Bein Adam Le-chavero: Ethics of Interpersonal Conduct
By Rav Binyamin Zimmerman
Shiur #08: Onaa of a Ger
How to Treat a Ger
In last week’s lesson we noted the unique
prohibitions attached to the abuse of the vulnerable members of society,
particularly orphans and widows. In
the same context where the Torah makes explicit mention of orphans and widows,
the Torah adds a requirement to treat gerim (singular, ger)
exceptionally well. The term “ger”
literally means “sojourner,” as opposed to a native-born citizen. In Tanakh, the word may be translated
as alien, foreigner or stranger.
Halakhically, there are two types of gerim: the ger tzedek is a
convert to Judaism, while the ger toshav is a non-Jew living in Israel
who abides by the Noahide laws but not by other mitzvot, such as keeping
kosher and observing Shabbat
see Avoda Zara 64b).
Colloquially, the term ger on its own refers to the former.
Two prohibitions are recorded and repeated in the
Torah about mistreating gerim, and elsewhere there is a requirement to
love gerim as well. What are
these two prohibitions? Why is the abuse
of gerim forbidden numerous times in the Torah? Why must we love gerim? What overall messages do these
mitzvot have for us?
Immediately preceding the
verses we analyzed last week, which prohibit mistreatment of widows and orphans,
the Torah states:
You shall not wrong a sojourner, nor shall
you oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.
Here the Torah not only states the prohibition but
the reasoning as well, “for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” Of significance is also that the
verse is stated in plural and indicates that there are two separate
prohibitions: onaa (wronging) and lachatz (oppression).
A little later on, the
Torah (23:9) repeats this in a similar form:
You shall not oppress a
sojourner, as you know the soul of the sojourner, for you were sojourners in the
land of Egypt.
Besides these verses, the special care one must have
for gerim is repeated numerous times in the Torah.
In fact, the Talmud (Bava Metzia
59b) points out that the Torah cautions us no less than thirty-six times
regarding our behavior towards the ger.
The Torah does
not limit its approach to our interactions with gerim to the prohibitions
of mistreating them; the Torah (Vayikra 19:33-34) also commands us to
If a sojourner
sojourns amongst you in your land, you shall not wrong him. A sojourner who sojourns amongst you
shall be for you like a citizen from among you, and you shall love him as
yourself, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt; I am Lord your God.
This idea is repeated again in Devarim, when
Moshe speaks about the greatness of God alongside His meticulous care for the
weak members of society (10:17-19):
For Lord your God is the
God of gods and Lord of lords, the great and mighty and awesome God Who shows no
favor and takes no bribe. He does justice
to the orphan and widow and loves the sojourner, providing him food and
clothing. You shall love the
sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.
Understanding the Verses
presents a number of difficulties, both conceptually and contextually. For starters, at first glance there
seems to be no need for these mitzvot at all. This is not because one should be
allowed to mistreat the ger and has no need to love him; rather, it is
obvious because the Torah has already addressed the issue. There is a mitzva that applies to all
Jews that requires one to refrain from onaat devarim (see our last
two lessons); similarly, there is a general mitzva to love all Jews as oneself,
“Ve-ahavta le-reiakha kamokha.”
Why should a ger be any different?
Furthermore, even if we
can explain the need for these mitzvot, why must they be repeated so many
times in the Torah? What is to be
added by repetition, and what do the discrepancies in the different accounts of
the mitzvot have to teach us?
The verses regarding the
mitzvot also leave a number of questions that need to be resolved. Who is
the ger described in the Torah? Is
this a ger tzedek, a ger toshav or possibly both?
Additionally, what is the
meaning of the justification “for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt”?
Why does this rationale accompany both
the prohibition of mistreating the ger and the mitzva to love him?
Lastly, how should we
define the terms used by the Torah?
Two terms are used, sometimes in the plural and sometimes in the singular form,
conjugation of onaa and lachatz.
What do they include?
In short, why do we need
these mitzvot altogether, and what can be gleaned from the Torah’s unique
formulations of this oft-repeated issue?
Who is the Sojourner?
Who is the ger? The literal meaning of ger
would seem to include even a ger toshav.
