Strangers Among Us: The Nachri, Ger Toshav, and Ger Tzedek in Dvarim
The author provides a detailed overview of the concept of Ger in Biblical and rabbinical literature, a term which nowadays is imperfectly translated as a convert, but the meaning of which in antiquity went far beyond that categorization. He goes on to propose certain messages and possible parallels to the contemporary Jewish experience.
By Michael Schatz, M.Ed., M.A.Jed
Among many statutes, laws and ordinances, the book of Dvarim, indeed the entire body of Torah and Talmud makes clear the explicit and implicit issues of personal status and how that relates to one’s obligations, privileges and responsibilities under the laws. So much of Torah law, though universal in theory, is directly applicable to both the people and land of Israel. While gentiles might choose to observe various commandments, such as kashrut or tzedakah, the Torah does not expect this behavior of a gentile as it so clearly does of a born Israelite (Jew) or one who has formally converted, entering into the binding covenant of a people while accepting a set of religious obligations. Terms are rather ambiguous, both in Hebrew and in translation, as the term Ger in the Torah is used interchangeably for a Ger Tzedek, a formal convert, a Ger Toshav, and a Nachri. The Torah offers various warnings and admonitions regarding the treatment of a Ger Tzedek, though he is obligated to the same laws as the born Israelite, Israelites are warned not to misjudge nor pervert judgement against the convert, and are instructed that the convert was to join in celebrations. (Dvarim 23:8). Unlike other religious systems, the Torah does expect certain other behaviors from non-Jews and classifies them into several categories, each distinct in its relation to the law, the land, the people, and Hashem; and each with a distinct circumstance and set of regulations that applies.
Though there are many instances in the Torah of dealings with non-Jews, we will focus primarily on the Ger Toshav, the resident alien, or stranger-sojourner, and the interaction between the laws, the Israelites, and this special category of non-Jew. The Ger Toshav is distinct from the Nachri- a non Jew who may have found himself in the land of Israel, as a trader for example, but who maintained political, cultural and religious ties to his own people. He did have certain protections, but did not enjoy privileges of the Ger Toshav or native born Israelite. The assumption was that he had a place to go for protection, namely his homeland, so while he was treated as a guest, he was allowed to be charged interest, unlike an Israelite (Dvarim 23:21), and was not freed from debt in the shmita (seventh) year (15:3).
Unlike the Nachri, the Ger Toshav, referred to in the Torah often simply as Ger, was accorded many of the privileges of born Israelites, and summarily was responsible for fulfilling many, though not all, of the precepts of Torah law while remaining among the Israelites. At a minimum, such a person was defined as a gentile resident in the midst of the Jewish community who abstained from idolatry (Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 9A) Prior to the Exodus, there was not category of Gerim. Firstly, there was no Torah law, but more significantly, the Israelites themselves were strangers, as they are continually reminded throughout the Torah in consideration of proper treatment of strangers in their midst. Most Gerim Toshavim came to the community of Israel as part of the Erev Rav, the mixed multitude of Egyptians and others who joined in the Exodus: “Moreover a mixed multitude went up with them, and very much livestock, both flocks and herds, (Shmot 12:38). In discussing the issues surrounding judgment between people during the wandering in the wilderness, the judges were warned to judge fairly between an Israelite and a stranger. According to Dr. Jeffrey Tigay, these strangers were likely part of the Erev Rav. As they didn’t own land, they were dependent on others for their livelihood. They were poor, exposed to exploitation, and so were protected along with the widow and orphan. In fact, the Hebrew in Dvarim 1:16 refers to Gero, or his stranger, meaning it was likely that a stranger depended on a particular Israelite for his protection. (Tigay, 12). Others came during the conquest of Canaan, such as the Gibeonites (see Joshua 9). According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, many of them were simply previous inhabitants of Canaan who for various reasons weren’t slain or enslaved, or they were immigrants seeking refuge from famine, drought, or invading armies. (Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol 15, pp 419-421). These factions eventually assimilated both culturally and religiously into the Israelite nation, such as Uriah the Hittite who lived during the reign of King David.
