symbolize two types of wisdom:

A zarah is a single Jewish woman whom a Jew can marry; thus, even though she isn’t married to him now, she isn’t totally estranged from him. So she symbolize wisdom that isn’t directly related to Torah study but can be used to further one’s understanding of Torah.

A nachriah, however, is a non-Jewish woman. A Jewish man can never marry her, so she represents the type of wisdom that can never enhance one’s understanding of Torah; rather, its heresies will always remain irreconcilable with the Torah.

Psalms 81:10 uses “zar” and “nachri” in describing foreign deities whom Jews are forbidden to worship: “There shall not be in your midst a strange god (el zar), and you shall not bow to a strange god (el nechar).” Interestingly, the Talmud (Shabbos 105b) refuses to understand the first clause of this verse literally. Instead, it interprets “el zar” as referring to one’s Evil Inclination, explaining that a Jew is enjoined from allowing his Evil Inclination to lord over him.

It seems that the Talmud offers this forced explanation because “zar” is a form of strangeness that is not totally foreign. Others gods, though, of course, are totally foreign, so the word must refer to something else like the Evil Inclination, which is foreign to Torah behavior but is also part a person and thus not totally foreign.

Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) writes that cognates of the root nun-kaf-reish – from which “nachri” derives – can refer to both recognizing (“le’hakir”) and not recognizing (“nachri”). That’s why Mechilta (to Exodus 12:43) defines “ben-nechar” as any heretic who denies G-d – whether Jewish or not.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) also connects “nachri” with “le’hakir” (recognition). When one encounters a nachri, he has no preconceived ideas about him, so he is naturally inclined to learn more about him in order to fully recognize him.

Zar,” in contrast, stems from the biliteral root zayin-reish, which means estrangement or disconnection. A stranger or alien is disconnected from the society within which he finds himself. Thus, the same man can be described as both a nachri and a zar, depending on if we want to focus on the drive to better understand him (nachri) or his estrangement from society (zar).

The Targumim often translate “zar” into Aramaic as “chiloni,” while they Aramacize “nachri” as “nochrae.” The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 24:7), meanwhile, uses “chiloni” in the same way Scripture uses “zar” (i.e., to mean a non-kohen). The Midrash explains that the Torah commands all Jews to be holy (Leviticus 19:2) because they must live up to G-d’s standards if they want to walk with Him. To illustrate this point, the Midrash cites the following parable:

A kohen gadol was walking on the road when he happened upon a chiloni (i.e., a non-kohen) who said, “I will walk with you.” The kohen gadol replied, “I’m a kohen, so I only travel on ritually pure paths and I don’t walk through cemeteries. If you want to walk with me [and adhere to this higher standard], good. If not, ultimately I will take leave of you and walk by myself.”

The person in this parable is a zar/chiloni in relation to the kohen gadol because he fails to live up to the higher standard exemplified by him. In Modern Hebrew, the term “chiloni” refers to a secular or irreligious Jew who is estranged from Judaism and fails to live up to the higher standard exemplified by the rest of the Jewish people.

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Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein writes The Jewish Press's "Fascinating Explorations in Lashon Hakodesh" column.
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