Nevertheless, although in certain contexts the Torah is clear that the
word ger refers to the resident alien, our
Sages explain that in the
aforementioned texts, detailing these unique
mitzvot, the word ger means a
ger tzedek, a convert who has joined the Jewish people through
(circumcision and) immersion and who has accepted all of the Torah's
This understanding is
particularly interesting in light of the reasoning stated in the verse, "for you
were gerim in the land of Egypt;" this would seem to apply to all who
live in a foreign land. Furthermore,
Avraham is told at the Covenant of the Parts (Bereishit 15:13), “Your
seed will be a ger in a land that is not theirs,” referring to our status
during our sojourn in Egypt as that of gerim.
Thus, the simple meaning
of the verse seems to indicate that any foreigner who comes to dwell in our land
must be loved and not mistreated.
However, our Sages explain that these mitzvot refer specifically to the
ger tzedek. So says the
Mekhilta (Nezikin 18):
Beloved are the gerim,
concerning whom God adjures in many places: "You shall not oppress a ger;"
"You shall not wrong a ger;" "You shall love the ger;" "As you
know the soul of the ger."
Why do the Sages explain the special obligations
towards a ger as applying only to a ger tzedek and not to all
gerim? (See Rav Yehuda Rock’s VBM shiur discussing these issues.)
Certainly, in some
contexts, it makes sense to understand the word ger as referring
specifically to a convert. For
instance, the Torah (Vayikra 25:35) describes the need to help
support those who are poor in the community:
If your brother grows
poor, and his means fail with you, you shall support him — a
ger or a
toshav — that he may survive with you."
The Torat Kohanim (ad loc.) explains the
distinction between the two individuals:
"Ger” – this means a ger tzedek;
“toshav” – this means a carcass-eating
The “carcass-eating ger” is, of course, the
ger toshav, who may eat of any dead animal by Noahide law, as these
verses discuss. One is required to sustain a ger toshav, but his status
is different than that of a ger tzedek.
As the former is not a Jew, though he or she may truly be a sojourner in
the land, a ger toshav has a different relationship with the citizenry. A ger tzedek is someone
unique, someone who requires extra-special treatment, not only to be sustained
when in dire distress.
Thus, for our purposes,
the ger under discussion is a ger tzedek. Nonetheless, one
certainly gets the impression that the Torah’s use
of this ambiguous terminology, which could refer to a stranger or foreigner,
when discussing the convert is meant to indicate something about the nature of
the mitzva. What exactly are we
meant to derive from this?
The Need for Specific
Ostensibly, the Torah has
no need to prescribe specific behavior regarding converts; they are no different
from any other Jews. They should be
subsumed under the mitzva to love one’s neighbor and the general prohibition of
In fact, the Chinnukh and the Rambam both indicate
that one who transgresses either of the two commandments relating to the convert
actually commits a double violation: one of the specific commandments relating
to the sojourner and another of the parallel general commandment relating to all
Jews. The Rambam
Love for a
ger who has come under the wings of
the Divine Presence comprises two positive commandments: one, because he is now
among one’s fellows; and the other, because he is a convert, and the Torah says,
"You shall love the ger."
commentators note the peculiarity of a duplicative mitzva; one wonders
what is to be added by these specific mitzvot.
There are essentially two assumptions that our
question rests upon. Firstly, we
assume that these mitzvot merely reiterate the general commandments
applicable to everyone else.
Secondly, we assume that there is no reason to single out gerim and
explicitly obligate people to treat them the way others are treated.
Evidently, to understand the Torah’s innovation
regarding gerim we will have to reject one of our assumptions. Either we must find that these
mitzvot do not merely restate general requirements but come to add a unique
application specifically as relates to the ger, or we can attempt to
explain why there is a specific need to repeat these identical mitzvot
particularly in respect to the ger, clarifying why one might either have
thought they should not be applicable or have been negligent in fulfilling their
requirements. In fact, our analysis
may bring us to the realization that neither of our assumptions is correct: in
fact, we may find, there is a need to address specifically the ger, who
is prone to being mistreated, and has a unique nature due to his past;
furthermore, beyond reiterating the basic requirements, the Torah may add a
whole new dimension to our relationship with gerim, requiring special
treatment, as we will see.