Often the protections of the Ger Toshav are coupled with those of the Yatom and Almanah, the widow and orphan. One concludes from this association that the Gerim are afforded the protected status of those who cannot protect themselves. “Who carried out the judgment of orphan and widow, and loves the convert to give him bread and garment. You shall love the convert for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Dvarim 10:18-19). Though the Artscroll translation employs the term “convert’, the Hebrew is Ger, the same as when discussing that the Israelites were Gerim in Egypt. Furthermore, the Jewish Publication Society edition of the Tanakh uses the term “stranger” in both instances. Rashi elucidates on these verses stating that we are to give the stranger bread and clothing, as Yaakov our forefather prayed for nothing more than bread and clothes. As we are reminded that we were once strangers, though according to the Talmud, we should not verbally disparage a stranger for being a stranger, because that would be like verbally disparaging ourselves. (Bava Metzia 59b, according to Rashi).
In terms of kashrut, the stranger was obligated to certain areas and not others. Neither Israelite nor stranger was permitted to eat blood, nor could either eat from an animal that had died a natural death. (Vayikra 17: 10-16). A special status was accorded an animal which had been killed but not via proper shehita, or kosher slaughter. Such a carcass was called Nevelah, and was permitted to a stranger. An Israelite was allowed to give this to the stranger, but was not permitted to sell it, except to a Nachri. According to Tigay, this distinction was economic. The resident alien was often poor and the object of charity, while the foreigner was often in the land trading and could support himself. (Tigay, 12). This food was permitted to both, though the stranger had to observe other kashrut laws as described above. Blood and animals that died a natural death appear from this context to be furthest from kedusha, while the nevelah, though not kosher for consumption by Jews or converts was somehow more kadosh in that it could be consumed by Gerim. An animal which was “torn in the field” was called “treyfa”, and was to be thrown to the dogs and not even permitted to the Nachri (Shmot 22:30). According to Vayikra 17:15, either an Israelite or a Ger who ate a bird that died or was torn would become impure. The bird was permitted to the Ger because he wasn’t required to remain spiritually pure as the Israelite was.
Rashi took the opportunity to further discuss the status of the Ger Toshav. He was afforded the status of “resident alien” and thus accepted upon himself not to worship idols, but did not have to eat only Kosher meat. According to Rambam, the stranger had to observe the seven Noahide laws, and therefore was allowed to reside in the land. This would attain a sufficient level of Kedusha to be permitted on the land at all, as idol worship, even by non-Jews, could not exist on the land or would jeopardize its kedusha (Hilchot Avodah Zarah 10:16 in Dvarim with Rashi).
Massehet Makkot 9a, Babylonian Talmud, discusses the idea of the cities of refuge in addition to defining a Ger Toshav, as it defines such a person for the purpose of who is covered by the laws of the cities of refuge. The following are instructed to flee to the cities of refuge: a father for the death of his son, a son for the death of his father, all for the death of an Israelite. An Israelite does not go for the death of a Ger Toshav, but a Ger Toshav does go for the death of another Ger Toshav. However, the Ger Toshav does not go for the death of an Israelite.
The concepts surrounding the Ger are discussed in other sefarim as well as Dvarim. In Shmot, 22:20, for example we are told “You shall not taunt or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The verse is coupled with a warning not to cause pain to a widow or orphan, as these are the most vulnerable members of society. While we are not supposed to behave badly toward anyone, the Torah takes an extra measure to protect these categories of individuals. Rashi says that to taunt a stranger over his foreign-ness invites the retort that “you, too were strangers.” Or HaChaim warns us not to look down upon converts because they don’t have the lineage of Avraham. The Torah tells us that in Egypt we were no better than the convert had been before his conversion (Humash, Stone edition, p. 431). Nehama Leibowitz in Studies in Shmot (WZO, Jerusalem, 1976) discusses that the verse is an exercise in self control in relation to the weak and defenseless. Bava Metzia 59b reminds us that the Torah cautions us regarding behavior to a stranger 36 times, even more frequently than commandments to love G-d, keep Shabbat, circumcision, kashrut, and refraining from falsehood and theft. These elements all seem to be basic to the crux of Judaism but the Torah discusses treatment of strangers even more often. Perhaps this brings us to the sage Hillel’s teaching of all the Torah on one foot- not to do what is hateful to you to your fellow. The Mekhilta, according to Leibowitz, suggests that “vex” (taunt) in the verse refers to with words, and “oppress” refers to money matters. (Leibowitz). In Bava Metzia 58b we are told that if a proselyte comes to study Torah we cannot belittle him by reminding him of his eating non-kosher food. This is an interesting prelude to the discussion in some Jewish schools about the permissibility of enrolling non-Jewish children to study in the school. This verse would seemingly require schools to allow this action, though there are many more factors in such a decision in modern times.
