Ben Ish Ger Amaleki Anokhi:[i] Understanding the Biblical Ger[ii]

BY: AJ Berkovitz

Few controversies are as deep-seated as that surrounding gerut (lit., the state of being a stranger). Jews in the modern era are embroiled in a dispute over who is considered a ger (lit., “stranger”) and what constitutes proper gerut. This dispute is ultimately one of Jewish identity. The purpose of this article is not to shed new light onto the modern dispute as much as to trace the origins of the concept, meaning, and life of a ger in biblical Israel. Attempting to extract the nature of a ger in the Bible is a laborious and difficult task; it is precisely because of this arduous pursuit that Hazal used midrashic exegesis to formulate and categorize two types of gerim: the ger toshav (resident alien) and the ger tsedek (convert).[iii] Nonetheless, attempting to view biblical gerut holistically from a peshuto shel Mikra (simple reading of the text) perspective yields interesting results. This essay uses and subsequently expands the exegesis of Abraham Ibn Ezra to Leviticus 18:26, which intuits that “the ger and the Israelite are not to be equated because the ger is only obliged to obey the laws that affect the purity of the congregation or land.”[iv] Adopting, applying, and expanding this methodology paints a picture of gerut dissimilar to that of Rabbinic legal conversion and more in line with a communal-ethical model of coexistence.

In order to understand what a ger is, we must first briefly identify what he or she is not. Two classifications of identity exist outside of the ger: ezrah (lit., “citizen”) and nokhri (lit., “foreigner”). The former is identified as a full-fledged Israelite. When the Bible couples and compares Israelites and gerim, it tends to use the formulaic statement ka-ger ka-ezrah (the ger and the citizen alike). The identification of a nokhri is harder to ascertain. A simple pithy moniker such as non-Israelite, outsider, or foreigner is too broad and tends to blur the lines between nokhri and ger. The distinction between these two classes is explicitly mentioned in the Bible. While discussing the laws of nevelah (a forbidden carcass), the Bible states: “You shall not eat anything that has died a natural death; give it to the ger in your community to eat, or you may sell it to a nokhri.”[v] A nokhri is best understood as an individual of a foreign nation still tethered to his birthplace via ancestral land, connection to family at home, and fealty to avodah zarah.[vi] For example, Solomon’s wives are called nashim nokhriyyot (foreign women);[vii] his wives were political instruments who were tethered to their homeland and worshiped their own gods in Solomon’s court. Moshe’s self-identification as “ger hayiti be-erets nokhriyyah” (I was a stranger in a foreign land)[viii] elicits a similar understanding. Moshe is a ger in a strange land in which he has no family, owns no land, and whose gods he does not serve. Rachel’s and Leah’s remark that “we are considered nokhriyyot to our father because he ate our wedding money and now has no use for us”[ix] also suggests the understanding of nokhri as someone who not only does not belong in a certain place but also has no connection to that society. This is untrue of the ger. By understanding the two classifications with which a ger is contrasted, we can start to delineate what a ger truly is. A ger is neither an Israelite nor fully apart from the Israelites. He does not gain full access to the privileged status of ethnic Israelite but he also has no connection to his roots, family, land, or previous gods.

It is because of the understanding above that the Bible frequently couples the ger with the widow and orphan. The widow and orphan are defenseless by virtue of the absence of a source of income and a patriarchal figure to protect them. The ger falls into a similar category because he has no land or family to fall back upon. All three are in constant dire straits and are easily oppressed. The Bible, therefore, explicitly warns against oppressing this sector of the population and even demands that we love them and include them in our rejoicing.[x] Our historical conscience allows us deeper insight into the plight of the ger.[xi] The Bible constantly impresses upon its readers – and listeners – to be mindful of the plight of the ger, because “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”[xii] Therefore, in addition to feeling sympathy for the ger, God demands that we actively befriend the ger and give him food and clothing.[xiii]

Although until now we have understood the ger as a distinct subclass of the Israelite population, there are many surprising ways in which the ger and ezrah are similar. Not infrequently does the Bible claim to have torah ahat (one law) or mishpat ehad (one [uniform] regulation) for the ger and ezrah;[xiv] these areas include civil law, ritual laws and religious prohibitive laws. Each category provides a unique view of gerim and their interaction with the surrounding ethnic Israelite society.

