Shiur #08:Onaaof aGer

  • Rav Binyamin Zimmerman


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.  (Shemot 22:20)


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 loving gerim.


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


These mitzvot 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 commandments. 


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 ger. 


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 Mitzvot


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 onaat devarim.


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 (Hilkhot De'ot 6:4) states:


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."


The 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 Lachatz


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 and lachatz.


“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.


According to 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 properly.


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 appropriately.


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.


The ger 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 the prohibitions.


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.


Besides the 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 Metzia 59b


Evidently, 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.


Let us 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.



Similarly, 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.


Thus, the 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.’"


Rashi echoes 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.”


At first 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 genealogically unfit:


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.”


The statement 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 well.


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 22:19-20)


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 of Egypt…


Rav Hirsch 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 abuses.


With this 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 situation.


Our special 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 pain.


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.