In Shmot 23:9, “Do not oppress a stranger; you know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” the verse seems to give an alternate motivation for the admonition not to oppress strangers from Shmot 22:20. Here the text appeals more to our sympathy as former slaves than to a threat of punishment for causing oppression. According to Leibowitz, neither Ibn Ezra nor Rashbam saw a reason for the difference. Rashi, however, regarding the first verse took the adage, “the pot shouldn’t call the kettle black”, that is, don’t cause pain to one whose situation is what yours used to be. Regarding the second, he elucidates that it is painful to be oppressed and we should know that. He sees no guarantee that just because we should know better, having been slaves, as a safe assurance against the mistreatment of a stranger. Some will find one convincing and move from not wronging a stranger to loving him, as is required by Vayikra 19:34. Others need the argument that they will be wronged back in order to convince them not to wrong another. Ramban further clarifies that we shouldn’t oppress someone because we think they are defenseless. He reminds us that we were defenseless in Egypt, but G-d came to our rescue and might in fact come to the rescue of a stranger that we may oppress. In Dvarim 10:19 we are told to love the stranger because we were strangers in Egypt. Rabbi Elie Munk in The Call of the Torah suggests that this means to love the stranGer as one who doesn’t have the recourse to the Zechut Avot, the merit of the forefathers. It is not his fault that he isn’t Jewish, so to speak.
There are various instances in the books of the Torah in which the Ger Toshav is required to conform to the ritual practices of the Israelite. The Ger is required to bring the Pesah offering and eat of it, so long as he and his sons are circumcised. (Shmot 12:48-49). This requirement is reiterated in Bemidbar 9:14, presumably to be sure all future generations of Gerim understood that the obligation applied to them as well. Though their genealogical ancestors may not have left Egypt in the Exodus, they still benefited from the Kedusha that the event inspired. The Ger is obligated to observe Shabbat as listed in the Ten Commandments (Shmot 20:10 and Dvarim 5:14). When the Israelites are commanded concerning Yom Kippur, the Ger is included (Vayikra 16:29). The Ger is commanded to bring offerings only to the Tent of Meeting to bring it before Hashem along with Israelites (Vayikra 17:8). Gerim are further commanded concerning offerings in Vayikra 22:18 and Bemidbar 15:14. Gerim are prohibited from eating blood (Vayikra 17:10). After the list of incestuous relationships, both the Israelite and the Ger are cautioned to “safeguard My decrees and My judgments, and not commit any of these abominations- the native or the proselyte who lives among you,” (Vayikra 18:26). Both the Israelite and the Ger are warned not to bring offerings of their seed (child sacrifice) to Molech- the punishment being stoning (Vayikra 20:2). Finally, the Ger along with the Israelite is commanded to rejoice on the festivals. (Dvarim 16:11, 14).
Differences still remained, however, between Israelites and certain Gerim under specific conditions. While some converts could marry born Israelites, others had to wait several generations after the conversion took place in order for the descendant of such nations to marry into born Israelite families. In Dvarim 23:8 and 9 we are told not to abhor an Edomite or an Egyptian, and that children born to them in the third generation may enter the congregation of Hashem. Edomim and Mitzrim weren’t admitted as converts until the third generation. Rashi explains that though Egypt and Edom caused harm to Israel they are not so badly abhorred that they cannot be redeemed. He distinguishes that Ammon and Moab, who caused Israel to sin, are abhorred and even in the tenth generation were not allowed to marry into Israel (Dvarim 23:4). Rashi makes clear that one who causes a person to sin is harsher to him than one who kills him.