Among the unique revolutions wrought in the ancient world by the Bible is the equal treatment of gerim and Israelites with regard to civil law. The Bible disallows the discrimination against and oppression of the ger and demands equal treatment for the ger and the ezrah alike. For example, the Bible states: “If your kinsman, being in straits, comes under your authority, and you hold him a resident alien (ger), let him live by your side. Do not exact from him advance or accrued interests but fear your God. Let him live by your side as though a kinsman (ahikha).”[xv] Although the ger is not ethnically Israelite, one is required to treat him as if he were; therefore, ger and ezrah are equally protected by the anti-usury laws. This contrasts with the nokhri, from whom one can collect interest.[xvi] Equality under biblical law means equal subjugation to that law, as well. A few verses later, the Bible describes a similar but inverted situation: “If a resident alien (ger) among you has prospered, and your kinsman being in straits, comes under his authority and gives himself over to the resident alien (ger) among you, or to an offshoot of his family, he shall have the right of redemption even after he has given himself over.”[xvii] A ger must treat his Israelite servant as another Israelite would.

In addition to equality under civil law, a ger is treated like an Israelite with regard to national law, laws that contain communal-religious elements. Because the ger identifies with the Israelite polity, he is subject to its national laws. For example, with regard to the Sabbath we are told: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work, you, your son or daughter […] or the stranger in your midst (ve-ha-ger asher bi-she’arekha).”[xviii] Although non-Israelite, the ger must celebrate the Sabbath and not violate its prohibitions. The Sabbath in biblical Israel is a communal holiday and therefore everyone in the land rests. Another example is seen in Leviticus 16:29: “And this shall be the law to you for all time: in the seventh month on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial, and you shall do no manner of work, neither citizens (ezrah) nor the alien (ger) who resides among you.” The shabbat shabbaton on the tenth day of the seventh month, too, is considered a communal holiday; therefore, even the ger needs to refrain from work, practice self-denial, and receive atonement and purification from sin. Another color is added to our portrait of a biblical ger: as a resident in the Israelite homeland, he is required to refrain from the prohibited activity of any national holiday.

The ger is also bound by other restrictions of the national religion. This entails religious restrictions that are personal in nature as well as those that are connected to the basic tenets of the national religion. For example, the Bible states that “anyone among the Israelites, or among the strangers residing (ha-ger ha-gar) in Israel, who gives any of his offspring to the Molekh shall be put to death; people shall pelt him with stones.”[xix] Idolatry in monotheistic[xx] Israel is intolerable. Not only must the ger refrain from worshipping other deities, he is prohibited from cursing or even pronouncing God’s name.[xxi] As a participant in Israelite society, the ger is required to identify with and practice all national commandments while refraining from violating any national prohibitions.

Religious restrictions extend even to practices that are based on the concept of purity and impurity. Leviticus 17 delineates additional rules for the treatment of slaughtered meat. An Israelite and ger must eat ritually slaughtered meat by the Ohel Mo’ed (Tent of the Covenant), refrain from consuming the lifeblood of the animal, cover the blood of a slaughtered bird or beast, and if they eat a nevelah, they must perform ritual immersion. These local religious laws which, prima facie, do not seem to be connected to the larger nationalistic picture are, in fact, part of the national portrait. In order to understand how this is so, the theological connection between the Israelites and their land must be explored. In the Bible, we are constantly reminded that Israel is not like any other land: “It is a land which the Lord your God looks after, on which the Lord your God always keeps His eye, from year’s beginning to year’s end.”[xxii] The land has special divine providence and is “naturally” averse to impurity. We are further told, “You must keep My laws and My rules, and you must not do any of those abhorred things, neither citizen (ezrah) nor the stranger (ger) who resides among you […] So let not the land spew you out for defiling it, as it spewed out the nation that came before you.”[xxiii] Keeping Israel pure is a matter of national survival and therefore it is no surprise that these rules apply to the ger.[xxiv]

Although a ger may not do anything to invoke the wrath of God or undermine Israelite nationality, he does not necessarily need to take part in the performative aspects of Israelite ritual practices. Working on a peshat level and following the distinction between ger and ezrah made by Ibn Ezra above, we may present such a division between these two categories in the context of the Pascal lamb offering. The Bible is equally vivid in its commandment that all Israelites must partake of the offering as it is in regard to who is excluded from bringing the sacrifice. A nokhri (foreigner), sakhir (hired hand), and toshav (settler) may not eat from it; an Israelite who refuses to eat from it gets karet (cut off). As usual, the ger occupies the middle and oftentimes-ambiguous territory. The Bible never states that a ger must offer up a Pascal lamb, which can be attributed to the fact that he is not an ethnic Israelite, but it does say that, should he wish to do so, he should circumcise himself and then he is ka-ezrah (like the Israelite).[xxv] Although being Israelite is a matter of ethnicity, that does not fully exclude the ger from the Pascal offering – an active statement of Israelite identification. As long as the ger is willing to expresses his national identification via circumcision, God welcomes him to the Israelite table. If, however, the ger does not wish to offer the Pascal lamb, he need not mark himself with the identification of Israelite nationality. Nonetheless, the ger, like an Israelite, may not own hamets.[xxvi] Our picture of a ger develops further. Although a ger may not subvert Israelite nationality and spurn its laws, he need not take an active role in his expression of nationality.

