Oxygen-18 leaving group kinetic isotope effects (KIEs) have been determined on both Vmax (V) and Vmax/Km (V/K) for the beta-galactosidase-catalyzed hydrolysis of p-nitrophenyl beta-D-galactoside (I) and 2,4-dinitrophenyl beta-D-galactoside (II). The former substrate exhibits KIEs of 1.022 +/- 0.002 and 1.014 +/- 0.003 on V and V/K, respectively, while corresponding KIEs for the latter are 1.002 +/- 0.0009 and 1.030 +/- 0.003. These results indicate that bond scission is largely rate determining for I but not for II at substrate saturation. The first irreversible step for both substrates must involve cleavage of the bond to the nitrophenyl leaving group. The mechanism proposed for this reaction is characterized by two parallel pathways for substrate hydrolysis. The predominant route for all but the most reactive substrates involves a SN2 nucleophilic displacement of aglycon by the enzyme to yield a covalent galactosyl-enzyme which in turn is hydrolyzed via a nucleophilic attach by water. The most reactive substrates (e.g., II) from transiently an enzyme-bound galactosyl oxo-carbonium ion which partitions between enzyme to give the covalent galactosyl-enzyme and H2O to yield galactose.