Defining Onaa and
Firstly, in terms of
defining the exact parameters of the prohibitions of mistreating the ger,
we must define the terms. The first
verse we cited teaches us two prohibitions. What
is the difference between them?
The Mekhilta distinguishes between onaa
“You shall not wrong a sojourner” — with words; “nor
shall you oppress him” — in monetary matters.
The exact meaning of lachatz is still a
little unclear, and this leads the Yere’im to offer a profound understanding.
The Yere’im (Ch. 181)
attempts to prove from the Talmud that lachatz is a more general concept
regarding our treatment of the ger.
I do not know what is
meant by lachatz. However,
the Talmud quotes a beraita teaching that one who oppresses a
ger violates three prohibitions, among them… “Do not act as a creditor to
him” (ibid. 22:24), which Rav Dimi understands in the Talmud as applying
even when one passes by the debtor without the intention of being seen as a
creditor… We may derive from this
that the nature of the prohibition of lachatz demands that one deal with
the ger in a manner which is above the letter of the law and not stick to
strict justice; nor should one attempt to find loopholes that might trouble the
heart of the ger.
this explanation of the Yere’im, the mitzva requires that all one’s dealings
with gerim, in monetary and other matters, be with an added sense of
compassion. A native-born Jew must
never seek to attain his or her due in a way that may impinge on a ger’s
happiness. Similarly, in our next
lesson, we will see what is added by the obligation to love the ger above
and beyond the general obligation to love one’s fellow Jew.
The Uniqueness of the Ger
Regarding our second assumption, that gerim
need not be singled out, the commentators offer a number of explanations of why
they might need special treatment or at least a special reminder to treat them
Firstly, the Torah often groups the ger with
the orphan and the widow, and essentially, a ger could be considered both
and then some. If so, the special
mention of gerim can be understood, as we explained in our last lesson,
as pointing to the vulnerability of gerim, which allows others to easily
take advantage of them. For this
reason, the Torah informs us that just as orphans, widows and other defenseless
individuals must be treated properly, so too gerim must be dealt with
The commentators note that the various verses
repeated in the Torah specify the sundry contexts in which one may be prone to
discriminate against the ger.
The Rashbam explains that the first verse prohibits
insulting references to the ger’s non-Jewish origins, and the second
verse comes to prohibit forcing a ger to do one’s own work, as the former
has no protector.
Furthermore, other verses focus on not being
prejudiced against a ger in a lawsuit.
While the vulnerabilities of orphans and of widows
are obvious, that of gerim is not.
For this reason, the commentators (Shemot 22:20) attempt to
explain why gerim should be treated similarly.
The Ibn Ezra explains:
The reason for the prohibition “You shall not wrong
a sojourner”... is that he has no family roots.
Just as the
orphan and widow lack family structure and support, the ger has also left
his family by joining the Jewish people and has no one to share his burden.
Rabbeinu Bachya similarly explains:
In several places in the Torah God warns regarding
the gerim, because the ger finds himself alone in a foreign land.
has left his homeland as well as his family, and the Torah commands that the
community provide the social network and love that he is missing.
On a practical note, the Chizkuni notes that it is easy to deceive
gerim, as they are unfamiliar with the local customs
Along the same
lines, Rav S.R. Hirsch notes that the constant switching in the verse between
the plural and the singular would seem to indicate something about the nature of
In our opinion, when the Torah uses the singular, it
is always addressing either the individual as such or the nation as a whole
community, whereas the plural is used to address the nation as a plurality of
members, individuals in the context of their social lives and social
involvement… Accordingly, here the
admonition against wronging the stranger is directed primarily to the state. The state must not practice onaa
against the stranger; the state must not impose on him heavier taxes or grant
him fewer rights than it grants the native-born, just because he is a stranger. “Nor shall you oppress him”
indicates that the state must not, in any way, restrict him in his efforts to
gain a livelihood.
need to strengthen the prohibition as it applies to someone who is prone to be
taken advantage of, the Talmud relates two different understandings as to why
gerim require a special prohibition.