Another distinction between a ger and ethnic Israelite is seen regarding the laws of personal purity. According to Deuteronomy, an Israelite “shall not eat anything that has died a natural death (nevelah); give it to the stranger (ger) in your community to eat, or you may sell it to a foreigner (nokhri). For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God.”[xxvii] Once again, we see that a ger is somewhere between Israelite and non-Israelite. He or she may eat nevelah because a ger is part of the Israelite nationality but is not actually ethnically Israelite and therefore lacks the status of am kadosh (a holy nation). This status disallows the Israelite from becoming personally impure. There is, therefore, no contradiction between our source in Leviticus, which demands that one who eats nevelah, wash and the feeding of nevelah to a ger. A ger who does not have the status of am kadosh need not worry about making himself ritually impure; as long as he or she immerses and does not defile other objects,[xxviii] he or she may consume nevelah.

The product of our peshat analysis yields a very interesting portrait of the biblical ger. The biblical ger is an individual who maintains no relationship with his homeland and identifies with the Israelite nationality. He is required to keep biblical law and worship God. He may express nationalism if he desires but is still limited by the fact that he is not part of the ethnically Israelite am kadosh. Nonetheless, this distinction does not allow the ethnically Israelite to oppress him. In fact, the native Israelites are commanded to love and support the ger. The most important and relevant dictum regarding the ger, however, is that found in Numbers 15:15: “you and the ger shall be alike before the Lord.” Although there may be a distinction between ezrah and ger ethnically or religiously, before God we are all equal.

AJ Berkovitz is a senior at YC majoring in Jewish Studies and is a Staff Writer for Kol Hamevaser.


[i] II Samuel 1:13.

[ii] All verse translations are from the NJPS.

[iii] See Sifra, Behar, parashiyyot 5 and 6.

[iv] Jacob Milgrom, “Religious Conversions and the Revolt Model for the Formation of Israel,” Journal of Biblical Literature 101,2 (June 1982): 169-176. See also Moshe Weinfeld. Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School (London: Oxford University Press, 1972), pp. 229-232.

[v] Deuteronomy 14:21.

[vi] See Nahum Sarna’s JPS Torah Commentary to Exodus, p. 63: “Hebrew ben nekhar is a non-Israelite who resides in the land temporarily, usually for the purpose of commerce. He does not profess the religion of Israel and does not identify with the community’s historical experiences. He is therefore exempt from the religious obligations and restrictions imposed on Israelites.”

[vii] I Kings 11:1,8; Nehemiah 13:26.

[viii] Exodus 2:22, 18:3.

[ix] Genesis 31:15.

[x] See Leviticus 33-4.

[xi] Exodus 23:9.

[xii] Deuteronomy 10:19.

[xiii] Deuteronomy 10:18.

[xiv] Exodus 12:48; Numbers 15:16; Leviticus 24:17.

[xv] Leviticus 25:35-36.

[xvi] Deuteronomy 24:21.

[xvii] Leviticus 25: 47-54.

[xviii] Exodus 20:10.

[xix] Leviticus 20:2.

[xx] Some scholars claim that ancient Israel would be better characterized as possessing a perspective of monolatry than monotheism. For an interesting discussion of early Israel’s “monotheism,” see Jon Levenson, Sinai & Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), pp. 56-75.

[xxi] Leviticus 24:15-16.

[xxii] Deuteronomy 11:12.

[xxiii] Leviticus 18:28.

[xxiv] See Ibn Ezra to Leviticus 18:26.

[xxv] Viewing this person as a full-fledged Israelite and attempting a holisitic picture of a ger presents several problems on a peshat level. The first is: why distinguish in the first place between Israelite and ger? Second, if a ger were to be treated as a true Israelite, and therefore part of the am kadosh, why can he eat nevelah? It is therefore sounder to view this individual as a person who is not required to eat of the Pascal lamb but wishes to do so anyways.

[xxvi] Exodus 13:7: “Hamets may not be seen in all your territory,” which implies that a ger may not own hamets.

[xxvii] Deuteronomy 14:21.

[xxviii] See the commentary of R. David Zvi Hoffman as quoted in Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 2000), pp. 1485-1486.