By the period of the Second Temple the status of the Ger Toshav had fallen into disuse. Gerim at this point were usually formal converts. The status was altogether invalid by Talmudic times.
Today there are various issues surrounding conversion to Judaism. Since the Rabbinic period the generally accepted custom is that Jews do not proselytize. Whether this was determined by the Rabbis as an internal issue; that Judaism as it evolved did not seek converts, or whether it was an external issue; that is, that host cultures did not take kindly to conversions out of the dominant religion into Judaism is subject to debate. However, once a sincere conversion candidate has persuaded a Rabbi to work with him/ her, the process of conversion to Judaism has been fixed for two millennia. Formal conversion requires study and acceptance of the mitzvoth, as attested by appearance before a Bet Din, or rabbinic tribunal; immersion in a mikvah, and for men, ritual circumcision (brit milah) or in the case of a male who has already been surgically circumcised, a process of symbolic circumcision, ritually drawing a drop of blood from the circumcision area, known as hatafat dam brit.
Issues surrounding traditional conversion since the twentieth century have had more to do with inter-denominational disagreements over the nature of what constitutes acceptance of the mitzvoth and who is a Rabbi? That is, whether conversions conducted by Rabbis ordained in the liberal denominations meet the standard of the Orthodox rabbinate. This issue becomes pronounced regarding issues of personal status in the State of Israel, and, recently, in a case of defining who is a Jew in a private Jewish school in Great Britain.
There is a trend toward a modern Ger Toshav as well, though the use of that term in this context would probably not be appropriate. That is, non-Jews married to Jews and raising Jewish children. In most western societies and non-Orthodox Jewish communities, intermarriage between Jews and gentiles has reached unprecedented peaks. As opposed to the earlier years of this trend, mid twentieth century, when most intermarriages involved a Jewish man and gentile woman, today both Jewish men and women intermarry at similar, high rates, and very infrequently do the gentile partners convert to Judaism. Often sociologists decry such unions as the last stage of assimilation. Other scholars, however, suggest that modern Jews separate their own Jewish identity from the value of in-marriage and plans to raise Jewish children. Many Jews do profess to maintain Jewish households and raise Jewish children, with the full participation of gentile spouses. Sometimes these gentiles live essentially Jewish lives without formal conversion. They attend synagogue and Jewish community functions, run Jewish households and participate in Jewish family ritual, and, very frequently, parent Jewish children. The mother’s religious identity often guides the intermarried family- where sociology mimicks halakha, or perhaps the Rabbis were on to something, knowing it would be the mothers transmitting Judaism thus requiring matrilineal descent. “The presence, or absence, of a Jewish mother is a strong predictor of the extent of Jewish identification and behavior in a given household.” (Fishman, p.85) It remains frequently the mother, even if she isn’t Jewish, who drives Hebrew school carpool and sets the “Jewish” tone of the house. An issue in response to this situation is the opportunity of such modern “Gerim Toshavim” to be acknowledged publicly at Jewish life cycle events, particularly the Bar and Bat Mitzvah. In all Orthodox and most Conservative congregations ritual honors are reserved for halakhic Jews. However, in a growing number of Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues gentile parents are afforded certain opportunities to participate in the service, in acknowledgement of their role as a parent of a Jewish child. (Fishman, p. 82). More research needs to be done on this new dynamic- the non-Jewish parent raising Jewish children, and functioning as a modern-day Ger Toshav.
- Fishman, Sylvia Barack. Double or Nothing? (2004) Waltham: Brandeis University Press.
- Herczeg, Rabbi Yisrael Isser Zvi. The Torah. With Rashi’s commentary, Dvarim. The Sapirstein Edition. (1998) Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, Ltd.
- Leibowitz, Nehama. Studies in Shmot. (1980) Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization.
- Munk, Elie, The Call of the Torah. (1992) Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, Ltd.
- Scherman, Rabbi Nosson, The Chumash, the Stone Edition. (1993) Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, Ltd.
- Tigay, Jeffrey H., The Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy. (1996) Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society.
- Encyclopedia Judaica. (1972) Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House.