Rabbi Eliezer the Great said: “Why did the Torah
admonish us about the convert in thirty-six” —or as others say, in forty-six —
“places? This is because he has a
strong inclination towards evil.” (Bava
Rabbi Eliezer the Great understands that the Torah is concerned that mistreating
the ger might cause him to second-guess his original decision, abandon
his Judaism and revert back to his old way of life.
“For You Were Sojourners in the Land of Egypt”
"For you were sojourners in the land of Egypt" is
used not only to justify the positive commandment to love the sojourner, but
also to justify the prohibition of maltreating him. A careful reading of the verses will
allow us to take note of the slight variations in the reasons providing by the
Torah for these mitzvot of the ger.
consider the two verses in Shemot, 22:20 and 23:9:
You shall not wrong a sojourner, nor shall
you oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.
You shall not oppress a
sojourner, as you know the soul of the sojourner, for you were sojourners in the
land of Egypt.
regarding the obligations to love gerim in Vayikra (19:34), the
same rationale, “for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt,’ is repeated.
The Ibn Ezra (ad loc.) provides the simplest
explanation: "for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt" obliges us to
remember what it was like when we were foreigners, thereby enabling us to
empathize with the strangers in our midst.
The Ramban, however, offers a totally different
approach. In his explanation, he
further elaborates on the issue of how a verse referring specifically to our
being sojourners in Egypt can act as a source for restricting the verse’s
special treatment to a ger tzedek and not extending it to all gerim.
There is no reason why all gerim should be
included here because of our having been gerim in the land of Egypt. Furthermore, there is no reason why
they should be assured forever against being wronged or oppressed because we
were once gerim there...
The correct interpretation appears to me to be that
He is saying: do not wrong a ger or oppress him, thinking as you might
that none can deliver him out of your hand — for you know that you were gerim
in the land of Egypt. I saw your
oppression at the hands of the Egyptians, and I took up your case against them,
because I behold the tears of those who are oppressed and have no comforter. I deliver them from those who
overpower them. Likewise, you shall
not afflict the widow and the fatherless child, for I will hear their cry, for
all these people do not rely upon themselves, but trust in Me.
Ramban understands this verse not as a rationale for empathizing with the ger,
but rather as a reminder of God’s punishing the Egyptians for their failure to
treat the Jewish strangers in their land properly.
The same fate will befall any abuser,
because God will not tolerate the maltreatment of the ger.
Memory and Mistreatment
The above-cited passage (Bava Metzia 59b)
continues by providing a novel explanation of the verse:
"What is the meaning of the verse 'You shall not
wrong a sojourner nor oppress him for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt'? It has been taught: “Rabbi Natan
said: ‘Do not taunt your neighbor with the blemish you yourself have.’"
this idea in his commentary on the verse:
“For you were sojourners" — if you hurt him, he too
is able to hurt you and to say to you: “You are also descended from gerim.”
glance, the rationale seems rather strange. However, the Torah seems to be
providing a deep lesson in human interaction, which is noticed by the Talmud in
other places as well: it is often particularly the things that one is himself
guilty of that he finds offensive in others.
The Talmud (Kiddushin
70a) sets down this principle regarding those who marry forbidden people and are
Whoever declares others unfit is himself unfit, and
such a person never speaks in praise of others.
Shemuel says, “He declares them unfit with his own blemish.”
of Shemuel, that one who regularly demeans the pedigree of others reveals
himself to be genealogically blemished, is applied by a number of sources in
other contexts. Often people who are
hiding an imperfection attempt to compensate by accusing others of that same
fault. Here, regarding gerim,
the Torah teaches us this lesson: before poking fun at someone else, we must
search ourselves, for what bothers us in others is usually found in ourselves as
Judaism is keenly aware of human nature, of our
tendency to quickly forget, in a period of plenty, that not so long before we
were in a completely different position, suffering, lacking. Nechama Leibowitz (Iyunim, Shemot,
pp. 383-385) provides a brilliant insight in this regard, noting that people
have a short memory and are often quick to dismiss others who act just as they
once did. She makes note of the
textual variations in the reasons we must be cautious not to mistreat gerim,
drawing particular attention to the two divergent explanations provided by Rashi
in his commentary on the Torah.
The memory of bondage and exile is regarded here
(23:9) as acting as a protective shield against the evil impulses of lordship
and dominion, the temptation to exploit and oppress on the part of the
self-supporting respectable citizen, who himself was once a slave and exile, who
now wishes to lord it over those who are now sojourners in his country… However, memory of one’s own
humiliation is no guarantee that one will not oppress the sojourner when one has
gained independence… Do we not find the opposite to be the case? The hate… experienced in the past
does not act as a deterrent… Rather, it
fuels the intolerance of the newly liberated towards the sojourner. Sometimes one who harbors the memory
of suffering finds compensation for his former sufferings by giving free reign
to his tyrannical instincts and lording over others.
For this reason we have the double motivation in the
verses and the two different explanations of Rashi for the two respective
passages. Some will be sufficiently
moved by the memory of their experiences of oppression at the hands of others… “as you know the soul of the sojourner”… On the other hand, those not
prompted by their own experiences of similar suffering to act kindly towards the
sojourner in their midst will at least be influenced by the argument of the
victim of their oppression: if you wrong him, he will wrong you back.
Not Only the Ger
Rav Hirsch notes that the special treatment mandated
for gerim teaches us something significant regarding our general outlook
on life. He notes that the Torah
seems to link mistreatment of gerim with sacrificing to other gods.
The paragraph begins (Shemot
He that sacrifices to any god other than God shall
be destroyed. You shall not wrong a
sojourner, nor shall you oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land
offers a unique understanding of the connection, pointing out that the first
verse states that one who sacrifices to other gods loses his right of existence
in the Jewish community; it is followed by the need for special treatment for
those who begin as heathens but attach themselves to Judaism.
By the juxtaposition of these two verses, the great,
fundamental rule, oft-repeated in the Torah, is laid down: the rights of
humanity and citizenship come not from race, descent, birth, country or
property, nor from anything external or due to chance; they emanate simply and
purely from the inner spiritual and moral worth of a human being. This basic principle is further
ensured against neglect by the additional motive “for you were sojourners in the
land of Egypt.” Here it says simply
and absolutely, “for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” — your whole
misfortune in Egypt was that you were foreigners and aliens there. As such, according to the views of
other nations, you had no right to be there, had no claim to rights of
settlement, home or property.
Accordingly, you had no equal rights to invoke against unfair or unjust
treatment. As aliens, you were
without any rights in Egypt, and out of that grew all your slavery and
wretchedness. Thus, the Torah
admonishes us to avoid making rights in our own state conditional on anything
other than the simple humanity which every human being, as such, bears within
him. With any limitation of these
human rights, the gate is opened to the whole horror of Egyptian human-rights
understanding, we can approach the opinions which include any stranger in the
category of the ger. The
Chinnukh (Mitzva 431) expands this prohibition beyond gerim:
It is incumbent upon us to learn from this precious
commandment to take pity on any person who is in a town or city that is not his
native ground and not his ancestral home.
Let us not maltreat him in any way, finding him alone, with those who
would aid him quite far from him, just as we see that the Torah adjures us to
have compassion on anyone who needs help.
With these qualities we will merit to be treated with compassion by the
Holy One, Blessed be He.
The Torah gives the reason for the command: “for you
were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”
It thereby reminds us that long ago we were scorched by that great pain
that comes upon every person who sees himself among alien people in a foreign
land. Remembering the great anxiety
we felt in the past… will move us to compassion for every person in a similar
connection to gerim should not stop there.
It should instill in us greater compassion for others in difficult
circumstances and provide for us the historical awareness that we felt similar
We have focused our analysis on explaining the
Torah’s additional prohibitions regarding mistreating gerim. In our next lesson, we hope to look
at the flipside, the unique mitzva of loving gerim.
By doing so, we hope to elucidate the
uniqueness of the ger, who is, after all, not so different than us, as we
were also once “gerim in the land of Egypt.” Understanding the mitzvot
related to gerim will also provide for us a new outlook on the way we
treat others and look at ourselves.